Bach’s 326th Birthday Celebrated!

Dr. Bill Porter gives a demonstration of the organ to youngsters at the Bach Birthday 326 celebrationJohann Sebastian Bach’s 326th Birthday was a huge succes this year as well as the past two years. Over 240 people were in attendance, including families with children, and prestigious musical personalities including Dr. Christoph Wolff, professor of Musicology at Harvard University and curator of the Leipzig Bach Archives.

William Porter opened the day with a tour of the newly completed R&F organ that was mainly attended by families with children. The children watched the master closely while he was demonstrating the new stops of the organ.

Thanks to Jerry Irwin and Elaine Laaser, the compelling smell of oven-roasted pork loin with sauerkraut attracted about a large crowd of visitors for lunch and fellowship to the basement. The day continued with William Porter’s lecture about Bach’s Clavier-übung III, or the “Lutheran Organ Mass” which was to be performed by seven organist in six recitals throughout the day. This massive work comprises Bach’s most elaborate chorale preludes based on Lutheran catechetical hymns: Kyrie, Allein Gott, Aus tiefer Not etc… These hymns were sung from our hymnals in between organ pieces by all the audience. It certainly was a moving experience hearing the word of God sung by visitors and concertgoers.

The day concluded with FLC Ensemble-in-Residence Exsultemus’ performance of Bach’s cantata “Geist und Seele sind verwirret” with me on the organ. Here are my program notes that described the connection between music and Theology:

Bach composed the cantata in Leipzig in 1726, and it premiered that year on Sept. 8, the 12th Sunday after Trinity. One of the prescribed Bible readings for that day came from the Gospel of Mark, 7:31-37:

“JESUS, departing from the region of Tyre, came through Sidon unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis.  And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech: and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.  And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.  And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.  And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; and were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well; he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.”

The use of solo organ seems to symbolize God’s mighty power and miracles as Mark describes. Large organs of the late 17th century incorporated the most complex engineering, scientific, mathematical and chemical advancements of their times. Their clear and powerful tone must have had an overwhelming effect on listeners not used to stereo systems or large symphonic sounds. The complexity of the organ part and rich instrumentation in the first movement (probably from an earlier lost concerto) could be a metaphor for the miracles and wonders God has made. This movement also shows Bach’s exquisite skill as an organist — at times leaving it transparent and soloistic — as well as his expertise incorporating and blending the organ sound into an ensemble.

Following the opening sinfonia, the subsequent aria contemplates God’s power in a haunting Sicilienne. In the fourth aria the accompaniment is reduced to solo organ and basso continuo, the writing clearly calling for two manuals. The second part of the cantata (usually heard after the sermon) begins with a virtuosic sinfonia followed by a short recitative and,  instead of a chorale, Bach concludes the piece with an aria, in which he is able to transform faith into a personal, firsthand experience.

Minister of Music

Balint Karosi

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