Komm, Herr Gott, heiliger Geist (from the "Eighteen"), BWV 651
by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 6:00]  [Download the MP3]

J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The greatest of them all
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"Who's your favorite composer?" is as tired a question as "Whomever I'm listening to at the moment" is an answer. If pressed, however, and with apologies to Ludwig, Wolfgang, Pyotr, and all the other greats, I would give the nod to Bach. His supreme blending of beauty, logic, and inventiveness has never been surpassed, and much of my avocational music-making is devoted to listening, learning, and making synthesized realizations of his music.

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In 1829, a critic wrote of Beethoven's Eroica symphony that if the lengthy work were not abridged, it would "soon fall into disuse." Had this visionary lived a century or so earlier, one imagines he may have written the same thing about this immense chorale. As Beethoven expanded the concept of the classical symphony, so Bach demonstrated that the chorale could be used in ways far beyond the typically brief interpretation of a hymn verse, and this work, based on the Pentecost hymn Come, Lord God, Holy Spirit, is one of the most impressive of these demonstrations.

The chorale melody is stated in the bass, and the scope of what is to come is established at the outset: the first note of the hymn is held for six and a half bars over swirling figures based on the F major triad.

From this opening pedal point, the chorale continues for six minutes in a remarkable display of sustained energy. The Pentecostal tongues of flame flow through the upper three voices, both accompanying the hymn tune and in long episodes that divide the hymn phrases, greatly extending the work beyond the more compact treatment in such chorales as BWV 632.

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