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The latest volume in David Goode's survey on the Metzler organ of Trinity College Cambridge turns to Bach's glorious Orgelbüchlein.
‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’
Given that strong foundation, it is no surprise that organ music flowed from Bach’s pen throughout his life. Yet how do Bach’s organ works cohere? For the monolithic notion of ‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’ is misleading. The picture is more fluid, even unclear, both as to the veracity of individual works and of their particular chronology. The impression is of a combination of works that have reached us in their present form through an often uncertain process of revision and collection (such as the Six Sonatas, BWV525–530) and those with a more definite origin and/or date, such as Clavierübung III, which was published in 1739. Even a collection with a clear didactic purpose that is apparently easy to date like the Orgelbüchlein, BWV599–644 (its title page is dated to 1722 or 1723) can remain opaque in the chronology and detail of its contents: the title page was added later than the chorales it contains. Many of the preludes and fugues do not exist in autograph form, a fact that in most cases does not affect the question of authorship as much as that of the date of composition, although the authorship of some organ works previously assumed to have been by Bach have been called into question, like the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues, BWV553–560. Others are easier by virtue of their singularity either to ascribe authorship to, such as the Passacaglia, BWV582, or to date, such as the Concerto Transcriptions, BWV592–596, which are from Bach’s Weimar years. However, the fluidity of the corpus is not as interesting—or as significant—as the stylistic and generic variety it exhibits.
Genres, Styles and Influences
Bach’s organ works are characterised, typically for the composer, by a multiplicity of genres and stylistic influences. Broadly they can be categorised into five areas, though inevitably these overlap: chorale-based works (preludes, partitas, variations, trios); the Six Sonatas; preludes/toccatas/fantasias (including the Passacaglia) and fugues (paired together, and single); transcriptions of works by other composers (concertos, trios, etc.); miscellaneous works (Allabreve, Canzona, Pièce D’Orgue, etc.). Williams catalogues the multifarious stylistic influences on Bach’s organ works. Many of these are traceable to other contemporary German organ composers whose compositional style Bach would almost certainly have known. As Williams states, these would have included Pachelbel, Böhm, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Reinken, Kerl and Froberger. Bach’s organ works also frequently betray a French influence, both specifically, such as in the famous example of the Passacaglia, BWV582, the first half of whose main theme originates in a piece by Raison, and more generically, such as in the C minor Fantasia, BWV562 with its stylistic debt to French composers such as de Grigny. In addition, an Italian influence is often felt in the manual writing across-the-board from the quasi-string writing in the Six Sonatas to the tripartite Toccata in C, BWV564 via the Frescobaldian Canzona, BWV588 and Corellian Allabreve, BWV589.
As the above discussion suggests, it is not surprising that many of the exact original purposes for the organ works remain unknown, though in general terms the following categories of use can be discerned: liturgical (many, if not most, of the chorales and chorale preludes; some of the prelude/toccata and fugue pairs); didactic (the Six Sonatas; the Orgelbüchlein); stylistic assimilation (the concerto transcriptions; some toccatas and fantasias; Legrenzi and Corelli Fugues). In addition, collections such as Clavierübung III and perhaps the Schübler Chorales had a purpose that transcended their immediate utility: the desire to offer a musical-theological compendium (Clavierübung III), or leave a musical legacy (Schübler Chorales).
A Note on Current Bach Scholarship
Such is the scope of Bach’s organ works. But how have they been covered in the literature? There is a fascinating dialectic evident in current Bach studies more broadly between a hermeneutic taken up with purely musical concerns for Bach’s works, and a broader analytical approach to his music that seeks to contextualize Bach’s contrapuntal, figurative and harmonic peculiarities and complexities within a much broader framework involving contemporary theology, aesthetics, philosophy, and science. Assessing these different approaches to Bach’s music is difficult, as the results are inevitably mixed. On the one hand, there is a need to maintain a degree of musical integrity by allowing the musical features of Bach’s compositions to come first in any attempt to understand them. Thus, some of the least convincing musical-analytical work done from the contextual side arises from an approach to Bach’s music that is too superficial. On the other hand, there is a sense in some of the ‘music-only’ approaches that any recourse to relevant external and contextual questions ought to be dismissed out of hand when clearly such factors occasionally—perhaps often—played a legitimate role in Bach’s compositional process. The ideal, then, seems to be to take an approach to describing Bach’s organ music that both honours the music itself whilst allowing for wider contextual questions to shape one’s thinking as appropriate, perhaps on a piece-by-piece basis. With that in mind, there seem to be two broad extra-musical contexts of particular relevance to the organ music of Bach in which purely musical observations can be worked out. These are theology, and aesthetics.
Peter Williams highlights a conundrum that needs tackling if one is to think theologically about Bach’s organ music, namely the tension that exists between Bach’s stated theological intention in composition (most famously revealed in the composer’s signature ‘S.D.G.’—‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (To God Alone Be Glory)—that has been found on some of Bach’s manuscripts, penned after the final bars) and the apparent self-interestedness of much of Bach’s music. The key that unlocks this dilemma is the observation made by John Butt, that for Bach, as for other Lutherans, music was intrinsically of eternal value. We can be more specific and outline two ways in which the inherent theological nature of music, as it was understood, appears to have influenced the music Bach actually wrote.
i) Music as Theological Metaphor
A theological idea that was found in the Leipzig circles in which Bach moved in the 1740s was that God’s beauty can be conceived conceptually as a type of harmonia:
God is a harmonic being. All harmony originates from his wise order and organization … Where there is no conformity, there is also no order, no beauty, and no perfection. For beauty and perfection consists in the conformity of diversity.
This fundamental idea of God’s beauty as expressed in His unity-in-diversity immediately invites the metaphorical projection of this concept onto His creation: His beauty is expressed though His creation via the same aesthetic of unity-in-diversity. While criticisms have been levelled at this definition of beauty when held as an absolute value, as an explanation of Bach’s contrapuntal practice it is highly suggestive. This desire for art to imitate nature in its perfection motivated Bach’s musical project throughout his career and is particularly evident in his treatment of counterpoint: ‘[c]haracteristic of Bach’s manner of composing is a way of elaborating the musical ideas so as to penetrate the material deeply and exhaustively.’ Bach’s maximization of thematic coherence, harmonic richness, and contrapuntal complexity can be thus understood as having a theological rationale. This rationale perhaps best fits the music with which there is no accompanying text to direct one’s interpretation of the musical figures, and is particularly relevant in grasping the aesthetic behind specifically contrapuntal projects like The Art of Fugue.
ii) Music designed to move the Affections towards God
Ever since the discovery of Bach’s personal Bible commentary, the so-called ‘Calov Bible’, it has often been noted that Bach’s music appears to have been intended as an expression of a specifically, and personally-held, Lutheran faith. The implications of this in seeking an informed speculation of Bach’s theological views of music are significant. For the indications in Luther’s writings are not only that he saw music as inherently theological on a number of different levels, but specifically that he saw music as having a role in moving the believer’s affections towards God, and thus an ability to strengthen the believer’s faith in Christ. Combining this insight with the commonly-observed (though not unchallenged) evidence of the Baroque Affektenlehre (or ‘Doctrine of the Affections’) in Bach’s music, it can be seen how often Bach’s sacred music (chorale-based or liturgically intended; often both) makes its spiritual utility felt through its projection of a relevant and (sometimes) dominant affekt. This primary affekt is then projected through the musical material, itself often consisting of harmonic and motivic workings-out of a single inventio, or dominant musical figure. In the organ music, this notion is perhaps most useful in approaching the chorale preludes—a genre that covers many of the organ works—where in many cases the background text, where clear, often illuminates both the general affekt of a given prelude, and the specificity of particular harmonies and figurations that have been chosen to illustrate it.
Conclusion—Bach, Beauty and Belief
Although the label of ‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’ for the corpus is a misnomer, there are still many varied ways in which to view it coherently; theological aesthetics is just one example. Theology and aesthetics combine throughout Bach’s organ music, uniting them as works that project a Christian Lutheran worldview through their specifically musical beauty. In this they serve as exemplars of the theology of another towering eighteenth-century Christian intellect, whose published thought also combined beauty and belief with an emphasis on the affections of the believer: the American pastor Jonathan Edwards, with whom Bach has once been compared. Edwards placed the affections-of-the-heart at the centre of his definition of genuine Christian experience, and thus taught that moving them God-ward was the primary aim of any means of grace in the church, whether preaching or music. As examples of Edwards' affection-driven theology in practice, the organ works of Bach clearly cohere in their common ability to promote both belief and beauty, or perhaps more accurately, belief through beauty.
The Orgelbüchlein (‘Little Organ Book’) was intended by Bach to cover the entire church year as a compendium of chorale arrangements. However, only 46 were completed out of the potential 164 chorales, for reasons unknown. The resulting collection is a masterful showcase of compositional skill, Bach typically making full and imaginative use of the contrapuntal method to illustrate each chorale.
The collection was seemingly begun in 1713, whilst Bach was at Weimar, and continued for three years before being interrupted. The title was added later, whilst Bach was working at Cöthen. It has been conjectured that the collection was intended either for the organ at Weimar, or perhaps for the new organ in Halle, as Bach was approached for the appointment of Capellmeister there in 1713.
The collection as we have it is marked by a number of features. The texts of the chorales are given primacy in Bach’s musical portrayal of the texts, with the affect of each text captured succinctly in usually a short space. This is achieved through the concentrated use of musical motifs, with each chorale setting marked usually by a single motif which both propels the settings forward and carry the burden of the emotional import of the counterpoint. Generally, the chorale is heard in the soprano texture.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV599
The opening chorale of the Orgelbüchlein is Luther’s advent text, given a telling musical portrayal. Word painting is evident in the ‘falling’ motive at the start, harpsichord-like, which leads onto the initial dissonance, and continues throughout. It is especially noticeable in the pedal. The repeated motif is a suspirans, used to create a sombre, serious affect.
Gottes Sohn ist kommen or Gott durch deine Güte BWV600
The text of BWV600 is an ‘old Thuringian Advent hymn’ (Williams 2003 p.240), about the coming of God’s Son to ‘free and release’ (freie und entbinde) the world from sin. This is depicted by the chorale set in a canon—the identification of the Son with the world?—the soprano voice against the pedal 8’, at the octave, which is accompanied by running quavers that provide a harmonization. Bach includes registration instructions for the canon (manual—8’ Principal; pedal—8; Trumpet), and there is evidence of clever planning, with a B-A-C-H figure in bar 16, which is also represents the Golden Section (bar 16 of 35)—as scholars have noted.
Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottes Sohn BWV601
The text speaks poetically of the coming of Christ, him ‘sprouting’ (entsprossen) from the Father’s heart; a poetic image that is also suggested by the motivic writing. The recurring motif in this setting is a suspirans, as in BWV599, but given a very different character: suggestive of joy. Though a common motif, this ‘must represent a conscious attempt to create new language from it’ (Williams 2003 p.244).
Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott BWV602
The text is a hymn of praise to God for sending his Son: an advent hymn published in 1531.There is sophistication evident in the motivic structure: a repeated motif based on a three-note suspirans, with an extra shake. The pedal line decorates a simple scalic descent, which is a feature of the entire setting, also exemplifying its dominant style, which focuses on the embellishment of simple elements through elegant decoration.
Puer natus in Bethlehem BWV603
This is a setting of the Latin text of a Christmas hymn that was associated with Epiphany (Williams 2003 p.245). Hear the chorale unfolding slowly at the top of the texture, accompanied by quavers and a wide-ranging pedal line, whose opening features a syncopated, rhythmic off-beat that can be heard throughout. This ‘response to Christmas seems to be awe or fear rather than jollity’ (Williams 2003, p.247).
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BWV604
The repetition of the motifs in BWV604 result in a constant semiquaver motion, spread between the parts. The chorale melody is in the right hand, at the top of the texture. The text is gentle praise to the Incarnate Christ, an affect reflected in the setting, and set to a plainsong-derived chorale.
Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV605
The joy inherent in the chorale’s text is reflected in Bach’s setting, especially in the use of the repeating motif, a jaunty off-beat demisemiquaver. The melody is again in the RH, left unembellished.
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her BWV606
This is a noble setting, with the chorale embellished above a full 4-part texture. From the opening unison, the pedal part leads the harmony in quavers beneath running middle parts. The text’s joy and gladness (‘ich bring euch gute neue Mär’) are reflected in the bell-like motifs of Bach’s setting.
Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar BWV607
This is a setting of Luther’s last Christmas hymn, from 1543 (Williams 2003 p.251). The text features angels, describing their descent from heaven to the shepherds, an image perhaps reflected in the abundance of scale figures throughout. These are given plenty of rhythmic variety: semiquavers in the tenor line against slower crotchets in the pedals, with the alto filling in the harmony.
In dulci jubilo BWV608
BWV608 is a canon, between the soprano in the right hand, and the pedal. Underneath are the inner parts, in jubilant triplets. Throughout, the triplet feel is interrupted by crotchet cross rhythms, highlighting the joy of the text.
Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich BWV609
The pedal quaver line underpins lively semiquavers, providing a full texture to this Christmas chorale, the text emphasising the ‘opening up’ of heaven. Williams highlights the ‘two great ascents’ of the pedal line (Williams 2003 p.255), nicely capturing the ‘vivid counterpoint to the chorale-melody’, rather than anything strictly symbolic.
Jesu, meine Freude BWV610
This is a melancholy setting, the affect projected by chromatic writing in a modal C minor and a ‘Largo’ marking . Two motifs dominate—the opening anapaest (short-short-long), and the pedal four semiquavers-after-a-rest. The affect of the setting links to its text, expressing ‘fervent longing’ (Spitta), the 1653 Epiphany text speaking of the believer’s desire for Christ.
Christum wir sollen loben schon BWV611
An adagio setting, BWV611 is striking as for the first time in the collection the chorale is not at the top of the texture, but in the alto. From the initial wide-spacing of the unison Ds, the setting is noteworthy for the intricacy of writing weaved around the melody. The motifs are built on semiquavers; note the pedal syncopations throughout; which bleed into the other lines; and the suspirans figure, with its initial rest, heard first in the soprano at the start. the text is a hymn for Christmas, written by Luther after a Latin original. Williams catalogues the history of allegorical interpretation that this setting has invited: for example, the alto cantus representing the baby Jesus in the womb; the ‘ends of the earth’ (in verse 1 of the hymn) symbolised by bar 5’s four-octave span from C-c’’’ (Williams 2003 p.259).
Wir Christenleut BWV612
This is a lively setting of the Christmas hymn from 1593, a text that emphasises the joy of the believer through Christ. This joy is given musical representation through a dancing triplet metre, the pedal supplying the foundation with steady quavers, and a repeating motif.
Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen BWV613
BWV613 is harmonically intricate, underpinned by a quaver pedal line and flowing inner pats. These imitate each other, originating from the suspirans figure at the start in the alto part—a motif that features throughout. The text includes references to the passing of time, an idea that is perhaps reflected in the constant scalic writing.
Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV614
This is a densely compact setting, packing much into its twelve bars. The chorale is embellished in the right hand, ornamented, with highly expressive moments of pathos, and accompanied by motivically tightly-knit three parts, marked by chromatic fourths—the interval filled in—usually implying grief. The pedal and tenor are often in dialogue with each other, sometimes moving in contrary motion. The text is about gratitude for the preservation and protection of another year. The marked affect of grief in this setting has invited speculation, but there may be a concrete reason—two of Bach’s children, twins, died in 1713, the ‘alte Jahr’ (see Williams 2003 p.265).
In dir ist Freude BWV615
BWV615 is characterised by a markedly different affect from the previous chorale—joy—which is sounded out by a dominant pedal motif heard in the first bar. The imitative writing between manuals, in which the chorale’s motifs are heard repeatedly like bells, emphasises the joyful feel, along with the ebullient quavers and scalic writing.
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin BWV616
The parts of this setting ate united by a gentle undulating motif of long-short-short (dactyl), and the imitative writing in the first bar exemplifies the whole—a testament to the concentration of ideas and systematic working out of the counterpoint. The text is a setting of the Nunc dimittis, emphasising the peaceful hope of Christian death.
Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf BWV617
The chorale is unusually set in two-parts, both in the right hand. Strictly a trio setting, the trio texture is nevertheless unique: each line is idiosyncratic, with its own character, with no interplay between the parts. Against a scalic, triplet accompaniment in the left hand the pedal is syncopated, producing a line of some virtuosity. The text is a prayer for death, for the ‘unlocking’ of heaven. Williams suggests the accompaniment is ‘unstoppable’, highlighting many instances in the text of the idea (Williams 2003 p.271).
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV618
The collection now moves on to Easter chorales, and with it comes a new texture: the chorale melody heard in the pedal. The text is a setting of the Agnus Dei from 1542, sung on Good Friday. There is a new complexity here too—the chorale in canon at the fifth, and the accompaniment in free imitation with itself—at the start it seems it could also be in canon at the octave. This is built on the setting’s chief motif—gently lilting semiquavers with a pair of demisemiquavers. Williams highlights that BWV618 forms a pair with the following setting, sharing key, theme, structure, but contrasting in, for example, affect, time signature, and length.
Christe, du Lamm Gottes BWV619
This is another Agnus Dei setting, in a German translation from 1528. Bach’s setting is built on a simple descending scale in triple metre, echoed at three octaves in succession, and weaved into intricate canonic writing, ‘a peak in the Weimar canonic tradition’ (Williams 2003 p.274). Like its predecessor in the collection, the chorale does not start straight away.
Christus, der uns selig macht BWV620
This setting is given a similar texture to BWV618, with the chorale heard in canon at the fifteenth between right hand and pedal. In between, as in BWV618, two imitative inner parts also sound canonic, though are not. The soprano voice starts the canon; the pedal follows, meaning that the soprano voice finishes first, three bars from the end, before joining the motivic working of the inner parts to finish. The text is another Easter chorale for Good Friday, speaking of the humiliation of Christ, ideas perhaps behind the chromatic and turbulent writing characteristic of the setting.
Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund BWV621
The harmonic working of the chorale is telling in this setting, with suspensions played off syncopated pedal notes. It is tempting to see the musical references to the number 7, present though a descending seventh motif in the pedal, as linking to the number 7 mentioned in the text (Christ’s seven words on the cross). However, this characteristic pedal motif has also been seen as symbolising more generally the death and ‘sinking’ of Christ.
O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross BWV622
BWV622 is perhaps the emotional centre of the collection. It is based on a text that explores feelings of devotion to the crucified Christ, capturing its theology in detail. This is explored in a long, languishing line of melody, underpinned with slowly-unfolding, beautiful harmony. It is also possible to interpret Bach’s harmonic writing theologically. Oft-noted are the final bars, with their celebrated C-flat major chord, with their strong chromatic harmony, perhaps in this context symbolising Christ’s taking of sin on himself at the Cross.
Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV623
This setting is driven by the opening pedal motif—a rest followed by two semis, followed by quavers—which gives a dance-like jollity to the affect. As has been pointed out, it is also very ‘cello-like’ (Wiilliams 2003 p.282). This motif bleeds into the inner voices, with the chorale above. The chorale is a text of thanks to God for the death of Christ, and an affirmation of the Lutheran idea of Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer.
Hilf Gott, das mir's gelinge BWV624
BWV624 is set in the form of another canon: the chorale is in canon with itself at the fifth, in the right hand. The remaining two voices are in a trio texture, with single lines, but (like BWV617) each has its own unique character. The left hand contains triplet semiquavers—joyfully singing the ‘word’ (‘Dass ich mag fröhlich heben an von deinem Wort zu singen’)? The pedal is marked by syncopations. The chorale is from 1527, H Muller’s ‘Ballad of the Passion’.
Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV625
BWV625 marks the start of a series of six Resurrection chorales, this set to an Easter hymn by Luther. The motif heard throughout is four descending semiquavers that permeate. There are some musical features in this setting that tie it in to other of Bach’s versions of this chorale, for example the rising chromatic fourth in bar in the second half.
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV626
This is set in compound time, and given motifs that suggest ‘rising’, suitable for Luther’s three-verse Easter hymn from 1524. The dominant motif is a syncopated quaver rhythm, initially heard in its ‘rising’ form in the pedals.
Christ ist erstanden BWV627
BWV627 is unusual in the collection, given a longer setting that seems to develop its motives, and intentionally spanning three verses of the chorale. The three accompanying parts throughout are highly imitative, and the chorale was sung on all days of Easter.
Erstanden ist der heilige Christ BWV628
This is set in a bright D major to musical figures that, as previously, also suggest ‘rising’, from the initial alto rising scale, echoed in the tenor, and the pedal rising fifth; these permeates through the setting. Bach’s affect suits the mood of the text: a joyful ‘Hallelujah’ to the holy risen Christ in a 1544 version of the Latin carol ‘Surrexit Christus hodie’.
Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag BWV629
In this setting the left hand is permeated with the motif short-short-long (anapaest) driving the music forward. The chorale can be heard in a canon at the octave (really two octaves, the fifteenth), between soprano and pedal. The text (1560) again speaks of the joy of the Resurrection, but Bach sets it to a contrasting affect to the previous setting. This is heard in the contrasting mode—Aeolian on D—which gives a feel of D minor and creates a sombre mood in contrast to the joyful exuberance of the previous chorale.
Heut' triumphieret Gottes Sohn BWV630
This is the final Resurrection setting, more motivically independent than BWV629. It is punctuated throughout by a triumphant pedal motif based on a suspirans (four notes: short-short-short-long). The apex of this musical symbol of triumph is heard in the final four bars, the pedal traversing the three octaves from D–D’’ in jubilant quavers, above a ‘clearly articulated ‘Ha-lle-lu-jah’’ in the soprano (Williams 2003 p.294).
Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist BWV631
After the Resurrection comes Pentecost, chorales that feature the ministry of the Holy Spirit. First is this chorale, on Luther’s version of ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, for Whitsunday. It is given another unusual setting, in compound time (12/8). The pedal is given only short quavers to play, on every third beat, perhaps intended to give a rhythmic portrayal of the ‘third’ person of the Trinity—the Spirit.
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV632
This 1648 text is a prayer before the sermon, a text that was sung weekly, and perhaps penned by Duke Wilhelm II of Sachsen-Weimar (Williams 2003 p.296). It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to lead the congregation into God’s truth. In Bach’s setting, the chorale is played around a suspirans figure—not dissimilar to the first of the Leipzig chorales, BWV651, another Holy Spirit chorale, ‘Komm Heiliger Geist’. The triadic shape of the chorale influences the counterpoint and musical figures of both the pedal and the left hand throughout.
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV633
BWV633 is a beautifully serene A major setting of this chorale, texturally interesting for its five-parts that derive from the chorale heard in canon between soprano and alto, at the fifth. The text focuses on the Word of God (like that of the previous setting), but from the angle of Christ rather than the Spirit—the believer sitting at the ‘dear’ (‘liebster’) Jesus’s feet to hear his word. The motifs throughout are tightly knit, traceable to the chorale’s stepwise intervals.
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV634
BWV634 is a varied version of the BWV633, with some more flowing development given to the counterpoint of the inner parts and pedal, some of the slower notes turned into quavers, and the harmony filled out. The melody retains its mellifluous serenity, but with a little more embellishment.
Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot BWV635
This is the first of the chorales the deal with aspects of Luther’s catechism, this on the Ten Commandments. The repeated notes of the chorale feature strongly throughout in the accompaniment, and as with other of Bach’s settings of ‘Ten Commandment’ texts, there are references to ‘ten’ in this setting: Williams describes the ‘ten entries’ of the subject (see Williams 2003 p.300).
Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV636
BWV636 is based on the setting of the Lord’s Prayer, by Luther. The chorale, in the soprano, is accompanied by a suspirans figure throughout, weaving around the melody.
Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt BWV637
This is a setting of a text that describes fallen humanity. It is given telling musical portrayal, heard in the chromatic inflections heard in the inner harmony; the diminished sevenths that literally ‘fall’ in the pedal; the twisting serpent-like running semiquavers throughout (perhaps deliberate as the text mentions the serpent of Genesis chapter 3—‘die Schlang’). Williams highlights the harmonic instability—and ingenuity—that Bach’s motivic technique creates, as in the space of six beats and two bars (13-14) six keys are ‘temporarily established’ (Williams 2003 p.304-305).
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her BWV638
This hymn speaks of the central Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone. It is given a bright D major setting, with the pedal active throughout, marked by positive rising scales. It has been pointed out that the similarity in conception to the previous setting—with each line of music individually characterised (chorale/running semiquaver inner parts/a ‘leaping’ bass)—intentionally points to the theological connection between them (Williams 2003 p.306).
Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV639
The text of this chorale cries out to Christ for grace. It is given a beautifully characterised setting, in F minor, similarly conceived to the previous two, with semiquaver inner lines and a quaver bass. The left hand’s running line emphasises sighing figures and deftly brings out touching harmony to project the gentle melancholy of the affect. The setting sounds like a transcribed string trio, which has led some to see it as a reworking of a—perhaps lost—cantata movement.
In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr BWV640
The text is a prayer to the Lord for sustenance, emphasising the Lord’s faithfulness. Bach’s counterpoint is motivically striking, dominated by an anapaest rhythm (short-short-long), which is derived from the chorale. This setting also features another pedal line that stands out from the remaining lines, strongly characterised.
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein BWV641
BWV641 carries on the theme from the previous chorale, setting another text that cries out to God for help. This cry is characterised in the right hand chorale melody, beautifully embellished, with some surprising harmonic shifts above a continuo-like bass. There is a particularly touching scale in the final bar.
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten BWV642
This chorale is used extensively by Bach elsewhere, and continues the theme of hoping in God, ‘associated with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity’ (Williams 2003 p.312). Yet the affect is different to BWV641: the motifs of the accompaniment—dactyl (long-short-short)—give a solid, weighty, feel to the setting.
Alle Menschen müssen sterben BWV643
The final two chorales focus on death. BWV643 is based on a funeral text from 1642, ‘All mankind must die’; the affect has been described as ‘rapturous’ (Williams 2003 p.313). The motif that runs through the entire chorale is the suspirans, but deftly worked to bind the music together. Note the leaping pedal line throughout.
Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig BWV644
The last setting of the collection is strongly characterised—note the leaping pedal octaves heard throughout (descending) against the rising scales in the inner parts, heard at the outset. It sets a text from 1652 describing the futility of life, given musical expression here: Williams posits a link between scale patterns and ‘life’s transience’ in Bach’s mind, given common usage in Cantata 26 , which is based on the same chorale (Williams 2003 p.315).
George Parsons © 2019
1* Principal 16
2* Octave 8
3 Hohlflöte 8
4* Octave 4
5 Spitzflöte 4
6* Quinte 2 ⅔
7* Superoctave 2
8 Sesquialter III
9 Cornett IV
10 Mixtur IV-V
11 Trompete 8
12 Vox Humana 8
13* Principal 8
14 Gedackt 8
15 Octave 4
16 Rohrflöte 4
17 Octave 2
18 Gemshorn 2
19 Larigot 1 ⅓
20 Sesquialter II
21 Scharf III
22 Dulcian 8
23 Viola 8
24 Suavial 8
25 Rohrflöte 8
26 Principal 4
27 Gedacktflöte 4
28 Nasard 2 ⅔
29 Doublette 2
30 Terz 1 ⅗
31 Mixtur IV
32 Fagott 16
33 Trompete 8
34* Principal 16
35 Subbass 16
36 Octavbass 8
37 Bourdon 8
38 Octave 4
39 Mixtur V
40 Posaune 16
41 Trompete 8
42 Trompete 4
(* Father Smith ranks)
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