Friday, May 2, 2014

Wait for it...

This week the lectionary scripture reading concerns two travelers on the road to Emmaus running across a stranger who travels with them, explains the scriptures to them for a while, and finally, when it is time to eat a meal, breaks bread with them, and suddenly in that moment they realize...

It's Jesus!

Of course, it's been Jesus all along and they didn't recognize him. This is often considered the important point of this story, and it is the focus of our pastor's sermon this week at Faith church as well. Casting about for musical corollaries I came up with this Bach Chorale Prelude, which I've decided not to play after all because I only found out about the sermon topic on Wednesday, and didn't think I could get what is probably the trickiest of the "Great 18" Chorales back under my fingers in time. Besides, it will be a rough weekend, schedule-wise, so I decided not to push it. But the next time we travel down the road to Emmaus, I've got an idea. Here's why....

Bach's prelude on the hymn tune "Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Toward Us" is unusual. In fact, it's the only setting of a hymn that I know of in which the hymn itself doesn't actually show up until two thirds of the way through the piece. That's kind of odd for a hymn setting, don't you think?

And yet, as much as it might seem to just show up out of the blue, there are some hints as to the hymn itself before it officially "shows up." Let me show you the transformation.

Here's the tune.

Now, the opening notes of it go like this.

Suppose you sped those notes up.

Then suppose you added notes in between each of those notes to make what is basically an arpeggiated chord sound like a little scale.

That just happens to be the opening of the piece. And it is imitated by a second voice just a second later. And you hear it again, and again, in various keys, major and minor, while we wait for the glorious moment, two minutes later, when the slowed down and louder version of it suddenly shows up in the pedals. But it was there all along.

There are other hints; harmonic patterns that fit in with the notes of the hymn, places where Bach could have stuck in the hymn itself but left it absent. No other setting that I know makes us wait so long for the official entrance of the hymn.

But it is a glorious moment when we recognize it at last. And, if you ask me, it's worth the wait.

Bach: Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Toward Us

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