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Sunday Music Musings March 20, 2021 -Happy Birthday Bach!

March 21, 2021

Sunday March 21 is Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday.  He was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 into a family of musicians. In fact, the name “Bach” came to be synonymous with “musician.” Organists get pretty excited when this falls on a Sunday, because, as Classic FM succinctly puts it “Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was music’s most sublime creative genius. Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist of the Baroque Era.” Here is their “Fast and Furious Guide to Bach”

This is a bit silly but fun, and ignore the piano references

The life story of Bach is well beyond the scope of a weekly blog, but several aspects of Bach that church musicians relate to are his deep Biblical faith, the hard time he sometimes had with various authority figures, and wrangling recalcitrant boys in his choirs to sing incredibly difficult music. He famously signed his works “Soli Deo Gloria”-“To God alone be the glory.” My predecessor Helen E.J. Thomas often did the same in homage.

I have been saving this favorite prelude for the late solemn weeks of Lent. “O Mensch bewein dein Sunde groß” (BWV 622) (O Man Bewail Thy Grevious Sin) to me is one of the most profound pieces in the Orgelbüchlein. It is based on a 23 verse Passion hymn composed by Sebald Heyden in 1530 about the stations of the cross. The tune is set out in the right hand, ornamented, meditative, full of yearning suspensions and moments of sublime surprise.

Bach used this chorale in his St. Matthew Passion as the conclusion to Part I. In 2019 I got to realize a dream when I conducted this piece with Harmonium Choral Society and the New Jersey Youth Chorus Sola Voce as the children’s choir voices that join in singing this tune. You can find it at in this video at 1:07:20.

The offertory is Bist du bei mir, which I often do with the choristers, and a particularly good fit for my cantor who speaks German. It is from the Anna Magdalena Bach book, an anthology of keyboard works and songs the composer presented to his second wife. You can learn more about it here.

Be thou with me

Be thou with me and I’ll go gladly

To death and on to my repose.

Ah, how my end would bring contentment,

If, pressing with thy hands so lovely,

Thou wouldst my faithful eyes then close.

English Translation © Z. Philip Ambrose

Translations by Z. Philip Ambrose are published in J.S. Bach: The Extant Texts of the Vocal Works in English Translations with Commentary Volume 1: BWV 1-200; Volume 2: BWV 201- (Philadelphia: XLibris, 2005) and online at

The postlude by Bach is also from the Lenten section of the Orgelbüchlein. It is a setting of O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (O Lamb of God Most Holy.) Some older choristers and my adult choir members probably recognize the tune from the Eccard setting we sometimes sing, with the children on the chorale tune and me forcing the reluctant adult sopranos to all sing SII. The Bach setting uses descending patterns of duples which in the Baroque affections help express emotions of yearning. The tune is clearly in the pedal, and then follows a canon in a rather hidden middle voice (in blue highlight in the picture.)

O Lamm Gottes unschuldig BWV 618, with canon between pedal and middle voice (blue)

So happy birthday Bach!

In the non-Bach part of Sunday, we’ve been doing a different Kyrie every week, and this week we do S-97 by Richard Felciano (b. 1930). Felciano is a very famous composer, known especially for his work with electronic music.  Here is the Wikipedia short version: “Felciano was born in Santa Rosa, California and studied at San Francisco State College where he received his BA in 1952. In the same year he also obtained an MA from Mills College, where he studied composition with Darius Milhaud and went on to study privately in Florence for a year (1958–59) with Luigi Dallapiccola. He also earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in 1959. He taught the University of California, Berkeley before becoming composer-in-residence for the city of Boston from 1971–73.” This little Kyrie is short, sparse and piquant. I wonder how many churches use it?

Our hymn of the day is the well-loved Isaac Watts (1674-1748) text When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, set to the tune Rockingham. There are 17 Watts texts in the hymnal 1982, of the 800 some he wrote in his lifetime as an English preacher and writer. Rockingham is by Edward Miller (1735-1807) a flutist in Handel’s orchestra, who harmonized this melody found in a collection of Psalms from 1780.

Usually during Lent I give Friday lunchtime organ recitals, and every year we do one in honor of my predecessor, Mrs. Thomas. This Friday, March 26 at 1 pm I will livestream a recital. It is actually the 15th anniversary of her death, and I hope to blog some history of her time at Grace church by mid-week. I will also put up the program which highlights my pandemic project of bringing more representation of the under-represented to my organ repertoire. Join us for works by June Nixon, Godwin Sadoh, Janet Linker, Calvin Taylor, Emma Lou Diemer, Noel DeCosta, Barbara Harbach, Florence Price and Adolphus Hailstork. Join us on the Grace Church YouTube Channel and the recital can be viewed any time after.

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