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Breaking Ground on Bach

March 22, 2021 - 2 minute read

Tom Mueller, DMA

Tom Mueller, DMA

Tom Mueller, DMA, associate professor of church music and university organist, is busy as a working musician and a student of J.S. Bach, his forebear in organ.

Last year, Gothic Records released a recording of sacred choral music called, “A New England Requiem: Sacred Choral Music,” featuring original compositions by Scott Perkins. Mueller played the pipe organ for the album, which was recorded over several nights with a live choir and orchestra in a church in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles.

“With a group like that, you spend all this time preparing individually, and the first moment you play or sing together with a big choir or orchestra, you hear it and it’s incredible,” he says.

In most ensemble recordings, the organ blends in and supports everything else, but in several places Mueller had to tackle passages that were “quite virtuosic and exposed musically,” he says. “It was fun for me and a real challenge. It took a lot of preparation.”

His favorite track is Perkins’ original setting of “Jubilate Deo,” a Latin version of Psalm 100.

“I was sweating bullets the entire time, but everything came together into a gem of a piece,” Mueller says. While he has played on a number of classical recordings, this is the most significant in terms of commercial visibility, number of musicians, and difficulty of the music. It can be heard wherever music is purchased or streamed.

Mueller also published a long-term, original study which advances knowledge of one of J.S. Bach’s potentially earliest compositions, written when he was just 13 or 14 years old. The piece is often treated as spurious, but Mueller found historical reasons to consider it genuine. His reasons involve Bach’s musical study under another well-known composer of the day, Pachelbel.

“My research looked at influences we can document of Pachelbel on Bach,” Mueller says. “There’s a particular Pachelbel piece which Bach probably knew as a teenager, and there are striking similarities between those two pieces. My argument is that this piece is unquestionably written by Bach and probably the earliest surviving piece by Bach, based on the strong similarities with the piece by Pachelbel.”

Mueller’s groundbreaking research seeks to establish the authenticity of the Bach composition not only by historical connection — Bach’s brother worked closely with Pachelbel for years — but also by musical similarities.

Mueller says the two pieces share a “harmonic language,” are based on the same melody and written in the same key. Bach used the same harmonies to support the chorale melody and a similar style of counterpoint. For example, in both pieces there are sequences that consist of three 16th notes that lead into a quarter note, and both have an ending flourish with the same 32nd note configuration and arpeggiation.

Mueller presented an early version of the now-published paper to an American Bach Society conference in 2014, indicating its high level of reception in the classical community. The peer-reviewed paper was published by CrossAccent and officially titled, "New Evaluation of ‘Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern’, BWV 739."

“You would think we know everything there is to know about Bach, but there’s new information being discovered all the time,” he says. “Even for something small like this — to propose a new discovery or connection — moves the field forward and enhances our understanding of Bach.”

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