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Schweitzer plays Bach
Few men have achieved distinction in so many fields as Albert Schweitzer. Born the son of a Lutheran pastor in Alsace in 1875, he was drawn to music at an early age, deputising at 9 for the local organist; and later, after studying theology, philosophy and musical theory at Strasbourg University, he continued his studies of the organ under Widor and the piano under Isidore Philipp in Paris. In 1896 he resolved to live for science and art until he was thirty and then devote himself to serving humanity. He took his doctorate in religious philosophy, and in 1903, while a practicing minister, became principal of the theological college in Strasbourg, at the same time studying medicine. At the age of 30 he published an epoch-making book on the music of Bach, and followed this up a year later with an authoritative and influential treatise on organ-building (in which he argued for French design-particularly that of Cavaille-Coll - as opposed to German). Meanwhile he had written an important theological treatise, The quest for the historical Jesus, and started on his historic critical edition (which was to continue for several decades) of Bach's complete organ works. From 1905 to 1913 he was organist of the Paris Bach Society, but then, having qualified as a doctor, went off to Lambarene in French Equatorial Africa and set up a hospital to fight leprosy and sleeping-sickness. There he spent the next half-century, except for visits to Europe, giving recitals to raise money for his medical mission, and in 1934-5 to lecture in Oxford, London and Edinburgh. For his philanthropical work and his further books on culture and ethics he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and the Order of Merit three years later.
For the most part, the present programme consists of works Bach wrote before the age of 30. Precise dating is rarely possible, but it is likely that the earliest piece here (probably c.1707) is the famous Toccata & Fugue in D minor, which reveals the influence of northern German masters like Buxtehude and Boehm. The extrovert Toccata is made up of short rhetorical sections separated by dramatic pauses; the Fugue is on a running semiquaver subject, with an impressive peroration after an unexpected interrupted cadence. The charming "little" G minor Fugue is distinguished from the "great" fugue in the same key (BMW 542) not only in length but by its almost never going beyond three-part texture. There are, however, unobtrusive subtleties in the writing, such as a threefold permutation of the three voices of bars 18-21; and though the fugue subject consists of three short phrases, the last is only a variant of the second.
From much the same period comes the Toccata, Adagio & Fugue, evidence of Bach's brilliant skill as a performer which earned him his post in Weimar, where much of his organ music was composed. It begins in bravura style with a long introductory flourish and a spectacular pedal solo, from one of whose figurations a spacious prelude is developed. The Adagio is a beautiful long-spun Italianate cantabile whose accompaniment pattern resembles that of Bach's harpsichord Italian Concerto. A series of striking suspensions then leads to the big and cheerful Fugue. The texture of the festive Prelude & Fugue in C is closely integrated and woven with the utmost contrapuntal mastery. For two-thirds of its length the Fugue (in which scarcely a bar is not based on the subject or its inversion) proceeds, in four parts, on the manuals alone; when the pedals enter, it is with the subject in notes of double length.
Bach's more than 200 preludes on chorale melodies show an immense diversity of treatments. In Liebster Jesu the melody is elaborately decorated, particularly in its second half; Christum wir sollen loben schon is the only four-part prelude with the chorale in the alto part, where it is surrounded by contrapuntal lines ingeniously derived from it. The other two preludes here are somewhat later in date. Each line of Jesus Christus unser Heiland. is treated fugally (in the sequence tenor-alto-bass-soprano), the chromaticisms of line 3 illustrating the hymn's words "bitt're Leiden" ("bitter woe"). O Lamm Gottes is in three stanzas, the first two for manuals only; the third is heroic in tone, and an expressive chromatic passage just before the end is again programmatic.
The Prelude & Fugue in E minor, written in Leipzig some time around 1730, was called by Spitta an "organ symphony in two movements". The solid, powerful Prelude is followed by the longest fugue Bach ever wrote, with the peculiarity that its course is interrupted (hence its nickname of the "Wedge") by a fantasia-like section which merely alludes to the fugue subject, giving the whole a ternary structure akin to that of the da capo aria.
- Lionel Salter, 1993