This sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide, the last two weeks of lent leading up to easter. It is characterized in the church by somber, but more ornate music than usually associated with lenten penitence. For that reason, and because I love sharing Bach with anyone who will let me, today I got to play the Aolean Skinner organ at park street church. [tangent: At the beginning of this year, after just a few weeks in Boston, I was told that when you hear those words (aolean+skinner), you’re supposed to go “ooooooh!” because those are awesome organs. It’s the same kind of organ as in symphony hall, harvard memorial church, church of the advent, and many others in this area. They’re like the ferrari’s of organs…or maybe the BMWs. Whatever it is, it sure beats whatever beater organ is in our practice room (the pinto of organs!), and to think that Lowell Mason once accompanied this congregation from the same space makes it feel special.]
I prepared a piece from JS Bach’s orgelbuchlein (little organ book) called “o mensch bewein dein sunde gross.” This piece is a meditation on a German chorale text:
O mankind, mourn your great sins,
for which Christ left His Father’s bosom
and came to earth;
from a virgin pure and tender
He was born here for us,
He wished to become our Intercessor,
He gave life to the dead
and laid aside all sickness
until the time approached
that He would be offered for us,
bearing the heavy burden of our sins
indeed for a long time on the Cross.
Each line here corresponds to a phrase of the melody, and Bach employs dramatic text painting to depict the meaning of each phrase, often using ornamentation and melodic augmentation to stretch out the phrase and place emphasis on important words.
Organist, Theologian, Bach Scholar (and my hero) Albert Schweitzer has this to say about Bach’s organ preludes:
Here Bach has realised the ideal of the chorale prelude. The method is the most simple imaginable and at the same time the most perfect. Nowhere is the Dürer-like character of his musical style so evident as in these small chorale preludes. Simply by the precision and the characteristic quality of each line of the contrapuntal motive he expresses all that has to be said, and so makes clear the relation of the music to the text whose title it bears.
At the time Bach wrote this piece he had already lost four infant children, and would lose his current wife Maria and six more in the future. He surely understood suffering. As you listen to this piece, feel free to meditate on your sin, christ’s suffering, and his work on the Cross. Especially listen for the last few phrases, where Bach writes for the first time the melody without ornamentation. These twisting lines creep up through the painful chromatic scale, culminating in a ritardando over a Cb major (what a key!) dramatically depicting Christ being stretched out on the cross.
To a member of Bach’s congregation, they would have known the text associated with this melody and therefore would be in the proper place to engage with the text. To our ears, however, there is no relation (or if so, it is with the hymn “All creatures of our God and King”), so to better understand Bach’s intension, as I played through the piece, the projectionist advanced the slides to highlight the corresponding line of text. The result was a collage of poetry (the chorale text), visual art (the slide background), and musical offering (Bach’s work).