Counterpoint on Music for Sunday

John Wall -- Music Director

John Wall, Music Director

In 1722 and 1742, J. S. Bach published The Well-Tempered Clavier: twenty-four preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. No, this is not a treatise on how sitting at the keyboard will keep you from losing your temper when surrounded at home by your twenty children.

By the time of Bach, keyboard designers had settled on twelve notes on keyboard to span the pitches been two frequencies that are factor of two, which we call an octave. Divide the frequency of 440hertz by twelve and your get a keyboard scale that only sounds right in tune starting on for instance “Do”.

The quest became how to space out the intervals so one could start on any of the twelve keys and end up with something that could be musically satisfying.

The 18th century solution named it a Well-Tempered scale. No matter which note you made your base note (”Do”) that music would have its own characteristic, but musically useful sound. Composers of 18th and 19th century such as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin used this Well-Tempered tuning in their music.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, we have used a tuning system called Equal Temperament. In Equal Temperament, the space is the same between each of the twelve notes. This makes possible accompanying a hymn higher or lower range (different key) for the ease of singers. A good thing I do it weekly on our equal tempered tuned pipe organ or other keyboards tuned thus. However when we listen to Bach in Equal Temperament, we are not hearing Bach’s harmonic intentions. Key color has been lost.
Here ends music theory 101.

Notes on today’s solo keyboard music

Henry Martin decided write piano pieces in every key honoring the Bach legacy but in a modern and jazzy style assuming Equal Temperament sound. Michael Barone of MPR and the American Public Media’s Pipedreams commissioned Martin to do the same for the organ–a prelude and fugue in every key. His Prelude in A is our organ prelude before the service this week. It provides a lovely six minutes of soft jazz intended for classic organ.

At the Offertory, I chosen Bach’s short Prelude XIX in A Major to connect with prelude by Henry Martin. However I will set the digital keyboard to the Well-Tempered Scale Bach’s would have had heard. See if your keen ear can detect this. It is hard to detect because A major is one of the purest Well-tempered major scales.

Tuning our Kawai piano to this Temperament would take time and retuning the organ would be very complex and expensive. The Yamaha digital keyboard makes that adjustment with a push of a button.

The postlude is two variations on the tune we know for the Doxology by Hans Friedrich Micheelsen (1902-1973). Micheelsen was an organist and distinguished music professor in Germany. Both movements are Biciniums, that is, two individual lines of music played on two different combinations of sounds on the organ. Obviously, one needs two hands and in this case two keyboards to play each melody. (That is not requirement. For instance Bach wrote “Two part Inventions” for one keyboard which most piano students will learn).

A little diversion on pipe organ design

Now you know a bit of organ building principles. The pedals make up our third keyboard. St. Mark’s Cathedral has five keyboards and there is a church or two in the Twin Cities that have six. More keyboards does not immediately mean louder. Actually, it is about having many more choices of sound from loud to soft.

I say combinations because in the first variation the accompaniment line plays two pitches and melody three pitches. In the second variation, the right hand plays three pitches of different color while the left hand plays five pitches on each note.

As an organist, I make the choice of which pipes on our organ to use, but there are quite a few different options using different sets of pipes (ranks) that can play the tune melodies and create a different mood.

Hymns we sing today

The processional hymn is “Praise to the Lord” that will include very short interludes before stanzas 3 and 4 with different harmonies on stanzas 3 and 4 by Paul Manz who composed this 1974 for Concordia College, St. Paul, MN. These are some of the earliest and most noted improvisations for hymn singing by this Lutheran organist from Minneapolis.

The African American spiritual “Let break bread together on our knees” is the communion song. Some of the guys I knew in the Minnesota Episcopal Cursillo movement loved to reverse the words of the refrain to read “when I fall on my face with my knees to the rising sun” because their spiritual awakening at the Cursillo weekend was so like the Apostle Paul’s being knocked of his horse on the road to Damascus. I could envision that as a face-plant with legs up in the air experience.

Our final hymn from the Roman Catholic Minnesota composer David Haas is a rousing setting of the Beatitudes which is the heart today’s Gospel. The principal of singing a truth deeply embeds it in our hearts and minds is reason enough for all of us to sing this as we prepare to leave church today.