At the Prelude (10:45 am)
Passacaglia in C Minor
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The day of the terrorist attack, September 11, 2001, most of us on the staff were standing on Fifth Avenue, in front of the church, looking straight down at the burning towers as the first tower collapsed. Throughout the day a constant procession of people covered in powder passed by the church. At noon we held an impromptu Eucharist. The church was filled. Father Andrew improvised an inspired, heart-felt homily. At the end of the service I played Bach. The greatest organ works of Bach have a powerful ability to connect with a timeless, universal, spiritual realm.
For this year’s remembrance I have chosen one of the supreme works of music ever composed, Bach’s famous Passacaglia. A passacaglia is a piece with a slow repeating (ostinato) tune in the bass part. On top of that is a series of variations. An entire book could be written detailing the intricacies of this piece. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that the organic progression of these variations is one of the glories of music. And after about two-thirds of the piece, after a huge climax, the work suddenly becomes a fugue, with the passacaglia tune becoming the theme (or subject) of the fugue.
The work inhabits the universal realm virtually from the beginning and remains there throughout the piece.
At the Postlude
Choral Joseph Jongen (1873-1953)
Jongen was a Belgian organist, composer, and music educator. At the height of his career he was the Director of the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. His most famous compositions are the Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra (which was composed specifically for the mammoth organ in the Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra), and his four pieces for organ, Opus 37, the last of which is the Choral.
The hymn-like (“chorale”) melody is heard in canon between the hands and the pedals. The work begins softly, tenderly, on the foundation tones of the Grand Récit. It is like a quiet vision of hope, off in the distance. Little-by-little it grows, becoming more and more affirming until it arrives at a blazing, victorious conclusion on full organ.