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Sunday Music Musings November 7, 2020

November 8, 2020

Some of the most joyful music is created in the midst of difficult circumstances. Displaced while his home underwent reconstruction, J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote the most famous of his cantatas, BWV 140; Philipp Nicolai (1556 – 1608), wrote the words to the chorale on which it is based upon the death of a pupil from the plague.

Ancient University town of Tübingen today (well, summer 2018)

Over four hundred years ago, in the historic town of Tübingen, (where my daughter Lucy got married) the pupil, a fifteen-year-old nobleman, succumbed the bubonic plague. His teacher and pastor, Nicolai, who had watched upwards of thirty burials a day, penned the chorale “Wachet auf” in memory of his young student, to conpemplate eternal life. The chorale text, based on the parable of the wise virgins in Matthew 25, is a sacred recrafting of the old Minnesinger song attributed to Hans Sachs (1494-1576). During Bach’s time, “Wachet” was the principal hymn for the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity. This service, for which Bach wrote cantata 140, fell on November 25, 1731. This is where we find ourselves today—not quite Advent, but with this parable as Gospel, and the message to remain awake!

Movement 4 of the cantata, which was made into an organ work (BWV 645) that is today’s prelude, depicts Sion’s joy in greeting the Bridegroom. This is one of six organ chorales that Bach commissioned Johann Georg Schübler to engrave—so they are known as the Schübler chorales. The musical construction is a trio: a unison string melody of three basic motives over which the tenors float the second verse. (The Grace Church Choirs sang this cantata in 2017.)

For some reason I learned this piece in an edition that uses tenor and alto clef, and every year I force myself to play from this score because I think it keeps my brain young! The former string parts are in the right hand in alto clef. For the tenor chorale (tenor clef) I use a trumpet stop (awake!) and the pedal provides the third voice of the trio. With 5 lines on a staff, you can put the notes anywhere you want, and the clef tells—you where. Most of you are familiar with treble or “G” clef, which encircles the G telling you where it is, and in the bass, the F clef with those two dots that tell you where F is. In the alto and tenor clef, the little “bend” in the clef tells you where middle C is. The reason to use these clefs with certain tunes is to keep all of the notes on the staff without having to use ledger lines above or below.

Left to right: G-clef (treble), tenor, alto, bass

In the middle of the service I will do a very short setting by J.G Walther (1684 -1748), J.S. Bach’s cousin and contemporary. I wrote a little more about him a few weeks ago.

Our anthem will be a solo setting of the same chorale in a dance-like rhythm by German Baroque composer Franz Tunder (1614 – 1667), Buxtehude’s predecessor at the prestigious Marienkirche in Lübeck. There he founded the first public concerts in Germany—the “Abendmusik” concerts that were continued by Buxtehude, and for which he wrote many solo vocal works such as this.

For the postlude I play another setting of “Wachet Auf’ by 20th century Lutheran master composer, Paul Otto Manz (1919 –2009). Wikipedia says his most famous choral work is the Advent motet “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” and it certainly a favorite or our choir! After degrees from Concordia University Chicago and Northwestern, Manz received a Fulbright grant and studied with Flor Peeters in Belgium and Helmut Walcha in Germany. Manz concertized extensively and received awards too numerous to list from “Ten Most Influential Lutherans,” to “101 Most Notable Organists of the 20th Century.” He is well-known for his hymn festivals and organ settings of chorale tunes, such as our postlude which alternates a fanfare trumpet call with a majestic harmonization of the tune.

The hymn festivals alternated organ verses and choir verses. Here is a hymn festival in honor of the late composer’s 100th birthday, if you’d like some excellent Sunday listening!

So I plan to have you leave our service whether virtual or live, with this great tune stuck in you head!

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