Why did Bach compose his Orgelbüchlein?
JS Bach never lost the habit of teaching. Even at the end of his life, in a ‘Musical Offering’ to the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great (top image), he teased prospective performers with a set of canons whose solution would tax their puzzle-solving abilities.
Then again, that tendency had manifested itself right from the start; and in his first collection of pieces – the Orgelbüchlein (‘Little Organ Book’) assembled for the most part during his time as organist then Konzertmeister at Weimar – a subsequently appended title page lays bare his didactic ambitions. Its purpose, he proposed, was to educate the fledgling organist in the various ways of elaborating a chorale melody and, in passing, develop a sound pedal technique since ‘the pedals are treated in the chorales therein as entirely obbligato’ (which meant that his students had no choice but to use the pedals at a time when they were often deemed optional). Typically, Bach also signed off his collection with a homely rhyming couplet commending the contents to the praise of ‘God most high’ and to the tutoring of his neighbours.
The scheme was a bold one. Prophetic, too, in the light of the later cantata cycles and completist projects such as the Art of Fugue. The Orgelbüchlein would track the liturgical year with a set of chorale preludes starting in Advent, advancing through Christmas to Pentecost; plus non-seasonal preludes were added to ponder more generally on aspects of faith and belief. Accordingly, in c1708 Bach bound together manuscript paper measuring six-and-a-half inches by seven-and-a-half (the Little Organ Book is ‘little’ in more senses than one!), ruled out the staves and entered the title of 164 chorales. Perhaps at the back of his mind was a change of post (or at least, as it turned out, the application of a little leverage to enhance his situation in Weimar); in any event, and in no particular order, he composed or copied in over 40 preludes over the next few years, before effectively shelving the project during his time at Köthen from 1717-23.
Eying up the prospect of becoming Kantor at St Thomas Church, Leipzig, a job that carried with it responsibility for teaching in the Thomasschule, Bach suddenly felt even more keenly his lack of a university education, and in order to appeal to Leipzig’s penchant for collections that came with a teaching function stitched in, decided to revisit the Orgelbüchlein together with the 24 preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the two- and three-part inventions and sinfonias.
Despite a few revisions and additions, the Orgelbüchlein, however, remained ‘little’ in another sense. He had undershot his target of 164 pieces by over two thirds, and it’s not entirely clear what caused him to lose interest in the collection. Measured by the number of bars, most of the preludes are undeniably ‘little’, but each one is a masterpiece in miniature – small but perfectly formed. And as a ‘how to’ of compositional templates they show how to embellish a melody with heart-breaking pathos (‘O Mensch bewein’ or ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, for example); or how canonic engagement needn’t be dry, however erudite – ‘In dulci jubilo’ pulls off a Christmas cracker with two simultaneous canons, one between the outer parts, one binding the gurgling inner triplets. But for Bach it’s never just about the notes. Even counterpoint is harnessed to illuminate both the literal and theological ‘Affekt’ of the words of the chorales’ text. An angular downward pedal swoop underlines the fall of Adam throughout the spellbinding ‘Durch Adams Fall’, for instance, whilst a dense skein of tortured harmony meditates on the consequences. And the passing of the old year is mourned in twisting chromaticism throughout ‘Das alte Jahr vergangen ist’.
What is the legacy of Bach's Orgelbüchlein?
The scholar and organist Albert Schweitzer was a little over the top in describing the Orgelbüchlein as ‘one of the greatest events in all music’, but less so when he dubbed it ‘the dictionary of Bach’s musical language, the key to the understanding of his music as a whole’. And Brahms studied it intently when he came to compose that most unexpected of swansongs: his 11 Chorale Preludes Op. 122. It was Mendelssohn, though, who was responsible for the work’s (slightly truncated) publication. Bach might have been working in miniature, but he liked to challenge himself with self-imposed restrictions and enlarged everything he touched. For Mendelssohn, these miniatures carried not only Bach’s name, but ‘the marks of his genius’. From Advent to Pentecost, the Orgelbüchlein is literally a collection for all seasons.
Find out more about JS Bach and his works here