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When Bach was just too busy

November 5, 2010

Bach and contemporaries like Telemann wrote, copied, rehearsed, taught and performed colossal quantities of music at a rate which still seems almost physically impossible (even putting aside questions of quality…).  But Bach also had a taste for grand long-term projects, and despite his incredible productivity he didn’t always manage to see things through to completion.  The much-loved Orgelbüchlein – Little Organ-Book – is a case in point.  These jewel-like miniatures are all written in a small book.  Bach planned to write 164, wrote the titles out at the head of each page, and then set about writing the pieces themselves.  He completed forty-six of them.

William Whitehead has had the brilliant idea of commissioning composers today to write the missing preludes.  Each piece must be based on the appropriate Lutheran chorale tune, but beyond that essential starting point there are no further rules.

I chose a hymn for Advent.  When I first saw the tune itself, it was a bit of a disappointment – it’s a fairly plain melody which seemed a little short on joie-de-vivre.  I hit on a sprightly, slightly fairground-like riff for the manuals, and also found a way of morphing the rhythm of the chorale tune (which is played in the pedals) so that it follows a different beat from the hands and continually jostles against them.   From here on it was fun to write, and fell into place surprisingly quickly.

Greg Drott gives the first performance in Emmanuel Chapel in November, along with a dozen of Bach’s own preludes.  I’ve heard him play it through and he has the jazzy cross-rhythms to perfection, and gets some delightful sounds from the organ too.  William Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein project continues with more recitals, and more new pieces by a variety of composers.  Definitely worth going along to.

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