Sunday, December 21, 2014

Savior of the Nations, Come (The 12 Musings of Christmas #9)

For the first eight days of "The 12 Musings of Christmas" I've focused on lighthearted holiday fare. On this 4th Sunday of Advent, which also happens to be the darkest day of the year, here's a more somber musical offering. (Yes, I know that running this series before Christmas should make it all Advent and that the real twelve days of Christmas start on the 25th. We'll put such complaints in the "so sue me" category.)

Many years ago, I had the idea of creating a complete set of piano transcriptions of the 46 short chorale preludes in Bach's Orgelbüchlein. (Busoni made characteristically rich transcriptions of a small selection, but at the time I wasn't aware of any complete piano sets. Now I am.) I only made it through about ten before putting the project on hold, but I might return to it some day. My idea had always been that this kind of repertoire is a great way for pianists to work on voicing and balancing dense counterpoint - and to get to know a type of Bachian keyboard writing different from what one finds in the suites and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

One of my favorites of Bach's collection is the first piece, Nun, komm', der Heiden Heiland, based on a chorale which the composer also featured elsewhere in a much more elaborate prelude and in a couple of cantatas. But I love the simplicity of this relatively straightforward setting, in which the tune is presented once, slowly, above a rich web of interlocking countersubjects. It's almost as if one hears Bach slowly harmonizing the tune one part at a time, so there's always something in motion and out of synch. I think of such music as tilted. (Here's my favorite tilted piece.)

I do play it more slowly (on organ and piano) than most, I suppose because I like hearing the gears turning. I have much more I could say about the arrangement, Bach on the piano, the fact that my piano needs tuning, the use of Lilypond as an engraving tool, and the way in which Bach's music beautifully captures the mystery of anticipation at this darkest time of year. But, it's almost midnight, so I'm going to let the starkness of the music, the arrangement, and the impromptu recording* speak for themselves:

And, if you're curious, here's what Bach's original version sounded like on the organ when I was practicing for Advent 2 a couple of weeks ago.

UPDATE: You can hear the chorale tune sung, followed by a real organist's performance of the Bach prelude here.

* made just minutes ago at the end of a very long day on this shortest day of the year.

The 12 Musings of Christmas (so far...)
  1. Christmas Time is Here
  2. In Season
  3. Vertical Christmas Medley
  4. Trippin' with Chestnuts
  5. Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine
  6. Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries
  7. Sleigh Ride in 7/8
  8. A Christmas Carol
  9. Savior of the Nations, Come

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