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Cantus Firmus in Canon

So far we have studied works where the cantus firmus appeared in one voice. The remaining examples will place the cantus firmus in two or more voices. One of Bach's favorite methods for disbursing the cantus firmus is to state the melody in canon. Here is a "simple" setting of the chorale Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier. Before hearing the canonic setting, it will be useful to memorize the melody (soprano part) in this simple version.

Bach's Orgelbüchlein setting of Liebster Jesu, begins with the melody sounding in the highest voice. Four beats later it is echoed, a fourth lower, in an inner voice. So, in addition to being a chorale prelude, Liebster Jesu is also a canon at the fifth. The Orgelbüchlein contains eight chorale preludes, like this one, where the cantus firmus appears in canon. Bach never used this device capriciously, but always as a figuration of the text. The Liebster Jesu chorale speaks, for example, of licht vom licht aus Gott geboren "Light from Light born of God." What a better way to paint a picture of "Light from Light" than to use a musical process in which one melody is born out of another.

Elsewhere I have referred to this technique as Cookie in Canon. A variation would be "Cookie WITH Canon," where the cantus firmus itself is not canonic, but voices accompanying it are. The first, second, fourth, and fifth canons from Bach's Variations on Vom Himmel hoch exemplify "cookie WITH canon," while the third exemplifies "cookie IN canon." Study these examples carefully.


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