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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Clavier-Übung III

Jeremy Filsell (organ), The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York, Jeremy Filsell (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2020
Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York, USA
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: December 2022
Total duration: 111 minutes 36 seconds

Comprising twenty-one chorale preludes as well as the four duets, and opening and closing with the mighty 'St Anne' Prelude and Fugue, the third book of Bach's Clavier-Übung is so much more than its somewhat prosaic title ('Keyboard Practice') might suggest. Jeremy Filsell proves the ideal guide, adroitly matching each piece to one of the five organs of St Thomas's in New York.

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The monumental third part of the Clavier-Übung (1739) is perhaps one of J S Bach’s greatest musical sequences with its explorations into both Lutheran hymnody and the ‘German Organ Mass’. As a didactic work, it also pursues virtually every contrapuntal device and structure. In giving voice to this immensely varied work, fascinating, inspiring and spiritual in equal measure, it seems particularly apt to make through it an ‘organ tour’ of Saint Thomas Church, with its rich and rewarding instrumental resources.

The Clavier-Übung (‘keyboard practice’) is the third of four volumes similarly entitled, yet is the only one conceived for organ, the other three being for harpsichord. Bach’s title page reads: 'Third Part of Keyboard Practice, consisting of various preludes on the Catechism and other hymns for the organ. Prepared for music-lovers and particularly for connoisseurs of such work, for the recreation of the spirit, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Capellmeister and director of the chorus musicus, Leipzig'. Between the opening and closing Prelude and Fugue in E flat major (BWV552), there are 21 chorale preludes (BWV669-689), forming the Lutheran Mass and catechism, succeeded by four ‘duets’, BWV802-805. Clavier-Übung III is extraordinarily wide-ranging and demanding in its expression, extending from stile antico modal creations (harking back to the music of Frescobaldi and Palestrina) through extended chromatic pieces, daunting six-part contrapuntal edifices, to progressive mid-18th-century galant styles, evident in the more dance-like chorales.

Although Clavier-Übung III is not simply a miscellaneous collection of works, there has always been speculation as to whether or not it forms a genuine cycle. Bach’s references to Italian, French and German music within the collection seem to indicate a tradition of the Tabulaturbuch, of which there is an earlier example by Elias Ammerbach, one of Bach’s predecessors at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Moreover, his immediate musical precursors Buxtehude, and in France, Couperin and de Grigny, all collated series of individual pieces within similar compendia.

The Mass and Catechism settings of Clavier-Übung III correspond to parts of the Sunday worship in contemporaneous Leipzig, found in the morning Mass and then in the afternoon Catechism. This liturgical progression centred on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, Prayer, Baptism, Penitence and Communion. Luther’s hymn book (originally published in 1526) contains all the hymns found here, some of them Gregorian in origin, and Bach adopted them in Clavier-Übung III as a musical homage to the principles of Lutheranism.

It was Christian Wolff (Bach: Essays on His Life and Music, 1991) who identified a clear cyclic order to Clavier-Übung III, where the prelude and fugue frame three groups of pieces: the nine chorale preludes based on the Kyrie and Gloria of the Lutheran mass are followed by six pairs of chorale preludes on the Lutheran catechism, followed by the four duets. Each group possesses its own internal structure; the first is made up of three groups of three (in stile antico), succeeded by three short versets on the Kyrie. In the third group, three trio sonatas are based on the German Gloria with a progression of keys through F major, G major and A major. Each pair of the catechism chorales then has a setting for two manuals and pedal followed by a smaller-scale manualiter fugal chorale. The group of 12 catechism chorales is further broken up into two groups of six, arranged around the pivotal plenum settings of Wir glauben all an einen Gott and Auf tiefer Not. The four two-part duets are then related by successive key progressions E minor, F major, G major, and A minor. Thus, Clavier-Übung III comprises a complex structure of triptychs and pairs, creating an elaborate but perhaps perceptible symmetry. There is also an overarching numerological symbolism; the nine mass settings (3 × 3) can be seen to attest to the Trinity with references to Father, Son and Holy Ghost in the corresponding texts. The number twelve (the catechism chorales) arguably represents the number of disciples (12 being a common Ecclesiastical number), and the whole compendium comprises 27 pieces (3 × 3 × 3).

Peter Williams in The Organ Music of J S Bach (2003) suggests the presence of the golden ratio in Clavier-Übung III; the division of bars between the prelude (205) and fugue (117) being just one example. In the fugue itself, its Trinitarian division falls into 36, 45 and then 36 bars (the golden ratio being that found between the middle and outer portions). Moreover, the midway point of the central section is characterized by the initial appearance of the first subject against a veiled form of the second. There are further golden section ratios to be found in Vater unser in Himmelreich, BWV682.

Jeremy Filsell © 2022

Music is at the heart of the Saint Thomas Church mission, one of the primary ways in which it bears witness to the Christian faith. Founded in 1919, the church’s dedicated Choir School is the only boarding school solely for choristers in the United States, and one of only three schools of its type remaining in the world today. The Choir School offers a challenging pre-preparatory curriculum, and musical training for boys in grades three through eight. The primary raison d’être of the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is to sing five choral services per week during the academic term, and as arguably the leading ensemble of its kind in the Anglican choral tradition in the United States, it performs regularly with Orchestra of St Luke’s and New York Baroque Incorporated as part of the concert series. On this recording, the Choir of Men & Boys sings the Lutheran chorales preceding Bach’s organ settings.

There are five organs in the church, three of which reside in the church space; the Miller-Scott Dobson Chancel Organ (2018), the rear gallery Loening-Hancock mechanical action instrument, built by Taylor & Boody (1996), and the Martha J Dodge continuo organ built by Taylor & Boody (2001). The tower carillon space houses a Peter Collins mechanical action organ (2008), and a 2-manual Aeolian-Skinner practice organ (1957) resides in the Choir Rehearsal Room. The Miller-Scott Dobson Organ is one of North America’s most significant pipe organs, supporting the parish’s internationally renowned liturgical and musical life, while the rear gallery instrument, inspired by the tradition of organ building active in the Netherlands and North Germany in the 17th and 18th eighteenth centuries, provides foil to the Dobson’s eclecticism.

The Miller-Scott Chancel Organ
Dobson Op 93 (2018)
Electro-pneumatic action; 4 manuals, 102 stops, 126 ranks

The Ernest M Skinner Company installed the first instrument in Saint Thomas Church (Op 205) in 1913, a four manual organ of 67 stops. This instrument was revised in the mid-1920s, and again in the late 1940s by Ernest M Skinner & Son and M P Möller. In 1955-56, Aeolian-Skinner directed a far-reaching rebuild, increasing the size of the instrument to 109 stops, 98 of which were in the chancel. Sadly, the most renowned voicer of the time, G Donald Harrison, passed away during his work on the organ’s tonal finishing. Gilbert Adams’ reconstruction of the instrument between 1964-69 included provided new slider windchests in the Swell, Positif, Vorwerk and Grand-Choeur, reducing the number of expressive divisions from two to one, replacing some of the pipework while revoicing much of the rest, and eliminating the gallery sections in preparation for a separate instrument there. This work resulted in the 112-stop Arents organ. From 1980 to 1982, Lawrence Trupiano undertook further rebuilding work and installed new Swell chorus reeds. In June 2014, Dobson Op 93 was commissioned, and it was subsequently named the ‘Miller-Scott Organ’, honouring the instrument’s major donor, William R Miller, and the then Director of Music John Scott who, having had key involvement in the instrument’s design, sadly died in post before its completion. Designed to support the choir, congregation and repertoire in a fair balance, across the chancel from Goodhue’s famous 1913 case was created a second case of complementary design, enriched with significant carvings by Dennis Collier Sr and Jr and housing the Great and Positive divisions. Fifteen registers from the previous Arents organ were retained, and the Miller-Scott Organ was completed in Summer 2018.

GREAT (II, in new case)
32' Diapason extension of 16’
16' Diapason partly in façade
16' Bourdon
8' First Diapason partly in façade
8' Second Diapason
8' Harmonic Flute
8' Gamba existing
8' Chimney Flute
4' First Octave
4' Second Octave
4' Spire Flute
3-1/5' Grosse Tierce
2-2/3' Twelfth
2' Fifteenth
1-3/5' Seventeenth
V Cornet 8 mounted, g20-56
IV Mixture 2
III Cymbal 2/3
16' Bombarde
8' Trompette
4' Clairon
SWELL (III; enclosed in northeast chamber)
16' Bourdon
8' Diapason
8' Viola
8' Viola Celeste
8' Flûte Traversière existing
8' Lieblich Gedeckt
8' Flûte Douce existing
8' Flûte Céleste existing
4' Octave
4' Fugara
4' Flûte Octaviante existing
2-2/3' Quint
2' Fifteenth
2' Octavin
1-3/5' Tierce
IV Cornet 4 mounted, g20-56
IV Plein Jeu 1-1/3
16' Double Trumpet
8' Trompette
8' Trumpet
8' Hautbois
8' Vox Humana
4' Clairon
CHOIR (I; enclosed in southeast chamber)
16' Quintaton
8' Diapason
8' Spire Flute
8' Flute Celeste
4' Gemshorn
4' Flute existing
2-2/3' Nazard
2' Doublette
2' Recorder
1-3/5' Tierce
1-1/3' Larigot
1-1/7' Septième
1' Piccolo
16' Basson
8' Trompette
8' Clarinet
4' Clairon
8' Tuba Mirabilis Solo
8' Trompette en Chamade existing, with new 16’
POSITIVE (I, in new case)
8' Principal partly in façade
8' Voce Umana 21-61, partly in façade
8' Gedeckt
4' Octave
4' Chimney Flute
2' Super Octave
II Sesquialtera 2-2/3
IV Sharp Mixture 1-1/3
8' Cromorne
SOLO (IV; enclosed in southwest chamber)
16' Contra Gamba
8' Flauto Mirabilis
8' Gamba
8' Gamba Celeste
8' Viole d’Orchestre
8' Viole Celeste
4' Orchestral Flute
4' Viole Octaviante
III Cornet des Violes 3-1/5
16' Cor Anglais
8' French Horn
8' Orchestral Oboe
16' Trombone
8' Tuba
8' Trompette
4' Clairon
8' Tuba Mirabilis unenclosed
8' Trompette en Chamade Choir Chimes
PEDAL (in northwest chamber and existing case)
32' Contrabass
32' Diapason Great
32' Subbass
16' Contrabass ext. of Contrabass 32
16' First Diapason partly in façade
16' Second Diapason from Great
16' Subbass ext. of Subbass
16' Contra Gamba Solo
16' Bourdon Great
16' Echo Bourdon Swell
10-2/3' Quint from Gr. Bourdon 16
8' Octave partly in façade
8' Bass Flute
8' Gamba Solo
8' Gedeckt ext. of Subbass
8' Bourdon ext. Swell Bourdon 16
6-2/5' Grosse Tierce existing
4-4/7' Grosse Septième existing
4' Super Octave partly in façade
4' Flute ext. of Bass Flute
3-1/5' Tierce existing
2' Flute ext. of Bass Flute
IV Mixture 2-2/3
32' Contre Bombarde existing
32' Trombone ext. Sw. Dbl. Tr. 16
16' Bombarde ext. 32
16' Posaune
16' Trumpet Swell
8' Trompette
4' Clairon
4' Schalmey existing
8' Tuba Mirabilis Solo
8' Trompette en Chamade Choir
Chimes Solo

The Loening-Hancock Gallery Organ
Taylor & Boody Op 27 (1996)
Mechanical key and stop action; 3 manuals, 31 stops, 44 ranks

This organ was built in honor of Dr Gerre Hancock’s 25 years of service to Saint Thomas Church. Its classical construction reflects a contemporary interest in organs of distinct national character and historical precepts of construction. The case is constructed of fumed white oak with pipe shades gilded in 23-karat gold. The cedar case doors, the façade design with its embossed pipes and inverted fields, and the ornamental kiosks are distinctly 16th-century Dutch, a style of organ building which would have been familiar to the original settlers of New Amsterdam (later New York). The mechanical key action is directly suspended and made of wood. The stop action is mechanical. The Hauptwerk and Oberwerk divisions each display the fundamental Principal stop in the façade: the Hauptwerk 8' Principal and the Oberwerk 4' Principal. The 16' and 10 2/3' stops in the Pedal are located behind the organ. The wind system has three large wedge bellows which can be operated by foot, and a wind stabilizer is available to steady the wind for heavily-textured music. The tuning is in Kellner temperament.

HAUPTWERK (I) – 54 notes
16' Bordun
8' Principal
8' Rohrflöte
4' Octave
4' Spielflöte
2-2/3' Quinte
2-2/3' Nasat
2' Superoctave
Mixtur V-VI ranks
16' Trompet
8' Trompet
OBERWERK (II) – 54 notes
8' Gedackt
8' Quintadena
4' Principal
4' Rohrflöte
2' Octave
2' Gemshorn
Sesquialtera II ranks
Scharff IV-VI ranks
8' Dulcian
BRUSTWERK (III) – 54 notes
8' Gedackt
4' Blockflöte
2' Waldflöte
Cimbel III ranks (TF)
8' Krummhorn
4' Schalmei
PEDAL – 30 notes
16' Subbass poplar
10-2/3' Quintbass
8' Octave C1-F6 from HW
4' Octave
16' Posaune
8' Trompet
Tremulant (entire organ)

The Choir Room Organ
Aeolian-Skinner Op 1335 (1957)
Electro-pneumatic action; 2 manuals, 15 registers, 2(3) ranks

GREAT (I) – 61 notes
8' Gemshorn
8' Gedackt
4' Octave
4' Flute
2' Super Octave
SWELL (II) – 61 notes
8' Gemshorn
8' Gedackt
4' Octave
4' Flute
2' Flute
PEDAL – 32 notes
16' Quintbass (ext. Ged.)
8' Gemshorn
8' Gedackt
4' Octave
2' Flute

The Tower Organ
Peter Collins Ltd, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England (2008)
Mechanical action; 2 manuals, 4 ranks

This organ was originally built in 2008 and later purchased by Daniel Hyde, Organist & Director of Music of Saint Thomas Church 2016-19. It was retained at the church after his tenure as a practice instrument.

MANUAL (I) – 58 notes
8' Chimney Flute metal
4' Principal
MANUAL (II) – 58 notes
8' Stopped Diapason wood 1-12 from Manual 1
4' Recorder
PEDAL – 30 notes
8' Flute fr. Man. 1
4' Principal fr. Man. 1
4' Recorder fr. Man. 2

The Martha J Dodge Continuo Organ
Taylor & Boody Op 39 (2001)
Mechanical key and stop action; 1 manual, 4 ranks

The keys are made of ebony with bone topped sharps. The case is made of quarter-sawn white oak, fumed dark. The gilded carvings are of basswood.

MANUAL – 51 notes (C-d3)
8' Gedackt wood
4' Blockflöte wood
2' Principal wood & metal
1-1/3' Quinte metal

Jeremy Filsell © 2022

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