"The obscure Bach"

Numerous studies, thesis and diverse research have shown that musical color, tension, emotional power and dramatic context are directly related to the choice of the key by the composer. This applies in particular to Johann Sebastian Bach.

The second CD of the complete organ works, unlike the first, is designed around a dark, more intimate emotional axis. It wants to emphasize a more painful facet of his work, but also to address the relationship between orchestral works (secular and religious) and organ works. The aim is also to visualize the most important types of Bach's writings, especially in diptychs such as the Prelude and Fugue BWV 546, the Fantasy and Fugue BWV 537 and the great Passacaglia BWV 582, all of which are in the gloomy key of C minor. Those diptychs form the framework of this recording.

The concept of "awaiting" and "inwardness" are emphasized by the four chorales "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland" (Now come, Savior of the gentiles), the only hymn that was tackled by Bach for the liturgical time of the so-called Advent have an important place in this program: in fact, they form the bridge between the dark emotions evoked by the three big diptychs on the one hand and the hope raised by the expected coming of Christ's birth during the four weeks of the Advent time (hence also that this hymn was edited four times and in four different ways).

The musical journey that is presented here starts with one of the most bleak writings in order to finally reach that peak of light in the Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582.

Prelude and fugue in C minor, BWV 546 This enormous work with its strong construction dates from the Leipziger period and is directly related to Bach's last creative years between 1730 and 1750. The prelude is one of the most colossal compositions of the composer as a result of his writing in massive chords, their size and complexity. The work can easily be compared to the large choirs of the Passions, in particular those of the St Matthew Passion (which shares the same key of C minor) by evoking a particularly painful energy. The number 24 (that of the Apocalypse) is omnipresent because the work is naturally subdivided into groups of 24 measures. Due to its thematic structure (A and B), it is constructed as a concerto movement where two themes alternate. The fugue, which is simpler and less tormented, was probably written in its Weimar period. There is a hypothesis that it would be a continuation of the unfinished Fantasy in C minor BWV 562, but the balance of the subject of this fugue with the Prelude in C minor is such that there is little doubt about the authenticity of this as a dyptich.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 This chorale is probably one of Bach's most famous works and the first part of the three versions in the Leipzig manuscript. This version shows an ornamentation in the soprano, a kind of arioso with a great expressive power. The accompaniment consists of the theme of the hymn contained in canon between tenor and alto while the bass part, in eighth notes, indicates a continuous marching movement that symbolizes the path traveled towards Christmas. The construction, with its simple introductions to each verse, certainly evokes the style of Buxtehude (who also used this chorale in G minor).

Nun komm, Heiden Heiland, BWV 660 "A due bassi e canto fermo” The second version of this chorale in the Leipziger manuscript is a prelude presented here as a trio that resembles the instrumental trios of the cantatas. The solo, which is less lavishly decorated than the previous one, is accompanied here by two bass lines within the same tessitura that are divided over two reeds (one on the pedal and the other in the left hand).

Nun komm, Heiden Heiland BWV 661 "In organo pleno, Canto fermo in Pedale” The third and final version was entrusted to the plenum of the organ. In the form of a fugue, a dense, rich and complex sound image unfolds that is based on the theme of the chorale, played in the pedal in long notes (cantus firmus).

Fantasy and fugue in C minor, BWV 537 This large meditative, dramatic and intense work, presumably composed in 1716, consists of two parts (fantasy and fugue) that follow each other directly. The intimate Fantasy is performed on soft eight feet stops and lets us experience how, unlike the massive sounding opening of the Prelude that the CD starts with, Bach manages to create depth, despite the sober and pure writing of this fantasy . Bach's perfect mastery of this form and that of imitation technique are discovered here. The Fuga, on the other hand, is powerful and dynamic. It uses a structure A-B-A (da capo form), which is rather rare with Bach (only the large Fugue in E minor has the same pattern).

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599 The hymn of the Advent that is dealt with for the fourth time in this program, opens a particularly important work for Bach here! It concerns the "Orgelbüchlein" (Small Organ Book) that was intended to introduce the organist to the interpretation of the chorale and the technique of playing the organ. Initially planned for 164 hymns, it ultimately contains only 45, classified according to the liturgical calendar. This chorale is therefore the first of the collection and the only one for Advent. The melody of the hymn is played here almost without decoration by the soprano in a detailed interplay with a flexible and balanced counterpoint that is characterized by incessant movements.

Triosonate nr. 2 in C minor, BWV 526 Vivace - As is the case in an Italian "concerto grosso", this first part shows the typical contrast between a "ripieno" (group of soloists) and a "concertino" (orchestra). The movement is orchestrally used by the three voices together. It is played four times and interspersed with more soloistic couplets, and with its two long chromatic ascending lines, the third verse certainly reminds one of the first Brandenburg Concerto.

Largo - Written in the relative key (Eb major), this second movement develops a quiet melody with sixteenth notes in the left hand, while the right hand initially supports the melodic line from the first soloist through long notes (such as in the Concerto for two violins). This is followed by more radical modulations that associate this slow movement with a kind of soft moaning.

Allegro - This passage goes back to an orchestral construction of rondo-type (alternation of choruses and verses). The chorus is fugatically treated with two intros and the second theme is approached as a kind of divertimento with a much livelier rhythm. One can distinguish here five sections where the various motifs appear alternately; only the last section resumes what the first called upon.

Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 As one of the most famous pages from the individual pieces with Italian influence, this fugue was very popular in the eighteenth century. Movable and with a long-held melodic character, this fugue, conceived here as an ensemble of recorders, releases all its charm and sensuality. Only recently was the connection made of this theme with that of “Die Kunst der Fuge” demonstrated.

Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 Just like the Chaconne for solo violin or the Goldberg Variations, the Passacaglia (and not the Passacaglia and fugue, as some say) is one of those monuments in Bach's musical production that cannot be ignored. Based on an ostinato bass line of fifteen notes, (which comes back without interruption) it’s one of the high points of the organ literature. This Passacaille is also unparalleled, either by Bach's other organ works or by other composers of his time. However, numerous unanswered questions remain about this work; the time in which it was composed remains unclear, as does the context in which Bach composed it.

The fact remains that the extraordinary size of this musical cathedral raises questions, in particular concerning the numerological order (as we can also find in the opening choir of the Passion according to Matthew). If we divide the 292 measures into groups of four 4 (number symbolizing the four evangelists), we arrive at the number 73, which in turn is formed by the numbers 7 (perfect indication of the Trinity and the Evangelists) and 3 (for Trinity). which lends a pre-eminently sacred symbolism to a work that is often presented as a profane.

The work also counts 21 variations (again a symbol since 2 + 1 = 3), which will be developed gradually through an increasingly complex script that creates a sense of acceleration and ends in triplets of sixteenth notes in the 20th variation. The fugue of this passacaglia is not an independent fugue here, but the 21st variation and is therefore an integral part of the entire Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582, and ends this colossal composition in a brilliant and grandiose way in the long-awaited clear key of C major (Picardy third).

Jean-Luc Thellin (vertaling Rachael McCall)


The idea behind building a large organ in Northern German-style in the church of Saint Jean in Wissembourg was particularly attractive because it belongs to a liturgical tradition where the singing of the congregation is encouraged. That is why it is designed to connect all the participants of the liturgy and thus bear the prayer of all without overwhelming it.

It has a very particular sound balance. Many shimmering, poetic colours that are flexible and varied enough to enable the instrument to be a part of ensembles, small and large. It is equally able to perform the role of continuo as well as soloist. It is an instrument of dialogue which at its heart celebrates the prayers of the congregation, it's true vocation! So many organ facades prominently feature the inscription "soli Deo gloria" which ultimately sums up the meaning of the instrument.

These type of organs have inspired numerous musicians such as Bach, Buxtehude and many others. Those who saw them were very impressed with their possibilities. It can be said that J.S. Bach, who did not come from this region, nevertheless incorporated the concept of the North German organ into his organ compositions. Another quality of these organs are that they are a very versatile instrument, allowing the organist to play a lot of music that was not originally intended for it.

All stops (except the one with multiple ranks) can be played individually in the northern German organ. Therefore the harmonization of the instrument is unique and should bring out the beauty of each register separately and in combination to glorify the polyphony. It is thanks to these extremely wide possibilities that this organ type is one of the most colorful. We can summarize the sound purpose of the North German organ in one sentence: the organs in Northern Germany mimic the “consorts” both instrumentally and vocally.

That is precisely this organ creates the best conditions for Bach's trio sonatas, just like the inner voices of the ricercari and fugues which the old literature provides us with so many examples. The beauty and variety of the sound colors of the 8’ stops are a guarantee for the quality of this entire organ, as well as its roundness, the softness of the reeds and the ease with which they can be combined. All this makes for the discovery of an extensive repertoire, ranging from the oldest music to, why not, the beginning of romanticism.

This Wissembourg organ is of course not a copy, but an instrument inspired by the North German organ type.

The façade of the northern German organ is very characteristic. The arrangement of the various divisions is often the same with the large pipes in the middle, the one in the middle in the pointed turrets on the sides and the smallest one in pipe fields placed one above the other. The arrangement of the inner organ pipes is the same as that at the front and has the advantage that the pipes are next to each other in large third intervals, which promotes the purity of the chords and thus avoids interference. That is why we decided to build a case that respects that arrangement, but we have consciously translated it in a contemporary manner. We think that this way of working will guarantee a long lifespan, both visually and musically.

With regard to the particular placement of the divisions, we have chosen to preserve the spatiality that is specific to this style of instrument. The organ case is organized into separate sound divisions, that is, the main division “Hauptwerk” in the middle, below and closer to the congregation a positive organ “Rückpositiv” that contains less gravity but is therefore no less powerful than the main organ and then the third division “Oberwerk” placed behind the main division that has a sound palette with different 8’, multiple ranks and very colorful reeds. Finally, on the right-hand side there is the pedal tower, such as the Schnitger organ in Norden.

Given the limited space available, we decided to make only one pedal tower to leave room on the left side of the organ for singers and instrumentalists.

This way of creating instruments in separate divisions is always imposed with the intention that they could imitate each other. These divisions not only imitate the sound of the instruments of that time, but they are also spatially arranged to create the illusion that one hears different consorts.

Arranging the different divisions has been in the past the concern of the north German organ builders and as such has determined the organ case. Not respecting this principle would of course have an effect on the sound of the instrument with regard to the desired style. As for our large organ in the Monaco cathedral, we have decided to translate a form of polychromy in a contemporary way by applying LED lighting. Many north German organs were polychrome. As was the case with our ancestors, it is also the intention of our work to touch people in their hearts to help them in their prayers and, above all, make them happy.

To create the organ in Wissembourg in true loyalty to this specific tradition, we have visited various similar instruments that have served as a source of inspiration. We did not try to make a copy, but to become a part of a family, of a certain style. We believe it is essential in the construction of any project such as this to seek for a confrontation and to renew the way in which we experience the character of this typical manufacturing method. It was necessary to understand a style from the inside to be able to represent it intelligently, in short, to know how to convey it in the church of Wissembourg.

We emphasize the importance of teamwork. This is of course the philosophy of our workplace, but it was also necessary in our relationship with those who carried out the project in Wissembourg. The confidence that we have been able to establish was an indispensable element in the creation and success of this beautiful instrument.

Dominique Thomas (vertaling Rachael McCall)