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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Q. Dear CNP:

I've mastered a wonderful Bach organ chorale prelude, Valet will ich der geben, BWV 736 (which in the English world is the tune of "All Glory Laud and Honor," but which was actually written by Bach as an uplifting funeral piece).

Given that you have the Bach Gigue Fugue listed as a suggested organ piece for the Solemnity of the Ascension, for example, I'm wondering if this could appropriately be added to your list of Ascension pieces? The translation of the lyrics seems to fit, and it certainly is a joyous piece!

Would you consider adding it? In actuality, the only thing that associates it with Palm Sunday is the English hymn tune.

translation of stanza 1:

Farewell I gladly bid Thee,
False, evil world, farewell!
Thy life is dark and sinful,
With thee I would not dwell:
In heav'n are joys untroubled,
I long for that bright sphere
Where God rewards them doubled,
Who serv'd Him truly here.

Al Glorie

A. Dear Al:

Congratulations on learning BWV 736 — it's a wonderful piece, as is the B-flat Major version of the same tune.

Regarding when to play it: I wouldn't play this chorale prelude apart from Palm Sunday, because the tune is so intimately associated with that day — unless the congregation knows and is singing another set of words to the tune. Worship III Hymnal uses this tune for a series of appropriately flexible verses for saints' days called "By All Your Saints Still Striving." At Saint James Parish, we've used this hymn (with the tune Valet will) on our parish feast day. I believe I did play the Bach as a prelude that day, but only because it related to the Entrance Hymn above.

If your congregation only knows Valet will as "All Glory, Laud and Honor," then that is what they'll recall when hearing the Bach prelude. I would respect that. If the connotation is strong, then it really doesn't matter what Bach had in mind or what the alternate text of the German chorale might mean. The people are going to hear "All glo-ry laud and hon-or" as you play.

Another example: the German chorale In dulci jubilo is what we today know as "Good Christian Men Rejoice." If there happened to be another text in use with this tune in 18th century Germany for the feast of All Saints, I seriously doubt that I would be tempted to play one of Bach's settings of the chorale on that day, since the modern association with Christmas is so strong.

In public speaking, the speaker always needs to be aware of not just what he says, but how it is heard by the listener. He could use the word "righteous" and it would have completely different meanings when addressed to teenagers, to the church Women's Guild, or to a group of theologians. What the speaker meant is not important ... what matters is what the listeners heard and understood.

The same applies to organ music. We need to approach selection on what the listeners will hear. If there is a strong association in their minds with a feast or a season, we need to respect that in choosing when to play the music.

That's the first level of consideration. There are also many German chorales that hold no association whatsoever for the modern Catholic listener, like the Advent chorale, Herr Christ, der einge Gottes Sohn. In this case, even if this has a neutral association with the listener, I would still respect Bach's interpretation of the tune as being suitable for Advent and play this only during that season. There are also many "general" chorales, also with no modern association, which we are free to play at will.

It can work the other way, too. The German chorale, Alle Menschen müssen sterben, has a funeral text. But most modern Catholics know this tune, Salzburg with the text, "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" — an Easter hymn. I would have no difficulty whatsoever playing this on any day of Eastertide, since that's how the listener will hear it. It is also sung to the text, "Songs of Thankfulness and Praise," a hymn for use at Epiphany or the Baptism of the Lord. If the congregation knows and sings this hymn, then I'd be comfortable playing any setting of Alle Menschen müssen sterben during that time, especially if the hymn were to be sung that day.

In the end, the ultimate criterion for choosing organ music is what the listener will hear and associate with the music. That's the same argument I use for not singing sacred words to "Danny Boy" or singing the Ave Maria to the Notre Dame fight song. People will hear much more than what the words say.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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