Ricercare (Ital.), “. . . ricercare is a verb, meaning to investigate, query, inquire, search out with diligence . . . testing the tuning, probing the key . . . .” (Johann Gottfried Walther, Musikalisches Lexikon, Leipzig, 1732);1 and as a noun: “. . . Thus in Bach’s time it served almost exclusively for the title of a strict and, in its polyphonic texture, highly elaborate fugue.”2
Ah, well, it is perhaps a tale to be retold yet once more, an instructive yarn well worth spinning anew, offered up here as an autumn fantasy, one with an exceedingly wry afterglow. The occasions and events in question took place some 300 years ago. And in spite of unexpected setbacks that overshadowed the final outcome, the adventure might after all be credited with having led to the creation of an unusual composition for organ, one that might otherwise have never come to light in the same context.
The tale is of Johann Sebastian Bach’s trip to Dresden in the autumn of 1717, undertaken at the urging of the royal Saxon court chapel’s violinist-concertmaster, Jean-Baptiste Volumier. Bach was charged, in essence, with the mission of upholding the honor of his homeland’s keyboard music tradition against a figurative incursion launched by one of France’s eminent composers, Louis Marchand (1669–1732), Organiste du Roi. Marchand was on an extended leave from Paris at the time, touring Germany with a display of his keyboard and compositional talents, and currently seeking favor from the royal Dresden court. Bach also hoped to win favor and a remunerative purse, while at the same time pitting his skills against Marchand in an international venue.
The composition in question is Bach’s legendary Pièce d’orgue (thus titled in more than one manuscript source), a three-section work, at the heart of which is a finely crafted extended fantasy for keyboard, presumably for pipe organ with pedals. It is a living time capsule—one of few words and many notes—that offers up a vibrant slice-of-life drawn from the travels of an adventurous composer in his early thirties, who was hard-pressed by circumstances on his home front, while also on a quest for recognition and honor abroad.
Bach’s arrival coincided with the day of Marchand’s tests, trials, and demonstrations. Concertmaster Volumier took the initiative of arranging for Bach to overhear portions of these recitals from a concealed vantage point. It has been recorded that by the end of his contest, Marchand had indeed won the day and would continue his sojourn victoriously, having received meritorious and remunerative recognitions.
What might have taken place in the course of the evening that followed is a subject for speculation, perhaps even for imagination. Is it possible that these two notable exemplars of Germanic and French keyboard artistry might have been able to escape the rigors of international diplomacy, that they might have found time to meet in one of the city’s spacious church sanctuaries, one where they might also find a pipe organ installation that would provide a viable proving ground for their dueling skills? Just imagine what could have been . . . .
(Extract from an anonymous personal diary, Journals, dated October/November, 1717)
. . . It was already past dusk when the two principal parties of the contest arrived at the door leading up to the organ loft. There were three of us surveying the scene from a distance, gathered together in a tight knot and hidden from view in the shadows of the front chapel. We recognized Concertmaster Wolumyer of Dresden as he entered, followed by Concertmaster Bach, who was accompanied by two of his Weimar students. The French King’s Organist-Composer, Louis Marchand, arrived soon after, in company with two attachés assigned to his visit. Apparently Bach was to launch the evening’s music-makings, and indeed, as we watched he turned to M. Marchand, greeted him cordially, withdrew a vellum music manuscript from his folio and held it out to his elder colleague. M. Marchand graciously received the score, opened it, and proceeded to peruse the contents. Although their conversing tones were lost in the acoustical ambiance of a lofty nave, it was apparent that Bach was to begin the evening’s music-making with his recrafted Pièce d’orgue, written and ornamented in the French manner. We would hear it now with the addition of two outer movements.
As we watched, the trio from Weimar separated from the others, making their way up to the dimly candle-lit organ loft and taking their places at the console. Bach had been allowed time to familiarize himself with the instrument earlier in the day, and his two flanking assistants were well coached in advance. Soon enough the first notes of an arpeggiated tonic chord broke the silence, ever so light in touch and sounding out on clear stops: we heard a single line of dancing arpeggios and passaggios in a compound triple meter, falling and rising, rippling through the gamut of the keyboard. This was the newly added Très vitement, a sparkling warm-up exercise for the fingers, leading up to the five-voice Gravement. Contrary to the French tradition of a Grand plein jeu registration, tonight the Gravement began on one of the instrument’s gentlest registers. We heard a low tonic pedal note, then a G-major chord in the manuals, with the soprano tonic pitch suspended over to the first quarter-note of the next beat, and four descending scale notes in succession. This motivic pattern migrated from one voice to another, delicately ornamented internally, and at each successive cadential gesture. Also of note, at major cadences a new stop or set of stops would be added by the two flanking registrants. By shifting from one manual to another and progressively engaging manual and pedal couplers, a tightly imitative ricercar with a brief compound motif for a subject was being transformed into a majestic paean, echoing gloriously through the nave’s acoustical environment. This was Bach in his native setting, ‘testing the lungs’ of a church’s instrument as he had done from year to year in the course of his many investigative journeys. In the final line of the Gravement, we heard a new voice enter in the manuals, further intensifying the texture and leading up to an abruptly dramatic pause on an unresolved deceptive cadence. After a momentary silence, the Lentement resumed on foundation stops, beginning with arpeggiations of the Gravement’s closing chord, sounded over a bass line that descended step by chromatic step to an extended dominant pedalpoint and final closing cadence in G Major.
There was a stillness and silence that followed the last chords as they faded into the upper reaches of the nave. We sat quietly, awed and deeply moved by the music we had just heard and calmed by its lingering aura. Within moments it became evident that Bach was preparing registrations for his next selection. Even though we had been advised in advance that he would likely play one of his newest keyboard compositions, a single-movement fantasy in D minor for clavier, nothing could have prepared us for the intense drama that was to follow . . . .
[End of Journals extract.]
Who could fathom what might or might not have transpired in the course of such an evening? If it had even taken place, who might possibly divine what Bach would have played, or what selections Marchand could have chosen from his repertoire. There is no indication that the two of them resorted to swordplay—whether improvising with epées, or instead on keyboards, each of them with assistants in alert attendance. Nor is there evidence to suggest that Marchand carried an inked copy of Bach’s Fantasy with him back to Paris and the royal library. And if fate had denied Bach an opportunity to perform his recently penned chromatic Fantasy in D Minor3 for Marchand at an organ console, it could well have been included in his harpsichord recitations on the following day.
Varied accounts of Bach’s letter of invitation addressed to Marchand in which he proposed a public contest indicate that the two of them were to meet at the private mansion of Count Joachim Friedrich Flemming for a public display of their musical prowess. Alas for Bach, his competitor—perhaps wisely—chose to bow out of the tentative commitment, traveling on to his next port of call in the early hours of the designated morning. In spite of Marchand’s unanticipated absence, the public hearing was to take place after all: Bach’s impressive solo performance on that day won him royal recognition as hoped, and his meeting with Count Flemming would prove invaluable in the coming years. Alas, his prize purse of 500 talers was waylaid in the course of its delivery. And in the event Bach had traveled to Dresden with a hand-copied score of the Fantasy in G in his possession, it rode back with its composer on the return trip. More importantly though, a doorway had been opened that would offer future return visits, valuable musical associations, activities, and honors.
Could it be that the middle movement of the Fantasy, as we know it today, might have evolved from on-the-spot improvisations performed on some of the various church organs Bach visited in his many travels? Could the music of an earlier version of the mid-section have offered an idealized means of “testing the lungs of an instrument”—a ricercare, or a seeking-out—by starting with quiet stops and gradually adding registers at subsequent cadential breaks and convenient moments? It is easy enough to imagine that a far more sophisticated end product, impeccably written in five- and six-voice tightly imitative counterpoint in the manner of a classic ricercata, was eventually honed for solemn occasions and processionals and found its way to ink and paper. An earlier manuscript of the central movement, one with French markings and an abbreviated ending, is cited as a possible compositional byproduct of Bach’s exposure to French keyboard music studied and copied in Weimar’s music library.4 Could Bach have added the improvisatorial framing introduction and closing sections (with their French titles) at a later date, in anticipation of his supposed meeting with Marchand?
The Gravement is written in common meter with alla breve note values (i.e., two half-notes per measure). The quasi-motivic subject that serves to generate 157 measures of tightly knit counterpoint is generically no more or less than a suspended quarter- or half-note, followed by four descending pitches, the two units serving interchangeably as a head and a tail. It is freely imitated in tight succession, as well as in multiple paired overlapping entries. A secondary structural event can be found in the fantasy’s numerous staircase-like scalar progressions of whole-note pitches in the pedal line, employed with dramatically telling effect.5 Overall, the Gravement is neither fugue nor fancy, rather it is a one-of-a-kind ricercar-like construction, albeit perhaps an imitative fantasy, but one that is uniquely imbued with un esprit français.
There are additional elements throughout all three movements that hint strongly at Bach’s emulation of a classical hexachord fantasy, a formalized contrapuntal structure emanating from sixteenth-century practices. Hexachordal elements are present freely in the six-note groupings of the Très vitement’s compound meter,6 in the six diatonically related keys traversed in the course of the Gravement’s tonal excursions, and finally in the hexachordal arpeggiations of the Lentement.7 It is worth noting that the title, Fantasy, would appear to have been applied by cataloguers of subsequent generations, but not by the composer. Above and beyond formalized or traditional concepts, and viewed as a single entity, Bach’s storied BWV 572 is in essence a grand tone poem, a broadly proportioned triptych of three contrasting sections—two linear outer panels framing an impeccably woven central tapestry.
In support of a progressive registrational plan for the Gravement, there are numerous authentic and half cadences throughout the contrapuntally textured movement that facilitate the addition of stops and couplers, or shifts from one manual to another.8
There is the anomalous presence of a low pedal B-natural (measure 66), a note not normally found on Germanic pedalboards but occasionally present in French manual and/or pedal dispositions. While such an insignificant deviation could easily be glossed over, it is cited here in support of a Francophile leaning and interpretation, one that is already abundantly apparent in the French titles of the opus and its individual movements.
There is also the matter of a quasi-legendary pedagogical lineage to be considered in the course of these closing words. A multi-generational succession of teachers—one of many that can be traced from Bach into the 20th century—extends from a late Leipzig organ student, Johann Christian Kittel (1732–1809, Erfurt), through Christian Heinrich Rinck (1770–1846, Darmstadt), to Adolph Friedrich Hesse (1809–1863, Breslau); and from Hesse continuing through Jacques Nicolas Lemmens (1823–1881, Belgium, Paris), to Alexandre Guilmant (1837–1911, Paris), and to Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937, Paris); passed on in turn by Guilmant and Widor to Marcel Dupré (1886–1971, Paris). Notable from Dupré—and relevant to this discussion—is his recorded version of the Fantasy, registered and performed in an accumulative and glorious manner on the Cavaillé-Coll instrument of St. Sulpice, Paris, during his tenure as titular organist.9
And now, to end this autumn reverie of what-ifs—much in the same manner as it began—on an inquisitive note: Is it possble that the tradition of a broadly romantic and accumulative interpretation could have been passed on and survived intact in its passage through such a fragile and tenuous teaching tradition, spanning over six generations from 1750 to the latter twentieth century, and onward?
1. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 330.
2. Ibid., p. 329.
3. Eventually Fantasy in D Minor, S. 903 (without Fugue).
4. Notably Nicolas de Grigny’s Livre d’orgue (1699, Paris, reissued 1711), Bach’s hand copy dating from ca. 1713.
5. See Example 2.
6. See Example 1.
7. See Example 5.
8. See Examples 3 and 4.
9. See http://www.marceldupre.com/ CD: Mercury Living Presence recording of Marcel Dupré: Bach (Six Schübler Chorales, Fantasy in C Minor, Fantasy in G Major) Saint-Sulpice, 1959, available in CD reissues.
A Selected Bibliography
David, Hans T., and Arthur Mendel, ed. The Bach Reader, A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1945, 1966.
_____________. The New Bach Reader, A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, revised and expanded by Christoph Wolff. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Gaines, James R. Evening in the Palace of Reason. New York: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Geiringer, Karl. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Culmination of an Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Griepenkerl, Friedrich Conrad, and Ferdinand Roitzsch, ed. Johann Sebastian Bach, Orgelwerke, Vol. IV. New York: C. F. Peters Corporation, 1950.
Widor, Charles-Marie, and Albert Schweitzer, ed. Johann Sebastian Bach, Complete Organ Works, Vol. III. New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1913.
Wolff, Christoph. Bach, Essays on His Life and Music. Cambridge (MA) & London: Harvard University Press, 1993.
____________. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
An apologia and acknowledgements
In order to provide a degree of continuity and to avoid undue interruptions in the flow of the text, end notes have been kept to a minimum. All details and factual accountings have been extracted from the sources cited above; they are often repeated in more than one source, sometimes with degrees of variation that have required editorial pruning. The Journal entry is a fictitious creation, a work of imagination. In his Evening in the Palace of Reason, James R. Gaines offers an exemplary format for overlapping multiple perspectives and layers of narration, and for combining recorded facts with speculative premises and intuitions to produce an animated account of historical events. His model has provided a structural guidepost for the essay featured here, offered informally as an example of speculative musicology. There are sure to be lacunae great and small in these words, for which all due apologies are offered.