top of page

Organ Recital with David Schrader

Organ Recital with David Schrader

Apr 8 at 12:00

Program Notes

Though his name will be little-known to audiences today, there was no more famous composer of organ music in mid-17th century Germany than Heinrich Scheidemann (ca. 1595-1663). His influence bears on other musicians who followed him in the North German tradition, principally Dietrich Buxtehude and Georg Böhm (heard later on this program) - and via these men, his works reached a young J. S. Bach. Scheidemann was himself a pupil of the famed Sweelinck in Amsterdam, which explains the pre-eminence given to organ music in the younger man's output. Dozens of organ works survive in Scheidemann's hand, including numerous settings of familiar Lutheran chorales. These diverse chorales call upon the latest innovations in German organ construction and performing technique. Benedicam Domino is Scheidemann's transcription for solo organ of a vocal motet by Hieronymus Praetorius. The work projects a vibrant mood, fitting for its liturgical position at the close of mass. Scheidemann's treatment is texturally rich, replete with passages of running notes, and skillfully balances moments of contrapuntal intricacy against a prevailing fanfare.

Georg Böhm (1661-1733) was barely born when Scheidemann died from plague in 1663. Like most composers of the era, Georg learned first from his father, who was himself a church musician and organist in Hohenkirchen. Later studies brought him into contact with numerous members of the Bach dynasty. By the time J. S. Bach was just coming of age, Böhm had become a major figure in North German music. The two almost certainly met in Lüneburg in 1700; Böhm had recently taken a position as chief organist at the city's main cathedral, and Bach was enrolled at the prestigious St. Michael's School. Böhm essentially invented several forms that his young protégé would further refine. His three settings on Vater Unser im Himmelreich, a hymn penned by Martin Luther in 1538, take the anonymous melody as their starting point, each approaching the tune with different styles of accompaniment. In addition, the melody itself is highly elaborated through the full range of turn figures, trills, and mordents. Two settings are classed as chorale preludes, the third as an organ partita (or suite). From Buxtehude to Mendelssohn, Böhm was one of many composers attracted by the melody's potential for elaboration.

Bach's importance in organ music tends to throw outsized weight toward the German tradition. Yet it must be recalled that keyboard music was being created across Europe during the 17th century. From the Netherlands and England to Italy and southern Spain, the need for sacred instrumental music spurred great schools of regional styles. Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654) spent the majority of his life in his native Seville. Precious little, verifiable information has survived about Arauxo's life, and nearly all of his extant works have been preserved in a single publication. This work, titled Libro de tientos y discursos, doubles as a pedagogical tool. It includes passages on music theory, and the entire work proceeds from simple to complex compositional models. At the time, these tientos or “fantasias” were typically grouped by mode or, in a modern sense, key. The style is generally figurative and will be redolent of keyboard toccatas from Frescobaldi to Bach - albeit without any reference to counterpoint. These are sonic studies, demonstrating methods of elaboration and prolongation that must become the bread-and-butter of any practicing church musician.

Arauxo's exact contemporary, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) provides an interesting comparison to the Spaniard. Born in Ferrara, Frescobaldi’s advanced technique and style earned him offers from the most coveted positions around Italy, and he spent the bulk of his career at St. Peter’s in Rome. In his youth, Ferrara was a jewel of European musical culture: home to Luzzascho Luzzaschi, the master madrigal composer who himself taught Frescobaldi; the list of musicians who came to the city during Girolamo's youth includes Monteverdi, Lassus, and Gesualdo. Although he wrote vocal music, Frescobaldi's reputation rests on his brilliant and innovative keyboard works. His Toccata per l'elevazione, published in 1635 in Fiori musicali, retains the probing harmonic dissonances of the madrigal genre. Further, the four-part texture and modest range make this toccata feel like a transcription of some missing vocal original. The pacing is reposed, the chord changes measured - the entire effect calculated to match the solemn consecration of Christ's body and blood.

Arriving at the towering figure Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707), we attain one of the pinnacles of Baroque organ music. Following early posts in his native Denmark, Buxtehude became organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he remained for the last forty years of his life. Even as the economic fortunes of this North German trading center dwindled, Lübeck still enjoyed one of the richest musical lives of any European city. Buxtehude’s stature drew musicians from all over. Indeed, it was to meet and hear Buxtehude that the young J. S. Bach made his famous pilgrimage from Arnstadt - over 450 km on foot, so the story goes. Apart from some sacred vocal music, Buxtehude is best known for his many organ compositions exploring the “fantastic style,” as in the Prelude in G minor, BuxWV 163. Musical evidence suggests this prelude stems from Buxtehude’s mature period. The piece includes numerous passages of extempore fantasia. But this impression of spontaneity cannot mask the incredible care and originality poured into these virtuosic displays. They help frame the entire work and provide contrast to three interior fugues. The latter are among the finest Buxtehude wrote, and the three together survey differing types of fugal subjects, from gracious to athletic.

The final work on this program summarizes the various figures and eras touched upon in preceding compositions. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) had direct connections to both Buxtehude and Böhm, who themselves would have learned from masters steeped in the late Renaissance traditions laid out by Arauxo, Scheidemann, and Frescobaldi. Bach’s mastery of organ technique has often been remarked upon. Still, it bears repeating that the vast majority of his organ works were written when Bach was still a young man - that is, while employed as resident organist in three central German cities between 1703 and 1717: Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar. The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, dates from sometime between 1710 and 1717 and contains features of both old and new music. While the opening movement, with its brilliant solos for manuals and pedals separated, echoes the long tradition of North German keyboard toccatas, the overall fast-slow-fast structure is rare among Bach’s organ works and indicates the influence of the emerging Italian concerto form. The delightful fugue may be classed as a dance fugue (in 6/8 time), but its real charm lies in the pregnant pauses that Bach later fills with counter-material. Between the splashy display of the toccata and the buoyant fugue, the composer places a penitential slow movement based on a familiar “walking” bassline. The Adagio ends with a series of biting dissonant suspensions. Bach seems most intent on exploiting the contrast between these “learned style” melodic gestures and the ensuing playful animation of the fugue theme.

(c) Jason Stell, 2022

bottom of page