Notes on Clavier-Übung III from Larry Molinaro

ClavierUbungIIINotes_14April2016 (1)

[From the title page of the engraved edition, 1739]
Third Part of the Clavier-Übung [“Keyboard Practice”], consisting of various preludes on the catechism and other hymns for the organ.  For music lovers, and especially for connoisseurs of such work, to refresh their spirits, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Capellmeister, and Directore Chori Musici in Leipzig.  Published by the Author.

The Collection

The third part of the Clavier-Übung series (1739) was Bach’s first published work for organ and beautifully captured his skill in composing for the instrument for which he was so famous. The collection can be considered Bach’s homage to earlier generations of organists, with a particular nod to Girolamo Frescobaldi (organist at the Vatican in the early 17th century), and the Parisian organist Nicolas de Grigny (organist at St. Denis in the late 17th century).  Each of these composers had written and published collections of organ works for liturgical use, specifically for the Roman Catholic Mass and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours).  Bach was thoroughly familiar with these volumes, having copied them out by hand for his personal library. For this third volume of the Clavier-Übung series, Bach created a parallel version of these organ books but reflecting the musical traditions of the Lutheran Church.  To create the structure of the volume, he chose chorales that outlined the German Missa (chorale settings of the Kyrie and Gloria) and then followed those with chorales that outlined the six precepts of Martin Luther’s “Lesser” (Small) Catechism.  Each of those chorales, representing the Ten Commandments, Creed, Prayer, Baptism, Confession, Communion –are found in Luther’s own hymnbooks. The entire collection is then framed by a grand Prelude and Fugue, one of Bach’s most significant works of that genre and the only one written in E-flat, which has three flats – symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

Trinitarian references abound in this collection: The German texts of the Missa chorales specifically relate to the Holy Trinity (God Father, Son and Spirit).  And so references to the number three can be found throughout the entire Clavier-Übung III: the number of movements in the entire collection (27=3x3x3), the number of chorales relating to the Missa (3×3), the use of the key of E-flat major (marked by three flats) for the opening and closing movements and, finally, the number of the volume itself.

This third volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung was well-received, as were the two that came before (volume one included the six partitas; volume two included the “Italian” concerto and the “French” overture). Shortly after the publication was first released in Leipzig, Bach’s younger contemporary, the scholar Lorenz Mizler, wrote: “The author has here given new proof that in this field of composition he is more practiced and more fortunate than many others.  No one will surpass him in it, and few will be able to imitate him.”

The Individual Works

The Praeludium pro Organo pleno is one of the longest and grandest of all of Bach’s organ preludes.  It opens with a stunning French overture section (which returns “da capo” at the end) and is followed by two other sections for a total of three – setting up the focus of the Clavier-Übung on the Trinity.

The three Kyries of the Clavier-Übung III are based on the German chorale setting of a plainsong Kyrie (fons bonitatis – “fountain of mercy”).  These German settings are “troped” Kyries – this means that the chorales incorporate the original plainsong melodies but then extend those melodies and include additional texts.  In the three large-scale settings of the Kyries found in the Clavier-Ubung (performed on tonight’s program), Bach is imitating the Kyrie settings found in the organ books of Frescobaldi and DeGrigny.   The first Kyrie (Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit) has the melody in the uppermost voice – in that respect it lends itself to be played as a “recit de cromorne,” using a registration typical of Kyrie settings composed in this manner.  The second Kyrie (Christe aller Welt Trost) has the melody in the middle voice (tenor) – thus suggesting that it be played as a “tierce en taille,” a registration also typical of the French composers in their Kyrie settings.  Finally, the third setting, (Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist), is written with the melody in the bass line (pedal) – in the manner of the fugues on the Kyrie, found in almost all of the Parisian organ books.  In that style, the organ registration uses the “Grands Jeux” – a sound marked by the use of the Trompette as the foundation along with colorful mutations (pipes that speak at intervals of the 5th and the 3rd, rather than the octave, above the primary tone.

The great Gloria (Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’), as opposed to imitating French or Italian models, is very much a German trio sonata – three equal voices to suggest the three persons of the Trinity.  This setting is one of Bach’s greatest organ trios – it has all of the exuberance implied by the chorale but is also delicate chamber music.  Listen for the strict canon that Bach uses in each of stanzas 1 and 2: the exact musical lines from stanza 1 repeat in the stanza 2 but in each alternate voice–a technique that is very difficult for a composer to successfully write (as does Bach).  The nature of this particular setting could be thought of as musically depicting the doctrine of three distinct persons in one God.

The short setting of Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot (Ten Commandments) is an unusual construction – a gigue that is also a fairly strict fughetta.  While remaining true to these forms, it has the character of a large scale sinfonia that might be found at the beginning of one of the cantatas.  The joyous nature of the piece probably reflects Luther’s admonition that we should “cheerfully do what the Lord has commanded” and, perhaps, the notion that we “delight in thy statutes” (Psalm 119).

The large setting of Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott (Creed), is similar in structure to the opening “Credo” from the B-minor mass:  the opening few notes (incipit) of the melody is used in a fugato style (successive voices imitating each other) over a bass line that strongly defines a clear harmonic motion.   Its grand fugal style implies using the full organ sound that would have been used by Bach in his organ fugues.  During the Bach “revival” of the 19th century, this was one of the most popular fugues of Bach and was given the moniker the “Grand fugue”.

The small setting (alio modo) of the chorale Vater Unser im Himmelreich (Lord’s Prayer) is one of the least complicated works in the collection – evoking a simple prayer.  Listen for the running musical lines that overlap in both their original forms and inversions.

The setting of Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (Baptism) has a running bass line that is intended to depict the river Jordan, while the upper voices use a motif that Bach often employs to depict the sign of the Cross.  The melody is unadorned in the tenor.  The compositional style is reminiscent of (and as sophisticated as) the setting of “O Mensch bewein” from the St. Matthew Passion.

Aus Tiefer Not (Confession) is the chorale that speaks to Luther’s discussion of penitence, and the unadorned, “stile antico” style of the short setting provides a simple declamation of the music.  This setting could almost serve as a chorale to be sung: the musical lines, for the most part, stay within the vocal range and the writing implies the style used by Palestrina in his great motets – a style with which Bach was very familiar.

The final Fuge à 5 con pedale pro Organo pleno opens with a grand chordal fugue in five voices, similar to the fugues on the Kyrie described above, and similarly played on the “Grands Jeux”.  This is followed by a second fugue (separate subject) that plays out it an exuberant section with a lighter texture (although still in four voices).  A third and final fugue subject is a powerful gigue.  The total structure, thus, provides three distinct fugue subjects to describe the Trinity.  In one of the most spectacular closings to any of Bach’s fugues, all three subjects are combined in the final measures.