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Canonic Variations on
Vom Himmel hoch (BWV 769)

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio.
O beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluja.

'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But that God should be made like man, much more.
John Donne, Holy Sonnet 1


The most popular German carol before Gruber's "Silent Night," Vom Himmel hoch was one of Sebastian Bach's very favorites. It appears three times in his Christmas Oratorio and again in the Magnificat. The four-part rendition to the left represents the third setting from the Christmas Oratorio minus interpolated trumpet and drum fanfares between phrases. The chorale has been superimposed upon a painting of the Madonna by 17th-century Spanish artist, Murillo.

Circumstances of Composition

Late in his life Bach turned to this lovely hymn as the basis for one of his most important monothematic cycles--the "Canonic Variations on the Advent Hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come." In June of 1747 Bach joined Mizler's Society for Musical Sciences. As proof of his mastery of that science, Bach submitted his canonic variations. Perhaps to commemorate the occasion, Leipzig's official portrait artist, Elias Haussmann, had been commissioned in the year before to do a portrait in which the composer was shown holding a canon long thought to be associated with the Variations. We now know that the canon in the painting is actually number thirteen of the Fourteen on the Goldberg Ground--another work submitted to Mizler's Society as evidence of Bach's "scientific" acumen.

Published Version

The Canonic Variations soon caught the eye of Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg who published them in a volume emphasizing the technical skill of the composer. Curiously, the published version did not contain complete realizations of the canonic voices. Like the Musical Offering, its companion cycle of the same year, the Canonic Variations were written in cryptic notation, leaving the reader to figure out the canonically generated voices. The abstract notation suggests that the composer may not have conceived of the variations as a performance work but as a theoretical or didactic exercise. Regardless of how they may have been conceived, these variations do come off elegantly in performance and not without the Advent charm their title suggests.

Autograph Version

While the Canonic Variations were first published as riddle canons, there does exist an autograph version where the parts are realized in score. This autograph is noteworthy because it contains not only contrapuntal modifications but also a reordering of the variations themselves. The finale of the printed version becomes the center most movement of the autograph, suggesting a cruciform structure and possibly a symbolic attachment to the numbers 3 and 4 (the numerical symbols for heaven and earth). While this study follows the order of the autograph, you may wish to listen to the variations in published order as the finale comes off with more grandiloquence. By contrast, the autograph places the "finale" in the center, an arrangement that Bach uses often to indicate the presence of theological symbols.

Var. I. In Canone all'Ottava, a 2 Clav. e Ped.
Each of the five variations combines the Advent melody as cantus firmus with canonic elaboration of figures within that melody. Although the canonic treatment is strict, the music is energized by the canon and does not come off as academic. The first variation features the cantus firmus in the pedal with a canon at the octave entwined between the top two voices.

Var. I. In Canone all'Ottava, a 2 Clav. e Ped.

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Var. II. Alio modo in Canone alla Quinta, a 2 Clav. e Ped.
Like the one before it, the second variation retains the cantus firmus in the pedals with canonic voices above. But in this variation the canon follower imitates the leader at the fifth rather than the octave. The studied counterpoint is reminiscent of what would have been considered, in Bach's day, to have been an old-fashioned style like that of the northman Samuel Scheidt.

Var. II. Alio modo in Canone alla Quinta, a 2 Clav. e Ped.

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Var III. L'altra sorte del Canone al roverscio: 1) alla Sesta, 2) alla Terza, 3) alla Seconda, e 4) alla Nona. (a 2 Clav. e Ped.)
Variation III consists of four canonic statements of the Advent melody--each statement in contrary motion and each employing a different pitch interval between canon leader and follower: alla Sesta (at the sixth), alla Terza (at the third), alla Seconda (at the second) and alla Nona (at the ninth). The first two statements, like Vars. 1 & 2, are for three voices. In the first statement the follower begins a minor sixth lower than the leader: alla Sesta.

First segment of Variation III
alla Sesta (canon at the sixth)

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In the second statement the follower begins a Major third lower than the leader: alla Terza. This M3 is the inversion of the m6 we encountered in the first section. The interval inversion is indicative of a grander process in which the concept of opposition (from heaven to earth?) operates at two musical levels: of registers (L'altra sorte) and of melodic directions (al roverscio). In other words, the second statement is not only the contrapuntal inversion of the first (soprano and alto swap registers), but also the melodic inversion (both soprano and alto move their intervals in the opposite direction).

Second segment of Variation III
alla Terza (canon at the third)

So far Variation III has stated the Himmel hoch melody twice. Like the two variations which preceded them, these first two statements of Variation III have been in three voices--a symbol of the Himmel hoch (heaven above). Notice, too, that whereas the first two variations employed imitation at consonant (heavenly) intervals of the 8va and 5th, the first two statements of variation III involve imitation at consonant intervals of the 6th & 3rd. The conclusion of the second statement represents a turning point in the cycle--the point where heaven comes down to earth and the divine takes human form.

Like the two variations which will follow it, the last two statements of Variation III shall be in four voices. Since ancient times four has stood for things earthly--four winds, four directions, four elements, four seasons, etc.--and the transition to four voices may be seen in such a light as a symbol of the incarnation: da komm' ich her (I come down here). In contrast to the prior heavenly imitation at the 6th & 3rd, the second half of Variation III shall employ imitation at dissonant (earthly) intervals of the 2nd & 9th. So, the centermost variation is itself divided into heavenly and earthly halves.

Third segment of Variation III
alla Seconda (canon at the second)

The fourth statement's follower imitates its leader at the interval of a ninth. The mutating intervals of Variation III are reminiscent of Bach's use of canon in the Credo of his Mass in B Minor (see YouTube instructions) to represent Jesus Christ as "God of God," and "Light of Light" who was "begotten not created." Only there the emphasis is upon Christ's Deity and the follower never imitates at a dissonant interval. Here the emphasis is upon the incarnation of God as represented by the assumption of dissonant intervals of the 2nd, 7th and 9th.

Fourth segment of Variation III
alla Nona (canon at the ninth)

After repeating the cantus firmus four times--in canon at the 6th, 3rd, 2nd and 9th--Bach appends a coda consisting of one more iteration of the fourth phrase. Then, at the end of the coda he contrives to state all four phrases of the melody simultaneously, terminating this grand finale with the musical equivalent of his name (B-flat, A, C, B-natural). Click colored portions of the following score to hear each of the phrases rendered first in a four-part setting then as in the grand finale.

Conclusion of Variation III:
Bach restates each phrase then signs his name.

Var. IV. In Canone alla Settima, a 2 Clav. e Ped.
In Variation 4 the canon is assigned to the pedal while the cantus firmus is given to the soprano. Between the two extremes, in the alto, Bach weaves a freely devised counterpoint. Significant in the intervallic symbols demarcating heaven and earth, Variation IV employs yet another dissonant (earthly) interval--the 7th--between canon leader and follower. At this point Bach abandons the idealized, but somewhat self-conscious, north-German counterpoint of the preceding variations for the more decorative--dare we say humanistic--manier of the French Rococo.

Var. IV. In Canone alla Settima, a 2 Clav. e Ped.

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Var. V. In Canone all'Ottava per augmentationem, a 2 Clav. e Ped.
The final variation contains a canon in augmentation between the soprano and tenor voices, while the cantus firmus is returned to the pedal. The alto voice partakes neither of the canon nor the cantus firmus. Notice that the interval separating leader and follower has returned, full circle, to a Perfect octave with time proportions doubled between leader and follower. This expression of the 1:2 ratio in intervallic and rhythmic proportions may have been intended to represent the fullness of the Godhead dwelling in Christ (Colossians 2:9) who, according to Lutheran dialectics, was the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3).

Var. V. In Canone all'Ottava per augmentationem, a 2 Clav. e Ped.

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In bar 20 of the fifth variation Bach spells his name (transposed) in the leader part. Nineteen bars later the BACH figure is reiterated in the follower and harmonized (untransposed) in a manner that makes it aurally recognizable as Bach's signature motive.

Bach's name in Variation V

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