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Ten Organ Chorales in the Schübler Tradition

May 16, 2024
Example 1
Example 1: Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (tune)

Marilyn Biery is keyboard acquisitions editor at Augsburg Fortress. She is Bridge Director of Music Ministry at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She holds bachelor and master of music degrees in organ performance from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ performance from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Schübler Chorales have a special place in my heart. In the winter of 1978, when I was a sophomore organ major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, I heard all six of them played (from memory) by a senior organ major during departmental organ class at Alice Millar Chapel. I was so moved by the playing that I went to the back of the chapel to greet the organist, James Biery, when he came down from the loft. It was the first time we had ever had a conversation. Forty-four years later, we are still in conversation.

Sechs Choräle von verschiedener Art, BWV 645–650, commonly referred to as the Schübler Chorales, is a beloved collection among Johann Sebastian Bach’s already treasured body of music for the organ. Toward the end of Bach’s life, he worked with his student Johann Georg Schübler (c. 1725–after 1753) to outline the collection. It is believed that Bach chose the cantata movements to be transcribed and laid out the structure, and that Schübler completed, engraved, and published the work around 1747 or 1748. Five of the six pieces are from known cantatas, the sixth is believed to be from a lost cantata. Since none of Bach’s cantatas were published during his lifetime, this collection served the purpose of getting Bach’s compositions to a wider audience and introducing more of his music to those who were not familiar with his cantatas. The Leupold Edition of the Bach Organ Works, Series 1, Volume 9, includes an excellent discussion of the Schübler Chorales by George B. Stauffer. The music and the information on the collection represent the most current scholarship and are well worth investigating.

Because of my love for these pieces and my memory of hearing Jim play them at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel, at some point I started to wonder if Bach might have contemplated another volume had he lived longer. It seemed reasonable that there would be another set to be found, so it became my project to look through the cantatas for pieces that would fit into the style of the Schübler Chorales: cantata movements in trio texture with a cantus firmus. At the beginning of my search, I was looking through print copies that Jim had available in his office at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, but at some point I switched over to looking at the scores on the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP, imslp.org).

The process of looking at the score while listening to or watching a recording on YouTube was good for my soul. Due to various job changes, there were stops and starts and long pauses, so that the entire process took about five years. Thanks to the support and encouragement of Augsburg Fortress and the able editing of David Sims, Cynthia Newman Edwards, and James Biery, the collection was published in the spring of 2020.

The process was daunting, but after my perusal a collection of ten movements emerged. There are quite a few movements in Bach’s cantatas that would make fine organ transcriptions, especially of trio texture, but there are a limited number of movements playable by one person at the organ that also use a cantus firmus. While I was looking for movements that qualified for this project, I was also looking for good trio movements without a cantus firmus for a future collection; I did not keep track of how many I discarded in the process. I had hoped that a Google search of “Bach cantata movements with cantus firmus in trio texture” existed but alas, it does not. I looked through the secular cantatas as well, but in the end all of these come from the sacred cantatas.

In keeping with Bach’s love of symmetry, I arranged the collection of ten transcriptions into a pleasing order of key relationships, with the cantus firmus played either by the right hand, the left hand, or the feet. Some movements presented themselves as playable only one way, some worked more than one way, and the choice was made based on playability as well as the overall structure of the collection.

Four of the eight tunes found in this collection are still sung today, most notably Lobe den Herren, Valet will ich dir geben, Jesu, meine Freude, and Christ lag in Todesbanden. The tune Wo soll ich fliehen hin is an alternate melody and not the same tune Bach used in the second Schübler chorale prelude. Three of the movements are based on the same tune, Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, and are placed consecutively in the collection to make an effective set by themselves. Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, and Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren are tunes that are not found in current hymnals.

The registration suggestions were provided by James Biery as a starting point to creativity and are offered in the spirit of guidance rather than dogma. The suggestions are adapted from the specification of the large Klais organ (from Bonn, Germany) at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. There are suggestions for each hand and pedal without specifying manuals, since specifications vary as to where stops are located. For those movements where the left hand is playing the continuo part, a 16 is suggested, although not required. Some of the movements lend themselves well to having a solo instrument play, or a small schola sing, the cantus firmus.

The volume, published by Augsburg Fortress, Ten Organ Chorales in the Schübler Tradition, includes basic information on the cantata sources, information about the tunes, and an example of the tune as used by Bach, as well as a translation of the German verse Bach might have been working from. For those who are interested, that information is in the volume. In this article I will speak more to the editing process.

1. Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (You Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ) comes from the cantata Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, my soul), BWV 143. It is believed to have been written when Bach was in his twenties, although the attribution to Bach is in question. The organ transcription comes from the second of the cantata’s seven movements, an aria for violins, soprano, and continuo (Example 2). The cantus firmus is played in the pedal at 4′ (Example 3). The composer of the tune is not known. It appears to be loosely based on the Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517) tune Innsbruck, ich muß dich lassen. The tune appeared thus in a seventeenth-century hymnal, so it is likely the composer of BWV 143 would have used the tune in this form (Example 1).

2. Wo soll ich fliehen hin (Where Should I Fly From Here) comes from Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart is bathed in blood), BWV 199, a solo cantata. In the sixth movement Bach used an alternate cantus firmus tune (Example 4) attributed to the German poet and playwright Caspar von Stieler (1632–1707). There are two versions of this cantata, and both are included in this collection. In the 1714 version Bach called for viola obbligato, soprano, and continuo, in F major. In the 1723 Leipzig version, it is scored for violoncello piccolo solo, soprano, and continuo, in G major. In both versions the cantus firmus is in the right hand. The Leipzig version is included in the Addendum.

3. Valet will ich dir geben (I Want to Bid You Farewell) is the third movement from Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ is my life), BWV 95, and is scored for oboe d’amores, soprano, and continuo. The preceding soprano recitative leads immediately into the chorale without any pause between movements or ritornello introduction. In the Bach-Gesellschaft example (Example 5), the first note of the tune is not shown because it is at the end of the recitative in the previous line. Bach wrote two substantial organ settings of this tune, BWV 735 in B-flat major and BWV 736 in D major. This shorter setting pairs well with BWV 735, hence the decision to change the key from D major in the cantata to B-flat for the organ chorale. The cantus firmus is in the pedal, and the key of B-flat enables the player to have a more central balance on the pedalboard (Example 6).

4, 5, 6. The next three transcriptions are all based on the same tune (Example 7): Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, O Highest Good), found in three different cantatas, BWV 113, BWV 166, and BWV 131. The tune is referred to by the name of the text and is generally believed to be of unknown authorship, traced to 1587 and 1593. Bach used different verses to inspire each movement, and none of them are based on the first verse of the text.

The first setting was transposed from its original key, F-sharp minor, to make a more pleasing order of key relationships between the three—G minor, C minor/Dorian key signature, and C minor; the original key is included in the Addendum. The first setting is my favorite of the three, and I prefer the original key. The cantus firmus is at 4 in all three of these movements; first in the pedal, then in the left hand, then again in the pedal. The choice to do this was in honor of Bach’s love of symmetry.

The second setting can be played with the cantus firmus in the pedal instead of the left hand, as is printed, and that version would be considerably easier (and the editor will keep that in mind for a future revision). Sometimes there were differences between the two main Bach editions, and for the third setting the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe has the movement in C minor, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe in D minor, and C minor was chosen for this Augsburg Fortress collection.

7. Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy) is the last aria of Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Lamentation, Worry, Despair), BWV 12. It is scored for tenor, trumpet, and continuo (Example 8); the trumpet plays the cantus firmus. In the transcription, the right hand has the tune (Example 9).

8. Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren (Now Praise, My Soul, the Lord) is from Gottlob! Nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (Praise God! Now the year is coming to a close), BWV 28. The second movement, scored for SATB and continuo (Example 11), was based on the melody Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, the composer of which is unknown (Example 10). The opening phrase bears a resemblance to the Old Hundredth hymntune. This is the only transcription in the collection that is not in trio texture, and that does not place the cantus firmus on a separate keyboard. My first draft put the melody in the pedal, but James Biery suggested I try a plenum setting with the melody in the top voice of the keyboard, which makes it more of an exact transcription from the original. Some minor editing was done when the continuo line did not precisely match the line sung by the basses. This approach reflects the style of the middle plenum section of the Fantasia in G Major, or Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572. It has become my favorite movement (Example 12). (It has a great pedal point towards the end!)

9. Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise the Lord, the Mighty King of Honor), BWV 137, is based on the hymntune by Joachim Neander (1650–1680). It still appears in most current hymnals. Bach included the second movement of this cantata in the Schübler Chorales. In this fourth movement the C-major cantus firmus is presented firmly in A minor.

In this aria for tenor, trumpet, and continuo, the cantus firmus is played by the trumpet (Example 13). The composer of the tune is unknown. Due to the length of the opening ritornello, the tune does not make an appearance in these examples; it is in the pedal at 4′ (Example 14).

10. Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds), BWV 4, is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas. It was written for Easter Sunday, on the text of the same name by Martin Luther (1483–1546). The tune was developed by Luther and Johann Walther (1496–1570) and is believed to be based on the Easter Sequence in the Catholic liturgy, Victimae paschali laudes. The third movement is scored for violins, tenor, and continuo (Example 15). The tune is in the left hand at 8′ (Example 16).

All ten of these transcriptions were played in concert by James Biery on May 22, 2022, on the Klais organ at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. The editor provided commentary.

Sources used:

1. Bach cantatas website: bachcantatas.com.

2. The Leupold Edition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Complete Organ Works, Series I, Volume 9: Schübler Chorales, Canonic Variations, Chorale Partitas, edited by George B. Stauffer.

3. Cantus firmus German verses: https://www.bach-digital.de/content/index.xed.

4. Wikipedia articles.

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