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O Mensch, Bewein'


Peter Clark
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In the "Why do we bother" thread Patrick talked about Bach's pushing the boundaries to the limit without stepping over the edge. With this in mind could I nominate O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross as the chorale prelude which is possibly the most extreme example of this? OK, it's Lent and therefore this is a topical piece at the moment. I also happen to beleive it to be the most beautiful of all the chorale preludes.

 

Peter

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In the "Why do we bother" thread Patrick talked about Bach's pushing the boundaries to the limit without stepping over the edge. With this in mind could I nominate O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross as the chorale prelude which is possibly the most extreme example of this? OK, it's Lent and therefore this is a topical piece at the moment. I also happen to beleive it to be the most beautiful of all the chorale preludes.

 

Peter

 

 

===========================

 

 

Of all the CP's, THIS is the one which few seem to understand. I have heard so many dreaful performances of it, I lose count.

 

MM

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In the "Why do we bother" thread Patrick talked about Bach's pushing the boundaries to the limit without stepping over the edge. With this in mind could I nominate O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross as the chorale prelude which is possibly the most extreme example of this? OK, it's Lent and therefore this is a topical piece at the moment. I also happen to beleive it to be the most beautiful of all the chorale preludes.

 

Peter

 

Hi

 

I would second that. Apart from using it in church at appropriate times, I also played it (along with another piece) at the Bradford Organists' Association members recital last year.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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===========================

Of all the CP's, THIS is the one which few seem to understand. I have heard so many dreaful performances of it, I lose count.

 

MM

 

I agree, but maybe one or two of you would like to share their thoughts as to what makes a real and beautiful perfomance of what is really one of the most sublime musical moments there is, in my opinion.

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I agree, but maybe one or two of you would like to share their thoughts as to what makes a real and beautiful perfomance of what is really one of the most sublime musical moments there is, in my opinion.

 

The thing which really makes the difference to me is to imagine a singer or instrumentalist carrying the top line and to allow them to breathe luxuriantly as a singer would while the accompaniment continues in a tight framework which stretches to accomodate the above rather than being actually disturbed. I always try as closely as possible to mimic how the voice would handle it. I won't claim to have cracked it, because I know my recently recorded version is too quick for some tastes, but you're welcome to go to organlive.com and find out what I mean, in the sad event you've not yet ordered a copy of your own B)

 

D

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The thing which really makes the difference to me is to imagine a singer or instrumentalist carrying the top line and to allow them to breathe luxuriantly as a singer would while the accompaniment continues in a tight framework which stretches to accomodate the above rather than being actually disturbed. I always try as closely as possible to mimic how the voice would handle it. I won't claim to have cracked it, because I know my recently recorded version is too quick for some tastes, but you're welcome to go to organlive.com and find out what I mean, in the sad event you've not yet ordered a copy of your own B)

 

D

 

'Agree totally - and after the initial surprise of your speed I actually quite like it - certainly some are too slow.

 

AJJ

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I remember a few years ago my father was taking lesson from a David Higgins, organist of St. Oswalds, Durham ( 3 man & p peter collins 1988), and david use to trot this out quite often, and it was slowly played but so lovely, and a new, at the time Collins organ certainly helped

regards

Peter

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I remember a few years ago my father was taking lesson from a David Higgins, organist of St. Oswalds, Durham ( 3 man & p peter collins 1988), and david use to trot this out quite often, and it was slowly played but so lovely, and a new, at the time Collins organ certainly helped

regards

Peter

 

I always think there should be a very pronounced rallentando in the closing bars - like a steam train drawing slowly to a standstill in the platform after journey across a continent.

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I always think there should be a very pronounced rallentando in the closing bars - like a steam train drawing slowly to a standstill in the platform after journey across a continent.

 

 

===============================

 

 

I hated almost anything which Albert Schweitzer ever played, but I believe that his "O mensch bewein" was close to perfection.

 

The way he lifted the fingers as the melody ascends; producing distinct halts in the flow, Schweitzer explained as "Jesus stumbling beneath the weight of the cross."

 

As for the rallentando, it seems to me to be so right, for we are taken to the depth of despair and the end of everything,

It makes that amazing penultimate chord, and the Tierce de Picardy so poignant, because it ends the prelude with just the slightest hint of hope and a sense of gentle repose.

 

I would suggest that those who cannot feel the pain, and share in the suffering, should leave this Chorale Prelude to others.

 

MM

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I would suggest that those who cannot feel the pain, and share in the suffering, should leave this Chorale Prelude to others.

I am feeling pain now, when I read such an opinion. Are you saying that, begin an atheist, I should never perform this beautiful work? I think one can appreciate the artistic value of the piece without having to understand the 'back story'. Do you not think?

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I am feeling pain now, when I read such an opinion. Are you saying that, begin an atheist, I should never perform this beautiful work? I think one can appreciate the artistic value of the piece without having to understand the 'back story'. Do you not think?

 

I agree. A little like my comment about a pianist's performance I found electrifying, when I subsequently had to explain that just because I thought the playing was electrifying and communicative didn't necessarily mean I liked what was being played.

 

I think that it's necessary to be aware of the reason for the chorale's existence and respond appropriately, but one doesn't need to believe it in order to play it any more than one needs to be a committed pacifist to perform Britten or a psycopath/satanist to perform much of Warlock (although it clearly helps).

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I agree. A little like my comment about a pianist's performance I found electrifying, when I subsequently had to explain that just because I thought the playing was electrifying and communicative didn't necessarily mean I liked what was being played.

 

I think that it's necessary to be aware of the reason for the chorale's existence and respond appropriately, but one doesn't need to believe it in order to play it any more than one needs to be a committed pacifist to perform Britten or a psycopath/satanist to perform much of Warlock (although it clearly helps).

 

I agree David - I have remarked elsewhere on this board that "good" music does not necessarily have the be "nice" (or even enjoyable) music. But as the great Duke Ellington said, "there are only two types of music, good and bad".

 

Peter

 

PS O Mensch tomorrow at Communion.

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Back to the music itself, I've come to the view that the tragedy inherent in this beautiful chorale is enhanced by letting the melody speak for itself, with relatively little ornamentation. I totally agree with David Coram above, that this is a piece that should be allowed to sing, and to me this means, in part, keeping it quite simple. I used once upon a time to play it with much more ornamentation than now, and sometimes still hear it thus, but now find that this really detracts from it. Your thoughts on this?

 

Rgds,

MJF

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I am feeling pain now, when I read such an opinion. Are you saying that, begin an atheist, I should never perform this beautiful work? I think one can appreciate the artistic value of the piece without having to understand the 'back story'. Do you not think?

 

 

=============================

 

What has pain got to do with faith?

 

Atheists and agnostics bleed and hurt like anyone else. I vividly recall a Jewish friend being moved to tears by a performance of the St Matthew Passion, but I don't expect he believed any of it.

 

I hope you soon feel better.

 

MM

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Back to the music itself, I've come to the view that the tragedy inherent in this beautiful chorale is enhanced by letting the melody speak for itself, with relatively little ornamentation. I totally agree with David Coram above, that this is a piece that should be allowed to sing, and to me this means, in part, keeping it quite simple. I used once upon a time to play it with much more ornamentation than now, and sometimes still hear it thus, but now find that this really detracts from it. Your thoughts on this?

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this question. I suspect that Bach himself would have been quite liberal with ornamentation, although some scholars insist that he "wrote out" all the ornaments he required. The little I have seen of the manuscript copies of his works by many of his pupils would seem to indicate that either there was a huge increase in ornamentation in the performance styles during the years following JSB's death or that he himself played with more ornamentation than he put into his scores. We do know that he was greatly interested in the French school of harpsichord and organ music which almost relied on ornamentation for its expression.

 

On the other hand, sometimes there's nothing more beautiful, or transcendent, than a Bach piece with no ornaments at all, a little like a church bereft of pictures, statues, vestments.

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What has pain got to do with faith?

 

You tell me. Your original post was definite in its reference to the pain and the suffering - rather than any old pain and any old suffering. It was that specific language which I took to mean Christ's Passion, which of course you had referred to earlier in your post.

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Bach's music conveys strong emotions -not in a "romantic" sense, rather,

they are always 100% fair to the words of the chorals, for example-. It is or

joyfull, or sorrow, never "in-between".

If we may assume in Bach's mind this was linked to the Faith he lived with,

I think everyone will agree emotions are shared by all human beings, believing

or not, in whatever Faith existing on Earth.

 

So it might happen we are slightly off-topic here ?

 

Pierre

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You tell me. Your original post was definite in its reference to the pain and the suffering - rather than any old pain and any old suffering. It was that specific language which I took to mean Christ's Passion, which of course you had referred to earlier in your post.

 

======================

 

 

The reference was absolutely spot-on, because the reformation churches "humanised" religion to a degree, by mawkishly dwelling on the suffering of the passion and the atonement for sin. Pain and sufering is something that everyone has to endure from time to time, and it would have been especially meaningful at a time when infant mortality was as high as it was, and life expectancy was less then it is to-day. Death and suffering were all around, and Bach himself would know all about that.

 

I suppose it all grew out the equally distorted perspective of "The lamb of God" as a sacrificial deity.

 

It is this which dominated religion totally in Bach's day, and if you doubt this, you should dwell upon the awfulness and mawkishness of the libretti for the various passions. It was only Bach that lifted the words out of the mire, and made the passions special and enduring.

 

In truth, I was thinking more of Schweitzer as I wrote, but like anyone else, I am not immune to the deeper feelings in music; whatever they represent.

 

I suppose the equivalent had to be Dr Jakob Bronowski, when he quoted Oliver Cromwell in the garden at Auschwitz, and said, "In the bowels of Christ I beseech you," which coming from a Jewish academic, was a bit odd, to say the least.

 

I wasn't for one moment suggesting that personal faith was an absolute pre-requisite, but it is vital to any understanding of the Chorale Prelude that we know what was meant by "grievous sin" and the "bemoaning" of it.

 

Whether we like it or not, Chorale Preludes have religious titles.

 

MM

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It's just dots on pieces of paper, and musicians are free to interpret them however they wish.

 

Nevertheless, many (but not all) of Bachs' chorale preludes match the music to a mood suggested by the words, or use devices very closely matched to the words, and so it may be very helpful to know what the words mean. Most of us find our emotions stirred by many dramas and can enter into them imaginatively, whether Hamlet or Hogwarts, even if we don't believe in the literal truth of them, and perhaps we might empathise even more closely if we did believe that there is some truth in them.

 

It's as well to know a little about the underlying text. I was once criticised for playing a choral on Christ lag in todesbanden (not a Bach setting) and not making it sound like a dirge all the way through. The critic knew that the first words (in translation) were "Christ lay in the bonds of death" and was unaware that later words "and now he lives and now he reigns" entirely change the mood of the piece.

 

O Mensch, Bewein' does seem to match the sense of the underlying words very closely. It can be interesting to play this on a toaster with a choice of different temperaments. With some, the increasing chromaticism towards the end produces progressively more stress, something that Baroque composers knew very well, even if it is debatable whether Bach intended it at the end of this prelude.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

It is quite fascinating to play other Preludes on this Chorale - Pachelbel's for instance. It is a dream of a a composition and quite unlike J S B's. Worth an in-depth exploration and an airing every year too.

Best wishes,

Nigel

 

PS If any wish to hear it - just send a PM with an address and it can be attached to an Email.

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It is quite fascinating to play other Preludes on this Chorale - Pachelbel's for instance. It is a dream of a a composition and quite unlike J S B's. Worth an in-depth exploration and an airing every year too.

Best wishes,

Nigel

 

PS If any wish to hear it - just send a PM with an address and it can be attached to an Email.

 

 

Thanks for sending this Nigel. It suggests to me that it might be instructive to look at how composers roughly contemporary with JSB handled their chorale preludes. I have in front of me Krebs' Herr Jesu Christ dich zu uns wend, a trio setting as was that of Bach in the 18. There are not dissimilar. Krebs calls his version a Fantasia. His setting of Herzlich thus mich verlangen (so-called Passion Chorale), from the same volume, is most effective.

 

Regards

 

Peter

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  • 2 weeks later...
I think that it's necessary to be aware of the reason for the chorale's existence and respond appropriately, but one doesn't need to believe it in order to play it any more than one needs to be a committed pacifist to perform Britten or a psycopath/satanist to perform much of Warlock (although it clearly helps).

 

Did I read somewhere that John Ireland was also involved in the occult?

 

Peter

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Are you sure? He seems (admittedly on the face of the matter) to be the least likely person to worship Satan.

 

No, not a devil-woshipper per se, but someone (like Debussy I think) who was involved in some esoteric (though not necessarily malign) practice.

 

Peter

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Did I read somewhere that John Ireland was also involved in the occult?

I have never heard that; but it interests me, because when I learnt his piano sonata at school, I found myself thinking my interpretation in occult terms (because the music made me).

 

Paul

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