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by Eric Bromberger

Three Chorale Preludes (arr. by Ferruccio Busoni)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (1748)
Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599 (1723)
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, BWV 734 (1751)

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

As a devout Lutheran, Bach took very seriously Martin Luther’s call for a music (and a language) available to all members of the congregation. In the effort to reach the common man and make religion more immediate and meaningful, the music of the Lutheran service was built not on the Latin of the Roman Catholic Church–chanted by the priest–but on the simple and sturdy hymn-tunes of Germany (some of them by Martin Luther himself), which could be sung by all the members of a congregation. Bach was drawn to these old German chorale melodies throughout his career: he wrote cantatas based on chorale tunes, he included chorales in his passions, he composed about thirty new chorale tunes of his own, and he also made about 400 reharmonizations of existing chorale tunes, usually for solo organ. This program opens with three of Bach’s chorale preludes in piano arrangements by the German-Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), who left seven volumes of Bach arrangements.

One of the best-known of Bach’s chorale preludes is Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Awake, the Voice Is Sounding”). The original melody appears to have been composed by Jakob Praetorius about 1604, and Bach used it twice: as an organ prelude and as the fourth movement of his Cantata No. 140, which was composed in November 1731 and which takes the title of the chorale for the entire cantata. Busoni made his transcription from the cantata version, which has the noble, flowing melody on top, the tenor line in the center (it tells of the approach of the bridegroom–Christ–and the excitement of the maidens who await him), and the continuo beneath them.

Bach set Nun komm’, der Heiden Heiland (“Come Thou, Redeemer of Our Race”) on several different occasions, and these in turn exist in a variety of forms: as the original choral setting as it might have been sung in Lutheran services, as one of Bach’s chorale preludes for organ, and (centuries later) in Leopold Stokowski’s sumptuous arrangement for full symphony orchestra.

The stately Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein (“Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice”) is based on an anonymous hymn tune from the fifteenth century.

of frustration came two of Mendelssohn’s finest works: he completed the Variations sérieuses on June 4, 1841, then immediately pressed on to compose his “Scottish” Symphony. Some biographers have been quick to attribute these superb pieces to Mendelssohn’s unhappiness in Berlin, but that must remain conjecture. What is clear, though, is the quality of the music itself: the piano pedagogue Ernest Hutcheson has called the Variations sérieuses “certainly one of Mendelssohn’s best piano compositions, perhaps the best of all.”

It has been suggested that Mendelssohn chose the name Variations sérieuses to distinguish these variations from the sets of frivolous variations on popular tunes that were appearing by the middle of the nineteenth century. This is deeply serious music, and it is also quite concentrated: the theme and seventeen variations span only eleven minutes, and some of the variations pass by in only a matter of seconds. The theme–Mendelssohn’s own–is quite interesting. Of a chorale-like simplicity, it is stated quietly at the very beginning: Mendelssohn marks it both Andante sostenuto and piano on its first appearance. But even on its first statement, that (seemingly) simple little tune is full of harmonic tension–the music may nominally be in D minor, but there are so many accidentals here that the sense of a home key is shaken. Mendelssohn’s theme may seem wistful and gentle, but listeners should be particularly alert to the bass line that underpins that theme–that line will provide the foundation for many of the variations.

Over the first several variations Mendelssohn’s theme remains clearly discernible, but as the variations speed ahead and involve chordal, staccato, and syncopated writing that theme becomes harder to trace, and one becomes more aware of the theme’s bass line as the organizing principle in this music. The tempo relaxes at the tenth variation, a brief fugato, then races ahead brilliantly at the twelfth; this variation is marked Tempo di Tema but is written entirely in 32nd-notes, so the pulse is quite fast. The fourteenth variation is a lovely Adagio, and Mendelssohn brings the set to its conclusion with several fast variations. The last of these is extended, and within it Mendelssohn quotes his original theme and briefly recalls the shape of several of his variations. The music drives to what promises to be a grand conclusion, but at the last moment Mendelssohn reins in this energy, and the Variations sérieuses fade into silence on somber D-minor chords.

Now I for Solo Piano, Part I of the Cycle "Profiles of Light"

Additional Information to be announced from the stage

Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988
(Goldberg Variations) (1741)


In November 1741 Bach, then 56 years old, made the hundred-mile trip east from Leipzig to Dresden to visit an old friend, Count Hermann Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court. Keyserlingk’s court harpsichordist was the fourteen-year-old Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who at age ten had been a student of Bach. There are several stories as to what happened next, all impossible to confirm. One is that Keyserlingk commissioned a work for his young harpsichordist and gave Bach a goblet full of gold coins in payment. Another is that Keyserlingk was an insomniac who specified that he wanted a piece that Goldberg could play to him as he went to sleep. What is certain is that the following year Bach published (as the fourth part of his edition of keyboard works, the Clavier-Übung) a work he called simply Aria with Thirty Variations, composed for two-manual harpsichord. The score bore no dedication, nor any mention at all of Keyserlingk or Goldberg. But Bach did give the count a copy of this music, and the conclusion is that this is the piece that had been requested in Dresden. By a process of (perhaps random) association, one of the greatest works ever written immortalizes a fourteen-year-old harpsichord player, and we know this music today simply as the Goldberg Variations.

For his theme–which he calls Aria–Bach uses a sarabande melody that he had written as part of Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook. It is 32 measures long and already ornately embellished on its first appearance, though it is not this melody that will furnish the basis for the variations that follow but the bassline beneath it. This lengthy harmonic progression will become the backbone of the Goldberg Variations, functioning much like the ground bass of a passacaglia. The thirty variations that follow are grouped in ten units of three, of which the third is always a canon, and each successive canon is built on an interval one larger than the previous. Such a description makes the Goldberg Variations sound like one of the more densely-argued works of the Second Viennese School, but in fact this is some of Bach’s most moving and exhilarating music, and it is a measure of his genius that such expressive music can grow out of such rigorous compositional procedures.

In fact, listeners to do not really need to understand the complexity of Bach’s techniques to feel the greatness of this music. One is certainly aware of the original bassline as a structuring element, but beyond that each successive variation can be taken as an individual pleasure. Some incidental observations: the keyboard writing here is unusually brilliant–this is virtuoso music, and that virtuosity appears not just in the dazzling runs across the range of the keyboard but in the complexity of the contrapuntal writing, where the pianist–limited to just two hands–must keep multiple strands clear. Bach changes meter at virtually every variation, with the music leaping from its original 3/4 meter through such permutations as 4/4, 3/8, 2/4, and on to 12/16 and 18/16. The tenth variation is written as a Fughetta, and of special importance to the work are the three minor-key variations (Nos. 15, 21, and 25): all of these are slow, all begin in G minor (but can go far afield harmonically), and all are darkly expressive. In particular, No. 25–which lasts well over six minutes by itself–forms the emotional climax of the work before the spirited conclusion.

That close is unusual all by itself. The thirtieth and final variation is marked Quodlibet, which means simply a gathering of tunes. Here Bach incorporates into the harmonic frame of his variations some of the popular tunes that he had heard sung around him on the streets of Leipzig. Donald Francis Tovey has identified two of these, and their first lines translate “It is so long since I have been at your house” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away. If my mother’d cooked some meat, I might have stopped longer.” To a listener of Bach’s day, the joke would have been obvious, though it has to be explained to us–we feel only that the work is approaching its close in an unusually relaxed and tuneful manner. And then, a masterstroke: rather than rounding off the Goldberg Variations with a rousing display of contrapuntal brilliance, Bach instead concludes with a simple repetition of the opening Aria.