Notes on Bach’s Clavierübung (1739)

The 1730s were characterized by two factors for Bach. The first was the recurrance of squabbles with civic and school authorities over the prerogatives of his office. For example, in late 1728 a clergyman demanded the right to choose the Vespers hymns, something the Cantor had always done. Bach reacted strongly, saying his rights had been encroached upon, but the dispute was settled in the clergyman’s favor. Things got worse when in 1730 Bach drafted an important memorandum detailing problems with church music in Leipzig; the situation was made even more complicated because Bach was not on good terms personally with the interim Rector of the school.  The matter dragged on for years — the subject of the argument drifted, but the adversaries were always the same — and in 1737 Bach appealed over the council’s heads directly to the King of Poland. The Scheibe-Birnbaum controversy of 1737–8, in which former student Johann Adolph Scheibe criticized Bach in the press, was a personal low point.

The second factor, perhaps a response to the first, was Bach’s engagement with new musical projects unrelated to his official duties. In 1729 Bach assumed leadership of the Leipzig collegium musicum, a music society of university students founded by Telemann in 1702. The collegium gave weekly performances in Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse. Many of Bach’s instrumental works — his concertos in particular, as well as the eponymous Coffee Cantata BWV 211 — were written for and performed by the collegium.

Most significant was Bach’s work on an ambitious publishing program for keyboard works. Between 1726 and 1730 he published the six keyboard partitias BWV 825–830, reissued together in 1731 as his “opus 1.” The handsomely engraved title page recalls his predecessor Johann Kuhnau’s own Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice,” 1689/1692) and dedicates the suites “denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths-Ergözung” (to [music-]lovers for the spirit’s delight). The Clavier-Übung II (1735) contained the so-called Italian Concerto BWV 971, which sometime nemesis Scheibe regarded as “the perfect model of a well designed concerto,” and the French Overture BWV 831; the pairing epitomizes the mixing of the two eponymous national styles in the “mixed taste” so much in vogue in German art and letters.

The third volume of the Clavier-Übung was composed 1735–6 and published 1739 as the latest installment of Bach’s publication series. It is an anthology of liturgical organ music in various styles, setting each of the various parts of the Lutheran mass and catechism twice, both with and without pedal. Like so many of Bach’s collections—such as the Well-Tempered Clavier is for tonality, the Brandenburg concertos for orchestration, or the B-minor Mass for concerted church music—the Clavier-Übung III is an encyclopedic compendium of service music for the organ. It treats the three-fold Kyrie, the Lutheran Gloria (Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr), the Ten Commandments, Credo (Wir glauben all), the Lord’s Prayer (Vater unser), and Luther’s catechism chorales on the three sacraments (Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam for Baptism; Aus tiefer Not for Confession; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland for Communion). The Kyrie vignette is unified by the procession of the cantus firmus through successively lower voices; Bach used this technique to unify the opening movements of the first four cantatas of his 1724–5 chorale cantata cycle (namely BWV 20, 2, 7, 135). The Credo (Wir glauben all), set as a plenum fugue, articulates a central pillar in the middle of the work corresponding to its medial function in the liturgy.

The various chorales on either side of this pillar explore various organ techniques “not merely in an offhand way, but according to the sense (Affect) of the words” of the chorales, as another student reported Bach taught. Thus the Gloria (Allein Gott in der Höh) settings tend to be in a higher register, a kind of musical reference to the fact that this represents the song of the angels in excelsis. The first Ten Commandments setting BWV 678 uses a canon, which some have seen as a representation of the “law”—but of course there are canons everywhere in Bach’s music, and if they do not all represent the law, this one cannot represent the law except by special pleading. On the other hand, the use a five-part texture is borrowed from de Grigny’s Livre d’Orgue (1699), and moreover the juxtaposition of an austere canon in long notes in the left hand and the florid writing of the voices in the right hand may symbolize the “old” versus “new” law. The gigue-like manualiter setting BWV 679 may represent Luther’s exhortation to “do what the Lord commands cheerfully.”

The Vater unser setting BWV 682 is perhaps Bach’s most masterful chorale setting. It is in five parts like BWV 678, but the canon is distributed between the hands, as are the two upper voices of the trio. The trio-element of its ritornello form is in the galant manner, with highly expressive rhythms and chromatic touches. Against these the chorale cantus firmus wends its way almost covertly. Accordingly, it is much more difficult to play and to hear than BWV 678 (since the parts are overlapping in the same register), to the extent that the musicologist Hermann Keller proposed that BWV 682 was actually an organ duet, to be played by two organists on four manuals. This idea is generally rejected, but it illustrates the intellectual complexity of the piece both for player and audience. Christ unser Herr BWV 684 is another ritornello form, but the simplicity of the texture and the cantus firmus in the bass makes it much more straightforward though no less elegant. This form is and texture is common to Bach’s so-called Schübler chorales, including the well-known Wachet auf BWV 645.

Aus tiefer Not BWV 686 and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 688 are wonderful foils for each other. The one is in the stile antico, thickly voiced in six parts with double pedal, full of chromatic harmony, but relatively straightforward in its rhythmic scansion and counterpoint. The other is in the florid style, delicately scored in two invention-like upper parts plus cantus firmus bass, with euphonous harmony of thirds and sixths, but with chromatic melodies, distorting syncopated harmonies and crossing of parts, and subtle procedures of contrapuntal inversion at the octave, tenth, and twelfth.

Like the B-minor Mass, another ostensibly liturgical anthology, the Clavier-Übung III cannot have been used wholesale in any single service, but as a collection it serves as a comprehensive treatment of the fundamentals of Lutheran doctrine and liturgy, such as any organist would need. It is a source of pieces to excerpt and a model for improvisation and composition. Unlike the B-minor Mass, which appears was never performed in its entirety in the eighteenth century, it is conceivable that an eighteenth-century organist, perhaps even Bach himself, might have performed the Clavier-Übung III straight through as a concert. Bach’s organ recitals were frequently many hours long, and indeed the sequence of pieces in the Clavier-Übung III seems to follow not only the Lutheran liturgy but also what is known about Bach’s concert programming. From Forkel we have the following testimony, probably related to him by the Bach sons:

When Johann Sebastian Bach seated himself at the organ when there was no divine service, which he was often requested to do, he used to choose some subject and to execute it in all the various forms of organ composition so that the subject constantly remained his material, even if he had played, without intermission, for two hours or more. First, he hused this theme for a prelude and a fugue, with the full organ. Then he showed his art of using the stops for a trio, a quartet, etc., always upon the same subject. Afterwords followed a chorale, the melody of which was playfully surrounded in the most diversified manner by the original subject, in three or four parts. Finally, the conclusion was made by a fugue, with the full organ, in which either another treatment only of the first subject predominanted, or one or, according to its nature, two others were mixed in.

Forkel describes Bach opening and closing his concerts with free works for the plenum, just as we have in the Clavier-Übung III. In the middle, he played pieces using a variety of smaller registrations, demonstrating “his art of using the stops” that Forkel described elsewhere as a “peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which never could be produced by their mode of registration.” Of course, this manner of programming pieces through a the sequence of registrations had its origins in service playing—plenum fantasias and fugues for processions at the beginning and end of the service, softer prelude pieces to introduce the hymns and accompany liturgical actions—even if the proportions of the pieces found in the Clavier-Übung III exceed what would ordinarily have been required for a service. In this way, Bach’s Clavier-Übung III adumbrates a subsequent development of music culture, whereby the “liturgy” of a secular public concert is modeled on and even supplants the liturgy of divine worship in church.