A New Year’s Reflection on Bach

It’s 7 am on Sunday morning, and this organist is heading into work at Christ and Saint Stephen’s, a small Episcopal church on the Upper West Side. Being only two days after Christmas, I’ve yet to recover from the marathon of carols on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day and the accompanying sleep deprivation from the sales up and down 5th Avenue. This post-yuletide malaise seems to stare me in the face as I walk into my office to pick up the order of service (that I forgot to proofread) and to have a look at the postlude (that I haven’t practiced). Hoping that I’ve remembered to program something suitably festive and christmassy (i.e. loud and fast), I see that I have neglected to change the voluntary from last year’s service as played by my predecessor.

In Dulci Jubilo, BWV 729                           J.S. Bach

Perfect. It’s one of Bach’s most famous organ works, especially for this time of year – an English mince pie of the repertoire if ever there was one. Even better, it’s available on the internet and I don’t have to look for it in my library. The fact that I haven’t played it for about three years doesn’t bother me hugely; I’m more preoccupied with some caffeination issues.

Switching the organ on, I’m already reviewing the piece in my head, internally hearing the last performance I gave on Christmas Eve for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. I spent a great deal of energy on that performance, coming up with a sort of wild and frenetic ornamentation scheme, evoking Buxtehude (Bach’s teacher) and the fantastical style (stylus phantasticus) that was the hallmark of the German organ tradition before Bach. This was partly to give a distinguished and historically informed performance, but really it was more of an academically sanctioned carte blanche to annoy the director of music, Stephen Cleobury (as usual, I succeeded).

But as I put my fingers to the keys I find myself incapable of recreating the ornamentation, the frenzy, the tension. What’s wrong with me? It’s as if the cumulative or experiential quality of this work, a short piece of music that I poured months into preparing as an undergraduate, had faded away. Is it the organ? The size of the room? The fact it’s 65 degrees at the end of December? Perhaps it’s the vacuum cleaner being run by the Sexton five feet from the organ console. Remembering why I’ve avoided this piece for three years, a familiar stress seems to be induced as I try to practice it. By this point, it’s 8 am and thankfully the local barista has the red Marzocco up and running.

I spend my walk to the coffee shop no longer thinking about In Dulci Jubilo, but instead about how I remember music, simultaneously roaming through countless seminars and lectures on history and retrospective reconstruction from my time as a student. Some of my favorite books contemplate the essence of time with me as I stroll in search of caffeine. Evelyn Waugh’s images of Venice in Brideshead Revisited ask me “wouldn’t that be nice, to go back?” while Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act reminds me of the futility of musical reconstruction. Tolstoy’s final essay in War and Peace asks me why I even care. For a split second, I’m more in sympathy with Tolstoy than I ought to be, as the crosswalk is taking far too long to change lights. Yikes. Five and a half years of higher education (and counting) are taking their toll, as this 90-second walk has already comprised of some jaywalking and a comparison of a two-minute organ piece to a 1500-page Russian account of the Napoleonic wars. I smile at the barista and order two espressos.

Still unable to talk myself out my intermingled thoughts on the politics of memory and baroque ornamentation, I return to my office and grab my laptop, ignoring the list of morning tasks still demanding my attention. In the upper right hand corner of my desktop, a folder contains my notes for a paper with the working title “Sounds Like Shit: Bach’s Arnstadt Chorales and Questions Of Genre In Historical Performance, which was to be presented at a conference at Smithsonian Institute my final semester at Oberlin. The title was meant to lighten the mood of a conference in the highly obscure academic field of historical performance. As we all know, certain passions and professions are taboo in polite conversation. As an organist, I’m perhaps self-conscious about discussing matters of temperament and performance practice due to the reactions such topics elicit. To a fellow academic, you sound as if you’ve got a misplaced fetish for antiquity, indicative of some greater personal problem. To a musician, you quickly become comparable to the weirdo in the room who talks about Balzac (as if to prove he’s read it). For the non-musician who may not know what organ is, you just look like this guy.

I remember how much fun I had in preparing this paper, as I took the liberty to blur some lines between musicology and pop psychology, to the amusement of my friends and a good natured advisor at Oberlin. Written during Bach’s first job, the Arnstadt Chorales (of which In Dulci Jubilo is one) are often ignored in the history books, considered too strange and esoteric for modern performance. They were written supposedly to accompany the church’s congregation at St. Boniface, but in looking at the score, there is no possible way that these pieces could have done so without intentionally leading the good Lutherans of Arnstadt astray. In Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 715 Bach takes the final line of the hymn through all twelve semitones in just under 3 bars, a rather shocking move in the days before equal temperament.

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In Dulci Jubilo is itself remarkably difficult to follow. Every time you catch the melodic contour, you’re interrupted by aimless, improvisatory interludes containing not only rhythmic complexity, but also wayward harmonies. As the piece continues, these interludes don’t simply interrupt the phrases of the chorale, but seem to carry on underneath the chorale melody, gaining in pace and density until they give up in the final four bars of the piece. But there’s an added element: the key. The hymnals in Arnstadt printed In Dulci Jubilo in F Major (more or less the same today), a comfortable range for the amateur singer. Bach’s is in A Major, up a major third, taking the congregant into a vocal range uncomfortable for most lyric tenors. So not only is Bach’s hymn accompaniment only impossible to follow, but the sensation of singing with it is akin to that stratospheric rendition of happy birthday in a key chosen by the soprano at your friend’s party.

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Bach’s novel approach to liturgical music did not pass unnoticed.

“We reprove [Bach] for having hitherto made many curious variationes in the chorale, and mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the Congregation has been confused by it. In the future, if he wished to introduce a tonus peregrinus, he was to hold it out, and not turn too quickly too something else or, as had hitherto been his habit, even play a tonus contrarius.”

There were other complaints as well:

“In addition, it was quite disagreeable that hitherto no concerted music had been performed, for which [Bach] was responsible, because he did not wish to get along with the students; accordingly he was to declare whether he was willing to play for concerted music as well as chorales sung by the students. For a cappellmeister could not be engaged just for his sake. If he did not wish to do so, he should but state that fact categorice so that other arrangements could be made and someone engaged who would.”

Bach’s response:

“Were the organist were provided with a competent conductor, an organist might perform his duties properly.”


The list of reprimands and offences continue,

“We reprove him for going into the wine cellar on the last preceding Sunday during the Sermon.”

and continue further

“We ask him further by what right he recently caused the unfamiliar maiden to be invited into the choir loft and let her make music there.”

This is great. It’s his first job out of high school, and Bach is intentionally sabotaging the choir, drinking on the job and shagging in his office after hours. It’s like a cheesy scene from Amadeus, confirming all stereotypes about young and misunderstood artistic geniuses. Not even with Mozart or Charles Ives do we have such extreme personal conflicts so plainly evident in a musical composition, matched by source material from the era.

While a fascinating biographical snapshot of Bach’s life as a young adult, these rather amusing musicological details are not what make In Dulci Jubilo interesting, but rather the manner in which this bizarre little piece has taken on a life of its own in the walls of King’s College Chapel. The fact that none of the other Arnstadt Chorales are regularly performed (if at all) is not a testament simply to their own bizarreness, but to the stature of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Had it not been selected by the great organist Boris Ord to be performed in the service, In Dulci Jubilo would likely have remained in the same state of obscurity as its companions from Arnstadt. Indeed, the organ voluntary is one of many unchanging elements of the service, which now hosts a worldwide audience of more than 130 million listeners.

Every year, there is tension of the unknown as a boy is selected to sing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” only 15 seconds before the red light for recording goes on. “Hark the Herald” ends the service, and we all wonder which famous (or infamous) harmonization will be used. More recent traditions have taken hold; we anticipate the newly commissioned carol every year, and callously comment on its quality, regardless of the effort put in by the choir to perform it. Myself, I wait every year to see how long a pause the Director of Music in reading the passage of scripture which includes “Mary and Joseph,… (pause) …. (yet further silence) …. (?) …. and a baby lying in a manger,” as to emphasize the presence of the Oxford comma, lest the congregation be under the impression that the hippie Holy Family shared a family bed (or manger, in this case).

In a way, there is no piece more appropriate for the organ scholar on Christmas Eve. Like Bach, the organ scholar is 21 or so, and it’s his first “big” job playing the organ in at a prestigious university setting. In Cambridge, the outer prestige is glitzy, but the reality can be less so. My mornings started with a hearty breakfast of two cigarettes, an espresso and another espresso before a morning rehearsal with the choir’s youngest members (7 years old, on average). After a day of lectures, supervisions and countless hours in a library taken from an episode of the Jetsons, an inevitable sense of boredom sets in at around 4pm, when the organ scholars enter the freezing chapel to play yet one more performance of a set of canticles by Purcell.

The temptation to turn the organ into an instrument of chaos is almost overwhelming some days. What organist hasn’t taken advantage of the instrument’s the remarkable ability to be used for comical sound effects? For organ scholars, the daily Psalms are an easy target and playing with them, a time honored tradition (sometimes to the dismay of the clergy and Director of Music). Handwritten charts at the front of each term’s psalter helped me not to miss an opportunity to detract from the solemnity of the Book of Common Prayer.

Ps. 94:18            my foot hath slipped                             intentional pedal errors
Ps. 65:7                roaring of the seas                                   low, loud
Ps. 8:8                  birds of the air                                           tweety
Ps. 144:14           oxen shall draw heavy loads                 moo
Ps. 104:14           green herb for the service of men          . . .

The sixth verse of Psalm 115 was my personal favorite: “ears have they and hear not.” Drawing the two highest stops on the organ (inaudible to the director of music due to their frequency and his hearing impairment), I would depress a cluster of the highest five notes of the instrument.

Ps. 115:6            Ears have they and hear not                        hearing aid (ff)

While my joke was admittedly cruel, the care and intense preparation that went into having fun in the organ loft was an essential element of the job. This is why In Dulci Jubilo appeals to me so much. The piece is literally a joke, made serious by 300 years distance and our knowledge of the mature and serious Bach that he would grow up to be: the Bach that wrote the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B minor, the Passacaglia in D minor.

I’m still in my office, looking at all this information and going back through the questions asked by my literary idols. I start my second espresso, informing Tolstoy that I care about this beautiful piece and this remarkable service because we all care, those of us who listen to the service, year in and year out. I ask Taruskin that if the enterprise of revisiting musical material is somehow futile, then why did he write a book on it? But in response to Evelyn Waugh’s sentiments, perhaps it wouldn’t be so lovely to “recreate” that performance on December 24, 2012. The ornamentation, the nervous tension, the sensation of being 21 years old, ready to graduate college and pursue some alternative career goals, etc. are past. I’m 24 (thank God, even though I’m admittedly still in school). While In Dulci Jubilo may have been a comical piece, my own sense of wanting to be mischievous or clever with the piece is gone. Perhaps my sense of humor has lightened, but the work now seems to be less of a guilty pleasure. It’s now a generous and humorous example of what we organists do and have always done, taking an accompaniment and dressing it up into something joyful.

Shortly after noon, the morning Eucharist is wrapping up with the final hymn and it’s time to perform the voluntary. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with it, but for the first time, it’s not a pressing matter. I try to begin with an unnotated florid scale, much like I did three years ago, but it doesn’t turn me on. It’s no longer necessary. Instead I start to commune with Bach on his own terms, in a strange Eucharist of my own. He himself never revised the In Dulci Jubilo and as far as we know, and never performed it again (for you musicologists, you know how significant this is for Bach). Yet Bach took great care in the preservation of all these intentionally outlandish works in immaculate manuscripts. How did he view them as the years past? With pride? With frustration? With humor? I suppose we’ll never know.

Having my recording from Christmas Eve, 2012 safe in my iTunes library, I nostalgically review it after the morning service. Some space these last few years, I’m permitted to listen to my performance a certain sense of humor and realize it was totally over the top. Just as Bach’s composition shows signs of strain, my performance shows signs of impetuosity. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as it is the essence of the human aspect of musical interpretations. Our moods and emotions inevitably affect our performances. That being said, a live radio broadcast before an audience of millions might not have been the wisest opportunity to add every conceivable ornament possible to a piece which already borders on the ridiculous. To this day, I can see my organ teacher at the time asking me very pointedly “what were you thinking?” I gave lots of reasons, quoted treatises and historical documents, cited performers and scholars, trying to verbally state my case for something I could no longer tweak, contemplate or alter. In the end I conceded. I probably had too much coffee.

Parker Ramsay is an organist and harpist studying at the Juilliard School in New York City. Read more posts of his at www.harpingon.live.

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