Thursday 9 March
St David’s Episcopal Church
Bach: Fantasy & Fugue in c BWV 537
Near: Three Lenten hymn preludes
Scheidt: Christe, qui lux es et dies SWV 133
Bach begins the program striking a somber mood with the Fantasy’s spacious 6/4 meter and deliberate tempo, and its motifs of ‘striving’ (rising minor 6ths) and ‘sighing’ (pairs of notes descending stepwise) – all rather like the Récit de Tierce en Taille standing for the ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris’ of the Gloria in Grigny’s Organ Mass, but also reminiscent in mood of the opening movements of Bach’s two Passions. A half-cadence leads into the fugue, in which the rising half-steps heard throughout the middle contribute a certain relentlessness driving inevitably to the end, which is reached via a repeat essentially da capo (a technique to which Bach would return in more than one later organ fugue).
Gerald Near is one of the best contemporary composers working more or less in the Anglo-American choir-and-organ tradition. Much of his work, like the present three pieces, is based on or at least draws heavily upon the chant, skilfully combining its diatonicity with atmospheric modern-French-influenced chromaticism. (Near is not afraid, however, to pay homage in one of these works to Brahms’s famous hymn-prelude ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’ with its double echoes at the end of each phrase.)
‘Christe qui lux es et dies’, the Lenten Compline hymn in some rites, merited two treatments in Samuel Scheidt’s monumental Tabulatura nova of 1624. In Volume III it is among the hymns, Kyries, and Magnificats given a set of versets for strict alternatim use with sung verses of the chant, but in Volume II it is treated as a set of nine variations, the first six of which are continuous in the manner of Sweelinck (with whom Scheidt studied), Cabezón, and others. The cantus firmus appears in the Soprano (vv.1–3), the Tenor (v.4), the Alto (v.5), and the Soprano again (v.6), before being treated in bicinium style (v.7), returning to the Tenor (v.8), and finally appearing in the Bass (v.9). Scheidt’s music is often felt to be generally workmanlike and occasionally exciting, and is interpreted accordingly; I hope to show that it can also be rather lovely.