The next chorale prelude is, ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’, ‘O world, I must leave thee’, the first of two settings in the collection. Barbara Owen’s excellent study, The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms, goes into some more detail on the publication of the chorales, and problematises the idea that they are Brahms’ ‘last will and testament’, as I implied in my last post. Although they were prepared for publication in 1896, it seems that they may have been written across a much wider span of time, with a gestation dating back to his early interest in chorale melodies and organ music in the 1850s. She also points out the wide thematic variety in the chorale texts, which are not simply associated with death or grief, but call on a broader context of Lutheran worship and catechism.
Nevertheless, this particular setting and its partner are perhaps the most funereal, something that comes across in a few musical elements. I had already made a mental link between the two-note quaver sighing motif, and the rising/falling motif in the final movement of the Deutsches Requiem, ‘Selig sind die Toten’, ‘Blessed are the dead’, also in F major. There is a similar feeling of serenity to the chorale prelude, with the flowing quavers belying the frequent time signature changes, a result of the irregularly phrased chorale tune. Barbara Owen also links it to Bach’s Orgelbüchlein setting of ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’, BWV 618, similarly in F, with an almost identical descending motif to this prelude, as well as the final chorus of Part One of the St Matthew Passion, ‘O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß’. Brahms deftly integrates this motif with the ornamented chorale melody, part of a technique of vorimitation, or ‘prior imitation’, also seen in the manuals only passage preceding the third line of the chorale.
My recording is at the end of this post, and I can also recommend this this recording by Robert Bates, with the chorale melody sung beforehand. I’ve experimented with some organ sounds on my keyboard this time, although I couldn’t find a bass sound I liked for the pedal. The next one will most likely be on the piano again. I’ve started a Spotify playlist to go along with this project, featuring all of the chorales and and other music I mention in these posts.
In normal times, organists find themselves playing at quite a number of funerals, the only church service you can almost guarantee someone will attend after their baptism. Unless the deceased was particularly into classical music, one is often given free rein to choose something appropriate to play, which for me might include this chorale setting at some point. Last year I was called upon to play at the funeral of someone very close, who left not suddenly, or over a long time, but steadily and heartbreakingly. I couldn’t think of an exit piece more appropriate than ‘O Welt’, with those quavers clinging on to life even as they say goodbye. And I’m sure it would have amused the man, a domesticated sailor and rambler, to know that the original words to the tune were the slightly more lighthearted ‘Innsbruck, I must leave thee’, a lover’s lament to the town and beloved that he has to leave behind.
Last week I lost another friend and colleague, who had worked at my bookshop in Cecil Court for over fifty years. I only knew her for a small portion of her life, but she was a true character, who cared for her friends and colleagues in an old-fashioned way, writing endless letters despite her failing eyesight, and making newspaper cuttings if she knew someone had a ‘special topic’ (anything to do with Japan went to me). In the current circumstances of lockdown our remembrance is constrained to phone calls and virtual commiserations, while the shop she loved is shuttered for now.
This is a curiously disembodied time, and anecdotally it seems that many of us are swinging between intense emotion and detachment. As David MacIver puts it in this perceptive piece, ‘When we are cut from our environment, we lose the parts of ourself that the environment allowed us to be’. Still, I’m grateful for the people I live with, my family and friends, and the music I can listen to and practice at home. Grieving with Brahms will have to do for now.