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Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, BWV 639 (arr. Busoni)

March 19, 2023 – Rachel Naomi Kudo, piano

Our discussion of the present three Bach transcriptions must begin with Ferrucio Busoni, who was Egon Petri’s teacher. As a youth Busoni adored Bach above all other composers, a passion that endured throughout his life. He not only drew on Bach’s music for inspiration in his own works but he issued a monumental edition of Bach’s solo keyboard works transcribed for piano—a twenty-five volume collection plus a seven-volume set—aided by his students Egon Petri and Bruno Mugellini. So synonymous did Bach and Busoni become in the public’s mind that on Busoni’s first American tour his wife Gerda was once introduced by a society matron as “Mrs. Bach-Busoni.” This anecdote was related by Petri, a superb German pianist of Dutch descent, who began studying with Busoni in Weimar in 1901. Petri eventually settled in the United States, taught at Mills College, and authored many Bach transcriptions at Busoni’s behest.

Busoni issued his Bach edition in two collections: the twenty-five-volume Klavierwerke, and the seven-volume Bach-Busoni edition. Although Busoni’s name appears on each volume of the Klavierwerke, many were edited by Petri and a few by Bruno Mugellini. Petri had expected Busoni to supervise his and Mugellini’s editorial work and they strove to operate under his principles and to emulate his style, yet Busoni concerned himself very little with reading their proofs, much to Petri’s surprise.

Busoni strove to remain true to the essence of Bach’s music in his transcriptions, but inevitably his own Romantic sensibilities crept in with his addition of tempo and pedal markings, dynamics, register changes, repeats, and performance suggestions. Nevertheless, these transcriptions are rewarding additions to the piano repertoire. Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ—which appears as No. 5 in Busoni’s collection of Ten Chorale Preludes (1898) and No. 41 (BWV 639) in Bach’s Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book)—has become a favorite of pianists and audiences for its poignant serenity. Flowing arpeggios in the middle voice accompany the tender, mostly unadorned chorale melody, supported by a steady “walking bass.”

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is actually Busoni’s transcription of what was already a transcription by Bach himself. In 1731 Bach had composed the fourth movement of his Cantata 140 (Wachet auf) in chorale-prelude style with tenor(s) taking the chorale melody, surrounded by a a lyrical countermelody for upper strings in unison and supported by continuo (bass line and harmony). Thus it was a simple task to transfer all three parts to organ, which he did in BWV 645, one of a group of six late works that became known as the “Schübler Chorales” after their publication by Johann Georg Schübler in 1748–49. Busoni’s transcription for piano, No. 2 in his Ten Chorale Preludes, maintains the lilting flow in the upper line against the steady chorale in the middle voice.

Turning to the first piece of the group of transcriptions, Egon Petri arranged his version of Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze) not from a chorale preude by Bach but rather a soprano aria from Cantata 208 Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd! (What pleases me is above all the lively hunt). Bach wrote secular cantatas for aristocratic patrons to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, name days, and accession days, or for academic ceremonies, and he composed Cantata 208 on a text by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck for the birthday of Duke Christian Weissenfels in 1713. Known as the Hunt Cantata, it contains “Schafe können sicher weiden,” the well-known aria for Pales, second soprano to Diana, goddess of the hunt. For centuries listeners have been captivated by its texture of rocking parallel thirds for two flutes—the quintessential pastoral instrument—accompanying the tender main melody, which praises Duke Christian for ruling his people as a good shepherd.

The lovely aria has been transcribed for countless times for various performing forces, among the first—Percy Grainger’s for band (1931), Mary Howe’s for solo piano and two pianos (1935), and William Walton’s for orchestra (1940). Egon Petri’s transcription, published in 1944 has become the best-known transcription for piano.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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