Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott BWV 651 and 652
At the beginning of the collection we find two arrangements of this Whitsun hymn – Luther’s translation of the old church antiphon “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, the most important Whitsun hymn in German psalters after the Reformation.
In the first setting (BWV 651), Bach provides a mighty fantasia with the cantus firmus in the pedal, the power of which surely gave the contemporary listener a graphic description of the miracle of the first Whitsun. The main subject with its rising and falling triads may be an evocation of the tongues of fire and derives from the first phrase of the chorale. An earlier version contains only 48 bars and only four of the ten phrases of the chorale.
The second arrangement (BWV 652) is a demonstration of how differently one and the same chorale melody can be treated by a Baroque composer. We find here a lyrical sarabande-like movement with c f gracefully ornamented on a solo stop in the treble. Every phrase is consistently realized with detailed pre-imitations – so detailed that the final result may seem tiresome. In the final coda Bach draws out the last Hallelujah of the text in a manner often found among North German composers such as Böhm, Buxtehude etc. This piece is probably one of the oldest of the 18 chorales.
An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV 653
The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 137 “By the waters of Babylon” and the melody is also familiar from the Good Friday hymn “Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld”.
There are three versions of this chorale : a) in five parts with double pedal and c f in the treble, b) in four parts with c f in the tenor, c) a thoroughly reworked version of (b) with sharper rhythms and busier pedal. The five-part version has sometimes been linked with Bach’s visit to Hamburg in 1720 when, in the Katherinenkirche, he elaborated on a chorale for half an hour, a chorale on which the church organist, the 97-year old Ranken, had himself composed a great fantasia. According to Spitta, the five-part version is a reworking of (b). Closer study of the pedal part in (b), however, reveals that it is a compromise between the two pedal parts in (a). Probably (a) is the oldest version, which Bach later reworked, since the typically North German style of playing with double pedal became increasingly obsolete during the first half of the 18th century. This too, is sarabande-like piece with the two upper voices woven together in an ostinato-like motif over a gracefully ornamented c f in the tenor part.
Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele BWV 654
This radiantly beautiful Eucharist chorale on Johann Crüger’s melody has become one of Bach’s most widely known and best loved chorales, not least because of Schumann’s famous comment after hearing a performance by Mendelssohn in the Thomas-Kirche at Leipzig in 1840: “The c f was hung with gilt foliage and infused with such bliss, that you yourself were confessing to me that if life were to take all hope and faith from you, then the single chorale would restore them to you again” (from a letter to Mendelssohn).
A gently rocking movement in ¾ time with an ornamented c f in the treble. Perhaps the graceful ornaments are a reference to the “Schmücke dich” of the text. An unusual detail is the return of the opening motif like a ritornello at the end of the chorale, a feature otherwise limited almost exclusively to the Schübler chorales.
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 655
Bach composed quite a number of organ settings for this chorale, a hymn used regulary in the church service to prepare the congregation for the sermon after the priest has gone up into the pulpit. Here Bach has composed an elegant trio similar in style to the six trio sonatas, and with c f in the pedal for the last third of the piece. There are three other versions, of which two appear to have come into existence by a splitting of the third version in the middle. Either these two pieces are original or they are arrangements by another hand.
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV 656
This chorale, a paraphrase of the Agnus Dei from the mass, was sung in Leipzig on Good Friday between the sermon and Holy Communion. The three verses have the same text, except that the final phrase of the first two verses “Erbarme dich unser, o Jesu” is replaced in the lat verse by “Gib uns dein Frieden, o Jesu”. Bach makes his settings an unbroken triptych with verses 1 and 2 as three-part movements played manually to a fairly traditional pattern, with the c f in the treble and alto parts respectively. In the third verse which has given rise to many interpretations. All agree that strident chromaticism of the penultimate phrase symbolized the passage “Sonst müssen wir verzagen” (else we must despair) whilst the pure, soaring lines of the last phrase represent “Gib uns dein Frieden” (Give us thy peace). The other motifs have produced much speculation, particularly the fugal motif accompanying the fifth phrase, as for example “the Saviour’s bowed head” (Hans Keller) “An illustration of the bearing of sin” (Spitta) or “the multiplicity of human sin” (Schweizer).
Nun danket alle Gott BWV 657
For this hymn of thanksgiving only one organ chorale in Bach’s hands has been preserved, and it is moreover the only one of the 18 chorales where the older version is identical to the final one. This piece, with c f in straight minims in the treble over a busy accompaniment swarming with motifs and different types of pre-imitations has often been regarded as one of the less worthy chorales. Spitta describes it as “strictly in the manner of Pachelbel, smooth and clear and worked out to the last note”.
Von Gott will ich nicht lassen BWV 658
The tune is of secular origin (Ich ging einmal spatzieren) and the text by L. Helmbold dates from 1563. This four-part chorale with c f in the pedal makes a striking impression with its frequent use of so-called figura corta – called by Schweizer the rhythm of bliss – whilst the key is a dark f minor, a key which according to Mattheson (Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre 1713) expresses heartbreak and despair. Is it perhaps a picture of a restless man’s zeal not to turn from God? A problem of interpretation is whether the pedal should use the 8 foot or the 4 foot register. According to the distribution of parts it should be 8 foot and in the tenor range, but 4 foot undoubtedly sounds better and one manuscript (Oley) actually has this direction in the music.
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV659-661
For this extremely important Advent hymn, so prominent in German hymnbooks (Ambrosius’s Redemptor Gentium, translated by Luther), there are three arrangements among the 18 chorales, pieces with a strong internal link.
The first (BWV 659) is a radiantly beautiful movement with ornamented c f in the treble over imitative voices in the alto and tenor and a gently meandering continuo-like bass part. Introversion and mysticism are suitable words to describe this chorale – and comparison with other Baroque composers’s arrangements of the same chorale, for example that of Buxtehude or Bach’s own setting in the Orgelbüchlein, reveals a similar musical language, apparently the humble contemplation by the Baroque mind of the miracle of the Virgin birth.
A sharp contrast to this introvert beauty is provided by the second setting (BWV 660), an almost grotesquely instrumented trio for two interwoven bass parts (left hand and pedal) and ornamented c f in the right hand. Several scholars are agreed that this is actually a reference to the third verse: “Sein lauf kam vom Vater her…fuhr hinunter zu der Höll” (his path come from the Father…descended into Hell). The two bass parts thus provide a picture of hell. The piece is unique among Bach’s organ chorales and may possibly be a transcription of some lost cantata movement for voice, gamba or cello and continuo. The four part final chord in the left hand is gamba-like.
The last setting (BWV 661) is a jubilant pleno fuga with c f in the pedal, a piece that certainly refers to the praises of the last verse (Lob sei Gott den Vater g’tan) and completes the triptych which may be seen as a picture of Jesus’s life: The Virgin birth – death on the Cross and the descent into Hell – the resurrection and triumph of the Savior. In this way, the chorale forms a meaningful whole. Spitta believed that Bach had intended this effect from the beginning, but that seems impossible since Walther’s manuscript does not include BWV 659. It is nonetheless clear that in the Leipzig manuscript Bach grouped these pieces together to form a whole.
*instrument - the reconstructed Baroque organ in Kristine Church,Falun (Sweden)