Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der von uns den Zorn Gottes wandt
(from the Clavierübung III), BWV 688

by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 3:39]  [Download the MP3]

J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The greatest of them all
bach_l.jpg

"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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Consider the opening stanzas of this chorale:

Jesus Christ our Savior, who spared us from God's wrath,

For us suffered pain beyond compare to save us from the depths of hell.

"Take, eat my flesh," He said, that we might never forget,

"Hidden in this bread, and drink my blood, this wine."

 

And now consider Bach's odd treatment of the weighty subject matter of Communion in this delightful piece. Set in three voices, the manuals carry out a fugal dialogue while the chorale melody appears in the bass. This arrangement of voices is not unusual, but the motivic and rhythmic treatment certainly is. The work begins with a stepwise fugue subject:

This bouncy idea is prominent and unmistakeable wherever it appears, and Bach takes some most unusual liberties with it. Over the first phrase of the hymn in the pedal, he introduces a stretto that slips off the beat (at 0:34; this recurs at the end of the piece as well).

Later, and in particular after the third phrase of the hymn, the accompaniment drifts into figurations that create a deceptive sense of syncopation (2:38):

And throughout, the subject wanders through unexpected harmonic shifts, such as this passage at 2:51:

So what is Bach up to with this curious chorale? The hymn text concerns Christ's final instructions to the disciples ("do this in remembrance of me"), as well as the essential and unique observance of the Christian worship service -- Holy Communion. Let us suppose that the fugal writing symbolizes following the commandments of Maundy Thursday, and that this is further underscored by the "walking" nature of the subject. In that case, if we find the giant Bach in works like the Passacaglia and Fugue and the Pietist Bach in some of the somber chorales of the Orgelbüchlein, then we surely find the humorist Bach in this work.

I believe Bach is chiding us here, albeit with a smile on his face. How easily our steps slip away from the direction set for us at the Last Supper, and having so slipped, it can be a circuitous route back to the tonic. But beneath this amusing, flighty material, with its meanderings and syncopations, remains Truth, striding along in steady, solid dotted half notes. Many performers register the pedal line of this piece with chatty reeds, in the character of the manuals. I prefer to give the bass a very heavy presence, to emphasize the point of this work: the bald juxatposition of humorous and bubbly manual lines with a hymn of the most serious import. And, as we live out our mortal lives, do we get this point? If the material of the closing eight bars is any indication, Bach is not at all sure that we do! But in his gentle way, he gives not a gruff sermon but a poke in the ribs. Those steps are surely errant, but they do keep going, after all, winding up on a rather breathless cadence that resolves to the sunshine of a Picardy third, as if to say on the last day: Whew! We made it!

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