The Orgelbüchlein Project

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Organist William Whitehead writes about his mission to fill in the gaps in
JS Bach's unfinished book of seasonal choral preludes

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Three more ghosts will find themselves fleshed out this Saturday in the Clifton Festival, as part of the ongoing Orgelbüchlein Project.

I should explain: Bach left his tiny manuscript known as 'Orgelbüchlein' barely a quarter completed. It was to have contained 164 miniature chorale preludes for organ, but he completed a mere 46, with a snippet of a 47th. In common with many other Bachian ventures, the plan of the whole endeavour was laid out prior to filling in the music - what we have is a neatly ruled out manuscript, the size of a paperback best-seller, with a title at the top of each page. The first few pages are dense with Bach's characteristic script, gem-like prelude after gem-like prelude. But as we go on, blank pages begin to appear with greater frequency, until the latter end of the volume, where there are far more blank pages than filled in ones. One senses this grand project slipping from Bach's hand as it went on, until it peters out completely into eery silence. Why he never completed Orgelbüchlein, we simply don't know.

So my 'Orgelbüchlein Project' has taken up the challenge of completing Bach's plan. The 118 blank pages with only a chorale title at the head, 'ghosts' as I like to call them, will receive new compositions from a raft of composers around the world. Taking the missing chorale tune as the basis of their composition, these ghost-busting composers will recreate in modern terms exactly the task Bach set himself. What to do with a chorale melody on a tiny time-scale (none will last more than four minutes, and most will sit at the minute-and-a-half mark).

The three composers who have taken up the gauntlet on this occasion are David Bednall, Gareth Moorcraft and David Matthews. Each has a very different take on the task. David Bednall sets the chorale melody ('Ich dank' dir schon durch deinen Sohn') in the grand toccata style (think Widor) while David Matthews, setting 'Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn', plots out a canon between right hand and pedal in a technique Bach would have instantly recognised. All three piece reinterpret the techniques and Affekts of Bach in their own way, refreshing the Orgelbüchlein paradigm.

The Clifton Festival has taken up partnership with the Orgelbüchlein Project, and the concert this Saturday in Clifton Cathedral will feature these three new pieces in the context of Bach's original Orgelbüchlein. Excitingly, the concert also features the brilliant young Fred Thomas Trio. Quite independently, Fred Thomas had made several dozen arrangements of Bach's Orgelbüchlein pieces for his combo of piano, cello and violin (soon to be released on disc- watch this space). With extreme sensitivity to colour and nuance, he has made these organ preludes into tiny character pieces for chamber ensemble. What we have devised is a tennis match between us; the fine Rieger organ will sound a prelude, to be answered by the Fred Thomas Trio. In fact we reckon Bach would approve: the concert is a palindrome, in which the first half mirrors the second. Each prelude which was sounded on the organ is replayed by the Trio in the second half, and vice versa. I'm pretty sure we'll end in a draw (can you do that in tennis?) but you can judge for yourself this Saturday evening.

William Whitehead