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I’m thrilled to be able to report that my recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas—framed by two of the master’s towering preludes and fugues—has just been released by Musica omnia. As a special service to Counterpunch readers I present this week an excerpt from this double-CD set’s liner notes.
For some five centuries the trio has been the true test of an organist. The mode of playing in which each hand takes a single voice while the feet are responsible for the bass line had already enjoyed a long history before the 1720s when Johann Sebastian Bach set about revolutionizing the genre. The early modern German masters of organ polyphony, chief among them the blind virtuoso Arnold Schlick, honed their virtuosity in three-part textures interweaving independent lines; in contrast to the sometimes overwhelming effect of their more expansive polyphonic experiments of six (or more) parts, the trio produced a contrapuntal fabric whose clarity not only allowed for the expression of nuance, but also exposed the slightest technical or musical weakness in the performer.
Schlick and has contemporaries had treated the organ trio largely as if it were a vocal piece, with little crossing of the voices and only short bursts of figuration or ornament. Bach almost certainly knew none of the trios of Schlick’s generation, although he was acquainted with numerous seventeenth-century examples of three-part writing at the organ, likewise derived essentially from vocal models. But Bach’s trios bear only a distant relation to their precursors, instead meeting, and often surpassing, the technical demands of contemporary ensemble trio sonatas of his time. Using all four limbs, one virtuosic organist had to do the duties of three instrumental virtuosos.
The organ was the ultimate tool for such an undertaking. The central German instruments known to Bach were equipped with an array of registers that imitated contemporary strings and woodwinds. In Bach’s trios each hand was assigned to a separate keyboard and therefore a distinct sound, while the feet had yet another in the pedal. The treble lines might be rendered as if on oboe and violin, or as a pair of complementary flutes above the bass, or in any number of combinations from the endless possibilities offered by Bach’s organs.
With the aid of such a palette of colors, Bach could make the trio sing. But he could also make it dance. His trios were as much physical as musical: the organist’s entire body had to be attuned to the pathos and sweetness of adagios and the insouciant athleticism of allegros. This physicality was a crucial part of Bach’s musical identity, and contemporaries and students praised the speed and accuracy of his feet, either alone, or with his hands. His obituary published in 1754—a document whose title described the deceased expressly as “A World Famous Organist”—claimed that, “With his two feet, [Bach] could play things on the pedals that many not unskillful clavier players would find it bitter enough to have to play with five fingers.” The essential feature of German organ playing was the independence required of hands and feet, in contrast to the mostly supportive underpinning provided by the pedals of other European traditions. This independence was exposed at its most relentless and most refined in Bach’s trios.
The main sources for the Six Sonatas (BWV 525-530) are two manuscripts stemming from the Bach family: an autograph copy probably made around 1727; and another copy in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach, later divided and the missing section then re-copied by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. These manuscripts suggest just how important the trios were in the musical life of the Bach family and Bach’s students, not least in the formation of one of the greatest organists of the next generation—Bach’s first son, Wilhelm Friedemann. After J. S. Bach’s death, the organ trios were held up as the ultimate test of true organ playing. In the list of organ works in Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 Bach biography, a work that relied largely on information gathered from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann, the trios “for two claviers and obbligato pedals” come as the final entry, and the prime carrier of Bach’s musical and familial legacy: “Bach composed [the trios] for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, who, by practicing them, had to prepare himself to become the great performer on the organ that he afterward was. It is impossible to say enough of their beauty. They were composed when the author was in his most mature age and may be considered as his chief work of this description.” A later eighteenth-century history of Leipzig’s Thomasschule praised Bach as the greatest organist of his day and described Wilhelm Friedemann as the son who inherited the organ art most directly. The account goes on to claim that Bach’s organ music “surpassed all that had previously been written for the instrument.” The trios were the clearest expression of a technique that demanded unwavering independence: “the left hand had to be as capable as the right, and he treated the pedal as its own voice.” Other Bach devotees praised the timeless modernity of the trios; some three decades after his father’s death C. P. E. Bach asserted that the trios “are written in such galant style that they still sound very good, and never grow old, but on the contrary will outlive all revolutions of fashion in music.” For C. P. E. Bach the collection was the crowning proof of the pedal’s importance in organ playing.
But for all their galant finesse, there are pitfalls at every turn and the slightest hitch will be noticed. Things can go immediately and irrevocably wrong as in no other genre: it is impossible to fake your way through a trio sonata movement.
None of this is to gainsay the impact and difficulty of Bach’s great preludes and fugues. Because my performance of the six sonatas had to be divided between two CDs, I took the opportunity to enclose each of the two sets of three sonatas with one of Bach’s monumental free works. Bach himself adopted this conceit at least once, framing the magisterial collection of chorale preludes of the Clavierübung III (1739) with the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (BWV 552). Bach would certainly not have minded that work’s removal from its original published context so that the prelude could introduce the first trio sonata (BWV 525) in the same key, and the fugue provide an apocalyptic peroration after the sprightly last movement of the D-minor sonata (BWV 527).
When considered in light of Bach’s vaunted (and sometimes vilified) taste for harmonic and contrapuntal complexity, the six sonatas are not especially rich in chromaticism or shocking intervallic relations. There are unforgettable exceptions: among the most arresting is the stabbing angularity of the second fugal theme in the third movement of the C minor Sonata (BWV 526/3); and the half-steps descending amidst arabesques at the close of the middle movement of the final sonata (BWV 530/2). The generally diatonic harmonic approach (even if inflected with many unexpected Bachian turns and twists) and the cantabile profile of the themes led C. P. E. Bach to cherish the collection’s galant refinement.
Any deficiencies in the Bachian diet of chromaticism are made up for with the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548; the prelude establishes the key of the ensuing sonata in E minor (BWV 528), and the fugue offers a sprawling coda after the final movement, a bright fugal frolic, of the last sonata in G Major (BWV 530). The angular chromaticism of the subject of the great ‘Wedge’ fugue is itself singular: thrillingly transgressive, the piece is not a retreat from fashion and favor but a challenge to both. Heard against such sublime experiments, the trio sonatas can hardly be accused of pandering to prevailing fashion but instead show that the task of training organists in the art of four-limbed performance can be, in Bach’s hands and feet, a tremendously imaginative and challenging exercise in gracefulness and poise, both musical and physical.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com