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Cantus Firmus with Fugue

		A mighty fortress is our God 
		A bulwark never failing;
		Our helper He amid the flood
		Of mortal ills prevailing.
		For still our ancient foe
		Does seek to work us woe,
		His craft and power are great,
		and armed with cruel hate,
		On earth is not his equal.
		       	--Martin Luther
Excommunicated, and with a price on his head, Luther fled in 1522 to Eisenach, the town of his birth. There he came under the protection of Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Frederick's castle, the Wartburg, overlooked the forested hills of central Germany. Here Luther translated the Bible into his mother tongue. Here, too, he wrote what would soon become known as the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation" Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

I recently made a pilgrimage to Eisenach...not to retrace Luther's life, but that of another famous Eisenacher--Johann Sebastian Bach. One hundred and sixty-three years after the reformer took sanctuary in Eisenach, Johann Sebastian was born there. He was baptized in the Georgenkirche which, then as now, proclaims Ein feste Burg in stone above the door. Having studied Bach for many years I was yet surprised by Luther's looming influence. If his presence could be felt there 500 years later, I wondered, how much more Sebastian must have felt it, 300 years ago, as he spent the first ten years of his life attending the same school, churches, and playing in the same square as his famous predecessor. Nowhere can you look up and not see the inspiration of Luther's famous hymn, which in turn inspired Bach's Ein feste Burg cantata first performed on Reformation Sunday, October 31, 1734. Driving into Eisenach I determined to listen to it once more. As we rounded the last hill and saw the Wartburg in the distance, I felt a profound sense that so much of who we are, what we have loved, struggled with, and even hated, has been integrally connected with, and shaped by, these two men who have influenced western religion and music more than most. Vivid were the sounds and sights...I shall never forget.

BWV 80 is a splendid example of chorale cantata. The work employs Luther's famous hymn in nearly every movement and closes with the above harmonization. The cantata begins, however, with a monumental chorus combining cantus firmus technique with every form we have studied so far: canon, invention, and fugue! Each phrase employs the cantus firmus as canon in long notes, as motive in invention-like imitation, and as a fugal subject. The academic term for this is chorale motet--a composition for voices where a chorale melody is treated in imitative counterpoint in all voices. While "chorale motet" is sometimes applied to instrumental works as well, the same techniques for organ are usually termed chorale fugue. But I like to describe this procedure, wherever it happens, as "long cookie in canon with crumbs."

Here's how a long cookie in canon with crumbs is made. Bach bakes a subject out of the chorale's first phrase. He states this subject in one voice, answering it in the three remaining. Next he has his three oboes play the same phrase, in long notes, with violone and organ repeating it a couple of beats later--canon at the octave. While the canon is sounding, the choir engages itself in a little invention made of motives from phrase two. In similar manner he proceeds through each phrase of Luther's chorale to its conclusion. Click the following timeline to see how this procedure works in the Stollen of Luther's melody.


When you have familiarized yourself with Bach's technique, it is time to eat the whole cookie. But first another bit of history. Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, rewrote this grand chorale motet to make it even grander. Simply, Wilhelm Friedemann replaced the three oboe d'amore with trumpets--I suppose to give it a more martial flair. But even Wilhelm Friedemann could not outdo the Canadian Brass who have scored this work with brass and organ taking turns on the fugue and canon sections. Listen to this several times. If you are not familiar with the original tune, you might want to try following along with the chorale setting out of which it was made.

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