Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" - Bach [HD]

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Johann Sebastian Bach
James Kibbie
James Kibbie, The Complete Organ Works of J.S. Bach

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The Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" ("From Heaven above to Earth I come"), BWV 769, are a set of five variations in canon for organ with two manuals and pedals by Johann Sebastian Bach on the Christmas hymn by Martin Luther of the same name. The variations were prepared as a showpiece for Bach's entry as fourteenth member of Mizler's Music Society in Leipzig in 1747. The original printed edition of 1747, in which only one line of the canon was marked in the first three variations, was published by Balthasar Schmid in Nuremberg. Another version BWV 769a appears in the later autograph manuscript P 271, which also contains the six trio sonatas for organ BWV 525-530 and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes BWV 651–668. In this later version Bach modified the order of the variations, moving the fifth variation into a central position, and wrote out all the parts in full, with some minor revisions to the score


1. Canone all’ ottava
2. Canone alla quinta
3. Canone alla settima
4. Canon per augmentationem
5. Canto fermo in canone

History and origins

In June 1747, Bach was admitted as the fourteenth member of the "Correspondierde Societät der Muscialischen Wissenschaften" (Corresponding Society for the Musical Sciences), a society devoted to musical scholarship founded in Leipzig in 1738 by Lorenz Christoph Mizler. To mark his admission he not only presented a version of the Canonic Variations, but also a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in which Bach holds a copy of his canon triplex a 6 voci BWV 1076 towards the viewer. During the last ten years of his life, Bach had become preoccupied musically with canons and canonic fugues, already much developed in the Parts III and IV of the Clavier-Übung – the Organ Mass BWV 552, BWV 669–689, the four canonic duets BWV 802-805 and the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 – as well as the Musical Offering BWV 1079 and the Art of the Fugue BWV 1080. The triplex canon itself became part of the Fourteen Canons BWV 1087, preserved in one surviving copy of the Goldberg Variations. Mizler seems to have been unaware of the numerological significance that the number fourteen had to Bach (B+A+C+H=14).

The small organ in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was organist and kantor 1723-1750. The organ, with its gilt Bach monogram, is a reconstruction by Gerald Woehl of a baroque organ played by Bach in the Paulinerkirche.

Cantus firmus, "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her"
The Canonic Variations are based on the Christmas Hymn "Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" for which the words and melody were composed in 1539 by Martin Luther. The chorale itself was set three times by Bach in his Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 and again in his Magnificat BWV 243. Bach had already used the cantus firmus in earlier chorale preludes, notably BWV 606 (Orgelbüchlein), 700, 701 and 738, with accompanying motifs above and below the melodic line that were to recur in BWV 769. There are also similarities with several of the Goldberg Variations, notably the third and thirteenth, with shared motifs, keyboard technique and general structure. In the case of the earlier harpsichord work, however, the variations are written over a fixed bass line, while BWV 769 is based on a melody.

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