A Window into the Parlors of Heaven

As you all know, we just finished our Winter Fundraiser. Dymphna and I are grateful for all the people who took the trouble to hit the tip cup and keep us going for another quarter.

(By the way — winter is here with a vengeance, at least in the Northeast. As I write this, New York is expecting to get slammed with up to two feet of snow. We’re just getting a little snow here, but the ground is white tonight.)

The remarkable thing about last week’s fundraiser was the variety of locations that our donors came from. So many states and countries, a lot of them places that we hear from only rarely. So many small donations, people just giving what they can, but adding up to enough to maintain Gates of Vienna.

It’s inspiring in a way that I find hard to describe. It’s good to know that what we do here means that much to that many people.

Over the past couple of days I exchanged several emails with one of our British donors who happens to be an afficianado of Johann Sebastian Bach. Long-time readers know that I am devoted to Bach’s organ music. From time to time I go off-topic and post videos of performances of Bach’s music on various pipe organs (and sometimes the choral works, too).

Our reader sent a link to a YouTube of one of the six Trio Sonatas, the first movement of BWV 529. He referred to it as an example of the way Bach takes the listener to what seems to be the climax, the resolution of the theme. But then he carries the music further, into something even more sublime, as if to say: “You thought that was all, but there is always more.”

That made me think of one of the other Trio Sonatas (which I happened to be listening to in the car every time I went out last week), so I wrote him back to cite it as another example of what he was describing. I had to struggle to put into words my experience of the music. The section below is adapted from what I said in my email.

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I love the Trio Sonatas. In fact, it was a CD of Marie-Claire Alain playing the Trio Sonatas (l’orgue Schwenkedel de la collégiale à Saint-Donat, 1981) that really hooked me on listening to Bach’s organ music. That and the St. Anne’s Prelude and Fugue. That was about 27 years ago, and I’ve been exploring the organ works ever since. I listen to them over and over again, and never grow tired of them. And I can always find something new, something I never noticed before, particularly if I acquire a new rendition.

When Dymphna gave me the complete Bach organ works played by Marie-Claire Alain, I heard some new versions of very familiar pieces, and picked up on things I hadn’t noticed. That was even true of the Trio Sonatas — in the new CDs, Ms. Alain was playing them on a different organ, and probably years or decades apart from the version I had acquired earlier, and — wow! I hear new things!

I know exactly what you mean about the crescendo to an apparent resolution, followed by a new crescendo to an even greater resolution. I’ve noticed that in other works, such as the Dorian Toccata and Fugue, or the Passacaglia and Fugue. And there’s another example from the Trio Sonatas, the third movement (Allegro) from BWV 525.

This version was performed by Kay Johannsen (location and organ not listed):

The piece is broken up into four discrete sections, each about a minute long, with three false finales (1:03, 2:02, 3:00). You think the music is done, but then it starts again, yet not quite the same, and more exquisite each time. When each section begins, you hear the bass and one hand on the treble in a simple progression that starts off almost unitary, and then magically divides itself into separate strands that weave and dance around one another until the resolution and apparent (or real) finale.

I’m not musically illiterate — I can read music, and played a French horn (badly) when I was in school as a kid. But I have no musical ability, and lack the vocabulary to describe my musical experience. I can hear it, but I can’t make it. Over the years I’ve learned that there are almost no fans of Bach’s organ music who don’t also play it, or at least attempt to. Since I don’t move in those circles, I rarely get to discuss it with anyone — I simply listen to it, immerse myself in it, fall into the whirlpool of magnificent sound. There are really no words to describe it. “Sublime” is good, but not quite enough. “Religious rapture” is as close as I can get.

That’s the first time I’ve ever attempted to put this stuff down in words — how strange!

Some people don’t get this music; they just can’t hear it. After posting one of my Bach videos, I got an email from a guy who wanted me to explain what was so great about this stuff. What could I possibly tell him? If you can’t hear it, you can’t hear it.

I told him I felt sorry for him that he had to miss the experience. I said that listening to the organ music of J.S. Bach was like opening a window into the parlors of heaven.

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We’ve had a few stragglers since the Day Seven post on Sunday. Here’s the final amazing list of places:

Stateside: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, India, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the UK

Our profound gratitude goes out to all of you. I’ll see you in about three months, after the snow has melted. Maybe while the forsythia is still blooming, but probably before the irises are out.

22 thoughts on “A Window into the Parlors of Heaven

  1. Here is Johanssen playing this Bach marvel on the organ of the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouMmwoOT7M. He plays it as easily and matter-of -factly as I can a simple piano finger exercise.

    BTW see a large crucifix incorporated in the supporting cross-beam of this church, as it was in Bach’s music, and in most of the most sublime art our civilization, therefore humanity, has ever produced.

    The false finale is a structural component of all good drama. Except now you can buy a $12.95 book that will explain why it’s so and how to do it, e.g. in a screenplay. But in Bach’s time, where did he get all this? A great, eternal mystery of rare genius.

  2. Dear Baron, perhaps you have come across the book ” Goedel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid.” by Douglas Hofstadter. If not, please do.
    Thank you for your thoughts on Bach and the link to the sonata.

    • He enjoyed that book! Still talks about it. I’m glad he read it before his eyesight went bad.

      We ought to get him to discuss it. Obviously, like he is, you’re a mathematician.

    • Ah yes, I read that book back in the ’80s, right around the time I first started listening to Bach. It told the story of how the “Musical Offering” came into existence, a fascinating account of Bach’s visit to the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, if I recall correctly.

      GEB also provided me the details on Gödel’s Theorem, the corollaries of which I found useful for various philosophical arguments. I’ll blog more on that someday, when I have the time.

  3. As Frank Zappa said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture! An exaggeration, but he was onto something.

  4. BTW Baron, if you like Bach’s organ music, surely you will like Buxtehude’s, who was Bach’s primary inspiration for the organ:


    Just like you, I am baffled when I meet people who seem not to appreciate this incredible beauty, and I find myself at loss to understand why people link organ music to funerals or to horror movies. They must be retarded.

    • Yes, Buxtehude is my second-favorite. After that are Pachelbel and Telemann (their organ music, I mean). If I am not mistaken, both Pachelbel and Buxtehude taught the young J.S. Bach. The pupil outshone the master. But no one has approached him since.

  5. Modern performers are not kind to JSB.

    Most of Bach’s corpus was meant to be used in the worship of the Lutheran church, with the choral portion dominant as part of the ministry of the Word–even if the accompaniments Bach penned were brilliant. Hence, a lot (although not all) Bach performances are wrested out of context, and hence highly unappreciated.

    And I write as someone who loves Bach.

    • Bach wrote a lot of the choral music himself. And he wrote new harmony parts for older choral works. If you look closely at the credits in the Episcopal hymnal, you’ll find many old hymn tunes from the German song books with the notation “Harmony by J.S. Bach”.

      • Understood, Baron. I guess my gripe is that when I listen to Bach on my local classical music radio station, I usually hear the instrumental portion completely drowning out the vocal. I’m not sure that was how it was intended to be.

  6. “Some people don’t get this music; they just can’t hear it. After posting one of my Bach videos, I got an email from a guy who wanted me to explain what was so great about this stuff. What could I possibly tell him? If you can’t hear it, you can’t hear it.”

    I don’t know whether this refers to me, but I’m certainly sympathetic to the view that a lot of this non-famous Bach organ music sounds interchangeable (e.g., suitable for background music in a scary movie). As a little experiment, I played your 4-minute selection in the background, “nagara-zoku” style, while doing something else (actually, while reading your essay). I wanted to see whether, when listened to deliberately unattentively, the music would grab my attention. It didn’t. At the three “resolutions” you pointed out, the music came to an end, and, after a pause, just started up again.

    For me, this music does not have the property of ear-worminess, also known as catchiness, whereby upon a first hearing you are able to remember and repeat the melody. By contrast, here is the catchiest tune I have every heard, the theme song from an old TV show called “Gilligan’s Island” (not a single episode of which I have ever watched):
    Curiously, the words of this ditty fit the meter of “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, … … …, here on Gilligan’s Isle.”

    Maybe if I listened to this Bach selection attentively and repeatedly, I would come to like it. But that’s an experiment for another day.

    • Sounds like you’re talking to the 80% Baron to me. Just as I don’t grok a lot of 80% Saad, I don’t get 80% of this …no, make that 90%.


    • I think part of the problem might be the ability to “get” counterpoint. I felt pretty much the same about Bach (minus the horror movie associations) until I had to sing Palestrina in high school and college choruses. Parallel melodies which also harmonize have their own power, which is different from a “catchy” tune. I am certainly not against the latter, but it is not “all there is” in musical experience

    • Mark Spahn: The meter for “Amazing Grace” as well as that for the Gilligan’s Island theme is (count the syllables: eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables). If you ever use a traditional hymnbook in church, you’ll see it marked as “C.M.”, which means “common meter”. You see it in others, such as this metrical version of Psalm l:

      That man hath perfect blessedness
      Who walketh not astray,
      In counsel of ungodly men,
      Nor stands in sinner’s way.

      It was a common meter used in the metrical psalms sung by English-speaking congregations prior to the 18th century, after which “hymns of human composition” (i.e., not from the Psalter) were popularized by Isaac Watts and the Wesley brothers. This meter carried over to much devotional poetry, and the hymnody that grew from it.

  7. Baron, I enjoyed your previous post of the Bach organ pieces. And this one even more so. I grew up in Western PA in a family (an “only”…) in an era of big band and classical music. My late mother was a pianist who dabbled in organ and had one of the early electronic organs in our rural home in the 50s. Our first “modern” record player was a “somewhat” portable one of the new “stereophonic” type. My mother celebrated that with an LP record set from Reader’s Digest called a “Festival of Light Classical Music”. I remember listening to hours of the music. As I matured and went off to college and then the military, winding up in Colorado and, to shorten the story, The Lord saw fit to join me to a wonderful lady who was a concert pipe organist by an early love of the piano and later organ and by a soon-to-be college graduation. During our courtship, to be with her in her interest (and as it turned out, mine also) we would attend a then popular pipe organ summer series of guest organists at the Air Force Academy Chapel. I journeyed often to her college in the northern part of the state to see her and her often practice sessions at local churches that had pipe organs. Her often recitals, and graduation recital, had many selections from her “Bach Book” as she called it. We were married that Summer following her graduation. Her late parents church at that time of course had a decent non-pipe organ but it had a strong presence in the church and my wife carefully chose “Trumpet Voluntary” as her processional (of course, as a musician, she timed perfectly her step cadence in order that she would arrive at the front of the church precisely as her organist friend reached the end of the music!) and “Psalm 19” as our recessional. During the years following she stayed with her organ proficiency as long as possible, not having the finances as newlyweds to afford to keep up with continuing education in that genre of music. She transitioned in succeeding churches where we served in varying musical capacities and I in various “whatever my hands found to do”, she for the last many years as keyboardist in a “Contemporary Gospel” music team where we have found a solid and satisfying service. Saying all that to say that though we are very blessed in doing what we are doing, hearing the Bach organ pieces brings back fond memories of, as we too often find ourselves saying these days, simpler times when we were younger, and stronger, and America was a country of strength and honor. Not sure where America will end up and what will wake her/US up and pull her out of her nosedive. Thank you for your efforts to educate those of us who have the courage to listen and especially for the memories generated by the Bach music clips. Hope springs eternal…

    • Northerner, you struck a chord (!) with this Northerner. I got my first (mono) record player c1960, aged twelve, and my uncle kindly loaned me the Readers Digest set, issued the same year- what discoveries!

      All the RD sets were recorded by UK Decca for RCA, in excellent sound for the era; after scouring second-hand shops for years, I found the “Festival”, in stereo, ten years ago (not many people had stereo 55 years ago). Vinyl (and nostalgia?) rule!

  8. Thank You for the great post about Bach and his Organ Regarding people “who cannot hear the music”; –it’s because of the way their brain works. Ayn Rand begins to explain the phenomenon of music in “Romantic Manifesto” but as a warning, it’s not an easy read because it includes values, virtues and Art with a big “A”. The big is because Rand is writing as a philosopher and an artist. Two subjects that are difficult to consider because of the vastness of their fields.
    Thank you for the Bach Trio and especially for putting the music on the screen. I read music and play several instruments but for the first time I saw the third line of Organ music for the pedals which helped reveal the greatness of the instrument.
    The following is offered regarding the ability to describe art, in particular music.
    “Music gives man’s consciousness the same experience as the other arts: a concretization of his sense of life. But the abstraction being concretized is primarily epistemological, rather than metaphysical; the abstraction is man’s consciousness, i.e., his method of cognitive functioning, which he experiences in the concrete form of hearing a specific piece of music. A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working. The metaphysical aspect of the experience is the sense of a world which he is able to grasp, to which his mind’s working is appropriate.”
    All praise to the great composers,

  9. Most people today are deaf to what “the great tradition” has to offer. Thirty years ago I could still come across people who liked classical music. Not any more. “No classical music has been produced that can speak to this generation” Allan Bloom wrote in 1987. That is even more true today. The Rock & Roll generation lost the ethical and estetical sensitivity necessary to enjoy this kind of music ( I truly believe that ethics and estetics belong together, that they are two sides of the same coin). I see this in my own parents, who grew up with Rock & Roll and the teenage culture of the fifties. Classical music has nothing to say to them; they are totally unable to understand any aspect of the language of classical music. They hear unintelligible sounds, nothing else. It’s like people who never has learned how to enjoy reading books: they see black letters on white paper, unable to form images in the mind.

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