Here is an example that serves a lesson on musical analysis:
Relating analysis to interpretation in Bach’s Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650
In a time that musical entrepreneurship increasingly resembles 18th instead of 20th century models, it seems appropriate to see curricula of conservatories, which are rooted in the 19th century, in a new light. These curricula divide musical craftsmanship into parts, in particular: interpretation (the main subject), solfège, harmony, counterpoint, analysis, music history and pedagogy. These subjects are then being taught in separate lessons. We do our best to connect them as much as possible, but we are still far from the 17th and 18th century tradition of presenting craftsmanship as a whole, possibly even including improvisation and composition. I think that Leopold Mozart passed on the whole (or almost the whole) package to Wolfgang and Nannerl personally (hardly allowing Nannerl to compose, as that was considered a manly activity).
In the following I intend to create a strong coherence between the interpretation and analysis of Bach’s choral prelude Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650, as an example for students at Codarts, University for the Arts in Rotterdam, where I am a professor of theory and improvisation. At the same time, related to a lectorate at Codarts, it serves as an example of blended learning, i.e. education programs that combine traditional methods with digital media. The term “digital media” in my example refers to the use of Internet in the first place, but also to playing on an organ console with the digitalised sound of real organs (“Hauptwerk”), in this case the famous Silbermann-organ in Arlesheim, Switzerland (1761). However, before introducing this instrument to students I shall refer to another video, with the performance of Bach’s fugue in g-minor BWV 578, played on the real organ (mainly built by Freytag and Lohman) in Noordwolde, one of the many historical instruments with superb sound quality in the north of the Netherlands.The reason for this is to confront students from the very start with the depth of tradition and in particular what I call “the human factor”, as opposed to modern technology that they have been raised with (not forgetting that from its origin till the 19th century organs where also considered as “high tech”). The video of the Freytag/Lohman-organ is very explicit about the human factor, as it shows the blowing of the bellows by human force. Compared to the electric motor, this results in a slightly irregular and therefore more lively sound. In music, slight irregularities within a regular pattern are often aesthetically appreciated, for instance in the tuning of an ensemble: if the tuning would be 100% correct, the overall sound of the ensemble would be less interesting. The human factor combined with the notion of (possibly carefully planned) irregularity leads to what I call “soulfulness”, a term that often use in my writings and lessons.
After this introductory step I shall apply the notion of slight irregularities within a regular pattern to stretching the tempo in Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter, played on the Haupwerk-instrument. Regarding traditional instrument builders, our much respected partners in the art of music, it will be important to mention that digital instruments which copy the original can never replace real instruments, although they can very well be used for other, (for instance educational) purposes. This is to avoid misunderstandings like youngsters not knowing that a cow is at the basis of the cheese they have on their hamburgers. In the below recording of the the piece, I demonstrate a process of practising and trying out degrees of rallentando, accelerando and tenuto, instead of playing the piece regularly from beginning till end.
Using the time indication of the video and besides tempo occasionally referring to articulation, the following will be discussed during analysis lessons:
The manual part before the first entry of the cantus firmus in the pedal has three parts:
0’00’’ - 0’13’ First part, ending with half cadence where I hold back the tempo a little.
0’14” - 0’29” Second part. Clear articulation of the interval of the octave in the upper voice to prepare for the first secondary dominant (to II) of the piece. Smooth continuation according to the harmonic falling fifth pattern E7-a-D7-G/G7-C. Activating the tempo with the relaxed subdominant as a starting-point, as a bridge to the third and final part.
0’30” - 0’41” Straight-forward tempo without hesitation to move smoothly into the first perfect cadence of the piece (tonic G).
0’38” A special moment that the listener is likely to remember: diminished 7th chord on the raised fourth degree leading to the dominant. Sweet-painful expression due to voice-leading c-sharp/c-natural and b-flat/b-natural. Augmentation of interval c-sharp/b-flat to c-natural/b-natural (painful major seventh within a dominate chord). First perfect cadence of the piece (tonic G). I hold back the tempo a little to raise the expression.
0’42” - 1’00’’ First phrase of cantus firmus. Confirmation of the tonic due to a second perfect cadence. Playing the trills in the pedal with the big toes of the feet parallels refined manual techniques for ornamentation.
1’01” - 1’15” Episode beginning with falling-fifths pattern to the relaxed subdominant C-chord. Typical functionality of subdominant as “go-between” between the poles of tonic and dominant. Ending with the same recognisable cadence; second confirmation of tonic (third perfect cadence).
1’15” - 1’33” Second phrase cantus firmus, very similar to the first. However, at a decisive moment Bach helps you not to linger at another confirmation of the tonic: he lessens the strength of the perfect cadence by using 16th notes now instead of a dotted quarter note with rests. So don’t loose the speed there.
1’34’ - 2’24” Longest episode, essential for the structure. Every (larger) piece by Bach has it’s “break-through” or “catharsis” moment, with striking harmonic events. In this chorale prelude the starting-point for the breakthrough is the diminished seventh chord at 1’46’’. At the basis of how it works here is what I call the “1-2-3 principle “ or “ready-steady-go principle”: one of the fundamentals of rhetoric, which in Bach’s days was seriously studied by composers, including Bach himself. Rhetoric is well defined on Wikipedia as “the art of discourse, wherein a writer or speaker strives to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations”. We have only to add the word “musician” to use this definition for our purpose. The above mentioned perfect cadence with the diminished seventh chord on the raised fourth degree and the highly expressive chromaticism in the voice-leading is a land mark for the listener which he is very likely to remember. Up to this moment it occurred twice (at 0’39”’ and 1’12”). Bach starts it up a third time at 1’33” but now varies it in a decisive way at 2’04’’ that leads to the catharsis, through a modulation to the relative minor e, with a perfect cadence. It is followed by the expressive Neapolitan chord at 2’12” and a new perfect cadence using the same figures as the two times before, fulfilling what the listener was expecting and longing for, but now in the key of e minor, which raises new expectations and longings. The break-through moment, which in Bach’s compositions often occurs at about 2/3 of the total length, is where the human factor is particularly important. If you play mechanically there you miss the point of the piece.
2’25” - 2’43” Third phrase cantus firmus. Starting from e minor it modulates back to the tonic G major. I find the dominant 7th chord on D a moment of pure and intense beauty and stretch it as much as is possible without loosing the pulse, similar to keeping exquisitely tasteful food as long as possible in your mouth before swallowing it. I relate moments like this to a longing for paradise and eternal bliss that in my opinion is essential to fully understand the spiritual meaning of Bach’s music.
2’44’ - 3’09” The next episode is a transposition of the first and third part of the theme at the beginning. At the upper voice jumps to a minor seventh instead of an octave; combined with the dominant 7th chord it has a particularly soothing and even consoling expression. The return of the characteristic cadence with the diminished 7th chord on the raised fourth degree (for the fourth time now) in the dominant D is very sweet and a reason to hold back a little again. The lowest point of the piece is then reached. I hold back a little and articulate clearly before energetically moving upwards at 3’06” and, even more so, at 4’34”.
4’37” - 4’48” Fourth and final phrase of the cantus firmus. The poco accelerando at 4’35” guarantees a fluent start of the last phrase and and a likewise fluent bridge to the da capo.
4’48” - 5’27” Da capo of opening episode.