About this work
A canon is a composition based on a tune that starts in one voice and then is picked up in turn by other voices; a simple example is "Row, Row, Row your Boat." The simple melody "Vom Himmel hoch" (From Heaven on High) is an Advent hymn in the Lutheran church calendar. In representation of God's manifestation of Himself on earth, the tune mostly descends by simple steps down the scale. Bach first presents the tune in its original form, and it makes an elegant canon. Then he sets to work spinning out several minutes of exquisite variations on it, each time setting the variations canonically; hence the "canonic variations" title. The simplicity of the tune makes Bach's complex counterpoint unusually transparent, and the combination of counterpoint and variation makes for an attractive mix of intellect and decorative display. This work, unusually ingenious even for Bach, dated from the last years of his life. It was written for a composers' society that Bach joined briefly, and was probably intended as a virtuoso demonstration of the possibilities of the canonic procedure. It is of a piece with the other towering intellectual achievements of Bach's final years, the Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering. Igor Stravinsky made a sparkling setting of this work for small chorus and instrumental ensemble. Without adding or subtracting a note, merely by the placement of new instruments and accents, Stravinsky imposed a delicious overlay of his own rhythmic style in this tribute paid to one great composer by another.