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Bach's "O Mensch"


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I’m always banging on about Bach being taken too fast, but I think I may have had my come-uppance.

 

I hope you can all access the photo here: http://tinyurl.com/cu4laq7. It is a page taken from the CD that accompanies the new Breitkopf edition of the Orgelbüchlein.* It is a galant arrangement of Bach’s O Mensch, bewein that, so the critical commentary tells us, appears in an eighteenth-century manuscript that belonged to one Leonhard Scholz (1720-98) - so it was written within forty years of Bach's death at most. It raises a question about the tempo that Bach expected for O Mensch. There is nothing to suggest that there should be an abrupt change of gear between the introduction and the chorale and it seems a bit of a cop-out to suggest that, because the baroque and galant styles are different, the speeds might also have been very different. The arranger's "adagio" is not a million miles away from Bach’s "adagio assai" so, on the face of it, one would suppose that any difference was probably not all that great.

 

*I hope that Breitkopf will treat this as advertising rather than a breach of copyright, but I’ll remove it if there is a problem.

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I’m always banging on about Bach being taken too fast, but I think I may have had my come-uppance.

 

I hope you can all access the photo here: http://tinyurl.com/cu4laq7. It is a page taken from the CD that accompanies the new Breitkopf edition of the Orgelbüchlein.* It is a galant arrangement of Bach’s O Mensch, bewein that, so the critical commentary tells us, appears in an eighteenth-century manuscript that belonged to one Leonhard Scholz (1720-98) - so it was written within forty years of Bach's death at most. It raises a question about the tempo that Bach expected for O Mensch. There is nothing to suggest that there should be an abrupt change of gear between the introduction and the chorale and it seems a bit of a cop-out to suggest that, because the baroque and galant styles are different, the speeds might also have been very different. The arranger's "adagio" is not a million miles away from Bach’s "adagio assai" so, on the face of it, one would suppose that any difference was probably not all that great.

 

*I hope that Breitkopf will treat this as advertising rather than a breach of copyright, but I’ll remove it if there is a problem.

 

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I'm sure that tempo is important; there are those who could turn "O mensch bewein" into a Toccata. However, most players play within a relatively small range of tempi; usually somewhere between Slargando and Adagio.

 

Surely, the more important things concern a ) use of rubato b ) consistency of phrasing c ) well executed ornaments (a real problem with this CP) and perhaps most important of all, d) daylight in the notes of the melody.

 

Judge for thineselves and react accordingly.

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz6MlY3MVQ0

 

 

I know which I like most!

 

MM

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With all due respect, MM, you've missed the point. We can all cite performances that we like or don't like. That's not the issue I put up for discussion.

 

 

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

 

No, I didn't miss the point you made, but I should have put my reply better.

 

I was trying to make the point that a) most organists play CP very slowly or very, very, very slowly.

 

I made the point, (rather badly), that tempo was less important than phrasing and daylight. Actually, I can see how the "galant" version and the original chorale are actually in accord, and presumably, the CP simply takes each note of the original chorale and embelishes it considerably. If the first note of each embelished section follows the next at chorale speed, the "tracery" moves at quite an alarming speed to ears more used to slower performances. To my mind, that requires rather more in the way of control and "daylight" if it isn't to turn into the musical equivalent of runny custard.

 

In the performances I cited, a number of them are so pre-occupried with the vertical, they lose track of the horizontal tune of the chorale, and without naming names, some are so obsessed with ornamentation, all trace of the chorale almost vanishes.

 

My favourite, irrespective of tempo, is the Haarlem clip.....solid, steady, unmannered and straightforward.

 

Pushing the boat out a bit, I can see how the Haarlem performance could be doubled in speed and still sound musical.

 

MM

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Apart from the tempo, equally problematic, it seems to me, is the question of dotting. I realise 18c. notation is not always to be read strictly to the letter, but, if JSB goes to the trouble of writing demi-semi-quavers (3 beams) after the ornamented dotted quavers in the melody line, then we should play them as such and not smooth them out to semi-quavers (as on some of the recordings previously mentioned) - i.e. hang on to the E flat and the F in bar 1 almost as long as you can before the final turn - if that makes sense.

 

Some distinguished scholars and players may think otherwise, but, to me this instinctively seems right.

 

JS

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Sorry, one further point, if I may. How are you supposed to hold the crotchet B flat in the LH on the third beat of bar 22? You could thumb down, I suppose, if playing the melody on a upper manual - not what JSB would have done, I'm sure.

 

Or maybe you should just let it go and not worry about it.

 

JS

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I made the point, (rather badly), that tempo was less important than phrasing and daylight. ...

 

OK, with you now - and I would agree. I wonder how many of us really bother to learn and assimilate the plain chorale tunes until they are second nature - until we really know them. Perhaps everyone does. I'll admit I'm a bit lazy about this, but where I've done it I've found that it really does make a difference.

 

...but, if JSB goes to the trouble of writing demi-semi-quavers (3 beams) after the ornamented dotted quavers in the melody line, then we should play them as such and not smooth them out to semi-quavers (as on some of the recordings previously mentioned) - i.e. hang on to the E flat and the F in bar 1 almost as long as you can before the final turn - if that makes sense.

 

A crotchet beat consisting of a dotted quaver followed by three demisemiquavers is, of course, mathematically incorrect and is shorthand, the dot standing for a tied demisemiquaver. Compare the opening of Bach's original with bar 9 of the arrangement (which, remember, is an eighteenth-century source). Whatever the mathematics, however, I would certainly agree that there is no call to play this figure mathematically. On the next beat the two demisemiquavers are, as we all know, just the turned ending to a trill.

 

Sorry, one further point, if I may. How are you supposed to hold the crotchet B flat in the LH on the third beat of bar 22? You could thumb down, I suppose, if playing the melody on a upper manual - not what JSB would have done, I'm sure.

 

Or maybe you should just let it go and not worry about it.

 

I'm sure I've read somewhere that Bach had big hands. If so, he could no doubt manage it (as I can). I have pointed out before that in the Orgelbüchlein there are quite a few places where holding a note for the notated length merely snarls up the surrounding counterpoint and I think there was general agreement that in such places the offending note was probably intended to be released.* So I don't see anything inherently wrong with letting the B flat go. On the other hand, if, as related by Burney, it is true that Bach would play unreachable notes by using a stick in his mouth, I'm sure he must have been capable of thumbing down. Either way, I wouldn't have any qualms about doing so.

 

* A case in point is bar 4 of Jesu, meine Freude, third crotchet beat. Are we seriously meant to play D, E-flat, D in the right hand while simultaneously sustaining the D in the left? I suggest not.

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OK, with you now - and I would agree. I wonder how many of us really bother to learn and assimilate the plain chorale tunes until they are second nature - until we really know them. Perhaps everyone does. I'll admit I'm a bit lazy about this, but where I've done it I've found that it really does make a difference.

 

 

 

A crotchet beat consisting of a dotted quaver followed by three demisemiquavers is, of course, mathematically incorrect and is shorthand,.........

 

 

 

 

I knew we would get to this!

 

I puzzled over "O mensch bewein" for quite some time; trying this and that while attempting to make things mathematically correct.....which it isn't....and now we know why. :unsure:

 

In the end, having abandoned hope, I used my ears and ended up with something very close to what Murray does at Haarlem. :D

 

MM

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