We've spent the last four posts listening to the gradually unfolding story of the shepherds on the hillside, the angelic announcement, the trip to Bethlehem to see the newborn babe, Mary's meditating and the shepherds rejoicing--in other words, the story millions of Christians will have read to them this coming Christmas Eve at church.
I should point out that this approach is nothing less than heresy to many musicians. The very idea that someone--particularly an extraordinary composer like Bach--would "tell a story" in music is beyond the pale. Let me first state for the record that I am the last person who would tell you to simply bliss out and imagine sheep on a hillside for the duration and not pay attention to the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms Bach employs to get us there.
But also, let me explain something about music and story telling. Suppose you were to write a poem. In order for it to be a good one, you will need to choose appropriate words, with pre-attached meanings, so you can actually communicate intelligibly. Further, you will need to pay some attention to established rules of spelling and grammar, getting the words to co-exist agreeably. You will also want to pay attention to their sounds so you can employ repetitive word beginnings, or indulge in various rhyme schemes. Meter will be important; your poem will ebb and flow as the drama dictates. All of this exists as a rich tapestry of words on the page.
But your poem will be more than simply a collision of sounds. It will have meaning. Images and ideas will be present in the reader's mind as the poem is read--or heard. Is it so bizarre that music should operate similarly?
For a good composer, the movement of harmony, the flow of melody, the life of rhythm, all are important. But it is a rare piece indeed that has no connection to human activity apart from its component parts. A piece may suggest the dance--it may even be meant for dancing (though not necessarily). It may move us deeply in some way by making us feel a strong emotion. It may be inspired by and relate somehow to a picture, a painting, or a series of events (a story). It need not tell us the Gilgamesh Epic every time out. Nor does it have to be very specific about any of these things. In fact, most composers would agree that there is generally some vagueness about non-texted music as to what exactly it is telling us as to its meaning beyond its notes. And usually, when it tries to get very specific about relating each incident in a story in notes, it has a difficult time keeping its internal sense of flow--of musical grammar. So, when someone like Bach tells a story, he doesn't include things like the bleating of the sheep or the tramping of the shepherd's feet. The general outlines are enough. But it should be obvious they are there. For one thing, Bach worked in a church. He dramatized the Christmas story lots of times in choral pieces with text. Why not do it once in a piece for organ?
There is another reason. Bach was an inveterate learner. He learned from all kinds of traditions. And one of those includes pieces that relate stories--even the Christmas story--for keyboard instruments.
This time of year my article about Bach traveling over 250 miles to see Buxtehude gets a lot of foot traffic (sorry). Buxtehude was probably THE organist at the time, and the 20-year old Bach just had to go see him in December of 1705 to learn what he could. Here is something he might have heard. MIGHT, mind you. But still, don't you think it's a strong possibility? He spent three months in Lubeck, and probably looked at most of Buxtehude's organ works by the time he went home (there aren't all that many; I could probably learn them all in three months if that's all I did).
Here is Buxtehude's piece. It isn't a pastorale. It is a chorale fantasia, based on the hymn "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star." Now, the text of this hymn doesn't suggest a story. It is filled with imagery of rejoicing angels, rejoicing people, and plenty of doctrine. But listen to Buxtehude's piece unfold. It could have simply presented the tune with some nice counterpoint and gotten it over with (as some other composers did). Instead, it comes to us in four parts. The first is serene and tranquil. But Suddenly (there's the Christmas tale's favorite word again)--Suddenly, there is a commotion. Specifically at 1:56 in my performance. After the heavenly hosts are done with their proclamation, a period of profound wonder ensues (2:35). Mary pondering again? And us? Then, a gigue breaks out (4:38). Is it the shepherds rejoicing?
The general plan of the work seems to follow the same outline by Bach in his Pastoral in F major.
Buxtehude: How Brightly Shines the Morning Star BuxWV 223
We're almost there! Part eight of ten coming right up. And thank you for reading!