Monday, June 11, 2018

Bach - The Well Tempered Clavier Book II, Nos. 1-6

In the court and church appointments that Johann Sebastian Bach had throughout his life, he was not only required to compose and lead the musicians in performance, but to teach them as well. He himself was taught the basics of music by his older brother after the death of his parents. But his innate curiosity lead him to copy out music of other composers to learn all he could. This was a common occurrence of the time as most music was not published and if it circulated at all it was in the form of hand-made copies. So Bach was probably an autodidact to a large degree.

By copying and filtering the music of others through his mind, he created his own way of doing things, which in turn made him an excellent teacher.

The preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier were written and used to instruct and entertain students and musicians. Leave it to the creative urge of Bach to write not just one set of 24 preludes  and fugues, but two. But the differences in the two books are evidence that Bach didn't repeat himself with the second set.

The second book of the Well Tempered Clavier appeared roughly twenty years after the first volume, and Bach surely did not remain static. His style broadened, he encompassed more of the current trends in composing. While it can be said that the first book is more obviously geared to instruction, the second book is not as clear cut.

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 In C Major, BWV 870 - As in the first prelude of Book I, this prelude emphasizes harmonic progressions. But within those progressions occur snippets of melodies and themes, examples of how Bach could weave harmony and counterpoint into very satisfying music that makes profound musical sense.

The 3-voice fugue that follows has a subject that is 4 bars long, with a rest in the middle of it. Next the mildly declamatory prelude that precedes it, the fugue has a little bit of rhythmic bounce.

Prelude and Fugue No. 2 In C Minor, BWV 871 - C minor has been a key of passion and drama to many composers, and Bach wrote a dramatic prelude/ toccata in C minor in the first book. This prelude is decidedly less so. Any drama it has isn't obvious, and it is almost entirely written in two parts.
At only 28 bars, this fugue is somewhat short on the page. The subject is but one measure long, and Bach works out the fugue in a simpler form.

Prelude and Fugue No. 3 In C-sharp Major, BWV 872 - The only music Bach wrote in the key of C-sharp major is contained within the Well Tempered Clavier. The prelude of the first book is a brilliant piece, while this one is more studied and introverted and sounds akin to the C major prelude in the first book. There is a shift from 4/4 time to 3/8 time near the end and the music becomes a short fugato.
This 3-voiced fugue has a subject of only 5 notes, with the second entry coming before the first statement of it is complete.

Prelude and Fugue No. 4 In C-sharp Minor, BWV 873 - There was not always a particular feeling or emotion Bach conveyed with specific keys, but the key of C-sharp minor seems to be one of them. As in the first book, this prelude has a feeling of sadness. It is written in 3 voices throughout.

The fugue is in contrast to the prelude. It is written in 12/16 time, a compound meter of 4/4 time that implies a quick tempo. There is an interesting chromatic section within it.

Prelude and Fugue No. 5 In D Major, BWV 874 - The prelude opens with a fanfare and proceeds like a dance from one of Bach's sets of dance pieces.  The first section is repeated, rather like a Scarlatti sonata, and some have conjectured that Bach knew about the development of sonata form. The theme bounces around the voices, and is answered as it makes its way to the end.
The 4-voiced fugue is stately and refined.

Prelude and Fugue No.6 In D Minor, BWV 875 - Written in two parts, a brilliant companion piece to the D minor prelude of Book One.
An interesting subject with a chromatic section in the eighth notes, and a complex set of note values from sixteenth triplets, sixteenth notes, and eighth notes.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Saint-Saëns - Organ Improvisations, Opus 150, No. 1

François Benoist was the professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Paris for fifty years and many of France's finest musicians studied with him, organists and composers such as César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns to name only two.  He was a powerful influence, and was part of the training process to keep the Catholic churches of France stocked with trained organ players. It was the nature of church liturgy that created the tradition of organ improvisation in France, as Saint-Saëns said:
Formerly, Improvisation was the basis of organist`s talent; his virtuosity was slight – music written for organ with independent pedal was beyond his powers… It is improvisation alone that permits one to employ all the resources of a large instrument, and to adapt one´s self to the infinite variety of organs; only improvisation can follow the service perfectly, pieces written for this purpose being almost too short or too slow. Finally, the practice of improvisation frequently develops faculties of invention which, without it, would have remained latent.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, France's musical life was in many ways centered around the new symphonic organs introduced by the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. French organists and composers like Franck and Saint-Saëns worked with the builder to create an instrument that was symphonic in scope. The list of musicians trained on the organ in France is extensive, and includes some of the most well-known composers of the era.

Many young musicians made their living as church organists around France, as did Saint-Saëns. From 1853 to 1878 he played regularly in churches. He resigned in 1878, but never quit playing the instrument completely. He would visit his organist friends at their churches and take turns improvising with them.

Saint-Saëns wrote few works for solo organ, which underlines his thoughts on the instrument as mainly for improvisation or accompanying. The set of Seven Improvisations, opus 150 was written late in his career 1916-1917, as he was in bed recuperating from a bout of bronchitis.  The pieces look backward in their use of church modes and plainchant themes, standard fare for organ improvisation in France, but the first piece begins quietly with a whole tone scale in the pedals:

One of the most valuable innovations of Cavaillé-Coll organs was the swell device, a box surrounding the organ pipes that had shutters that could be opened and closed to control the volume of the sound coming from the organ. There was always a certain amount of control over volume with the organ before, but as the keyboard is not touch sensitive as the piano it was done by adding stops of pipes to the music line. Simply speaking, the more pipes engaged, the louder the sound. The swell device gave more control of volume and nuance, and directly lead to the symphonic school of organ playing and composition in France. This device is heard to good effect in this piece by Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns kept up his organ and piano technique up until the very end of his life of 86 years. He himself played the premiere of the Seven Improvisations in 1917 when he was 82 years old.