The “Great Eighteen” have been part of my life for decades. I studied them with all my principal teachers, and have performed them often. Years ago, preparing for my first live performance of the whole set, I encountered a dilemma: the pieces can be fatiguing to hear when performed in their published order. For example, after hearing the full organ sound of the first “Komm, heiliger Geist,” it was tiresome to listen next to another lengthy setting. Both versions, it seemed to me, were monolithic. So I began to explore different ways to order this great repertoire.
Bach was fond of the Praeludium / assorted chorale preludes / Fugue model of program structure, and I have chosen to adopt this large-scale plan as a model for this performance: the larger chorale preludes serve as alpha and omega to groups of smaller pieces. Dividing the lot into two groups of nine also provided opportunity to use two instruments. I intend each disk to be a listenable program in itself.
Disc 1. We begin on the East coast, with the universally loved Fisk organ at Old West Church, Boston.
The Fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist is a fierce whirlwind: here the task is to convey the breathless agitation of constant sixteenth-note motion, yet present clearly the gestures that define that motion. The opening bars contain a wealth of invention: first, the graceful opening arpeggio (later heard in inversion); next, an ascending eighth-quarter syncopation on the downbeat of the second measure; and in the third bar, the ascending sixteenth-sixteenth-quarter Anton Heiller so often referred to as ‘Ky-ri-e.’ (All the Kyrie settings in Clavierübung III begin this way, as does the Kyrie fons bonitatis on which they are based.) Of course, ‘Her-re Gott,’ at the end of the first phrase of the chorale, paints the same shape.
For Schmücke dich, a gracious sarabande, I found the combination of both 4’ flues on the Choir haunting. There is an edginess to this sound, intensified by the fragile, uneven tremolo. I picture a cabaret singer in thrall to the world’s saddest song. Her voice is on the verge of cracking, and we wouldn’t mind if it did. The emotion behind Schmücke dich, with its text of divine union and comfort, encompasses joy and surrender as one.
The indication ‘Pedal 4 Fuß’ at the beginning of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen appears in the manuscript of alleged Bach student Johann Christoph Oley (Russell Stinson, J. S. Bach’s Great Eighteen Organ Chorales, p.86). This indication is problematic. If one plays the manual parts at 8’ pitch and the pedal at 4’, in several places there is the very odd effect of the pedal cantus migrating above the soprano. If one plays both manual and pedal parts at the same pitch, infamous parallel fifths between tenor and alto occur in measure 30. To my ears, these fifths are barely audible, while the sound of the cantus wandering so far from the tenor range is distressing. So I have opted to keep manual and pedal at the same pitch level. In this case the pitch level is the 4’, a choice very much guided by the Fisk at Old West: the balance between the Choir Night Horn and the Great Doublet is perfect.
The first eight measures of Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist preexist in the Orgelbüchlein as S 631. “Spitfire” would be a good one-word description of either setting. The jabbing pedal notes on the third eighth of each beat verge on rudeness. When finally they assume the cantus firmus, in more settled note values, the hands play hexachord scales—ascending, descending, parallel, contrary—quite the roller-coaster effect. The final cadence is abrupt, ending on beat 4, after the signature B-A-C-H flourish.
Part one ends with the three settings of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The first is a profoundly fervent piece, solemn yet smoldering. In the second, a trio, the left hand and pedal occupy the same register, resulting in two bass lines, a due bassi. Even the motivic gestures are reminiscent of gamba duos. Principal or Spitzflöte sounds approach those colors and yet can differentiate two “players” to the listener: a gentler, more lyric principal in the left hand versus a raspier, scratchier “bow” in the pedal. Of course, both “gambas” play at 8’ pitch.
The quarter-note pulse of this trio defines the half-note pulse of the third, organo pleno setting. Again, there is a whirlwind energy here, a fitting reflection of the first chorale prelude.
Disc 2. For the second disc, we move to the West coast, to the distinguished Paul Fritts organ at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington.
Where disc 1 began and ended with excitement, even agitation, disc 2 begins and ends with broad strokes. The second setting of Komm, heiliger Geist is long and lyrical, ornamenting the chorale one luscious phrase at a time.
There is a second grouping of three in the Great Eighteen, the settings of Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr. It is unusual to find tempo or character indications in the works of Bach, but one finds them here. Adagio (“at ease”) marks the first setting, with the cantus ornamented in the soprano. Here is voluptuous elegance, the slowest quarter-note pulse one can feel.
Cantabile (“singing”) marks the second setting. The cantus is in the tenor. In the third (trio) setting, it is easy to see parallels with Bach’s treatment of Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend. Each is an italianate concertato, drawing its motives from the opening phrase of the chorale. And in each, the cantus appears only at the very end, in the pedal.
Heiller always played An Wasserflüssen Babylon with the pedal at 8’ pitch. It makes for a tender, less earthbound quality in this poignant chorale prelude. On the Fritts organ, however, the addition of a 16’ caused a flexibility in the wind on the Positive Dulcian that completely charmed me. One notices it particularly in the long held tenor “g,” the last note of the chorale. Additionally, the tension in the penultimate pedal G-f# was irresistible.
O Lamm Gottes ends the program. Its three contiguous verses make it the longest piece in the collection. The third verse is the most colorful; the text of each phrase drawn in music, an image of the Passion. The very last phrase, “Erbarm dich unser, O Jesu” (“Have mercy on us, O Jesus”) is painted in long slow scales, ascending and descending, encompassing nearly the whole keyboard: full, open, broad, generous. It recalls another much more recent text, “the last full measure of devotion,” and ends with a sense of being completely spent.
Vor deinen Thron appears incomplete at the end of the collection, with Bach’s marking “pp” (“pianissimo,” or very quiet). A full version is found at the end of Art of Fugue. It is appended here as a quiet epilogue to the program. Its inclusion in the collection has become standard, resulting in the moniker the “Great Eighteen.”