Celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach on his 371st Birthday | St. Lawrence University Chaplain's Office

Celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach on his 371st Birthday

The Organ Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Prelude and Fugue in C Major (Great), BWV 547

Three Neumeister Chorales and Three Chorale Preludes

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV 1095

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, BWV 638

Wir glauben all an einen Gott, BWV 1098

Wit glauben all an einen Gott, BWV 680

Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 1105

Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 615

Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572

Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach grew up in a family of generations of musicians. His great grandfather was a piper; his grandfather was a court musician; his father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter and kettledrum player. His five brothers who were all named Johann - three of whom reached adulthood – became musicians and surrounded him with music. At the age of ten when JS Bach’s parents died, he went to live with his brother Johann Christoph who provided him with musical training and arranged for him to audition with his lovely singing voice for the school in Lüneburg. Shortly after his admittance, his voice changed so the young Bach focused on studying organ and violin.

By 1703 at the age of eighteen JS Bach began his first position as violinist and organist for Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. Two years later he auditioned and received the position of organist for the New Church in Arnstadt. Almost immediately, he requested a leave to go to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach only requested a few weeks leave but soon found that he needed more time to absorb the exciting new teachings he received from Buxtehude. Learning how to use the pedal keys in new ways, improvising on basic melodies to bring out the beauty of the melody and hearing different styles of music gave the young Bach a wealth of new ideas to explore in his composing and performing. After four months he returned to Arnstadt. Remembering that J S Bach walked the 280 miles to Lübeck and then the 280 miles to return to Arnstadt, he had plenty of time to begin to process the teachings that he gained from the northern German master Buxtehude.

By 1707 Bach left Arnstadt for Mülhausen. Soon he and the pastor disagreed on the style of music that JS Bach was composing. Bach was exploring the use of several melodies at the same time to create new tensions in the music. The pastor thought that music for his church needed to be very simple to lead the congregation – just a melody with a bit of accompaniment. The tensions led Bach to take a position as a chamber musician (organist) in 1708 in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. In Weimar JS Bach wrote some of his most notable compositions for organ and chamber ensembles, e.g., the beautiful cantatas that are still sung throughout the world.

In1713 Bach resigned his position in Weimar to join a rival court in Köthen. The Duke of Saxe-Weimar was furious and imprisoned Bach for several weeks. Bach spent the time writing preludes. In Köthen Bach continued writing for solo instruments and orchestral ensembles.

By 1723 JS Bach began working in Leipzig as the Cantor at the Thomaskirche where his primary responsibilities were conducting, composing and teaching in the schools of the town. Some of his most important compositions were written during this time. He was required to provide new music for each Sunday and to continue teaching the congregation about the new hymns that Martin Luther had written. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life building upon all that he had learned throughout his life. In Leipzig he found the time to write some of his most stunning organ compositions.

As I reflect on Bach and the students of St. Lawrence University, I am aware of how many similarities there are in the search for knowledge and understanding. As I have the opportunity to talk with students who are about to go to an internship or a study abroad experience or to take a class in a field totally outside of their comfort zone, I am always encouraged by the search for growth experiences. We are all very fortunate to be able to continue learning throughout our lives. Some of my most favorite moments on campus are when returning students share their adventures. The passion and deep felt emotions from the experience continue the life-long journey of learning.

One of the bits of trivia that people often quote is that JS Bach and his two wives had twenty children. He had seven children with his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, and thirteen children with his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach. His children were required to practice every day on a keyboard and to master sight singing. Of the twenty children only ten survived to adulthood – six sons and four daughters. Four of the sons went on to become notable composers in their own right. I believe that the daughters received the same musical training at home because we know that Bach’s second wife was a well-known soprano. Her training was very advanced for the day. She would have wanted her daughters to have the opportunity to make music.

The Prelude and Fugue in C Major (known as The Great), BWV 547, was written about 1744. The prelude is written in 9/8 meter and the fugue in common meter. Each movement is lyrical. During the fugue there are 50 appearances of the fugue subject.

The Neumeister Chorales found in the Yale University Library in the late twentieth century are believed to be very early compositions of the young Johann Sebastian Bach. The compositions are less developed than the more complex chorale preludes that are included in the Orgelbüchlein written to help ‘beginning’ organists develop technique and to explore the possibilities of expanding the melodic content of each chorale. The settings in the ‘Great Eighteen Chorales’ and the ‘Clavier-Űbung III are exquisite interpretations of the original chorale melodies. Many of us ‘older’ organists use the chorale prelude settings in our liturgical and recital work and as a way to check our technique.

You will note in the program that the BWV (Bach-Werle-Verzeichnis, meaning catalogue of Bach’s works) numbers are listed after each composition. The Neumeister Chorales were found many years after the works of Bach had been assigned BWV numbers. The younger works of Bach will be heard first, then, the more mature settings of the chorale preludes.

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig                                                 O Lamb of God, innocent

Wir Glauben all an einen Gott                                               We all believe in one God

Jesu, Meine Freude                                                               Jesus, my Friend

‘Fantasia in G Major,’ BWV 572, first appeared in the 1710’s while Bach was still living and working in Weimar. Just before the move to Leipzig In the 1720’s, Bach revised the work while he was still living in Köthen.

The next concert on the Organ Concert Series 2020-2021 will be Music for Good Friday with The Rev. Dr. Shaun Whitehead, University Chaplain, and Sondra Goldsmith Proctor, organ.