JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
No one has ever tried out organs so severely and yet so honestly as he. He understood the whole art of organ building in the highest degree... Nor had anyone understood organ registration so well. Organists were often terrified when he played their instruments and drew the stops in his own style, for they could not imagine that what he intended would work. But when they actually heard it, the effect astonished them. This knowledge died with him.
So wrote the most prominent son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Phillip Emanuel, in response to Johann Nicolaus Forkel, first biographer of J.S. Bach. C.P.E. Bach's assessment is interesting, for it says nothing about the music of his father. J.S. was known as the leading organist of his time, but was seen as old fashioned in his composition style. This was partly due to his use of older forms, but particularly to the emergence of a new style (the style gallant) which signaled the end of the Baroque and the beginnings of the Classical Period. This new style moved away from a contrapuntal (linear) method of composing, as exemplified by J.S. Bach, to a more homophonic (vertical) one. The music of Bach is the apex of the Baroque Period; synthesizing national (Italian, French and German) and regional (North and South Germanic) influences into a crystalline style which yields outward display while achieving intense contemplation. Yet, for close to a century after his death, J.S. Bach was virtually forgotten except by historians. Fortunately, with the publication of J.N. Forkel's Bach biography, and the work of C.F. Zelter and his pupil, Felix Mendelssohn (culminating in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829), J.S. Bach has attained his rightful place in music history.
THE ORGAN MUSIC
Bach's keyboard works encompass his entire creative life, unlike the vocal, chamber and orchestral music, and he seems to have cultivated the two genres alongside each other. Contrary to 17th century tradition, he wrote specifically for one or the other. The demanding use of the pedals is a distinguishing aspect of Bach's organ style. Rarely do the performing possibilities coincide so that organ and harpsichord could realize the same music (as in the chorale partitas and the small chorale preludes in the Clavierubung III).
It is not possible to establish a precise chronology of the keyboard works since most from the pre-Leipzig years survive in copies (generally made by Bach's pupils). In the earliest works the influence of Bach's model is pronounced. These include the chorale partitas BWV 766-768, in the style of Georg Böhm. The Canzona BWV 588, the Allabreve BWV 589 and the Pastorale BWV 590 show late 17th century south German and Italian characteristics, while the Fantasia in G BWV 572 borrows from the French style. The chorale BWV 739, one of Bach's earliest autographs, is north German influenced. The Toccata in E BWV 566, with its sectional layout and other north German features, seems to have been written under Buxtehude's sway, perhaps about 1706; the Prelude and Fugue in g BWV 535, which can be dated before 1708 from the autograph, moves away from the Buxtehude/north German influence in its more defined prelude-and-fugue two-part structure.
The harmonic boldness and richness of fermata (end of phrase) embellishment in BWV 715, 722 and 732, intended to accompany chorales, suggest they belong to the Arnstadt period where Bach's playing of chorales caused confusion in the congregation. The fugues after Legrenzi and Corelli, BWV 574 and 579, should be among the early works. Bach's early interest in pedal virtuosity is shown in the Exercitium BWV 598.
Influences become less important from the Muhlhausen period onward. This is particularly true for the extended organ chorale settings probably dating from between 1709 and 1712-13. In the free organ works (toccatas, preludes, fantasias and fugues) Bach tightened up the formal scheme, working toward the two-part prelude and fugue through an intermediate type in which the fugue was a long, self-contained movement but the prelude was not a unified section (such as BWV 532). Perhaps the most important work during this time is the Passacaglia in c BWV 582. 1713-14 saw a definite stylistic change as a result of Bach's study of Vivaldi's concerto form. The immediate result was the concerto arrangements (BWV 593, 594, and 596). Attributes adapted from Vivaldi include the unifying use of motivic work, the motoric rhythmic character, the modulation schemes and the principle of solo(one)/tutti(all) contrast as a means of formal articulation. These influences are visible in the Toccata in C BWV 564. Equally important is his tendency towards condensed motivic work as in the Orgelbuchlein (Little Organ Book). Bach's idea of this new type of small organ chorale, combining rhetorical and expressive musical language with refined counterpoint (one line in conversation with another), probably dates back to 1713-14 (BWV 601, 608, 627 and 630). By the end of the Weimar period the Orgelbuchlein was complete with the exception of the fragment O Traurigkeit and BWV 613 (added in about 1740). The extant 46 pieces is considerably less than the originally planned 164.
The few organ pieces composed at Cothen include the C major Fantasia BWV 573 (circa 1722) and the earlier version of BWV 653 (An Wasserflussen) and a revision of the Fantasia and Fugue in g BWV 542. Then, around 1727 in Leipzig, the Trio Sonatas were composed, a new type of organ work in three-part contrapuntal writing (the six sonatas are at least in part based on chamber works), followed by a series of preludes and fugues, now always in two movements with the preludes as important as the fugues (BWV 548).
In 1739, as the third part of the Clavier-Ubung (Keyboard Practice), Bach published a comprehensive and varied group of organ works. Framed by the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat BWV 552, there are nine chorale arrangements for the Mass and 12 for the Lutheran Catechism followed by four duets. Bach's encyclopedic intentions can be seen in the form of the work - that of a collection of specimen organ pieces for large church instruments and smaller domestic ones (the harpsichord), symbolized in his coupling of a large piece with a small; they can equally be seen in the variety of his contrapuntal cantus firmus (chorale melody) treatments. At the end of Bach's output for the organ are such different works as the Schubler Chorales (arrangements of solo movements from cantatas) and the Canonic variations on Vom Himmel hoch BWV 769. Written for the Society of Musical Sciences in 1747, the Canonic variations survive in two original versions, printed and autograph, whose different sequence of movements show Bach experimenting with symmetrical form and the placing of climaxes.
A BACH CHRONOLOGY
Born March 21, 1685, the youngest child; baptized March 23, 1685; Mother buried May 3, 1694; Father remarries November 27, 1694; Father buried February 24, 1695;
Goes to live with his brother Johann Christoph;
Easter, enrolled as a singer in the select choir at the school attached to St. Michael's Church; applied for a position as organist at St. James' Church, Sangerhausen which was given to an older candidate
WEIMAR April-August 1703
Member of the chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst
Appointed organist in the New Church, August 9, 1703; Obtained a month's leave to travel to Lubeck to hear Buxtehude in October 1705, he stayed through the end of January 1706
Appointed organist at Church of St. Blasius, June 15, 1707; Bach requests his dismissal from Arnstadt, June 29, 1707; marries his cousin Maria Barbara, October 17 1707; Requests his dismissal from St. Blasius, June 25, 1708 to go to Weimar
Assumes duties as Court Organist; Offered position in Halle (birth place of Handel), December 14, 1713, which he eventually declined; Made Concertmeister for which he is to be obliged to perform new works monthly; On November 6,1717, Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavorable discharge
Began duties December 1717 as Capellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen; Buries his first wife, July 7, 1720; Applied for organist post in Hamburg, November 1720 which he did not get; Marries Anna Magdalena, December 3, 1721; granted dismissal as Capellmeister and Director of Chamber Music, April 13, 1723
June 1, 1723, Bach named Cantor of the Thomas-Schule (the position was first offered to Georg Philipp Telemann), responsible for the training of boys and music in the important churches of Leipzig (Nicolai Kirche, Thomas Kirche); Bach made Composer to the Court Capelle of His Royal Majesty Frederick Augustus, Duke in Saxony, November 19, 1736; Bach visits Frederick the Great and improvises for him, May 7, 1747; Bach died Friday, July 31, 1750
Notes from "The Complete Organ Works of Johann Sebastian Bach Cycle" - Marvin Mills, organist
All Souls Church, Unitarian