Secular or Sacred: Selected Popular Elements in Organ Music Part II

By Korndörfer, Jens | The American Organist, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Secular or Sacred: Selected Popular Elements in Organ Music Part II


Korndörfer, Jens, The American Organist


Part I of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue.

POPULAR ELEMENTS IN ORGAN MUSIC

The Chorale

The chorale took a central place in the church of Luther's Reformation, being elevated to liturgical status. On the one hand, it provided "the congregation, united through the act of singing, [with an opportunity to] participate [in the service] by responding to the spoken word of the pastor, proclaiming the Gospel and expressing the joy of faith and the praise of God."1 On the other hand, the chorale also played a pedagogical role as part of a new popular culture, intended "to give the young [ . . . ] something to wean them away from love-ballads and carnal verses, and to teach them something of value in their place."2 The origins of the chorale were multiple, ranging from translations of Latin Gregorian chants and original compositions to the Contrafaktur ("counterfeiting") of songs with secular origins.

The earliest known settings of chorales for the organ (in tablature) date from the end of the 16th century.3 Michael Praetorius led the Choralbearbeitung to a first climax, before the North German school (Samuel Scheldt, Heinrich Scheidemann) opened new ways to this form, culminating in the art of Dieterich Buxtehude and J.S. Bach. The shorter compositions could be used at various places, either in the liturgy at church or in private devotion at home, whereas "longer chorale-settings [ . . . ] could serve at Communion or other moments of prayer or meditation"4 but also "as models for independent choralepreludes, or as exercises in different genres."5 With the exception of the last possibility (of rather intellectual nature),6 the use of these Choralbearbeitungen was primarily sacred.

In the 19th century, the chorale started to appear in compositions that were not intended for a liturgical (or even a sacred) usage, like the two chorales in Robert Schumann's Album für die fugend or Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott in Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Reformation Symphony. Organ music, too, followed this development.

Three of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's (1809-47) Six Sonatas, Op. 65, for organ from 1844/457 are based on a chorale: "Sonata No. 1 begins with a church-style setting of Was mein Gott will with an introduction, interludes, and conclusion";8 in the B section, Sonata No. 3 (in ABA' form) uses Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir as cantus in long values in the pedal, whereas the other voices develop a double fugue on the manuals; Sonata No. 6 opens with a homophonic setting of Vater unser im Himmelreich, followed by four variations, and the theme of the second movement, a fugue, is derived from the same chorale.9 Single movements of the sonatas could be played during the service (e.g., during Communion or as a postlude), but the length of an entire Sonata extended the limits of a typical sacred setting.

Another example is Franz Liszt's (1811-86) Variations on Bach's Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Crucifixusfrom the Mass in B Minor, finished in 1863; the conclusion of the piece, after 31 variations, is the chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. The chorale is not the only element associated with the sacred in this composition, as the thematic material is derived from Bach's Cantata 12 and his Mass in B Minor. Measures 16-31 are even "a paraphrase and reduction of Cantata 12's first chorus."10 Still, it is important to notice that the work exists in two different versions, for organ and for piano;11 this, together with its duration (between 15 and 20 minutes depending on the interpretation), excludes a purely sacred purpose for this work.

Why did both Mendelssohn and Liszt insert chorales in their apparently secular compositions? I think there are three main reasons: first, personal circumstances; second, connection to the past, building of the German Kulturnation; third, the rise of Kunstreligion in 19thcentury Germany.

1. Personal circumstances

Liszt's son Daniel died on December 13, 1859. …

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