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We shall never know why Bach planned the Orgelbüchlein to contain 164 chorale preludes, but composed only 45. Does the collection we have represent simply all he had time to compose; or did Bach, realising that the remaining 119 chorales would never see the light of day, nevertheless seek to give logic and coherence to what remained? I incline to the latter theory; the collection takes us chronologically through the Church’s year from Advent to Pentecost, with the remaining twelve chorales being non-seasonal but relating to particular needs or occasions - before the sermon, for the dying, and so on. And it is pure coincidence that what is surely the greatest setting occupies centre place in the collection? Twenty-two chorales precede and twenty-to more follow the towering masterpiece that is O Mensch, bewein.


In the title-page of the collection Bach lists his aims: to instruct a beginner at the organ how to work out a chorale in many different , and to achieve perfection in playing the pedals, whose use in these chorales is wholly obligatory. Bach being the composer he was, what could have been dry-as-dust material is in fact music so varied and beautiful that it has become the organist’s Bible. Others have written eloquently and at length of the construction, symbolism and dating of the chorales; suffice it to say that Bach’s invention seems endless, to the extent that it is hard to think of any chorale that reminds one of any other, such is the variety Bach achieves in what are for the most part in one sense no more than decorated harmonised play-throughs of the chorale melody ( to reduce matters rather unkindly to their bare essentials).


The majority of the preludes are composed in four-part texture - one part in the pedals and three in the manuals. All use the pedals - three of them in the tenor, otherwise in the bass. All employ distinctive and unique rhythmic or melodic figuration in the accompanying parts - sometimes shared with the pedals, sometimes with separate pedal ostinati - sometimes derived from the chorale melody, often independent. Endings are often characterised, and slowed down, by thickening of the texture, by false relations between the parts, or by chromaticisms. With the exception of In dir ist Freude, the chorale melodies are presented continuously with no breaks (or almost no breaks) between the phrases.


I suggested the the Orgelbüchlein had become as it were the organist’s Bible. No organist should be ignorant of the collection; every organist should master some at least of these chorales, which have adorned the liturgy of churches throughout and far beyond Lutheran communities. It was John Dykes Bower’s playing of these works in St Paul’s Cathedral that introduced them to me in my Chorister days; and on being elected to the Organ Scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge my first step was to learn all those preludes that were not already in my repertoire. These pieces have been lifelong companions, and in recording them forty-five years later I pass a milestone on what is a personal pilgrimage, an (I hope) go some way towards repaying the rewards they continue to give me.


No organ with Romaantic voicing, electric blowing, elctro-pneumatic action and (not least) a scale tuned in twelve equal semitones is going to make the sort of sound that Bach would have recognised in his lifetime. So why record this music in Durham Cathedral with its Willis/Harrison instrument, built in 1877 and subsequently rebuilt three times? Fisrtly, because Bach’s music transcends its medium; it is less insolubly tied to specific tone-colours than (for instance) French Classical organ music. But second, perhaps, because the organ at Durham possesses sufficient variety and vitality to bring each piece convincingly to life. I have not repeated any registration; every plenum is different. Wether or not my confidence is justified you, the listener, must decide.


James Lancelot

Orgelbuch.mp3

J.S. Bach ‘The Orgelbüchlein’

PRCD 1139

£10.-

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For Advent:

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

Gottes Sohn ist kommen (also called Gott, durch eine Güte)

Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn (also called Herr Gott, nun sei gepreiset)

Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott

For Christmas:

Puer natus in Bethlehem

Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ

Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich

Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her

Vom Himmel kam der Engel schar

In dulci jubilo

Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich

Jesu, meine Freude

Christum wir sollen loben schon

Wir Christenleut

For the close of year:

Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen

Das alte Jahr vergangen ist

For New Year:

In dir ist Freude

For Candlemas (2 February):

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin

Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf

For Passiontide:

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig

Christe, du Lamm Gottes

Christus, der uns selig macht

Da Jesus an dem Kreuz stund

O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß

Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ, daß du für uns gestorben bist

Hilf, Gott, daß mir’s gelinge

For Easter:

Christ lag in Todesbanden

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der den Tod überwand

Christ ist erstanden (three verses)

Erstanden ist der heilgen Geist

Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag

Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn

For Pentecost:

Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist

Before the Sermon:

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend

Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (two seperate settings)

Cathecism chorales:

Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (The Ten Commandments)

Vater unser in Himmelreich (The Lord’s Prayer)

Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (Penitence)

Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Salvation)

Miscellaneous:

Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ ( A prayer for faith, grace and strength)

In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (An expression of trust in God)

Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (A prayer in time of distress)

Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (An expression of trust inb God)

For a funeral:

Alle Menschen müssen sterben

Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig