My Fantasie-Transcription of the duet, “Wie selig sind doch die,” from Bach’s celebrated cantata BWV 80 (“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”) is both a faithful transcription of the original—a double duet for violin and oboe da caccia, alto and tenor voices, with continuo—and an analysis, via exaggeration, of Bach’s structure in a language that stays mostly within the realm of the tonal and rhythmically regular but is certainly not, throughout, “Bachian.” I love those brief, chromatic moments in Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Bach’s E major violin partita during which one catches glimpses of Sergei smiling through the baroque haze; my transcription features many more and more extreme examples of these other-temporal intrusions.
“Wie selig sind doch die” is a 4-minute miracle—a study in canon and canonic thinking (and related ideas of call and response and imitation) with a crystal clear form and exhibiting a perfect balance of motivic cohesion and textural variety. Bach’s formal structure is: ritornello 1, call and response 1, double canons a2, ritornello 2, call and response 2, canon a4, ritornello 3, imitation a5 (the continuo joins in), and a closing canon a2 that moves through a surprisingly dark evocation of death that is immediately reformed, via the da capo, into the happy life of the opening.
My transcription follows this form exactly but begins with the final canon a2 that moves through dense chromaticism and lontano premonitions of the primary motive of the duet into a literal transcription of ritornello 1. The following sections ensue in Bach’s order, but they alternate fluidly from literal transcriptions to fantastic flights into related but distinct areas. These excursions resemble toccatas (for single and double keyboards) and ricercare, pushing against and beyond the bounds of Bach’s style, but always in the service of elucidating Bach’s structure while simultaneously converting this vocal work into a pianistic one.
Fantasie-Transcription: “Wie selig sind doch die” was composed in early August 2017 for my dear friend and fabulous pianist, Ching-Yun Hu, for her 2017–18 concert season programs featuring works by Bach along with transcriptions of and meditations on his music by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Siloti.