FL 2 3112-3

J.S. Bach: The Leipzig Chorales and other mature works

Release date March 09, 1998
Album code FL 2 3112-3
Periods Baroque

Album information

“You told me yourself that if life were to take away your faith and hope, this chorale would suffice to give them back to you”.
[Schumann to Mendelssohn after having heard him play chorale BWV 654 at the organ of Saint-Thomas in Leipzig in 1840]

One of the most precious manuscripts of Bach’s organ music to have come down to us is a certain volume (labeled P 271) whose components were perhaps not all originally bound together. This manuscript contains, in the following order, the organ sonatas, fifteen organ chorales, BWV 651-665 (all autograph copies), two chorales, BWV 666-667 copied by J.C. Altnikol (Bach’s pupil), an autograph version of the Canonic Variations, BWV 769a, and finally, the chorale BWV 668 ending at bar 26, and copied by an unknown hand. These last nineteen pieces were all put down on paper during the Cantor’s last years in Leipzig, probably sometime between 1744 and 1748 or later.

The Leipzig Chorales had until recently been called “The Eighteen”, comprising all the manuscript’s chorales which, by the way, all had earlier versions dating back to the Weimar period (c 1710-14). However, only the seventeen first chorales can truly be considered as a collection, since they are presented consecutively in the manuscript. What’s more, the first and last chorales, according to Bernard Lagacé, seem to enshrine the collection, as they both are addressed to the Holy Ghost, are marked “in organo pleno’” and contain at the end the musical signature B-A-C-H (the notes B flat, A, C and B natural). Also, in manuscript P 271, the chorale BWV 668 Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich [Before your throne I now appear ] is incomplete.

This chorale is the same as the one, but completed, published at the end of the first edition of The Art of Fugue, whose preface claims it was dictated by a blind and dying Bach “to a friend”. (This chorale can be found, in this “Intégrale”, following the recording of The Art of Fugue.

The main interest of the collection, apart from its most beautiful and profound music, is the variety of forms which it contains, and Bach has certainly achieved in these chorales an art exceedingly mature and personal. One can distinguish, among other forms, paraphrased chorales whose lines are derived from the cantus firmus (BWV 651, 655, 657, 664, 665), ornamented chorales with the theme in the soprano or tenor lines (BWV 653, 654, 659, 660, 662, 663), fantasy-chorales with the cantus firmus in the bass line (BWV 651, 661), and trios (BWV 655, 664).

It is striking to witness Bach so occupied at the end of is life at re-working and revising older works, as he does in the Leipzig Chorales, or exploring to the limits the ancient science of counterpoint, as in The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue, for example. In both cases, he is delving into compositional techniques of a former time. Perhaps Bach, being a good teacher, wished to leave as a legacy a vast repertoire of genres that had been the hallmarks of an epoch bygone.

© Jacques-André Houle


To this excellent introduction to the wonderful collection of the Leipzig Chorales, I wish to simply add a personal hypothesis. If Bach, sick and nearly blind, took the time to revise and copy these old chorales (there is nearly thirty years between their composition and their revision) while busy with the completion and editing of The Art of Fugue, it surely means that he admired these works enough to wish offering them in the most perfect form possible, and he may even had intended their publication. This collection would then have been the fifth part of the Keyboard Exercises (Clavierübung), of which The Art of Fugue would have constituted the sixth and last part, thus accomplishing the six days of Creation… Bach emulating God the Creator…

Two Chorales and two great Preludes and Fugues complete this album. First, a different and ornate version (from the Kirnberger Collection) of the fifth Leipzig Chorale, which is close in style to the Orgelbüchlein Chorales and would have been worthy of that collection. It is followed by the five voice and double pedal version of the third Leipzig Chorale, in which the melody, this time barely ornamented, is in the soprano rather than in the tenor. This version was probably written before the Leipzig version, but nevertheless shares its main stylistic traits such as harmonic progressions and melodic and contrapuntal movement, and we can surely find it as deeply moving.

The two Preludes and Fugues in B and in E minor (BWV 544 and 548) are among Bach’s greatest works. Both no doubt belong to the Leipzig period, probably around 1730, and both are notable for their inventiveness and the extraordinary variety of their writing. Nearly symphonic and highly “baroque” in character, they both radiate an atmosphere of grandeur, and display an unyielding energy and a dramatic character.

© Bernard Lagacé

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