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Last year during the crux of pre-Christmas consumption, I ventured into the greatest musical basement east of the Village Vanguard: the classical CD section of Dussman’s Cultural Department Store in the heart of Berlin. One might think that this architectural arrangement means that the princes and princesses of classical music, from Rattle to Battle, are forced to ride steerage down below while the pop stars swan around on the sun deck above. In fact, this relative isolation from the upper-floor herds allows the classical enthusiasts to peruse the offerings (even with score in hand) of what amounts to the best open-stack library for recordings in the city—perhaps the world. What fascinated me during my Advent foray into Dussmann’s last year were the bizarre attempts at capitalizing on the season; the most outlandish of the ploys was the Bach cello suites packaged with a bottle of cheap champagne. More predictable was the surfeit of Christmas Oratorio recordings and tables of CDs featuring opera stars singing Christmas Carols. These competed for the Euros of gift-seekers with the flute heroics of Frederick the Great, then just about to begin posthumously celebrating the tricentennial of his birth in 1712. Frederick was neither a great lover of religion nor of children (didn’t have any), but he dedicated much of his effort to encouraging commerce and thereby increasing tax revenues. If he were around today, I could imagine a holiday offering from the royal studio: From Prussia with Love — Frederick’s Yuletide Flute Favorites. Perhaps there’s something similar in Dussmann’s now that the Frederick the Great tricentennial year approaches its end.
But just because I’m spending this Christmas season in the provinces of Upstate New York far from the holiday madness of Dussmann’s, I won’t be prevented from making another Bach CD recommendation for Classical Counterpunchers.
Bach’s most complex organ work comes in the form of a set of Canonic Variations on the well-known Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). Because melody and text were both composed by Martin Luther, the hymn counts as one of the most venerable of chorales. The Reformer is said to have thought up the text for the Christmas Eve gift-giving ceremony in his own family in 1535, when it was sung to a well-known folksong. A few years later Luther devised the melody now inextricably associated with his text.
In June of 1747, only a month after he had played for Frederick the Great in Potsdam, Bach became the fourteenth member of the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences. The group had been founded by Bach devotee Lorenz Mizler, a music journalist and later doctor, who is now mostly known for getting Bach to join his society and for having defended him against the attacks of the one-eyed critic, Johann Scheibe, himself a former student of Bach’s. Among the members of Mizler’s Corresponding Society were Telemann and Handel, along with other men now far less well-known.
Bach was by all accounts no enthusiast of many of the theoretically-oriented concerns of Mizler and his group. Although it’s never been admitted by his devotees, Bach probably shared something of Grouch Marx’s attitude towards club, not wanting to be a member of one that would accept him. Joining as the fourteenth member is said to have helped encourage Bach’s entry, since fourteen is the sum of BACH in the number alphabet (B=2, A=1, C=3, H=8).
In spite of his apparent lack of interest in “dry, mathematical” matters, Bach did in his last years dedicate himself increasingly to intense research into canonic writing, subjecting musical material both found and invented to often mind-binding, ear-challenging permutations and combinations. Bach published very little of his entire musical output, but four of the five engraved volumes he issued during the last decade of his life are partly or wholly concerned with strict compositional procedures: The Goldberg Variations, The Canonic Variations, A Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue (this last collection actually appeared after Bach’s death.) For his induction into Mizler’s Society, Bach submitted the Canonic Variations; the engraving of the work for publication was a drawn out process, probably extending from 1745 into 1747.
What these printed pages prove is that no one has ever been more accomplished at canonic research than Bach precisely because he had the ability to follow the most complex and constricting of rules without having the resulting music sound unconstrained. What is still harder to fathom is how the expressivity of the music seems to derive from the very proscriptions it adheres to: self-imposed limitation spawns infinite invention. (This argument is one developed further in my book Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint— another winning Christmas gift!)
From Bach’s time to our own writers on music have often assumed that because it is rule-bound, canon is dry and even abstract. The collections of Bach’s music just cited unfailingly rebut that claim, none more effectively than the Canonic Variations. The work’s five movements consist not of the miniature canons, but full-length pieces that treat the beloved Christmas melody in impressively diverse ways: the first two numbers present flowing two-part canons (at the octave and at the fifth respectively) in the manuals with the tune played in long notes by the feet. The third variations has a canon between pedal and left hand at the odd interval of a seventh with the right hand delivering both a freely-ornamented melody and the unadorned chorale itself. The final two variations significantly increase the level of complexity. The fourth variation is an augmentation canon in which one part follows another but at half the pace; in itself demanding, the task is infinitely more difficult because Bach must work the immutable chorale tune into this matrix. In the final variation his unparalleled compositional insight and inventive imagination reveals that the melody is capable of making canons against itself when melodically inverted; these combinations are played out against a fiery pedal part and ecstatic flourishes elsewhere in the manuals. Bach even contrives to sign his name just before the last canon ends in a rapturous crescendo of voices. Far from arid and academic, this Bachian Christmas is as joyous as it is complex.
An obsessive tinkerer, Bach returned to the Canonic Variations after their publication and revised some of the melodic turns and the order of the pieces in a beautiful autograph manuscript preserved in the Berlin State Library. Thus there are two versions of the Variations, each offering its own distinct flavors of difficulty and delight.
But none of it is abstract: Bach intended the piece to be performed. Both the print and the manuscript have slur markings that guide the organist in the molding of certain musical figures. The elegant third variation (of the published version) is marked Cantabile—“singing.” It is, as far as I know, impossible to sing abstractly.
Because of its difficulty and the general critical reception of canon that misconstrues it as abstract, the Variations turn up most frequently in box sets of the complete Bach organ works. There are more than fifty of these on the market; some of the great organists of the 20th century have recorded the entire corpus two or even three times.
One of the most compelling of these sets comes from Dutch organist Jacques van Oortmerssen. Although his is—or would have been—arguably the best of the lot, van Oortmerssen abandoned the project in 2008 after volume 9; complete sets of the organ works require anywhere from 15 to 20 CDs. Prone to a certain pessimism about the future of the organ even while he continues to tour the world as a recitalist and educate new generations of players in his long-held teaching post at the Amsterdam Conservatory, van Oortmerssen gave up the effort at completeness in favor of live CD recordings and those made available on his lavish web-site.
Luckily for enthusiast of the organ and of Bach van Oortmerssen recorded the Canonic Variations on vol. 9 as one of his last acts before moving on from the complete works undertaking. The previous eight volumes visit various European historic organs, each a monument to the instrument’s illustrious past. Van Oortmerssen recorded this last volume (like volumes one and six before it) at the modestly sized, achingly beautiful Christian Müller organ of 1734 in Amsterdam’s Waalse Kerk, where he has been organist for some three decades. Like Bach’s Canonic Variations, Van Oortermssen’s playing is unfailingly precise but intensely expressive. Like complex counterpoint, the organ as an instrument has often been denigrated as ponderous and unyielding. Oortmerssen doesn’t so much explode such misconceptions, as outshine them with the poise and power of his playing. This is Christmas music that is both pure and sensuous: virtuous, radiant heat for the darkest days of the year.