Wednesday, 6 November 2013

J.S. Bach - Vor deinen Thron tret' ich - BWV 668

Here is another of Bach's organ chorale preludes, transcribed for and played on the guitar.

'Vor deinen Thron tret' ich' (Before your throne I now appear) has an interesting story behind it, and although I'm not really in a position to properly explain or analyse the music or its history, I can at least give some notes that help explain what's going on.

BWV 668 is a chorale prelude, meaning that it is a piece of instrumental music which takes as its main thematic material an existing song. In this case the original music that the piece is based upon is a hymn entitled 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein', which was originally written by Paul Eber in the 16th century. The source melody (or cantus firmus) was composed by Louis Bourgeois, also in the 16th century. Bach had previously arranged this hymn as BWV 431, as below:

If you listen there, you'll note that there are four main melodies, each separated by a fermata (pause). It is these four which become the source for BWV 668.

Reasonably early in his career, Bach created an organ chorale prelude from this piece, BWV 641, under the original title 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein' which I have previously transcribed below:

and as played in the original:

What Bach does with BWV 641 is create an accompaniment which is based upon the melodies of the original hymn, but then adds an ornate cantabile melodic line over the top, which I'm sure you'll agree is rather exquisite.

'Vor deinen Thron tret' ich' actually exists in two different versions. BWV668 is included in the 18 Great Chorale Preludes, and actually consists of a fragment (about two thirds) of the entire composition, copied out by someone other than Bach. BWV668a is the same piece, complete, with slight differences, which was included (under the title 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein') in the original publication of Art of Fugue, published after Bach's death in 1751.

There is a story that was perpetuated by Bach's son CPE Bach, that his father dictated the chorale directly from his deathbed. This is now considered to be rather flamboyant myth-making, which gave the piece the nickname 'The Deathbed Chorale'. What is actually now understood to be the case is that BWV668a was a piece that was just lying around (Bach was an inveterate re-worker of old material), which Bach decided to put more work into as he lay dying, meaning that although it was not composed out of nowhere, it was still the very last thing that he worked on, and thus a significant artistic statement.

Musically it's really quite complex. It is built in four sections, all composed from fragments of the original hymn melody, diminished, inverted and contrapuntally developed. These lead into statements of the cantus firmus, clearly taken from BWV 641, albeit with the ornaments and floridity removed, before each time the all but one of the voices drop out for another development section. There's a certain plodding quality to the rhythm, which is pretty uneventful, but the level of harmonic interest is high. This regular and systemic feeling is common to some of Bach's large fugues, and perhaps has a certain mood in common with Beethoven's 'Heiliger Dankgesang', another piece closely linked with illness, which also builds slowly and methodically out of simple contrapuntal blocks.

As for the guitar, it's actually quite interesting how snugly it fits onto the instrument. The piece is in G major, and didn't require transposition to be playable (unlike BWV 641, which needed to be moved to D major). G major on the guitar works reasonably well if the 6th string is tuned to D, which means that a low D (the dominant) can be played open beneath the lowest G on the instrument (which thus occurs at the 5th fret). Very few notes, if any, had to be omitted, although there are problems caused by the occurrence of tones on the organ sustained over multiple bars - on occasion these have been rendered as repeated notes. The sections in four parts are particularly satisfying, although the fact that they are so readily playable on the guitar is perhaps down to the lack of rhythmic variety, rather than any particular skill on my part.

No comments: