Since the beginning of this calendar year, we here at WTB (AKA: me) have been engaged in the Bach Chorale project. In an effort to improve sight reading and to satisfy certain OCD proclivities, One Page of Chorales Must be played a day. Today, on July 26, 322 out of the 371 chorales in the Breitkopf & Hartel edition have been mustered through. Plans are already underway to celebrate the completion of the project by means of
b) turning back to page one and beginning the project anew.
In what I recollect of my favorite childhood novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the heroine, Frankie grows up in a poor family that owns only two books: The Bible and The Complete Plays of Shakespeare. Frankie's scrappy, hardworking mother reads her children a page every night from each and begins again after each volume is completed so by the time they are young adults they have a solid classical education. Setting apart the mathematical improbabilities (so many pages, so little time...) the conceit has fueled my curiosity to see if after a few years I can attain a more fluent familiarity with the chorales.
The chorales are each pretty short, anywhere from between 4 to 20 measures. They provide good finger work because with 4 parts, each hand is given equally importance. As one reviewer of the Riemenschneider edition prescribes: "Playing two Bach chorales every morning is kind of like doing some jumping jacks and eating a spoonful of cod liver oil." Sometimes, split second decisions need to be made as to which hand takes a note. Sometimes there is no choice but to roll a chord of over a tenth; these hymns were written more for ease of vocalization than for a pianist's comfort. In order to encourage group participation during worship services, Luther devised the form for it's simplicity yet ability to communicate profound theoretical truths. Bach, industrious Kappelmeister that he was, churned out scores of these bad boys every liturgical year.
Apart from the satisfaction of negotiating the voicing of each chorale, there is much to be learned in their harmonic construction. In fact, understanding the harmonies can help in improving their performance and in future sight-reading As such the chorales are also excellent teaching tools for composition and as evidenced by The Street Smart Guide to Bach Chorales by Peter Alexander, are of use to the jazz arranging student. Something for everyone!
And perhaps best of all, it is impossible for those here at WTB to play a set and not intone.."And now let us pray." Always an excellent way to start any practice session.