1. Christ Unser Herr Zum Jordan Kam (To Jordan when our Lord has gone); 2. Valet Will Ich Dir Geben (Farewell I Gladly Bid Thee); 3. Lass, O Herr, Dein Ohr Sich Neigen (To Our Trembling Supplication); 4. Ach Gott, Wie Manches Herzeleid (O Lord! How Many Miseries); 5. Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme (Awake, The Voice Commands); 6. Christ Unser Herr Zum Jordan Kam
Originally, chorales were arrangements from plain chant (the first religious songs in the Catholic Church and the recognized beginnings of all western “art” music). Luther made many such transcriptions, and may even have composed some tunes himself. These melodies were settings of religious texts originally from the Catholic mass, and later adapted to Protestant requirements. The supreme test of any composer is to set the melodies well for four voices, and the most accomplished examples are those of J. S. Bach.
The melodies would have been well known to churchgoers in the 16th and 17th centuries, so a tradition developed wherein the famous tunes were improvised upon by church musicians at points during the services. These improvisations became what we now consider to be Chorale Preludes.
Early works by composers such as Sweelinck and Buxtehude preceded those of J. S. Bach, arguably the most skillful composer of all time. JSB, in turn, perfected the medium (heretofore exclusively the domain of the organist). Others, such as Brahms, Reger, and Vaughan Williams, followed suit in the centuries to come. Busoni’s piano transcriptions of Brahms and Bach organ chorale preludes are justifiably celebrated.
To walk in the foot steps of JSB is indeed a dangerous path. Obviously, one does not wish to invite comparison between oneself and such a colossus of musical history. Therefore, the task of the composer tackling such an endeavor is to create a new world of sound wherein the point of reference is obscured.
In this piece, voice work is kept as simple as possible. From the first number, wherein one finds intentionally “wrong” harmonizations (which would hopefully not rankle my teacher Alexander Rapoport – to whom it is respectfully dedicated); to the Brahmsian second (dedicated to an old flame); the Brubeckian third (dedicated to Gary Smart); the Gershwinesque fourth (dedicated to Tomoko Deguchi); the Stravinskian fifth (unrecognizable to those who know Bach’s stellar setting of the same – and dedicated to my late father who did not go gently into that good night); ending with a four-voice fugue based on the same material of the first prelude (dedicated to fellow former students David and Charis Duke); throughout all, one hopefully finds a few surprises.