It won’t surprise you to learn that Bach’s music is often running through my mind, or “playing in my head”. It might be a piece I am performing or practising, which is logical. But sometimes another work surfaces quite unbidden, and this occurrence fascinates and (mostly) delightes me.
When we arrived at the painful decision to cancel the 2020 festival, I found the beautiful and poignant strains of Bach's chorale prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon running through my head. This work comes from the set of eighteen chorale preludes known as the “Leipzig” chorale that Bach collected towards the end of his life, revising and expanding, for the most part, earlier compositions. They represent the pinnacle of his art in this fascinating form, and probably the pinnacle of the sophisticated use of this form (like so much of Bach’s music!) that has ever been known.
Now, the fascinating thing about chorale-based music is that the chorales function in two ways, simultaneously. First and foremost, a chorale is a melody, recognizable to the listeners of Bach’s time as well as to us today (think A mighty fortress is our God, or O sacred head now wounded). But a chorale also references the words that go with the melody, which were also well known by the listeners of Bach’s time. In fact, the chorale is referred to by the first line of text, but many people in Bach’s time knew the words to the whole chorale. In the case of An Wasserflüssen, the text comes from Psalm 137. Bach’s music expresses grief, to be sure, and with consummate skill. But what grief could be greater to a musician, than feeling that they can no longer play or sing!
An Wasserflüssen Babylon,
Da saßen wir mit Schmerzen,
Als wir gedachten an Zion,
Da weinten wir von Herzen.
Wir hingen auf mit schwerem Muth
Die Orgeln und die Harfen gut
An ihre Bäum der Weiden,
Die drinnen sind in ihrem Land;
Da mussten wir viel Schmach und Schand’
Täglich von ihnen leiden.
By the waters of Babylon
There we sat in grief;
As we thought of Zion,
There we wept from the depths of our hearts.
We hung up, with heavy emotions,
Our organs and good harps
On the trees of their pastures,
That are within their lands;
There we must suffer much shame and humiliation
At their hands every day.
Translation: Pamela Dellal, Emanuel Music, Boston
When I went to Spotify to hear this painfully beautiful piece, I was delighted to find many interesting settings of this poignant text.
Having listened to many on the list, I have assembled a selection of my favourites. These are chosen primarily for their musical values, but also illustrate the fascinating progression of German musical style that made it possible for Bach to create his masterpieces. I hope you find it interesting to hear these beautiful works, all settings of the same text.
Bach, Chorale, BWV 267 Augsburger Domsingknaben, Reinhard Kammler, director
Franz Tunder, Cantata Dorothee Mields, soprano, Concerto Melante
Johann Adam Reincken, Chorale Prelude Simone Stella, organ
Johann Hermann Schein, Cantata Christine Fussl, Heiligenberg Baroque Orchestra
Heinrich Schütz, setting of the Becker Psalter Dresdner Kammerchor, Han-Christoph Rademann, director
Heinrich Schütz, Psalmen Davids, SWV 37 Catus Köln, Konrad Junghangel, director
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, Choral Prelude Irénée Payrot, organ
Johann Pachelbel, Chorale Prelude James David Christie, organ