Variations on Choral Music

Long has it been the tradition of Baroque composers to write variations or partitas over hymn melodies. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) that the idea was only large in Germany during the era, but I do not know why. Composers such as Buxtehude, Krebs, Böhm, Sweelinck(?) and others all experimented with the idea of ‘theme and variations’ when it comes to sacred hymns.

Of course, as a keyboardist I can understand the necessity of wanting to explore what new technique can be applied to a given subject. Most organists, when applying for a church position, were given a theme and expected to improvise, on the spot, a chorale, some other variations, and a fugue–all in the company of officials and most likely other musicians! Bach may have been the expert, but his predecessors and pupils were excellent in their own right.

This partita by Georg Böhm is over the melody ‘Ach wie nichtig, ach wie Flüchtig.’ We begin with a chorale and slowly he weaves more creative variations, while the melody may be peppered with ornaments here and there. Another partita exists, over the melody Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten.’ I find score videos helpful, and I hope you do too!

Bach studied briefly with Böhm and admired him greatly as a composer. Buxtehude, too, was an instructor of Bach, who admired the former’s music to such an extent that he took four months off from work to walk 200 miles to hear him! Take this lovely example, over the melody ‘Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ.’ While it isn’t a full partita–merely a variation–the idea is much the same: present an over-arching mood or emotion over one given, solid idea. Such is the manner of Baroque writing–rather than emotions being bounced back and forth and ever-changing, as is the case with Romantic music, it’s one mood or idea per movement.

Going back to Böhm for a moment–this movement over the melody ‘Vater, unser im Himmelreich’ I find to be elegant but also solemn. The melody may not so easily be found by your ears, but the composer did their job–it is decorated throughout; not just the melody, but the accompanying voices around it. The artistry behind Baroque music is not presented in the extroverted nature which is often the stereotype of classical musicians (closed eyes, swaying back and forth, or Glenn Gould-like humming–to literally be lost in the music) but rather in articulation and precise playing. This may sound like Baroque music is robotic or without feeling–but that idea is further from the truth!

While it was more common and practical for keyboardists to show off with a hymn melody and variations, the concept of writing was not strictly confined to keyed instruments. Composers of cantatas such as Telemann, Graupner, Bach (well, which one, you ask? All of them!) were expected to test their mastery of counterpoint. If you thought writing an organ chorale was difficult, imagine the task of Sebastian each week to develop a new cantata! Enjoy this gem of an opening chorus, ‘Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV 177. The soprano has the melody, as is often the case, but all the decorations presented by the other parts of the choir and ensemble give much for the ear (and mind) to contemplate.

Genius appears to have run in the family; take this example by his cousin Johann Ernst Bach: ‘Mein Odem ist schwach’. This work has often been attributed to the more-famous Sebastian–it’s unfair that, after death, he has cast such a large shadow over his entire family–children, cousins, and other relatives. Listen in the opening movement how the choir has the melody Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf. The melody appears in the opening aria, in the middle as a chorale, and in the penultimate movement. A motet on the music exists as well, a capella, under the title Unser Wandel ist im Himmel.

My own Variations

As stated previously, I’m no great composer and I still have much to learn. My first little experiments with this kind of writing didn’t yield many results, but perhaps you may enjoy this theme and variation over ‘Jesu, dir du Meine Seele’, where the melody is presented in the soprano voice. Could this be played on an organ? Perhaps.

These are two small chorales, treated in different manners, over the melody Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten. And perhaps more expansive is the set of variations over ‘Aus Tiefer Not, Schrei Ich zu Dir’ which contains all kinds of techniques. I’m not saying it’s pure mastery–none of my work is akin to a pure master–but at the time I was pleased with my efforts. More solemn is this short idea over the melody Komm, süßer Tod which was used by Bach in a collection of hymns with figured bass. The piece was famously interpreted by Virgil Fox on the great Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia.

More recently I too have adapted the melody Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ for organ solo–and no, I hadn’t studied Bach’s prelude on the same theme while I was writing this, but a performance of the work may or may not be available on my channel within the near future…

Last but not least, two more pieces: Enjoy this theme and variations on a theme from Norway! This was a fun little project to work on. In addition, there is this fanfare for a patriotic melody I’m sure you’ll recognize. Recently I have taken to writing short ideas based on German hymn melodies (Liebster Jesu, Ein Feste Burg, etc.) and videos of these compositions will be available for you pleasure in due time.

I hope that you enjoyed this post very much! With your kind support, I will be glad to present more writing each day.

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