avec Éric Lebrun, organiste
« L’orgue de Johann Sebastian Bach »
animée par Tristan Labouret, musicologue
Église du Sacré-Coeur


Église du Sacré-Coeur

Durée approximative 1h10

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata en ut majeur, BWV 566a
Choral « Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott », BWV 720
Fugue en do mineur sur un thème de Giovanni Legrenzi, BWV 574
Concerto pour orgue en la mineur, BWV 593 (d’après Vivaldi)
Prélude et fugue en ut majeur, BWV 547
Choral « Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele », BWV 654
L’Art de la fugue, BWV 1080 (extrait)
Prélude et fugue en mi mineur, BWV 548

Éric Lebrun, orgue

A life at the organ

Bach’s compositional output is vast. His corpus of works for organ alone is enormous, spanning his entire life, from his first partitas, composed at the age of fifteen, to the last contrapuntal works of the Art of the Fugue and the final choruses of the Mass in B minor, composed not long before his death. On their own, they encapsulate the enthusiasms, influences and personal evolution that marked the composer’s genius – of which this exciting program explores the major stages and presents the key elements. Although only a professional organist for fifteen years, Bach never stopped writing for the organ and these works allow us to trace the amazing adventure of his entire composing life.

Beginning with early works by a young Bach just returned from Lubeck, where he had met and heard Dietrich Buxtehude, the great master of the organ at the time, the program opens with his Toccata in C major, BWV 566a. The piece is constructed in the manner of the North German masters who were his youthful inspiration, in five linked sections, from an opening prelude to the final peroration.

The chorale Ein feste Burg, BWV 720, (A mighty fortress is our God) also dates from the musician’s youth but it accompanied him throughout his entire life, since the Lutherans made it a sort of “Reformation hymn.” The poet Heinrich Heine even went so far as to write that this chorale, of which Luther himself wrote the melody, had become “the Marseillaise of the Reformation.” Bach’s version for organ is very interesting, firstly because it presents several interpretative indications – very rare in Bach’s works – and secondly because the stops indicated are precisely those Bach had had installed in the new organ at Mühlhausen, which was rebuilt and enlarged under his direction.

In his young years, Bach was also enthused by the Italian music he discovered. Suddenly, he saw how to master his musical language and harness the wildest impulses of his dazzling imagination. The Fugue in C Minor on a theme by Legrenzi, BWV 574, testifies to the composer’s admiration for music from across the Alps, which had shown him just how to express his ideas. It is a double fugue with fugal exposition of the two subjects followed by their combination in a new exposition. Bach would soon adopt forms borrowed from Italian music, particularly the sonata and the concerto. Our final encounter with the young musician, intoxicated by his intellectual and physical virtuosity, is the celebrated and brilliant Concerto in A minor, BWV 593. The original was a concerto for violin and strings by Vivaldi, which Bach transformed – one might say recreated – in a concerto for solo organ that is driven by a tremendous, leaping energy.

The second part of the program begins with the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547. This period of Bach’s life sees him perfecting the expression of his musical ideas in the major genres to which he devoted himself – the prelude, the fugue and the chorale. He brought these to an unequalled degree of perfection, as if he wished to leave a record of or a testament to his musical thought at its highest level. This powerful, intricately constructed and densely written Prelude and Fugue is certainly the last Bach wrote. It is sometimes called the “Christmas Prelude,” due to its many similarities to cantatas composed for this festival.

The chorale Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele,BWV 654, (Adorn yourself, O dear soul) is part of a collection of late chorales and is perhaps the most moving of all those in the collection. It deeply impressed Schumann and Mendelssohn, who heard it during a concert on the organ of the Saint Thomas Church, Leipzig, in 1840.

At the end of his life, having taken his fugal writing to an extreme degree of complexity, Bach undertook the writing of an Art of Fugue, in which fourteen contrapuntal works, or fugues, would exalt the use of variation and the metamorphosis of a very simple, single musical subject – as though seeking to exhaust all its possibilities. The first of these contrapuntal works already seems to take us into a light-filled world, at once complex and serene, detached from earthly affairs.

As for the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548, this monumental diptych comes from the mature composer’s final bouquet of masterpieces. More or less a concerto, the Prelude impresses by the profusion and richness of its musical figures. The Fugue breaks the inevitable progression of its discourse by following the shape of an Italian aria – a unique approach! At 232 bars, it is the longest of Bach’s organ fugues. Its strange, chromatic subject is rich, difficult and very striking and makes it possible to contrast chromatic motifs with rippling figures. This prodigious structure brought the final chapter in Bach’s life to a close.

Gilles Cantagrel

Photo ©Yannick Boschat