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Renee Anne Louprette | Bach: The Great Eighteen Chorales

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Bach: The Great Eighteen Chorales

by Renee Anne Louprette

Hailed by the New York Times as “splendid,” “nimble and dynamic,” Renée Anne Louprette has established a formidable international career. This album was declared a 2014 Critics’ Choice by the New York Times.
Genre: Classical: Bach
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV 651
7:55 album only
2. Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV 652
10:23 album only
3. An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653
5:44 album only
4. Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele, BWV 654
7:49 album only
5. Herr Jesu Christ, Dich Zu Uns Wend, BWV 655
4:07 album only
6. O Lamm Gottes, Unschuldig, BWV 656
8:53 album only
7. Nun Danket Alle Gott, BWV 657
5:05 album only
8. Von Gott Will Ich Nicht Lassen, BWV 658
4:40 album only
9. Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659
4:59 album only
10. Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, BWV 660
3:11 album only
11. Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, BWV 661
2:59 album only
12. Allein Gott in Der Höh Sei Ehr, BWV 662
8:19 album only
13. Allein Gott in Der Höh Sei Ehr, BWV 663
6:49 album only
14. Allein Gott in Der Höh Sei Ehr, BWV 664
5:36 album only
15. Jesu Christus, Unser Heiland, BWV 665
6:01 album only
16. Jesus Christus, Unser Heiland, BWV 666
3:47 album only
17. Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist, BWV 667
2:44 album only
18. Vor Deinen Thron Tret Ich Hiermit, BWV 668
5:05 album only
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
In the fall of 1739, at the age of 54, Johann Sebastian Bach issued his first publication of organ music, the Third Part of the Clavierübung, a large collection of pieces for the Lutheran Mass and Catechism. Although he had written dozens of organ works during his Weimar years (1708-1717), he had composed far less for the instrument since then: a series of trios and trio sonatas in the 1720s, several preludes and fugues around 1730, and now the pieces of Clavierübung III. Perhaps stimulated by these occasional forays, Bach began reaching back, around 1739, to his Weimar organ music, selecting and revising some of his most ambitious settings based on hymn tunes and entering them into the collection known today as the Great Eighteen Chorales.

Bach opened the manuscript, now housed in the Berlin State Library under the call number Mus. ms. Bach P 271, with the epigraph “J.J.” – Jesu Juva, or “Jesus, assist me” – the invocation he commonly used when launching large compositional projects such as the Trauer-Ode (Cantata 198) or the Christmas Oratorio. He then proceeded to enter thirteen chorale settings into the score before breaking off, around 1741, to turn his attention to other matters, possibly the publication of Clavierübung IV (the Goldberg Variations), and the initial draft of the Art of Fugue. Around 1747 or so he returned to the project, adding two more chorale settings as well as a revised version of the just-published Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her. But subsequently he was diverted again, most probably with the publication of the Art of Fugue and the composition of the B-Minor Mass.

At a still later point, his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol entered two more chorale settings into the score, and finally an anonymous scribe, perhaps Altnickol’s wife Elisabeth Juliana Friderica, née Bach, inserted the last piece, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, which according to early accounts Bach dictated from his death bed before passing away on July 28, 1750. Scholars have recently questioned whether the final three chorales were entered before Bach’s death, and whether they were added with his approval. Since the pieces follow the pattern seen in other settings in the collection – composition in Weimar, revision in Leipzig – one can make a strong case that they were part of Bach’s overall plan.

The Great Eighteen collection represents, then, a work-in-progress interrupted by the composer’s death. The original manuscript seems to be a workbook, into which Bach entered pieces now and then, in a more-or-less random order. One can observe certain groupings, to be sure: the contrasting pairs of Komm, Heiliger Geist and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland settings, and the threefold Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr settings. But a clear musical or liturgical organizational scheme similar to those of the Six Partitas, the Orgelbüchlein, or Clavierübung III is not evident.

Bach may have intended to bring the works to publication as a type of historical anthology of chorale preluding, picking his best settings from Weimar and arranging them in an appropriate order during the printing process. The works certainly display the rich stylistic and technical diversity seen in his published collections. Or he may have intended to use the works for teaching purposes, in the manner of the Inventions and Sinfonias, French and English Suites, and Well-Tempered Clavier. Or he may have revised them for the sheer joy of working once again with his first and last love, organ music. While we will never know the answer to this riddle, we can be grateful that the works were preserved, in refined form, as a testament to his supreme skill at improvising and composing organ chorales.

On the present recording we hear the distinguished American organist Renée Anne Louprette perform the Great Eighteen Chorales on the magnificent Metzler organ in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. Housed in the case completed by Father Smith in 1708 and containing several ranks of pipes from his original instrument, it stands in a perfect acoustical and academic setting for this expansive and thoughtful music.

Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (Fantasy on Come Holy Spirit, Lord God), BWV 651. Bach could not have opened the Great Eighteen collection in a more majestic fashion than with this full-organ setting of the traditional Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, derived from the Catholic antiphon “Veni sancte spiritus.” The swirling motion of the manual voices surely reflects the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as described in Acts 2:2: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.” The ongoing manual figuration, derived from the hymn tune, is anchored first by an extended pedal point (reminiscent of that of the famous Toccata in F Major, BWV 540/1) and then by the chorale melody, presented in long pedal notes, phrase by phrase, until the end. The Weimar version of this setting is only 48 measures long; Bach boldly expanded the music to more than twice that – 106 measures – through insertions and repeats.

Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, alio modo (Come Holy Spirit, Lord God, another version), BWV 652. One cannot imagine a stronger contrast with the opening setting than this gentle sarabande for two manuals and pedal, which may reflect the “sweet comfort” of the Holy Spirit mentioned in verse 3 of the hymn. The hymn tune appears as a highly embellished line in the soprano, with each phrase preceded by a point of imitation moving consistently from tenor to alto to bass. With 198 measures, this organ chorale is eclipsed in length only by Bach’s setting of the Te Deum (Herr Gott, dich loben wir, BWV 725).

An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon), BWV 653. This Reformation hymn, a five-verse German translation of Psalm 137, held special significance for Bach. It was a favorite of North German organists, who traditionally extemporized on it during the Sunday Vespers Service. Bach did so as well during an audition in Hamburg in 1720, playing for almost half an hour and prompting effusive praise from the dean of North German organists, Johann Adam Reincken. The present setting predates that visit, originating as a five-part work with double pedal in Weimar. Also a sarabande-like arrangement, the music resembles a French “tierce en taille,” with the hymn tune appearing in the tenor. In Leipzig, Bach reduced the texture to four voices – embellished cantus firmus, pre-imitative soprano and alto lines, and continuo bass.

Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Adorn Thyself, O Beloved Soul), BWV 654. Bach’s setting of Johann Franck’s communion hymn of 1649 is one of his most popular organ chorales. The melody, “adorned” on a separate manual through embellishments, is accompanied by euphonious harmonies on a second keyboard produced by “sweet” parallel thirds and sixths. The memorable opening motive is derived from the first line of the chorale. But it is exquisitely beautiful in itself and returns in the closing measures as a quasi-recapitulation. The move to such keys as F minor, Ab major, and Bb minor mark this as a progressive work. Schumann, after hearing Mendelssohn play Schmücke dich in a benefit concert for the first Bach monument, judged the setting “as priceless, deep, and full of soul as any piece of music that ever sprang from a true artist’s imagination.”

Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (Trio on Lord Jesus Christ, Turn to Us), BWV 655. Bach’s Weimar organ student Johann Gotthilf Ziegler once remarked that “with regard to the playing of chorales, I was instructed by my teacher, Capellmeister Bach . . . not to play the songs in an offhand way but rather according to the sense of the words.” This principle is nowhere more apparent than in this ebullient trio for two manuals and pedal: its main theme, which is derived from the opening phrase of the hymn tune and returns throughout the piece in various keys, forms a musical “turn” around its middle note. In the first part of the work the pedal acts as a continuo, supporting the violin-like upper voices. Towards the end it changes roles and presents the hymn in long notes as a cantus firmus. The cheery nature of this setting may reflect the ”eternal joy and blissful light” of God’s countenance cited in verse 3 of the chorale text.

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, Innocently Slain), BWV 656. Bach’s setting of this Passiontide hymn is perhaps the most-old fashioned work in the Great Eighteen collection. In the tradition of the Agnus Dei, Bach sets all three verses. In the first two, for manuals lone, the hymn tune (in the soprano in verse 1, in the alto in verse 2) is surrounded by conventional 17th-century harpsichord figuration reminiscent of that found in the Neumeister chorales and the early organ partitas. In verse 3 the pedal enters with the cantus firmus and the parts increase to five, creating a crescendo effect. For the penultimate phrase of the chorale text, “Otherwise we should have despaired,” Bach introduces intense chromaticism before returning to diatonic harmony for the final benediction, “Grant us thy peace, Jesus.”

Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God), BWV 657. This chorale prelude, Bach’s only organ setting of Martin Rinckart’s 1636 hymn, is written in the fore-imitation style of Pachelbel, with each phrase of the soprano cantus firmus preceded by related motives in the other voices. The accompaniment exhibits Bach’s restless invention, displaying stretto entries, expansion, contraction, chromatic alteration, and even a quasi-reprise on the dominant. At the same time, the lack of unity marks this as one of the older pieces in the collection.

Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (I Will Not Forsake God), BWV 658. In this setting Bach’s choice of F minor, the dark key also used in the Orgelbüchlein chorale, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call to thee, O Jesus Christ), underscores the beseeching nature of Ludwig Helmbold’s 1563 hymn. The distinctive “corta” rhythm of the accompaniment (long, short-short) dominates the work, which concludes with a total reimagining of the main accompanimental motive in the final measures. The melody appears in serene long notes in the pedal.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Heathen), BWV 659. In this, the first of three contrasting settings of Luther’s famous Advent hymn (itself a translation of St. Ambrose’s Veni redemptor gentium), Bach creates a work of exquisite beauty. The melody appears in the soprano in a remarkable series of melismatic arabesques. Each phrase is accompanied by fore-imitation in the manual voices over a steady walking bass in the pedal. Bach intensifies the last phrase of the chorale by introducing expressive slurred seconds in the accompaniment, perhaps to emphasize the unfathomable mystery of Christ’s incarnation.

Trio super Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Trio on Now Come, Savior of the Heathen), BWV 660. Bach’s second setting of the Advent hymn is a trio for two bass voices and ornamented soprano, played on two manuals and pedal. The basses act like violas da gamba, even presenting rolled chords at the end of two cadences. The jarring interval of the diminished fourth, appearing in the chorale tune as set by Bach, permeates the accompaniment, whose theme recurs like the ritornello of a concerto. This highly unorthodox setting may reflect verse 5 of the hymn, which alludes to Christ’s journey “to hell and back.”

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Heathen), BWV 661. The third Nun komm setting, for full organ, seems to mirror the description of Christ in verse 4 of the hymn: “God by origin, a champion as man, he hurries to run his course.” The phrases of the chorale appear majestically in long notes in the pedal, each preceded by a long web of fugal counterpoint in which a theme derived from the opening of the hymn tune appears both right side up and inverted. The two forms are combined over the final pedal entry. In arranging the piece from its Weimar original, Bach doubled the note values, turning running 16th notes into 8th notes – a broadening he also carried out in the revision of the ninth contrapunctus of the Art of Fugue.

Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (Glory be to God Alone on High), BWV 662. Bach set the Gloria, sung each Sunday in the principal worship service in Leipzig, more than any other melody – ten times in all. The first setting in this trilogy is perhaps his most ornate organ chorale. The soprano melody, played on a separate manual, is highly embellished, but so is the imitative ritornello, which relies on euphonious parallel 6ths, like those of Schmücke dich. The adagio tempo implies freedom as well as slowness – a characteristic that plays out in the solo cadenza just before the close of the piece.

Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (Glory be to God Alone on High), BWV 663. In certain Weimar works Bach seems to have been brimming over with ideas. This is such a piece. It combines aspects of the Italian instrumental trio (two manual voices in constant motion over a continuo bass), the French “tierce en taille” (cantus firmus in the tenor), the ornamental chorale (highly embellished chorale tune), the chorale fantasy (solo cadenza leading to the last section), and the chorale canon (pedal and soprano voices in the second half). This is stylistic eclecticism at its Bachian best.

Trio super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (Trio on Glory be to God Alone on High), BWV 664. The final Gloria setting seems straightforward by comparison with the first two. Added to the collection several years later, it is an unabashed instrumental trio with a ritornello derived from the opening phrase of the chorale. Towards the end, the first two lines of the hymn appear in the pedal by way of conclusion.

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt, sub communione (Jesus Christ, Our Savior, Who Turned God’s Wrath Away From Us, to be played at Communion), BWV 665. Bach’s setting of the 14th-century Latin communion hymn Jesus Christus nostra salus, translated into German by Luther in 1524, contains various citations of the chorale melody in the soprano, tenor, and pedal, surrounded by an ever-changing set of accompanying motives. Some have seen the motives as portraying God’s anger (the jagged manual bass), man’s bitter suffering (the sudden appearance of dissonant chromaticism), and other ideas. The texture thickens to five and even six parts at the end of the piece to produce a stunning pedal-point close.

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, alio modo (Jesus Christ, Our Savior, another version), BWV 666. Like the previous setting, this arrangement contains different countersubjects for each line of the chorale. A gentle dance in 12/8 meter for manuals, it bears a close resemblance to the early partitas of Bach and his organ teacher, Georg Böhm. The cadenza-like interludes that surround the first two phrases of the chorale become the contrapuntal material for the second half of the work.

Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist (Come, God Creator, Holy Ghost), BWV 667. This full-organ setting represents an expansion of Bach’s short melody chorale in the Orgelbüchlein. The first half reflects the Orgelbüchlein text, with its jazzy, off-beat accompaniment and syncopated pedal. The music then spins into a continuous stream of manual 16th notes, which serve as a backdrop for the cantus firmus, presented in stately quarter notes in the pedal. One can imagine Bach improvising this type of extended “tag” in performance.

Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy Throne I Humbly Tread), BWV 668. This setting, too, has roots in the Orgelbüchlein, where the initial notes of its fore-imitation theme appear in the accompanimental manual voices and pedal. There the music is linked with the more widely known text Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When we are in deepest need), which Bach apparently retained for the initial draft of this arrangement, published as the concluding piece in the Art of Fugue. The final leaf of the Great Eighteen collection is lost, and as a result Vor deinen Thron breaks off at the bottom of the last page, in measure 26, half way through the piece. One cannot envision a better way for this remarkably appropriate setting, now named after Bodo von Hodenberg’s imploring text, to symbolize the unfinished and enigmatic nature of Bach’s final statement in the realm of organ music.

George B. Stauffer



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