After posting the German chorale Schmücke dich (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”) last week, I am continuing with two favorite chorale preludes (hymn-tune preludes) based upon this beloved chorale.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed a set of chorale preludes known as “The Great Eighteen.” In this chorale setting, he treats the melody with augmented, florid embellishments, some of which are mimicked in the left-hand accompaniment, which is set out in intervals or voices that are often a 6th apart. Some scholars note that this accompaniment produces slow, dance-like figures beneath this highly embellished melody.
After hearing Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) play this chorale prelude in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (Bach’s own church), Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote in a letter to Mendelssohn that “the melody seems interlaced with garlands of gold, and the work breathed forth such happiness that you yourself avowed that, were life deprived of all trust, of all faith, this simple chorale would restore all to me.”
I was privileged to play this sublime work on my first master’s degree recital, and it is still that performance that sings the piece in my mind today. Performing on a huge American Classic organ, which many feel carries Romantic and Contemporary organ literature better than Baroque, I was criticized by some student colleagues for playing Bach on a “romantic organ.” However, my teacher and I did not care, as the piece was completely beautiful, if I do say so myself!
Given the strong Eucharistic text of the chorale, which I mentioned last week, I have throughout the years approached this choral prelude anew, with bolder organ registrations, a forward-moving tempo, and spun-out ornaments. The sheer fun of playing the organ is that the performer has such vast choices and does not have to play organ works the same all the time.