Musica Sacra Maastricht 2013

From Secular to Sacred, England to Germany:

A Few Remarks

From a historical perspective, it is understandable that to the Northern mind of the eighteenth century the skill of counterpoint came to have a spiritual dimension. In the greatest flowering of the German enlightenment, contrapuntal forms were used as topoi – long after their use in the compositional mainstream had fallen into abeyance – by such figures as Mozart and Haydn to evoke the various aspects of religion, whether mysterious (The Magic Flute) or glorious (The Creation).What, we must ask, were the Baroque and Renaissance connotations of counterpoint that would have influenced such a worldview? The calculated manipulation of counterpoint to the purpose of characterisation has a basis in the reception history of contrapuntal art with precursors in the medieval view of music as a branch of “sounded” mathematics.

In the specific realm of keyboard music, the use of counterpoint developed concurrent to the rise of vocal polyphony in the liturgy. The organ offered several advantages: compared to a vocal ensemble, it was cheaper to simply pay one organist who could, with ten fingers, play the same number of voices as were sung by four or five singers. While this didn’t lead to a decline in singing by any means, it did mean that the composition of keyboard music could play a significant role in communicating the same elements of rhetoric and speech to the congregant as could texted music. Over time, organists came to be seen as special protectors of polyphonic art and as the generally the best-educated members of ecclesiastical music establishments. Furthermore, the secrets of composition first unlocked in the church then came to be utilised in the secular realm.

While the first examples of counterpoint in English keyboard music are to be found in organ alternatim to plainchant at various points in the liturgy, much of this music can be said to represent an attempt to transfer to an instrument the textures of vocal polyphony. It is in the works of William Byrd and his followers that we find a veritable Golden Age of keyboard counterpoint at its technical height and with attention paid to the specific keyboard idiom. The most impressive part of this repertoire – sets of pavans and galliards, song-variations, and other dance genres – is essentially secular and finds its inspiration in the village square rather than at the church altar. The visit of Philip of Spain to the court of Mary Tudor seems to have been the catalyst for this flowering in English keyboard music. Philip’s personal keyboardist, the legendary blind organist Antonio Cabezon, accompanied his master on his English journey and must have impressed the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal (with a young Byrd as one of the choristers) with his complex improvisations on contemporary tunes. Following Cabezon’s model, two sets of song-variations by Byrd and the younger Orlando Gibbons state the principal theme throughout the different registers of the basic texture – now in the soprano, then in the tenor, and so on. In contrast to these carefully-wrought tapestries of harmonic and melodic games – truly kaleidoscopic in their interplay between different musical elements – a brief anonymous take on the drinking song ”Watkins Ale” reminds us of the unlikely artistic origins of such pieces.

In the same virginalist vein are works by the Netherlander Sweelinck and the Welshman John Bull. Compared to the works of his English contemporaries, Sweelinck’s keyboard variations are somewhat simpler in that they mostly keep the original theme in the upper voice throughout the variations, and the textures are in general much lighter and less finger-tangling than one finds in the works of Byrd. With such a text as “Unter den Linden Grune,” the wittier aspects of the song vein are thus emphasised. Compared with the continuous momentum of the song-variations by his English contemporaries, Sweelinck delineated variations from one another in a much more obvious manner – as we shall see in the works of his followers, this remained the norm up to and after J.S. Bach. John Bull, a mysterious figure who later fled the British Isles to settle in the Spanish Netherlands, cultivated an aesthetic far more mannered, more – can one say “Baroque?” – in its sensibility. In a relatively brief fantasia, written as a tribute to his colleague Sweelinck, Bull discards the relatively measured sense of Byrdian architectonics in favour of a much more flamboyant style. Even a work so obviously based in the stile antico of the previous century, he shows his unique musical personality, much of which still remains to be explored in the recital-hall and on disc.

In the works of the North German students and followers of Sweelinck the transfer of the English style, applied most often in that country to secular song, to the religious song tradition of Lutheranism is effected. To be sure, the ditty “Also gehts, Also stehts” (from the second volume of Scheidt’s monumental Tabulatura Nova) is as earthy as the songs used by Byrd and Gibbons, but it is interesting that Scheidt places his variations in the larger context of chorale preludes and fantasies intended for the church. By the next generation, the secular song-variation as such was a goner. Now, composers such as Zachow and Pachelbel gave full rein to the rich chorale tradition that so dominated North German musical life. Interestingly, while some of the most famous chorales were purpose-composed by Luther himself with original religious texts, many a hymn tune was a contrafactum of an earlier secular melody – e.g., “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” (Madre non far mi monaca) and ”In allen meinen taten” (Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen). Johann Pachelbel’s testament to the art of contrapuntal variation is his Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken (Erfurt, 1683) or “Musical Thoughts on Death,” most likely written for the death of his first wife and child. The collection as it was compiled is now lost but reconstructed based on certain clues given in J.G. Walther’s 1732 Musicalisches Lexicon. The chorale-variations on “Christus ist mein Leben” and “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” (famous as the so-called “Passion chorale”), two of the most introspective and sombre chorales in the entire Lutheran repertoire, represent the art originating in the hands of Cabezon and Byrd at its most dizzying heights. Every kind of technique is used, from accompanying figures of great rhetorical variety to ingenious diminutions to the inclusion of passages of striking chromaticism for colouristic effect. This last characteristic was to have a significant influence on the work of J.S. Bach, who through his brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) – a student of Pachelbel’s – must have had first-hand knowledge of this collection.

With a trio of two-part inventions by the British composer Rob Keeley (b. 1960), we come full circle in counterpoint’s reception history. These tributes to the craft of J.S. Bach, dedicated to the British composer Alexander Goehr, explore the “purity” (the composer’s words) of music written in two voices. As with Bach’s abstract contrapuntal works, polyphony has come to lose its immediately sacred connotations but instead is once again imbued with ideas about the secrets of compositional craft. As Keeley himself as commented (in private correspondence to the performer), the two-part inventions further examine the expression possible in seemingly “limited” means of two voices, “allowing the notes and their relationship to create expectations and resolutions.” Keeley’s pieces in this genre show the effective combination of an ancient art with modern gestures and melodic language.

The programme closes with a set of chorale variations by the name that most readily comes to mind when we speak of counterpoint: Johann Sebastian Bach. Here is a man who learnt from an early age to speak polyphony as a child learns language, a man who used fugue and canon for sacred and secular music alike, a composer who saw counterpoint as the most effective way to grapple with his aesthetic and intellectual struggles. His variations on the chorale tune “O Gott, du Frommer Gott” (BWV 767) hearken back to the song-variations of Scheidt and, more obviously, Pachelbel, with a rhetorical language based as much on then-current Italian operatic elements as much as on Northern European ideas of text-painting. The variations seem to bear some vague relation to the progress of the chorale text throughout its successive verses. Thus, if we assume that the first partita is intended as a sort of introduction (following the statement of the original tune), the chromaticism of the eight partita somewhat evokes the words about death in verse 7, while the ‘Adagio’ interlude in the final partita may have something to do with the idea of the day of Resurrection (“And on that solemn day when thou awakes the dead”) whereas the following ‘Presto’ in which the music returns to a quick tempo may have to do with the part of the verse about “lead[ing] me to join thy chosen people.” This sort of speculation is not altogether silly. Let us not forget, after all, that the Lutheran training that Bach would have received in his early years focused very much on the idea of music as
a sermon without words,” in the words of Luther himself – this has basis in many a Classical author who considered un-texted (or instrumental) music to have the same persuasive powers as music with the benefit of text.

© Mahan Esfahani

London, June 2013.