Organ Music for March 13

by Dr. Dennis Keene

What better way to start Lent than with two of Bach’s greatest large-scale works?

At the Prelude (10:50 am)

Fantasia & Fugue in C Minor
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

electric organ console in chancel, as shown in concert positionWhat a special piece this is! I have always loved this Fantasia very much and find it unique among his large organ works. For me, it has a very expressive, almost vocal manner about it. It feels more like a choral-orchestral work than a keyboard, “finger” piece. And I can’t imagine the usual plenum (principal chorus) registration for this piece that one would usually use in a Bach prelude or toccata. I hear something warmer, more vocal. So Tuesday I tried six of the 8’ foundation stops on the Grand Orgue and Positif coupled together, and the sound was overwhelming for this piece. Clear, but extremely warm and singing.

The Fantasia has two sections which are each heard twice in different keys. But the form almost doesn’t matter. This piece is more like an emotional, contemplative journey that expresses profound, intense, but extremely nuanced feelings. One feeling moves to the next in the most organic, natural manner. And the piece concludes in an unfinished “half-cadence” – the resolution to come in the fugue which follows attacca.

The Fugue is bold – played on the principal chorus (pleno/plein jeu) normally associated with large fugues. And the theme  – or “subject” – conveys a decisiveness. It is, however, qualified by secondary material which is chromatic (moving up and down by half-steps), expressing introverted unrest. This unrest heats up quite a bit until the return of the primary decisive material. Even though this is almost an exact repetition of the beginning of the fugue, it sounds more intense here. There are brief passages hinting at an ultimate peaceful outcome; but the work concludes in a final lunge of unresolved, solemn passion.

At the Postlude:

“Dorian” Fugue
Johann Sebastian Bach

The nickname comes from the fact the piece was not composed in a major or minor key, but in one of the old church modes – the Dorian mode. This is the same as a D Minor scale, but with a C-natural instead of a C-sharp.

Let’s now have a quick refresher course: what exactly is a “fugue”? It is a musical form that came to its peak in the Baroque period, and the single greatest composer of fugues was Bach. It is a contrapuntal form. Counterpoint or polyphony are the same thing: they simply mean that each individual voice part moves independently of the others, instead of, for example, a chordal fashion, or accompaniment and melody. Most fugues have four voice parts, but not necessarily so.

The principal theme of a fugue is called the “subject,” and here’s the normal procedure: the first voice starts with the subject, all alone, by itself. When that theme of a few measures is over, a second voice-part comes in with the theme/subject, usually a fourth or a fifth above or below. Meanwhile the first voice continues with a counter-melody which is constructed to go perfectly with the subject. This second theme is called the “counter-subject.” Then, the other voices come in the same manner. To add interest or variety, the composer may drop the subject and counter-subject for awhile and add un-related material, called “episodes.”

This particular fugue is one of the supreme examples of the art form, and it is notable in that it is the “purest” fugue Bach ever composed: all of the material of the lengthy piece is derived from either the subject or counter-subject. There are absolutely no episodes or extraneous thematic material. It is an astonishing tour-de-force that Bach could keep that up for the duration of the piece without boredom creeping in. But, of course, that’s not all. The piece has that unmistakable trademark of Bach fugues: it evolves seamlessly over the course of the piece in a totally organic manner, building and subsiding, moving this way and that, and finally building in intensity to an astonishing musical world of universality. This is Bach’s form par excellence, and this is one of his finest examples.