Daniel de Blieck’s (c.1610-1673) Interior of Grote Kerke, Dordrecht, with an Elegant Couple (ca. 1655) is paired with Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Chorale Prelude O Vater, allmächtiger Gott, BWV 758
This art-music pairing and commentary are by Lauren Walker.
James Kibbie, organ. The recording is available at Classical Cat
The simple majesty of the Dordrecht church interior as painted by de Blieck is mirrored in Bach’s bright and stoic chorale prelude for organ O Vater, allmächtiger Gott (O Father, almighty God). Both works seek to glorify and honor the great Creator of all things. The Dordrecht painting displays stone arches and great windows streaming with yellow sunlight. The melody of Bach’s prelude marches steadfastly and repeatedly in an arched form. Both works strive to reveal God’s greatness through emphasizing height. His worthiness of worship is depicted as higher than the top of a majestic arch, whether made of notes or of stone, and as obvious as the sunlight. Both the prelude and the painting seem to suggest that though God seems distant due to his greatness, he is not very far from each of us.
Comparing an Organ Chorale Prelude
to a Dutch Reformed Church Interior
Contemplating the painting Interior of Grote Kerke, Dordrecht, with an Elegant Couple, by Daniel de Blieck, while listening to the chorale prelude for organ O Vater, allmächtiger Gott (O Father, almighty God) led me to meditations on the scriptures and God. The chorale prelude might have been composed by Johann Sebastian Bach during the eighteenth century.1 It comprises an entire statement of the chorale melody in four lines followed by three sections, each of which varies this melody. The painting Interior of Grote Kerke, Dordrecht, with an Elegant Couple is an oil on panel painted by Daniel de Blieck around 1655, during a time when the influence of the Dutch Reformation was evident but dissipating in the Netherlands (Bruinsma, 205). The painting is a view of the cathedral interior from a corner behind the pulpit, revealing a minimal view of the majestic windows, columns, ornate pews, and arched ceilings. The cathedral depicted is located in Dordrecht, the oldest town in the Netherlands. At the time of this painting, the structure accommodated a Dutch Reformed congregation. The Dordrecht cathedral dates back to the fourteenth century and serves as a dominant feature of the town to this day (Campbell).
Both the organ chorale and the painting draw attention to height and minimize embellishments. The interior decorations of the church in the Dordrecht painting are simple rather than ornate, reflecting the purist ideals of the Dutch Reformed church. Ornamentation is also a rarity in the organ chorale prelude O Vater, allmächtiger Gott. What both the painting and the prelude lack in ornamentation is made up for in the attention to arches. The painting contains several clearly delineated lines, all of which are diagonal, arched, vertical, or angled in some fashion. The majority of the diagonal lines point up towards the great windows. The arches accentuate the light by drawing the gaze ever upwards. In the chorale prelude, the initial eight notes of the melody likewise form an arch. The melody in each voice of the opening section enters solidly in this arched form and serves as the foundation for the three variations. All the voices smoothly work together to create a harmonically satisfying supplement to the continuous motion of the melody. The arched melodic line of four notes ascending and descending can be compared to the prominent arches of the cathedral in the painting.
The reading of scripture and preaching of church doctrine would have been done in the pulpit. In an indirect manner, the pulpit and its sounding board above can be compared to the chorale melody of the prelude. The sounding board over the pulpit is in the center of the Dordrecht painting. The broadness and positioning of the sounding board above the pulpit seem to suggest the importance of the proclamation of the scriptures. Just as the scriptures seek to enlighten the congregation concerning the ways of God, so also the chorale melody strives to move upward stepwise. In the variations, the melody is the stable element around which the surrounding harmonies float, just as in the Reformed church, the scriptures serve as the foundation upon which traditions and leadership are founded.
Building on this relationship between the music and the importance of the scriptures is the idea that the Christian obligation to his neighbor is in some ways analogous to the musical neighbor note. This can be applied to the scene played out by the people in the lower portion of the painting. The observer is left in suspense as to whether or not the elegant couple will give the small lad with the outstretched hat what he desires of them. One can almost hear the urgency of his silent request as he begs for the eyes of the well-dressed couple. The presence of this seemingly insignificant lad in the painting can be connected to the incessant use of lower neighbor notes in the second section of the chorale prelude. The term “lower neighbor” in music refers to the musical note one step below another that it touches briefly before the upper note resumes. This term can be easily associated with the lower station of the boy compared to the elegant couple. Not only is the boy is possibly from a lower class than the gentry, but he is also in the position of their neighbor as reinforced in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37).
Such an emphasis on scripture will ultimately direct the observer and the listener to the Being above all beings. It is this Being that is the true focus of both the painting and the prelude. The prelude’s title O Vater, allmächtiger Gott (O Father, almighty God) is obvious in its intent to praise the power of the Father, the head of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The original chorale text emphasizes man in his frailty crying out for the mercy of God. Perhaps the eight-note melodic arch in the chorale prelude symbolizes mankind rising to seek God, only to find that he must return to his original lowly position in order to find favor with the Almighty. This musical arch also serves as a continual reminder of what is above. It is comparable to the prominent arches of the Dordrecht painting, which point towards the sunlight. Sunlight is often used to refer to the Light that is God. God is also emphasized in the chorale prelude by the fact that there is one melody statement and three variations, and the use of four voices in the first section followed by three voices in the following three variations. This ratio of three to one is comparable to the one Godhead encompassing three persons of the Trinity.
Edward Hirsch, a contemporary American poet, composed a poem about the Dutch painters entitled “Earthly Light.” The following are two excerpts from this poem that seem to speak of the vivid effect of the sunlight in De Blieck’s Dordrecht:
if the Dutch artists who could liquefy
Sunlight and crystallize air believed in Him
when they painted the large, whitewashed
interiors of churches; I wonder
if they were stealing a supernatural light
or giving back to Him an earthly one
when they purified the sunshine…
I had just seen all those galleries
of seventeenth-century light slipping
through interior courtyards and alleys,
branding doors and ceilings, pressing down
lightly on the skulls of buildings.
Indeed, the air of the Dordrecht painting is crystalline in the smooth lines on the canvas, in each atom of the solid masses, and in the precise artistic placement of every beam and column. Sunlight streaming through the windows of the “skull” of the cathedral is comparable to the way that the notion of God seeps into the minds and hearts of worshippers: almost imperceptibly at first, but with the most penetrating results. Similarly in the prelude, the clarity of the musical motion is truly crystalline, and no musical note is out of place.
Edward Hirsch in his poem “Earthly Light” wonders whether or not Dutch painters such as de Blieck believed in the God whose churches they painted so meticulously. One might also wonder whether or not the composers of seventeenth and eighteenth century church music believed in the God for whom they composed chorale melodies. But the ultimate answers to these questions lie within the hearts of the painters and composers alone. What keeps man from attaining the One who is so near his grasp, so evident in sunlight streaming through the majestic windows, so obviously implied and sought in the stone and melodic arches? Perhaps the reason man has not found the key to God is because it is so obvious, yet also seemingly undesirable. It may be that the noble rising gestures of the music and the stately organ setting are not adequate to reveal God’s glory. Perhaps what the painting suggests is that God is ultimately not to be found in the rich splendidness of the arches, the bright sunlight streaming through stately glass windows, or even in the significant pulpit with the prominent sounding board above. Perhaps indeed the key to God can best be found in a common and insignificant place, where a little boy stands holding his hat.
1. Although O Vater, allmächtiger Gott is listed with the chorale preludes by J.S. Bach (1685-1750), several technical and harmonic factors seem to suggest a different composer as well as a composition date in the late eighteenth century. Despite the ambiguity of origin, the work is a chorale prelude of enough interest to have been included in the works of Bach, being listed as BWV 758. Peter Williams, The Organ Music of J. S. Bach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 495.
Bruinsma, Henry A. “The Organ Controversy in the Netherlands Reformation to 1640.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 7, no. 3 (Autumn, 1954): 205-212.
Campbell, Gordon (editor). “Dordrecht.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford University Press, 2009. Accessed 02/18/14. http://www.oxfordreference.com.
Hirsch, Edward. “Earthly Light (Homage to the 17th Century Dutch Painters).” New England Review 14, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 223-228.
Williams, Peter. The Organ Music of J. S. Bach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.