Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Shut up shop- Chorale Preludes for Lent from the Little Organ Book (BWV 618-623)

Tempus Clausum. Closed season. For a few weeks each year, Bach's manic work-schedule stepped down a gear; no new cantatas were required for Sundays in Lent. So there's a strange gap for us here. Admittedly, it's allowed me to catch up with things; last week we looked at the cantata for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday more than a week late after the mountainous sublimity of Ich Habe Genug pushed my schedule out of kilter. But now we're in a strange wilderness- only a few scraps of specifically Lenten music until we crawl out of the desert into the astounding riches of Bach's Holy Week.

Because it's Bach, the scraps are actually pretty tasty. Although he wrote (almost) no specifically Lenten cantatas, we do have the specifically Lenten chorale preludes from the Orgelbuechlein or Little Organ Book, written in his time at Coethen around 1713. They're little only in the sense that a diamond is little- tiny, perfectly formed and self-sufficient. They range in length from about a minute to a mighty five minutes .

First, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig- O guiltless Lamb of God. It's based around a tune which sends shivers down the spine of anyone who knows the St Matthew Passion. There, it's given to the soprano in ripieno in the mighty first chorus, soaring above the two double choirs as the final touch to the great dance of grief. But the harmonic ambiguity of the melody allows it to work equally well in a major-key context as a a minor one; and here, the quality is completely different- pastoral, gentle, reassuring from the outset. Yet a bittersweet quality has come in by the end; inherent in the paradoxical image of the Lamb: sweet, gentle and innocent, but undoubtedly destined to be separated from its mother and at best sheared, at worst slaughtered.

The next, Christe du Lamm Gottes- that familiar “Du”, addressing Christ as a family member or friend!- is an even more intimate. Played lightly (with a barely perceptible pedal part in Alessio Corti's recording, for example) it's innocent and simple; an effective little coda to its predecessor, focussing in again on the Lamb itself, pure and simple at the eye of a hurricane of struggle. The struggle comes in the next piece- Christus der uns selig macht – Christ, who makes us holy. It only arrives at triumphant resolution after titanic struggles up and down chromatic scales. And what is the means of that making holy? The Cross, the theme of the next chorale, Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund- “When Jesus hung upon the Cross”- not a raging, tortured lament as one might expect, but a still meditation.

It should be obvious by now that these pieces are far more than just a collection of helpful exercises for beginner organists, or even practical filler material for a gap in the service. There's a genuine theological progression, starting from the chorale texts Bach chose, but made explicit by his own musical treatment. Like the cantatas, they're another sort of sermon in music. And this is made perfectly clear by the next piece, the greatest of this set, O Mensch, bewein dein Suende gross- O man, bewail your grievous sin. The unheard words of the chorale call on us to look on the whole course of Jesus' life, from birth to death and resurrection. Bach responds to this by slowing down and decorating the melody to an almost obsessive extent. Time seems to stop, as a familiar tune stretches out into eternity. Five hundred years earlier, the early polyphonic masters of Notre Dame, Leonin and Perotin did it with their great organa built over well-known melodies slowed down into infinity. (If you haven't heard Perotin's Viderunt Omnes, stop what you're doing, type it into Google and listen to it now. Your life will be better). Even earlier, the great anonymous plainchant graduals from the ninth and tenth centuries played the same trick. By eroding metre into a continuous ever-changing flow, it takes you to a place where the simple passage of time, sixty seconds a minute, starts to lose its meaning; you become conscious of a new sort of time that is both now and eternal.

But the purpose of this is not just to achieve a gorgeous interior mental state. Having touched eternity, we must return to everyday life. The last piece of the sequence, Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ (We thank you, Lord Jesus Christ), returns to the world of clear metrical rhythm, foursquare construction. For a minute, we are jubilant and thankful; our contemplation is over, and we have entered into the spirit of Lent- penitence and contemplation, yes, but preparation for a glorious Easter too. I'm slightly ashamed that I described these little pieces as “tasty scraps” earlier; the Lenten scraps that fall from Bach's table have proved to be a wholly unexpected feast.

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