It’s known as “Christmas Creep” — some stores put up their Christmas decorations way before Halloween. And I swear that I saw some Christmas displays right after Labor Day! For musicians, though, preparation of Christmas music definitely begins in the fall, and some of my young students have been practicing Christmas carols on the organ for some time already.
Ever since my Bach concerts at the end of August, I have had some very short-term projects to keep me occupied, but none that required too much effort. I looked through my music library to see what I could find to possibly work on, but kept going back to Bach! And even though I don’t have any gigs scheduled for Christmas, and to keep my mind stimulated and my fingers in shape, I have decided to resurrect the Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’, BWV 769 of Bach. I first heard about this work when I was in graduate school at Westminster Choir College, and a friend programmed them for a recital. But it was maybe fifteen years ago when I tried to learn them for the first time. At the time, I thought they were the most difficult works by Bach that I had ever encountered. (Now, though, I have found other pieces that are even more challenging — like the third Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehre from the Great Eighteen Chorales.)
The Canonic Variations are five variations in canon for two manuals and pedal based on Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn. According to Wikipedia, the variations were “prepared as a showpiece for Bach’s entry as fourteenth member of Mizler’s Music Society in Leipzig in 1747.” In my opinion, they are definitely a compositional tour de force!
Here is a video by Christopher Herrick playing the Canonic Variations on the Metzler organ, opus 555, in Switzerland.