Although Johann Sebastian Bach composed the bulk of his organ works during his youthful years as a church or court organist in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar, it was only during the last decade or so of his life, as cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, that he brought any of his organ works into print. It was at that time that he published Clavierübung III (1739), the Schübler Chorales (c.1747), and the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch (c.1747-1748)—three magnificent collections that serve as capstones to his achievements as an organist and organ composer. On the present recording organist Joan Lippincott performs the first and second of these, giving us a broad overview of Bach’s late organ writing.
In Bach’s time, the expression C l a v i e r ü b u n g, or “Keyboard Practice,” served as a general title for publications that encompassed a wide variety of music for harpsichord, clavichord, or organ. Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, used the phrase for two volumes of harpsichord suites issued in 1689 and 1692. Bach began his own Clavierübung series with the publication of the Six Partitas in 1731. The Italian Concerto and French Overture followed as part II in 1735, and the Goldberg Variations appeared as part IV in 1741. For Clavierübung III, Bach assembled a large collection of organ works, with the title: Third Part of the Clavierübung, Consisting of Various Preludes on the Catechism and Other Hymns for the Organ. Prepared for Music Lovers and Connoisseurs, in Particular, of Such Works, for the Refreshment of the Spirit, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal 3 Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Kapellmeister and Director of the Chorus Musicus in Leipzig. Published by the Author.
As the title implies, the heart of the collection consists of a series of chorale preludes on the five articles of Luther’s Small Catechism: the Ten Commandments (“Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot”), the Creed (“Wir glauben all an einen Gott”), the Lord’s Prayer (“Vater unser im Himmelreich”), the Sacrament of Baptism (“Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam”), and Holy Communion (“Jesus Christus, unser Heiland”). To this group Bach added Luther’s setting of Psalm 130, Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee (“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir”). In each case he provided a large setting of the hymn for manuals and pedal and a small setting for manuals alone. The Catechism hymns are prefaced by chorale preludes on the German Mass— that is, on the Kyrie and Gloria hymns that were sung at the beginning of the Lutheran worship service. Here, too, Bach included large and small settings for each. Following the Catechism chorales are four two-part duets for manuals alone, and the whole is framed by an immense prelude and fugue “for the full organ.”
The chorale melodies of Clavierübung III stem from the first years of Reformation. Composed between 1524 and 1539, they are among the most important “founding hymns” of the Lutheran church. Many are by Luther himself, and they strongly reflect the modal system that was then in place—a quality that appealed to Bach in the 1730s and 1740s as he strove to further enrich his harmonic vocabulary through the use of early idioms derived from Renaissance church music. It is likely that Bach assembled Clavierübung III as part of two special Lutheran Jubilee celebrations that took place in Leipzig in 1739: the bicentenary of Luther’s sermon in the St. Thomas Church on May 25, and the bicentenary of the Augsburg Confession on August 12. Bach had planned to release Clavierübung III at the Leipzig Easter Trade Fair in April, in time for the Jubilee events, but engraving delays caused by the collection’s great length forced him to postpone its release until the St. Michael’s Trade Fair in October.
The music itself displays a wide range of national and historical styles. Bach uses Italian, French, and German forms and gestures, in many cases combining qualities of two or more nationalities in one piece. At the same time, he employs the Renaissance motet style of Palestrina as well as the trio, concerto, and overture idioms of the Baroque. Viewed as a whole, Clavierübung III is a remarkable example of stylistic eclecticism. No piece better demonstrates this than the Prelude in E-flat Major ( BWV 552/1), which opens the collection. In Clavierübung II Bach featured the two most prominent genres of the time, the French overture and the Italian concerto, in separate works. In the Prelude in E-flat, he combines the overture and concerto in a single piece. The work begins in the manner of a French overture, with dotted rhythms, thick 5-part texture, and stately 2/2 meter. As an overture, it serves as a preface to the music that follows. But the Prelude unfolds in the fashion of an Italian concerto, with an opening ritornello, or main theme, that alternates with contrasting episodic segments. Bach thus shows that French and Italian styles can be united to create a new, international idiom. On this recording, Joan Lippincott performs the large pedal settings of the chorales as a group, followed by the smaller manual arrangements.
The large Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie sequence that begins the pedal pieces is set in Renaissance vocal style. The Lutheran Kyrie hymn is based on an early German translation of Kyrie fons bonitatis, a Roman Catholic chant containing a medieval poetic interpolation that was later eliminated by the Council of Trent. In Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit (“Lord, God Father in Eternity”), BWV 669, the chorale appears as an unadorned cantus firmus in the soprano against a web of imitation derived from the chant melody. In Christe, aller Welt Trost (“Christ, Consolation of the World”), BWV 670, the melody moves to the tenor, with sweet-sounding consonant counterpoint to reflect the gentle compassion of Christ. In Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist (“Lord, God, Holy Spirit”), BWV 671, the tune appears in the pedal against a four-part motet in the manuals, all played, according to Bach’s instructions, “with the full organ.” Bach ends “Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist” with a passage containing sharp dissonances, to portray the word “Eleison” (“Have mercy”) that concludes the text phrase “that at the final end we may depart joyfully out of this misery.” The pedal setting of the German Gloria, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr 4 5 (“Praise be to God Alone on High”), BWV 676, is a lengthy and highly virtuosic trio for two manuals and pedal. The phrases of the chorale appear first in the right hand, then in the left hand, then in the pedal, and finally in the right hand once again. Bach treats the hands and feet as equal partners, much in the same fashion as he did in the Six Trio Sonatas for Organ, BWV 525-530, composed a decade earlier.
The first of the Catechism chorales, Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (“These are the Ten Holy Commandments”), BWV 678, shows Bach combining historical styles. The Mixolydian harmonies reflect the church roots of the Renaissance hymn. The ritornello form, embodied in the imitative theme that frames the phrases of the chorale melody, mirrors Baroque concerto technique. For good measure Bach presents the hymn tune as a canon at the octave.
Wir glauben all an einen Gott (“We All Believe in One God”), BWV 680, is a magnificent example of fugal counterpoint. Bach often used fugue and imitation to portray steadfast belief within Christian dogma. In the B-Minor Mass, for instance, he employed a seven-part fugue for the Creed movement, Credo in unum Deum (“I believe in one God”). Here he sets Luther’s Creed hymn as a three-part fugue in the manuals. Underneath the fugue sounds a forceful ostinato theme that recurs at regular intervals in the pedal. The solidity of Bach’s counterpoint underlines the solidity of Christian faith.
In the Lord’s Prayer hymn, Vater unser im Himmelreich (“Our Father, Who Art in Heaven”), BWV 682, Bach turns to stylistic eclecticism once again. The dotted rhythms, the thirty-second-note figuration, and the profuse ornamentation point to French style. The periodic return of the opening material, on the other hand, points to Italian style. As in “Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot,” Bach presents the chorale melody as a canon at the octave.
Bach’s setting of Luther’s Baptism hymn, Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (“Christ, Our Lord, Came to the Jordan River”), BWV 684, features the chorale melody in the pedal against manual material that returns, once again, in ritornello fashion. While the cantus firmus is modal (Dorian mode, transposed), the harmony supporting it is purely tonal (C minor).
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee, O Lord”), BWV 686, is one of Bach’s most profound keyboard works written in Renaissance a cap - 6 BWV 679, is also a fughetta, this time in the guise of a gigue in 12/8 meter. The repeated notes of the subject may reflect the steadfastness required by the Ten Commandments. The small Wir glauben all an einen Gott, BWV 681, is a fughetta in French style, with dotted rhythms and thirty-second-note flourishes. Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 683, is the only work in Clavierübung III that might date from an earlier period. It closely resembles the Orgelbüchlein chorales from Weimar in terms of procedure: the chorale melody appears, unembellished, in the soprano while the lower voices provide an animated accompaniment of imitative counterpoint. The small setting of Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, BWV 685, is a threevoice manual trio in which each phrase of the chorale melody is presented first in its normal form and then inverted. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687, is written in the manner of a “pre-imitation” chorale prelude: imitative entries precede the appearance of each phrase of the hymn, which is presented in long-held notes in the soprano. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, BWV 689, the last of the manual chorale preludes, is a full-fledged fourpart fugue on the opening phrase of the chorale. At the close, the melody sounds in augmented note values over a rich web of counterpoint.
The four duets that follow the chorale preludes in Clavierübung III have sometimes been viewed as Communion music, to be performed during the Lutheran worship service. Musically, however, they appear to be organ equivalents of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions for Clavier. In the 1730s Bach showed renewed interest in manualiter organ works—that is, for pieces written for the hands alone. This is evident in the small chorale settings of Clavierübung III, of course, but even more so in the four duets. Gregory Butler has shown recently that Bach inserted the duets into the Clavierübung print at the very last moment, perhaps in an effort to increase the collection’s sale potential. At the same time, Bach clearly relished the opportunity to write a mini-series of extended two-part pieces. Like the chorale preludes of Clavierübung III, the four duets are calculatedly diverse. They are written in four different keys, four different meters, and four different styles.
Duet I in E Minor, BWV 802, is a dance-like piece in 3/8 meter, filled with quick thirty-second notes and invertible counterpoint. Duet II in F Major, BWV 803, in 2/4 meter, is markedly galant (that is, fashionable) and sounds almost like the music of Bach’s progressive sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Duet III in G Major, BWV 804, in 12/8 meter, is a light-hearted gigue. And Duet IV in A Minor, BWV 805, in 2/2 meter, resembles a Renaissance vocal motet. But these are only the superficial characteristics. Formally, the pieces are lengthier and more complex than the Two-Part Inventions. The Duet in F Major, for instance, is an ambitious 149-measure- long A B A fugue. In the A section, Bach presents a sprightly, triadic theme in straightforward fugal imitation. In the B section he introduces a second theme, a chromatic subject cast in darker minor mode. He then presents the initial theme and the new theme in inversion and stretto (compressed entries) and eventually combines them in double counterpoint. Finally, he resolves the contrapuntal tension of the middle section by reprising the bright, less-complicated A section, in the fashion of a da capo aria. The F-Major Duet is a remarkably well-developed two-part piece.
The Fugue in E-b Major (“St. Anne”), BWV 552/2, which brings the Clavierübung III collection to a close, illustrates in a final, grand gesture Bach’s ability to amalgamate seemingly irreconcilable styles. The fugue consists of three sections. The first, in 4/2 meter and Renaissance vocal style, features a stately, slow-moving theme that is developed in five-part texture. The second section, for manuals alone, features a faster moving theme in 6/4 meter that Bach develops first alone and then in combination with the principal theme from the first section. The third section, in 12/8 meter, features a dance-like subject, again developed in five-part texture with pedal. Bach presents this new theme alone, and then combines it with the first theme to bring this remarkable fugue, and remarkable collection of music, to a fittingly climactic close.
THE SCHÜBLER CHORALES
The so-called “Schübler” Chorale collection, published around 1747, is the polar opposite of Clavierübung III. In Clavierübung III Bach took a retrospective look at early styles and church modes. In the Schübler collection he presented six progressive cantus firmus organ chorale preludes based on popular church hymns. Named after the engraver of the set, Johann Georg Schübler, the chorales point to the progressive galant idiom that was coming into vogue in central Germany at the time. Georg Kauffmann’s Harmonische Seelenlust (“Harmonic Enjoyment for the Spirit”), issued in Leipzig in the mid- 1730s, championed the new style with chorale preludes “of special invention and appropriate refinement…on the bestknown chorale tunes.” Kauffmann’s publication sold well, and Bach may have intended the Schübler Chorales for the same market. All six works in the Schübler collection appear to be transcriptions of vocal arias and duets, drawn principally from the annual cycle of chorale cantatas that Bach composed during his second year in Leipzig (1724-1725). The models for five of the works have survived, and the scholar Christoph Wolff has shown that Bach had the music transferred mechanically from the cantata scores to the engraving sheets by anonymous scribes. The settings nevertheless have an immediate appeal, and it is quite likely that Bach published them to demonstrate that he was quite capable of writing fashionable organ music when he wished to do so. All six pieces are written in the latest operatic aria style, in which phrases of the unadorned chorale melody are surrounded by snatches of an attractive ritornello, or counter-theme, that captures the general mood or a specific image from the hymn text.
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Sleepers Awake, a Voice is Calling!”), BWV 645, is a transcription of the tenor aria from Cantata 140 of the same name. The aria is a setting of verse 2 of the hymn, which begins “Zion hears the watchmen singing. Her heart leaps for joy; she wakes and arises with haste.” The catchy, dance-like ritornello theme of the movement appears to reflect of “leaps of 11 joy” mentioned in the text. Bach combines the ritornello with the phrases of the chorale in highly ingenious ways, and it is no coincidence that Ferrucio Busoni, Leopold Stokowski, Wilhelm Kempff, and others later made appealing piano and orchestral transcriptions of the work, earning it the epithet “The King of Chorales.”
Although the model for Wo soll ich fliehen hin (“O Whither Shall I Flee”), BWV 646, does not survive, it is clear that the rapid, on-going sixteenth notes of the ritornello theme portray the idea of fleeing mentioned in the hymn text. Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (“If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”), BWV 647, is taken from the duet for soprano and alto from Cantata 93 of the same name. The duet is based on verse 3 of the hymn: “He realizes the right time for joy; he knows very well when it can be useful.” The constant reiteration of the lively rhythmic idea —aptly called the “joy motive” by Albert Schweitzer—paints the subdued happiness of the chorale text.
Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (“My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”), BWV 648, drawn from Cantata 10 of the same name, is a setting of the German Magnificat hymn. In the cantata, the music is a duet for alto and tenor on the third line the text, “Er denket der Barmherzigkeit…” (“He remembers his mercy and helps his servant Israel”). In the chorale prelude, the dance-like ritornello figure, in 6/8 meter, appears first in the pedal and reinforces the happiness of Mary’s ecstatic hymn of praise to Elizabeth. The lengthy ritornello figure in Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (“O Remain With Us, Lord Jesus Christ”), BWV 649, may paint the nature of persistence mentioned in the hymn text. The music is a transcription of the aria for soprano, violoncello piccolo, and continuo from Cantata 6, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden.
The joyful, animated ritornello figure of Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter (“Are You Coming Now, Jesus, from Heaven Above?”), BWV 650, reflects the words “Praise to the Lord, who so gloriously reigns over all, who bears you safely on eagle’s wings,” to which the music was set in Cantata 137, Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”). The chorale melody, originally taken by an alto in the aria, is transferred to the pedal in the transcription, complete with cadential trills for the feet to play. The works of Clavierübung III and the Schübler” Chorale collection underscore the remarkably wide range of Bach’s interests during the final eleven years of his life. That he could follow a publication aimed squarely at connoisseurs with a print geared mostly to general music lovers is a testament to his all-encompassing compositional skills.
---George B. Stauffer
Mason Gross School of the Arts