Programme Notes – Nicolaus Bruhns (b1665) – The surviving organ works

WP_20150721_15_17_12_ProThe Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair
Tuesday 4 August 2015

Nicolaus Bruhns (b1665) –  The surviving organ works

Andrew Benson-Wilson

Praeludium in e  (small)
Praeludium in g (Mons. Prunth – Atrib. Bruhns)
Adagio (di Nicolaij Bruhns)
Praeludium in G
Chorale Fantasia: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Praeludium in e  (large)

Nicolaus Bruhns is one of the tragic figures of the organ world. He died aged just 31, and there are only four surviving authenticated organ works – a choral fantasia and three Praeludia, the latter all being masterpieces of the Stylus phantasticus manner of composition. The two further organ works played today may be by Bruhns, and there are also 12 vocal works. He was born in 1665 in Schleswig, in a village near Husum, to a musical family with strong links to Lübeck. After lessons with his organist father, he was sent to Lübeck aged 16 where he became known as a fine violin and viola da gamba player and also studied the organ with Buxtehude, the grand master of North German organ music, and organist of the Marienkirche. Buxtehude considered him his finest pupil, and recommended him for a post in Copenhagen. He then returned to Husum where he stayed until his untimely death. He used to play the violin while accompanying himself on the organ pedals.

The smaller of the two pieces called Praeludium in E minor starts with a dramatic pedal solo, expanding from an E minor triad to culminate in an astonishing 88 repetitions of the note B, the dominant of E minor.  An echo passage leads to the first fugal section ending with an Italian-style durreze passage before bursting into another not-quite-fugal section (a hallmark of the Stylus phantasticus that leads to a harmonically adventurous conclusion.

WP_20150721_16_52_02_ProThe Praeludium in g is possibly an early work by Bruhns. It is in the style of some early Buxtehude pieces, with a contrast between manual and pedal flourishes and one fugal section which dissolves into the simple conclusion. It is followed immediately by the curious little Adagio in D, almost certainly an extract from an otherwise missing large-scale organ or instrumental work. I am using the Adagio as a link to the grand Praeludium in G, one of the finest examples of the mature 17th century North German High Baroque organ school. A series of motifs are explored on manuals and pedals before the first of two fugues, both on related subjects. The first fugue includes some complex writing for double pedal, with two entries of the fugue subject having to be played at the same time with both feet. After another pedal solo, the second fugue treats the subject in an emphatic triple time. As with the other Praeludia, this has the feeling of a mini opera, with its sudden changes of mood and character.

The chorale fantasia Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is one of the finest examples of this typical North German genre. The Advent chorale was (and still is) the first in German hymn books, and was treated by many composers. Although written as one continuous piece, it falls into four clear sections, each developing a different line of the chorale melody. It last about 12 minutes.

We finish with the famous large Praeludium in E minor, one of the finest works from any North German organ composers. The opening flourish manages to cover all but one note in a chromatic octave and a half scale from B to E. The expansive first fugue also features a chromatic scale, in this case over a descending fourth. One of the longest freely-composed passages between the traditional two fugal sections then follows, with an amazing array of musical textures, including one passage that Bruhns could well have played on his violin and organ pedals. The tension is wound up inexorably towards the sudden entry of the sprightly final fugal section.

© 2015 Andrew Benson-Wilson

WP_20150721_15_16_57_ProAndrew Benson-Wilson specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from early 14th and 15th century manuscripts to composers of the late Classical period.  His playing is informed by his experience of historic organs, an understanding of period performance techniques and by several internationally renowned teachers.  The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works (with chant verses sung by Chapelle du Roi) was Gramophone Magazine ‘Record of the Month’.  The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk.  He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.  His Tallis recordings have been broadcast throughout the world.

Andrew’s recitals have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel organ in Klosterneburg Abbey in Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia, via London’s St John’s, Smith Square.  According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital (of 17th century North German music) ”proved to be one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”.  More recently, Andrew’s concerts have included the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s spectacular Hofkirche.

Andrew is a regular writer on early music and organ topics.  His little book, “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities.  After 20 year as the principal concert and organ CD reviewer for the now defunct Early Music Review magazine, Andrew has now set up his own review website

Andrew’s next recital in the Mayfair Organ Concerts series is on Tuesday 20 October (1:10) in St George Hanover Sq with a programme of rarely performed Renaissance organ music. He is also playing Renaissance music on the Frobenius organ of The Queens College Chapel, Oxford on 25 November. For more details, see

The Grosvenor Chapel organ was built in 1991 by William Drake, within the original 1732 Abraham Jordon case. 

Great GG/AA – f”’                     Swell C – f”’                              Pedal C-f            
Open Diapason        8                   Open Diapason     8                   Stopt Diapason      16
Stopt Diapason        8                   Stopt Diapason      8                   Principal                  8
Principal                   4                   Principal                4                   Trumpet                16
Flute                         4                   Fifteenth                2
Twelfth                     2 2/3            Mixture                  III
Fifteenth                  2                   Cornet Treble        III                Swell to Great
Furniture                 III                Cornet Bass           III                Swell to Pedal
Sesquialtera             III-IV          Trumpet                8                   Great to Pedal
Cornet                      V                   Hautboy                8
Trumpet Treble        8                   Tremulant
Trumpet Bass          8

2 thoughts on “Programme Notes – Nicolaus Bruhns (b1665) – The surviving organ works

  1. I’ve just listened to the E Minor praeludium on Spotify. What a dramatic show-off piece! But I’d love to hear it live on the Grosvenor Chapel organ? Is there any chance of repeating your recital?

  2. Richard – it’s good, isn’t it. The G major is also worth listening to – an extraordinary piece, but not as well known as the big E minor. No immediate plans to repeat the Bruhns recital, but I do have thoughts about doing Bruhns in a different way one way, probably at the Grosvenor Chapel. My next two UK recitals (and probable some future UK ones) will be concentrating on Renaissance music. St George’s Hanover Sq, 20 Oct, and The Queen’s College Oxford on 25 Nov. See

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