Making Christmas Complicated

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Variation 4 from the original print of Bach’s Canonic Variations on the Christmas Hymn: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 769).

Bach’s most complex organ work is a set of five Canonic Variations on the well-known Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). He treated this melody many times, perhaps most famously at the close of the first of his Christmas Oratorio’s six cantatas, sung to the words penned by Martin Luther in 1535 (here in Catherine Winkworth’s 1855 rhyming translation):

Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.

That stanza is the thirteenth of fifteen all by the Reformer, who is said to have written the poetry for his own family’s Christmas Eve gift-giving ceremony where his lines were sung to a familiar folksong. A few years later Luther devised a new melody to go with the words.

In June of 1747 Johann Sebastian Bach joined the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences. It is probably no coincidence that he became its fourteenth member: 14 is the sum of BACH in the number alphabet: B=2, A=1, C=3, H=8.

The group was founded by Bach devotee Lorenz Mizler, known now for getting Bach to join his society, for printing Bach’s obituary in his journal, and for defending Bach against the attacks on his music published by Johann Scheibe, a former student of the composer. Among other famous musicians in the society were Telemann and Handel.

In spite of his apparent lack of interest in “dry, mathematical” matters, Bach dedicated himself in his last years to intense research into canonic writing, subjecting musical material both found and invented to often mind-binding, ear-challenging, finger- and foot- stretching permutations and combinations.

Bach published very little music from his vast 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 appeared after Bach’s death.) For his induction into Mizler’s society, Bach submitted the Canonic Variations, whose mixture of erudition and sonic appeal could not even be approached by any of the other members; 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 developed further in my book Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.

From Bach’s time to our own writers on music have often assumed that because canon is rule-bound it is dry and even abstract. The collections of Bach’s music just cited rebut that claim, none more effectively than the Canonic Variations. The work’s five movements consist not of miniature canons, but full-length pieces that treat the 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. These two closely related versions of the Variations offer their own 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 fourth variation (of the autograph version) is marked Cantabile—“singing.” How can one sing abstractly?

The musical reality of the Canonic Variations was never more forcefully and elegantly demonstrated than in a recording by from the celebrated Dutch organist Jacques van Oortmerssen, who suddenty died six years ago and is still ardently missed by his students, friends, and family.

Jacques van Oortermessen (1950-2015).

Luckily for enthusiast of the organ and of Bach, van Oortmerssen recorded the Canonic Variations on the beautiful Christian Müller organ of 1734 in Amsterdam’s Waalse Kerk, where he was organist for some three decades until his death in 2015.  Like Bach’s Canonic Variations, van Oortmerssen’s playing is unfailingly precise but intensely expressive. And like complex counterpoint, the organ as an instrument has often been denigrated as ponderous and unyielding; van 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 for all its control and intellectual rigor, radiates heat for the darkest days of the year.

This great man’s recording of the variations is not available on YouTube, so here is the link to spotify. For those without a subscription to that service, I offer my own live performance of the autograph version in which the first two variations follow in the same order, but places the movement with vigorous pedal roving below diverse canons on the melody itself in the middle of the set; this is followed by the cantabile (movement three in the print); and concludes with the sprawling augmentation canon. The Variations start at 8:23 of the video, followed by Bach’s sublime pastoral— the Toccata in F Major. Also on the program are seasonal Bach works played by Cornell University organist, Annette Richards, a van Oortmerssen student.

What would Christmas be without some complications? Best that they be musical ones.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at