Happy Groundhog Day! Are you eager for winter to end? We sure are...
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 392, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Ariane, who is our Total Organist student. And, she writes:
I’ve been sight-reading some hymns from Bach‘s Christmas Oratorium. Why are his hymns just so special? They always give me goosebumps.
V: She means probably choral harmonizations.
A: Yes. I guess that’s what she means.
V: And not only from Christmas Oratorium, probably in general, Bach’s choral harmonizations, from the cantatas, are very special.
A: True. If I would have to answer such a question, I would say that if you think about Bach’s harmonic language, it’s very sophisticated, because he uses a lot of extra notes.
V: Non-choral notes.
A: Non-chordal notes. Probably much more than other composers, his contemporary composers, his predecessors. So that’s what I think maybe makes his chorals so not forgettable.
V: What do you mean by non-chordal notes? What kind of notes could it be?
A: Well, all kinds. He uses all the possible…
V: Such as?
A: Well, now you are making, giving me a hard time because it’s really hard for me to use these all harmonic notes in English.
V: Passing tones.
A: Passing tones, neighboring tones, escape tones…
A: That can be at a…
A: Of course many suspensions. And not in one voice but sometimes in all the voices he uses suspensions at the same time.
V: Uh-huh. Maybe one voice doesn’t have suspension, to have the beat on time, and them the other three could have suspension.
A: Yes, and he uses also these chords that gives such a nice color to the harmony, such as Neapolitan six chords, and all that secondary dominant chords.
A: And double dominant chords.
V: So this is advanced harmony.
A: Sure. Sure.
V: Third year of harmony—in your school.
A: Well, I don’t think my students would be able to analyze rightly Bach chorales.
V: Mmm-hmm. Probably college level harmony.
A: Well, definitely not in Lithuanian Academy of Music, that is not as it is right now.
A: But yes, college level harmony.
V: You know, Bach never wrote a harmony textbook.
A: Well, that’s why he left so much wonderful music. Instead of writing books, he composed music. So we can take his musical examples as books and study them.
V: It is true that he did write a short guide and rules for harmonizing and playing the thorough base, right? I think maybe ten or twelve precepts, like rules—what to avoid. But it’s very short, like in one leaflet. But in general, nothing very extensive, and only his student Johann Philip Kirnberger together with CPE Bach, I think.
A: Carl Philipp Emanuel.
V: Yeah, CPE Bach collected his choral harmonizations from most of his cantatas, and published after his death in a volume called 371 Chorales. And this is like a testament of Bach’s mastery, plus we have to remember that most of Bach’s cantatas are gone.
A: Not most of them but quite a large portion of them, yes, is gone.
V: Mmm-hmm. Yes, so anybody including Ariane who is interested in Bach’s special musical arsenal and harmonic language, would do very well if they would pick up this volume of Bach’s chorals harmonizations and play and study and rewrite and transpose and internalize like that.
A: But in general I think that Bach genius exceeded his contemporaries and in general probably, other composers of all generations. I don’t think anybody could compete on the same level as he was.
A: It would be a real challenge.
V: And I wonder if it’s worth it.
A: I don’t think so.
V: Mmm-hmm. Like one time I submitted my seven choral improvisations for publication with Wayne Leopold, and this was my really beginning of improvisation practice. I mostly memorized those chorals and they became sort of written out pieces which I actually wrote out afterwards and put them, put a few of them on Youtube too (here and here), so people can listen even today. But the point is that I submitted the manuscript of seven choral improvisations. Those are I think almost all of, in trio texture, and I was so proud that I could imitate Bach’s style. But what I did is like, is what came out was like, maybe more of like Kreb’s style not Bach’s style.
A: That’s fun.
V: And a few months later, Wayne Leopold, the famous editor, wrote back that nobody can compete with Herr Bach, that I better create something original than imitation. And since then I think my view about composition in general and improvisation in particular, changed. I admire people who can imitate other masters, but in a long run, in historical run, fifty years from now, I think, like hundred years from now, what is more important, to leave a legacy of original works, not imitations.
V: It doesn’t mean that I’m right or I’m wrong, and it doesn’t that other people shouldn’t have their own opinions about such matters. This is only demonstrates what I’m thinking at the moment, and I of course reserve the right to change my mind. Lots of things to think about, right?, on this gloomy, snowy Monday in Lithuania. We hope that wherever you are is not as gloomy and not as much snow as we have. Thank you guys for listening, for practicing, recording our suggestions. Please keep sending us your wonderful questions. And remember, when you practice...
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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