FL 2 3123-4

J.S. Bach: Clavierübung III (Organ Mass) and The Six 'Schübler' Chorales

Release date February 29, 2000
Album code FL 2 3123-4
Periods Baroque

Album information

Third Part of the 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, Kapellmeister and Director of the chorus musicus, Leipzig, Published by the Author 1739.
(Original preface to the work)

In the year 1739, Johann Sebastian Bach was somewhat dissatisfied with the seven years he had spent as the musical director of the Leipzig city churches. Faced with the lack of understanding of his employers, not entirely happy with his salary, and having failed to gain the appreciation he believed he deserved from the church congregations, he took steps—which were never to bear fruit—to find a new position and redirect his career. From this point on, he composed less new music for the service, relying increasingly on the considerable stock of vocal and instrumental music he had produced over the years. Instead, he directed his attention towards a new audience, consisting, in his own words, of “music-lovers and particularly of connoisseurs.”

The resulting new, secular instrumental and vocal compositions were destined for the audiences at Zimmermann’s cafe, where Bach, in the company of his sons and pupils and other devoted performers, appeared as the director of the Collegium Musicum.

He focused his attention, in particular, on keyboard instruments, and produced several monumental collections of works that still, today, enjoy a unique position in the history of music. They include works for the harpsichord, namely the six Partitas ( Clavierübung I ), the Italian Concerto and French Overture ( Clavierübung II ) the Goldberg Variations ( Clavierübung IV ), the second volume of theWell-Tempered Clavier and the Art of Fugue. For the organ, he produced the six Schübler Chorales, the Canonic Variations, Clavierübung III and several newlyrevised works such as the well-known Eighteen (“Leipzig”) Chorales. These works were intended for performance by Bach himself or the members of his circle, probably during private recitals or “for the recreation of the spirit,” given in private houses or at Court, or in the organ-lofts of various churches.

The organ work Clavierübung III, is one of the most complex and, from several points of view, enigmatic of all the collections listed above. In order to understand the composer’s approach, it is necessary to know that, during the whole compositional process, Bach was deeply involved in an aesthetic quarrel and was the target of attacks launched by the younger generation of musicians:

This great man would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amenity, if he did not deprive his pieces of all that is natural by giving then a bombastic and confused character, and if he did not tarnish their beauty by an excess of art.
(Johann Adolf Scheibe in: Der critische Musikus, Hamburg, May 1737)

Bach’s response was made in musical form. Indeed, it is not unfair to say that, during this period, each work composed by Bach was intended to defend a particular position, to expose the composer’s point of view on a specific aspect of music: the art of variation, ornamentation, the polyphonic tradition, the synthesis of various national elements, aesthetic considerations, instrumental technique, musical form, and symbolism based on musical figures or numerology. The comments made by Lorenz Mizler, one of Bach’s admirers, shed an interesting light on the confrontational context surrounding the work’s genesis:

The author has given here new proof that in this kind of composition he excels many others in experience and skill. No one can surpass him in this sphere, and very few indeed will be able to imitate him. This work is a powerful argument against those who have ventured to criticize the music of the Court Composer.
(Lorenz Mizler in: Musikalische Bibliotek, October 1740)

Clavierübung III contains twenty-one chorale preludes and four two-voice pieces for manuals only, framed by a prelude and fugue that are obviously related, if only by their key of E-flat major. The chorales are connected with the opening sections of the Mass (Kyrie and Gloria, nos. 2 to 10) and the articles of faith set out in the Lutheran catechism (law, faith, prayer, baptism, confession and communion, nos. 11 to 22). With the exception of the three trios on “Allein Gott” (the Lutheran Gloria), each chorale tune is presented in two versions, one with obbligato pedal, generally longer, and one for manuals, to be played either on the organ or on the harpsichord.

Bach’s manipulation of numbers in this work is truly astonishing. The number 3, for instance, associated with the Holy Trinity, is found in the title itself, Clavierübung III, in the three flats in the key signature of the opening prelude and closing fugue, in the three thematic elements of the prelude and the three sections of the fugue, and in the overall number of movements, 27 equalling three cubed! It is fascinating to contemplate the complexity of the process, which also includes other numbers, and sometimes difficult to establish its boundaries.

Despite the strict overall design of this work and the strategic placement of the Prelude and Fugue (BWV 552), Bach does not appear to have intended it for performance within the scope of a church service. The sequence of keys of the various movements is much freer than in Bach’s harpsichord suites, sets of variations and church cantatas, for example. The collection should rather be considered as a sourcebook for the accomplished performer. Nevertheless, the underlying unity of design in Clavierübung III makes a complete performance a highly gratifying experience.


Præludium BWV 552/1

The opening movement is a stylized fusion—les goûts réunis—of French elements (the dotted rhythms of the overture) and Italian form (the ritornello structure of the concerto). The style of writing recalls the sumptuous nature of the Baroque orchestra, with its contrasting blocks of sound, trilled pedal points, and echo effects marked by joyous strokes of kettledrums. Kyrie BWV 669-674. The chorale, a restatement of the venerable Gregorian chant Kyrie fons bonitatis, is heard as a cantus firmus, first in the soprano (God the Father, BWV 669), then in the tenor (Christ the mediator, BWV 670) and finally in the bass (the Holy Ghost, BWV 671). The music is stark and austere, but not overly contrite; its serene force rather evokes Mankind’s trust in God, and only the poignant conclusion of BWV 671 reminds us that pardon should never be taken for granted. The style of the keyboard versions (BWV 672-674) recalls the brief versets written by Frescobaldi in 1635 to alternate with the choir. The three pieces are also linked by a rhythmic progression.

Allein Gott in der Höh sey Ehr, (“Alone to God on high be glory”) BWV 675-677

The Lutheran Gloria is the only chorale elaborated in three versions, doubtless because of the verses dealing with the Three Persons of the Trinity. Bach goes even further by proposing three three-voice pieces. In the first piece, in F major, for manuals, the chorale melody is set between the voices of a two-part invention. The second piece, in G major, for manuals and pedals, is a magnificent trio sonata in the style of the period, including a complete statement of the chorale theme. The last piece, in A major, is a short fughetta for manuals based on fragments of the chorale melody. The whole constitutes a demonstration of science and art, in which Bach focuses less on pomp and circumstance than on the figure of angel-musicians giving an Engelkonzert.

Diess sind die heilgen zehen Geboth, (“These are the holy ten commandments”) BWV 678, 679

“In this large scale free fantasia, the various, parts can be seen to follow their paths unconcerned with that of their neighbours […]: such is the moral disorder existing in the world before the promulgation of divine law. Then, suddenly, the law appears (the ten commandments), represented by a strict canon on the chorale melody that continues majestically throughout the whole fantasia.” (Albert Schweitzer). The manual versions present the theme in repeated notes, which certain commentators have seen as an illustration of the blows of Moses’chisel as he inscribed the stones of the law.

Wir glauben all an einen Gott, (“We all believe in one God”) BWV 680, 681

Because of the extreme length of the Credo, Bach uses only its first and last lines. The piece is based on a repeated pedal motif, transposed into several different keys, resembling a fervent repetition of “Wir glauben all…” The manual version is based on powerful French dotted rhythms.

Vater unser im Himmelreich (“Our Father, Who art in heaven”) BWV 682, 683

The large-scale five-voice version of the Lord’s Prayer can be related to BWV 678 in that the chorale is heard in canon, in long notes, clearly symbolizing divine order, against a background trio movement whose tormented outline represents “earthly suffering and the obstacle it places in the path of divine wishes” (Wilhelm Weismann). The complex structure of the piece present equally complex problems for the performer. In contrast, the simple, unified style of the second version underlines its similarity to harpsichord music.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (“Christ, our Lord, to Jordan came”) BWV 684, 685

The text of the chorale compares the water of baptism to the blood of Christ: “There He ordained for us water, to wash us of our sins, and to drown bitter death, in his own blood and wounds.” This is reflected in the uninterrupted flow of notes in the left hand, while the right hand executes intermittent figures that, on the page, reproduce the symbol of the Cross. This important chorale, whose musical language is close to that of the cantatas, is perhaps one of the most immediately accessible in the collection. The robust rhythmical and melodic outline of the alternative version recalls the art of one of Bach’s forerunners, the North German Samuel Scheidt. Aus tieffer Noth schrey ich zu dir (“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee”) BWV 686, 687. Bach emphasizes the penitential nature of the De profundis with two “teamed” versions. The first, scored for the plenum (in organo pleno), is the only six-voice composition ever written for the organ by Bach. It employs double pedalling; while the left foot provides the bass line, the right foot exposes the phrases of the chorale in the upper register of the pedalboard.

Jesus Christus unser Heyland, der von uns den Zorn Gottes wand (“Jesus Christ, our Saviour, Who hath taken from us the wrath of God”), BWV 688, 689

In the tormented duo that serves as the setting for the cantus firmus, Bach seems to have meant to represent God’s wrath (the disjunct D-minor motif of the opening), turned aside by Christ (the same motif, inverted and in F major, from the second phrase of the chorale). Here the series of manual versions ends with a broad, calm and penetrating fugue whose main subject contains the initial notes of the chorale which is also stated in long notes, in the tenor voice at the conclusion of the fugue.

Four Duetti BWV 802-805

These four two-part manual pieces seem to be longer, more abstract relations of the fifteen Inventions (BWV 772-787) for keyboard. By including these works in his collection, Bach continues the long tradition of composers such as Sweelinck and Louis Couperin whose strict two-part writing is often based on stylistic figures drawn from the string idiom. The four duets present a rising system of keys, from E minor through F and G to A minor.

Fuga BWV 552/2

The fugue acts as the logical conclusion to the collection. It presents a perfect balance between the science of composition and the symbolism of the Holy Trinity, between intellectual prowess and a sensory perception of the dramatic tension built up over its three sections. The instrumental writing recalls both the keyboard fugues and capriccios of precursors such as Frescobaldi and Froberger, and the festive sounds of a large-scale motet for voices and instruments.


In my opinion, Clavierübung III is the equivalent, for the organ, of the B-Minor Mass (BWV 232), with its multiple vocal, choral and instrumental combinations. Our search for the predominant rationale that inspired Bach while writing these monumental works is given even greater meaning today as it assists us in comprehending the boundless passion that inspired him in his work.

© Marc-André Doran
Translation: Benjamin Waterhouse

bi>Note on the Six ‘Schübler’ Chorales (BWV 465-650) by Bernard Lagacé

The six Schübler Chorales are named after a music publisher who had been a pupil of Bach in 1740, who had commissioned them and who published them around 1748. They are not new works, but transcriptions that Bach made of arias from earlier cantatas written between 1724 and 1731. With the Canonic Variations published in 1748, these rightly celebrated chorales are, besides the third part of the Clavierübung, the only organ works by Bach published during his lifetime.

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