come into the daylight’s splendor, there with joy thy praises render
unto him whose grace unbounded hath this wondrous banquet founded;
high o’er all the heavens he reigneth, yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.”
-Schmücke dich, Johann Franck (1618-1677); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
This week, the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, we hear themes in our readings and music that seem quite “Adventian” in nature. Even though we are still in Ordinary Time, one can tell that Advent is near by the images presented in our first reading, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Our Gospel also points toward the end of days, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Of course, leaving the complex exegetical development to our clergy, I have endeavored to choose music that will reflect on the themes of the day and cast them in an expectant, hopeful light.
The organ prelude, Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness, by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) echoes the canticle and the choir anthem in its expression of the soul to partake of God’s goodness. Christians are always called, in the face of destruction and change as expressed in the readings, to bear witness to God’s goodness. This gorgeous chorale-prelude (prelude on a hymn tune) by Bach does just this. Even if not familiar with the hymn, one can allow this piece to calm a busy mind and order the thoughts for worship. It begins with gentle counterpoint in which the melody is absent. These three musical voices continue for ten measures before the melody comes in, colored with a distinctive combination of stops. The melody, though heavily embellished (as was the tradition in Bach’s time), is only part of the aural banquet on display. Try to listen past the melody to follow what the accompanying voices are doing. The steady, angular bass line with more active upper parts give both a driving force and a restrainedly joyful character to the work. If you do know the hymn on which this piece is based, you will realize quickly that, while this prelude only corresponds to one verse of the hymn, it is stretched out until it lasts at least five minutes. This was also a common practice in Bach’s time, and it has its roots in the earliest polyphony (the simultaneous combination of multiple lines of music). Starting with Gregorian Chant themes stretched and combined with faster, elaborate musical lines, this practice was also used by organists setting hymn tunes, and over time, it made its way into the chorale-prelude form. These pieces became the “bread and butter” of Lutheran organists who would play them as hymn introductions or as extended meditations during communion or some other time . One can hear the melody played very slowly and highly embellished. For me, it serves as a reflection deeper than is possible when playing the hymn at regular speed.
While Bach’s chorale-preludes are played often, it is his flashy, virtuosic repertoire for which he is most famous. The postlude shouldn’t disappoint fans of the big, bold Bachian style. I will play thePrelude and Fugue in e minor “The Cathedral,” this Sunday. This work is considered one of Bach’s easier prelude and fugues, but what it may lack in sheer numbers of notes, it makes up for in substance. People like to give pieces nicknames. Just think of Schubert’s “Trout” Quartet, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, or Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Usually these names are given by later generations and reflect on the character or historical circumstances of the piece. Bach’s “Cathedral” prelude is so named because of its musical arches – mirroring a gothic cathedral. Listen as the notes dance up and down the keyboard and are punctuated with heavy chords that resemble stone columns. The fugue is sometimes known by a different nickname, the “Watchman Fugue.” After the prelude is over, listen to the first notes of the fugue (known as the subject because you will hear them again and again in different ways throughout the fugue). These first notes once reminded listeners of the sounds of a watchman’s horn calls, hence the name. Interestingly, this also ties in well with our quasi-Advent overtones this Sunday.
Finally, the choir anthem, sung by a small group drawn from the choir, will be O Taste and See by Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517), one of the most influential composers of polyphonic music of his time. While he wasn’t as highly esteemed as some of his contemporaries, such as Josquin des Prez (1450/55 – 1521), Isaac is important because of the diversity of his pieces and his long lasting influence of other composers, such as Anton Webern (1883-1945). Like our other pieces this week, Isaac’s piece is a study in listening past the surface. Written with four separate voices (SATB), Sunday’s anthem has multiple musical layers moving at different times that all come together to create a harmonious sound. Try to listen to what each voice is doing. While it is very difficult to hear everything that is happening at once, one can at least gain a sense of the beauty and intricacy in this art form. Our readings may paint a picture of destruction and change, but just like the beautiful architecture of music, our faith swirls in multiple levels, and it beckons us to take heart and prepare for God with expectant hope.