The Orgelbüchlein Project: Volume 3

The Orgelbüchlein Project: Volume 3
A 21st-century completion of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein
Volume 3: Catechism, Penitence and Communion (Chorales 61–86)

Compiled and edited by William Whitehead
119 pages  •  230x323mm  •  ISMN 979-0-2650-2810-9  •  Softbound
Musica Baltica

The recent celebration of the completion of The Orgelbüchlein Project (reviewed here, with background information on the project) included the launch of the second volume (actually Volume 3) of the published chorales. This followed the earlier publication of the first volume (labeled Volume 4, and reviewed here). Since the first volume, there has been a change of publisher, the latest volume (and the remaining ones) is published by Musica Baltica. Each volume is dedicated to a specific liturgical group of chorales, in this case relating to the Catechism, Penitence and Communion (chorales 61–86 of the original Bach Orgelbüchlein).

Volume 3 includes four of Bach’s pieces (BWV 635/638) together with 22 new commissioned compositions by Peter Holder, James Lark, Robert Quinney, Robert Walker, Benoît Mernier, Lionel Rogg, Caitlin Harrison, Jon Laukvik, Diana Burrell, Joanna Marsh, Nils Henrik Asheim, James Francis Brown, Francis Grier, Roderick Williams, Bryan Kelly, Jean-Baptiste Dupont, Alexander Campkin, Gerald Barry, Axel Ruoff, Kalevi Aho, Guy Bovet, and Loïc Mallié.

The six pieces in the Catechism group include Bach’s chorale preludes on the Ten Commandments (Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot) and the Lord’s Prayer (Vater unser im Himmelreich). Eleven pieces are in a section called Confession, Penitence and Justification, including Bach’s Durch Adams Fall ist ganz vederbt and Es ist das Heil uns kommen her. The remaining 11 pieces make up the Holy Communion section.

As is the case with all of the Orgelbüchlein Project commissions, the musical style and complexity vary considerably between pieces. Composers were given free rein as to style, the only stipulations being performance for organ with pedals that reflected the “scale, ethos, and technical density” of Bach’s originals. Eleven of the composers have their own comments included in the introductory notes. These include references to the use of a Balinese gamelan mode, a musical reflection of the ‘banalities of our modern-day existence (soundbites, reality television, advertising jingles etc)’, and an opening which is intended to be a ‘vision of anticipation cloaked in an ethereal aura’. One piece was specifically composed to be within the capabilities of somebody at ABRSM Grade 6/7 standard and was first performed by a schoolboy. It includes the simplest pedal line I have ever encountered, with 111 bars of a continuous low D – and an alternative reading for anybody who cannot stretch to more than an octave.

Although some of the pieces are, arguably, sight-readable, all deserve more consideration, and several would take me a lot of preparation, not least in mastering the rhythmic notation and/or the accidentals – including, for example, this, at crotchet c92 –

As with the Bach originals, speed and registration is often left up to the performer, although others have detailed indications, often related to the composer’s own instrument. The most common compositional technique used is canon, which I suppose has the avantage of dealing with at least two of the four or five voices. Most are only be performable on a resonably-sized organ of more contemporary design, although several would also work on simpler or historic and historically inspired instruments.

A useful point is that the Bach chorale preludes are taken from the earliest layer of manuscripts within the so-called Weimar ‘Bach circle’ of Krebs and Walther, rather than duplicating the already frequently published ‘final version’ of the Orgelbüchlein. There are useful comments by John Scott Whiteley on the source and details of the melodies of the chorales in the Orgelbüchlein – well worth a read.

All the introductory essays and the texts of the chorales are in English and German. Orders from the UK can be made from at a current UK price of £32.95. Non-UK orders should go via, currently at €38.00. The next volume is planned for publication around Easter time.