Choral Conductor · Educator · Scholar · Composer · Organist
J. S. + P. D. Q. Bach
A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols, S. 359
Nobody’s perfect.”There is no more convincing illustration of that adage than P.D.Q. Bach, whose father Johann Sebastian Bach’s track record with regard to bringing beauty into the world was otherwise unblemished and perhaps unequaled. P. D. Q. Bach, who was called “a pimple on the face of music” by his brother J. C. Bach, apparently left no musical form undisturbed. This set of thankfully secular Christmas carols (Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John, O Little Town of Hackensack, and Good King Kong Looked Out) was probably composed during the
final years of P. D. Q.’s stay in Wein-am-Rhein, a time of transition from the clumsy excesses of the Soused Period to the excesses of the Contrition Period. As is the case with most of P.D.Q.’s vocal music, the original manuscript has never been found. The only extant copies are those published, in English and without any lyricist or librettist mentioned, by the composer’s old friend Jonathan “Boozey” Hawkes, who left Wein-am-Rhein and returned to his native Liverpool soon after P.D.Q.’s timely death. He also married P.D.Q.’s cousin Betty-Sue, but that’s another story.
—Professor Peter Schickele
J. S. Bach
Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4
At an age when most young adults of today are graduating from college or starting families, Bach was halfway through what came to be one of Western history’s most productive and astonishing careers. Born into a
Portrait believed to be of J. S. Bach by Johann Emanuel Göbel, 18th century. [Source:Bachhaus Eisenach]
Obviously, Johann Sebastian already had a certain market value as organist because he got a relatively high salary: twice as much as his successor in 1707, his cousin Johann Ernst. During his tenure in Arnstadt, Bach had several run-ins with town officials. He often left for extended periods without leave; he was reputedly irascible and impatient; most significantly, his virtuoso organ playing was not well received by the congregation, which was accustomed to traditional chorale accompaniments
musical family, Sebastian was exposed to music-making of every kind from an early age: he learned singing, had keyboard instruction, played the violin, and began composing. Born and raised in Thuringia, he never went farther north than Hamburg and Lübeck, or farther south than Carlsbad. In a similarly confined way, his east-west range stretched from Dresden (east) to Kassel (west). When Sebastian was nine, both his mother Elisabeth and his father Johann Ambrosius died. Orphaned, Sebastian and his brother Jacob both went to live with their eldest brother Johann Cristoph, organist in Ohrdurf. The organ at Michaelskirche, where Cristoph played, was undergoing major renovations when Sebastian arrived. Participating in and learning from this rebuilding gave him the profound expertise upon which he would continually draw; indeed, he was widely acclaimed as a consultant on organ design and was repeatedly engaged to test newly installed instruments. He also went to the Lyceum in Ohrdurf, learned Latin, and sang in the school choir. When his brother could no longer support him, he left for Lüneburg on 15 March 1700. According to tradition, children of poor parents could earn their keep at the Latin school by singing in Lüneburg’s Michaelskirche. Bach’s choice of the Lüneburg school was not accidental; it was planned to advance his musical career. The school had an impressive musical tradition and a famous music library that contained 1102 titles of about 175 composers by 1621. Possibly, the foundation was laid here for Bach’s legendary musical erudition and certainly for his almost cellular familiarity with the 17th century German choral tradition. An important influence on young Sebastian was Johan Adam Reinken (1623-1722), the 78 year old organist of the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg and perhaps the former teacher of Georg Böhm (1661–1733) (who certainly was in Hamburg for some years). Bach went to Hamburg several times in order to become familiar with Reinken's work; in the summer vacation of 1701, for instance, Johann Sebastian walked to Hamburg (about 30 miles to the North) to hear Reinken and others in Hamburg. Bach left Lüneburg around Easter of 1702 and spent one year as a court violinist and “lackey” to the Duke of Weimar. Then in 1703 he was appointed organist of the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt.
and organ works. Thus, when the organist of the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen died in December 1706, Bach wasted no time pursuing the position. On Easter Sunday 1707 (24 April), Johann Sebastian Bach gave a test performance as organist. As was customary, he also supplied the church fathers with two original compositions, one of which was Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4. Successful in his candidacy (the town council considered no other applicants) Bach assumed his duties as organist in June of the same year. Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of Bach’s earliest vocal compositions. Written for SATB chorus (sopranos were pre-pubescent boys and altos adolescents with changing voices), it employs a chamber orchestra consisting of two violin parts, two viola parts and basso continuo. The text is Martin Luther's (1483–1546) eponymous hymn in its entirety; the music is derived from the German hymn Christ ist erstanden (Christ is risen) Christ ist erstanden is itself derived from the plainsong sequence Victimae Paschali laudes (To the Pascal victim praises bring) The final chorale tune, Christ lag in Todesbanden, is consequently an amalgam of the two This cantata is believed to be one of Bach's first; its form is equally early, being similar to organ chorale variations in the manner of Georg Böhm and Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706). Although the young Bach’s mastery of counterpoint is evident, the tune itself is presented relatively unadorned in each of the verses, thus making it unique in his opus. The overall structure of the cantata is symmetrical, or mirrored, excepting the string sinfonia, as shown in this diagram:
For strings only, it is built on first two notes of the chorale—interval of a minor 2nd—the so-called sighing rhetorical figure.
In this movement, Sopranos have the chorale melody in held notes, redolent of a cantus firmus. The other contrapuntal parts are comprised of various fragments of the chorale tune A particularly good example of Bach’s word painting occurs at the text fröhlich (joyful)
In addition to Bach’s use of fragments of the chorale melody in the contrapuntal writing, he also quotes it outright, as at the beginning of the final line, Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein (Praise God and be thankful to Him)
and und singen hallelujah (and sing hallelujah)
Bach concludes the movement on the word Halleluja! in double time (alla breve) with ascending scale figures and a pedal point and an inverted pedal point.
Soprano and alto soloist commence the movement with the minor-2nd interval that characterizes the beginning of the chorale melody. As a student of Rhetoric, Bach understood the importance of rhetorical gestures; indeed, he incorporates them regularly into his music. In the Western tradition, the descending minor-2nd represents a sigh—a melancholic utterance that is specific in use and declamation. Using this sighing motive, Bach paints the text Der Tod (Death) and creates a conversational effect between the solo voices.
He repeats the same idea verbatim at the words das macht (the sin). Bach continues to use the first few notes of each phrase and create a conversational feel between the voices. Following the text hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen ([Death] held us captive in his kingdom) Bach resumes the sustained minor-2nds—even to the Halleluja!, which, rather than exulting continually descends to the movement’s somber end
In contrast to the sad, weeping nature of the previous duet, verse three of the chorale is energetic—filled with brechnung (broken) passages in the violin obbligato
Drawing upon his dramatic flair, Bach makes the most of the text all sein Recht und sein Gewalt; da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt (All his rule and all his power; here nothing remains but Death’s shell) and creates a crescendo by employing double stops in the violin; he then brings the music to an abrupt halt followed by a short recitative-like cadenza
The coloratura passages for the tenor on the word Halleluja bring the movement to a climactic conclusion.
This unique chorus is in reality a fughetta for soprano, tenor and bass. Each fugal exposition begins with a short subject comprised of chorale melody motifs
Ostensibly the movement is in e-minor; however, the altos, who sing the unadorned chorale melody, are pitched in the dominant key of b-minor. Bach accomplishes this harmonic sleight of hand by sounding the chorale melody in the middle of a fugal exposition rather than at the cadence point. By doing so, he can maintain the overall tonality while simultaneously demonstrating his technical prowess in both compositional techniques and harmonic structure
Numerology was an important concept to Bach, who played on numbers for symbolic reasons and employed gematria, the ancient practice of assigning numerical values to the letters of an alphabet (i.e., A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.) throughout his music. As a devout Lutheran and an avid student of Luther and Reformation theology, Bach knew well the significance of the Holy Trinity, as represented in 34 triple meter, the so-called “perfect” meter. Indeed, there are multiples of three everywhere in his opus: the 6 French Suites, the 6 English Suites, the 6 Partitas, the 15 Inventions, the 15 Sinfonias (three-part inventions), the 30 Goldberg Variations. The sum of the letters in “Bach” is 14, whereas the sum of the letters in “J. S. Bach” comes to 41. Scholars have unearthed the numbers 14 and 41 in all sorts of Bach works. In one of the better-known examples, Bach's setting of the chorale Vor deinem Thron (Before Thy Throne), the first line of the melody contains 14 notes; the entire melody from beginning to end contains 41. Another mathematical formula with which Bach was certainly familiar is the Fibonacci series, a sequence of numbers first created by Leonardo Fibonacci in 1202. Also known as the “Golden Mean” or “Golden Ratio,” it is a deceptively simple sequence, in which the last number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two: 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 2+1=3; 3+2=5; 5+3=8; 8+5=13; etc. The ratio of the two added numbers leads to both an algebraic and geometric representation of the Golden Mean. Numerically, it is 0.61803, rounded to 0.62 for ease. A simple graphical representation is shown in here, where a=1 x 0.62 and b = a x 0.62. The resulting geometric proportion is used throughout Western art and architecture.
A simple geometric representation is shown in this illustration:
This proportion is used in Renaissance buildings to determine the height of columns as they relate to the height of the structure; the height of a frieze in proportion to the pediment, etc. Leonardo knew of it and used it extensively in his painting and architectural drawings. In music the Golden Mean appears at structurally significant points or where an emotional or musical climax occurs. For instance, the point at which most Classical symphonic first movements recapitulate the opening section is more often than not the Golden Mean. Examples can be found in music of composers from Bach to Beethoven to Liszt to Debussy. It is a mathematical phenomenon that composers incorporated into their works to aid in structural refinement. The Golden Mean can be measured in one of two ways: either by multiplying the total number of measures or the duration of the work by 0.62. In Christ lag in Todesbanden, for instance, there are a number of Golden Means: one for the entire work and separate ones for three individual movements. Although the structure of the work appears to be straightforward—a short Sinfonia followed by seven treatments of a chorale tune—there is a more subtle underlying formal organization, as shown in this figure:
Excepting the short "Sinfonia"—which, having fourteen measures is a surreptitious nod to his own name, whose letters, when added together following the principles of gematria, equals fourteen—Bach has created a work with five sections of more or less equal duration, as shown in the above diagram. This structural legerdemain is accomplished through the division of Versus V into two components: two 45-measure sections interrupted by a five-measure string interlude. This movement is important for a number of reasons:
It is the only movement in triple meter;
The first measure in which the bass sings is the exact midpoint of the entire work (again excepting the Sinfonia);
It contains the Golden Mean for the entire work: m. 76 at the text der Würger kann uns nicht schaden (the murderer can no longer harm us), which Bach sets with a dramatic leap upward followed by four repetitions of the word nicht
Bach anticipates the climactic moment by preceding the ascending leap—signifying the victory—with an even larger descending leap to the word Tode (death)
Bach concludes the bass aria with disjointed leaps on the word Hallelujah!, continuing the virtuoso demands already placed on the soloist
Even though this duet returns to a duple meter 4/4 triplets are introduced to convey the sense of joy that is inherent in the text. Bach takes the first few words of each phrase and sets them straightforward to the chorale tune. He then paints such words as Wonne (pleasure), Sonne (Son), Gnaden [Favorable), Herzen (heart), verschunden (vanished) and Hallejuja to flowing triplet figures
Meanwhile, the basso continuo is providing more rhythmic variety with its constant use of jerky dotted rhythmic patterns in a Courante-like dance feel that incorporates both step-wise motion—similar to the walking basses to come in many organ choral preludes—and leaps as wide as those Bach demanded of the bass soloist in the previous movement The movement is closed with a series of flowing descending triplet patterns for both voices—both imitatively and in combination—on the word Halleluja!
At this point in the cantata, one would expect to hear the last stanza of the chorale tune in an SATB harmonized version—to be sung by the choir and congregation in the context of the service. I have opted to follow the lead of the German ensemble Cantus Cölln, directed by Konrad Junghänel and recapitulate the opening movement—replacing the more traditional hymn-like setting. The well-known Bach scholar Christoph Wolff also supports this theory. Cantus Cölln presents sound and persuasive musicological evidence to support this radical departure:
No manuscript of the original Arnstadt version exists for Versus VII—only a single vocal part from the 1724 Leipzig revival;
Since Bach did not develop this style until 1714, there must have originally been a different setting of the last stanza of the chorale;
The strictly symmetrical design of the cantata leads to the conjecture that the last movement may have been a repetition of Versus I, albeit with different words;
There is no contemporaneous evidence that the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen sang the last verse of the chorale tune in cantatas.
Hence, I have concluded that the research is strong enough to warrant this alteration of Bach’s later, revised version.