Stepping out in Style – Bach at Noon, January 14th

Greg Funfgeld has programed our first Bach at Noon of the New Year to be both flashy and devout, with compelling and cheering repertoire, as well as a subdued moment of contemplative praise.

We will begin with Tom Goeman’s performance of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540. My first encounter of this piece was when one of my fellow college students wiped the floor with my roommate and me in a freshman organ competition.  So assured, technically perfect, and musically impressive was his performance at the preliminary hearing, that my roommate and I begged the department chair to just award the prize to our colleague, and allow us time to recover what was left of our egos.  Instead, with his characteristic wit, he replied, “This will be an experience you’ll never forget!”  Indeed.  BWV 540 is a virtuosic romp, beginning with a canon over a low-F pedal point.  When the hands have seemingly exhausted the contrapuntal possibilities of a two-part canon, the feet take over in an extended pedal solo that imitates the material introduced by the hands.  At the conclusion of the first pedal solo, the hands return, this time inverting the order of introduction – the left hand begins, the right hand imitates.  At their conclusion, again, the feet take over for an extended solo, followed by a dialogue between both hands and feet in a swift three.  The canons and solos and the dialogue all move in a perpetuum mobile, or in perpetual motion, making this movement quite challenging for the player, while simultaneously thrilling for the listener.  After the Toccata, we’ll hear a double fugue, which includes two subjects which are developed independently, and then unified together.  The Italianate ebullience of the Toccata is contrasted by the intellectual rigor and grandeur of the Fugue.   It will be a treat to hear Tom put the Möller organ at Central Moravian through its paces on this challenging music.

Scholars believe that the short motet, Ave Verum Corpus, KV. 618, was a kind of musical barter between Mozart and his friend, Anton Stoll, as a thanks for Stoll’s assistance with travel arrangements.  Written for the feast of Corpus Christi, this brief musical offering, scored for strings, organ, and choir, sets a 14th century eucharistic hymn, which would be entirely fitting for the feast day.  The music is deceptively simple – a first glance at the notes on the page might cause one to wonder what the big deal is (and this piece is an exceptionally big deal), and then you realized that every note, every inflection, the placement of every syllable of text, and the utter and complete harmony between text and music richly earn this work’s secure place in the canon of sacred vocal music.  I find it hard to determine if the voice of the piece springs forth from a bowed head, or if Mozart’s sole instruction to the performers of “sotto voce” represents a complete sense of wonder and awe at the Catholic faith in the true presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist (or if Mozart was just really on his game when he wrote out the 46 bars of music).  In any case, after the flash and zest of the Bach organ work, this music casts its magic in an extremely inward, breathtakingly beautiful way.  

After we catch our breath, we’ll continue with the first two movements of Mozart’s Krönungsmesse, or Coronation Mass, KV 317.  This work is a bit older than the Ave Verum Corpus, and was likely premiered in April of 1779, after Mozart had been appointed court organist to the Archbishop of Salzburg (have a look at Salzburg’s Cathedral here).  It likely gained the nickname “Coronation” later, in the 19th century, when it was thought to be in favor of the imperial court.  One imagines the effect of the giant C-Major chord that begins the piece in such a vast and reverberant space (Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s colossal Missa Salisburgensis, also written for the Cathedral, begins similarly).  Because KV 317 is a Missa Brevis, or short mass, the movements are quite brief.  The Kyrie begins with maestoso declarations by full choir and orchestra, followed by a dialogue between soprano and tenor soloists, in which the Christe eleison or “Christ have mercy” is stated only once, followed by a recapitulation of material from beginning of the movement.  The Gloria that follows is similarly brief, is mostly homophonic with just a few wisps of imitation and canon, and possesses the full compliment of Mozartean cheer and elegance as the music alternates between a quartet of solo singers and the choir.

If you believe, as I do, that music can transport one’s imagination to faraway places, the destinations to which this program will take us are all easily worth the trip:  to Saxony to hear one of  the budding virtuoso’s wonderful organ showpieces, perhaps in Weißenfels; to the spa town of Baden during the summer of 1791 to hear a communion motet on the feast of Corpus Christi; and then to Salzburg Cathedral in 1779, for the scents of lilies and incense and the impeccably elegant music of Mozart at a high mass for Easter.  Writing this while in the mist of the polar vortex, I have to say, my intellectual and musical bags are packed!  Come early to Central Moravian to get a great seat, and begin the New Year in style with the Bach Choir.


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