Review of Trafka Lecture-Recital
By Alan MacMillan
Organist William Trafka, formerly of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, and currently organist of Christ Church, Ridgewood, N.J. presented a lecture-recital on the life and works of J.S. Bach at St. James’s, West Hartford on Saturday, March 16. The event reprised a similar presentation given for the young people of the POE at Trinity College here in Hartford in the Summer of 2017. In this expanded version of his presentation, Trafka first gave a thumbnail sketch of the chronology and geography of the composer’s life, then began to delve into the developing style of the master as it unfolded.
As his first musical illustration, he played the complete Chorale-Partita: “O Gott, du frommer Gott,” BWV 767, one of the composer’s earliest important works. The frequently spare texture of the variations, and the apt registration of the artist, afforded a chance to hear the beautifully voiced solo reeds and flues of the recently renovated and expanded Austin organ of St. James’s: an instrument beautifully matched to the church’s acoustic.
Before launching into the “Arnstadt” Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 549, Trafka discussed the tonal simplicity of Bach’s early approach to fugal composition and the influences of Buxtehude and Georg Böhm. It was particularly informative to be given the opportunity to listen to this piece in contrast to the later and more mature Prelude and Fugue, BWV 546 in the same key: the work with which the recital concluded.
Another example of Bach’s earlier, still developing style was his setting of “In Dulci Jubilo,” BWV 729, known to many of us as the obligatory Christmas Eve postlude for the annual King’s College Service of Lessons and Carols. Trafka referenced a quote from a reprimand given Bach by church authorities for something like “various unusual additions to the chorales sung during service.” He suggested that this setting may be the perfect illustration of what the composer was apt to do extempore, with phrases of the chorale interrupted by elaborate passagework. The organist continued with “Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, “BWV 720, a similar example of Bach’s early chorale prelude style.
As their work became available in print from the forward-looking Dutch publishers of the early 1700s, music of Vivaldi and other Italian masters exerted a strong influence throughout Europe. Bach’s study of this music led to an even more profound result than his excellent transcriptions of Vivaldi string concerti for organ would indicate. Trafka maintains that Vivaldi’s influence, in particular, revolutionized Bach’s style in terms of motivic consistency, continuous motoric rhythm, and a sense of inevitability in his melodic and harmonic flow. To illustrate, he gave a fine performance of the finale of the Concerto in d minor (after Vivaldi), BWV 596, a work from the Italian’s Op. 3 collection, L’estro Armonico (Harmonic Fancy).
Importantly, Bach’ spiritual life was dwelt upon at some length by Trafka. Notations in the composer’s copy of a biblical commentary, indicate that he felt his to be a Levitical calling; a God-given vocation akin to that outlined for King David’s musicians in I Chronicles, chapter 25 of the Old Testament.
The large audience, who packed the organ loft to capacity, were treated next to a moving reading of “O Mensch bewein,” BWV 622, one of the small masterpieces of the Orgelbüchlein. Our performer observed that the ability to improvise chorale preludes of this type was and is an expected part of the German organist’s skills up to the present day.
The recital continued with the popular Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 which interjected some major mode cheer amid the predominantly minor key music surrounding it. This was followed by a Trio in D minor, BWV 583, a lesser known work in the same mold, but not part of, Bach’s well-known set of trio sonatas.
The important Clavierübung, Part III, also known as the German Organ Mass was represented with a performance of the Chorale Prelude “Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot,” (These are the ten Commandments) BWV 678, a piece in which a certain repeated chromatic turn of phrase almost foreshadows Brahms.
At the conclusion of the final, imposing Prelude and Fugue in c minor, BWV 546, the large and appreciative audience gave Mr. Trafka a well-deserved ovation for a well- played, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable presentation.