J.S. Bach’s Clavierübung Part III: a Liturgical Performance of the manualiter preludes

from a Eucharist for Remembrance and Peace, 11 November 2018, using the complete manualiter chorale preludes from J.S. Bach’s Clavierübung Part III


J.S. Bach’s Clavierübung Part III is recognised as one of the supreme organ works by that instrument’s greatest master, but its original function remains unclear. Between a framing prelude and fugue (the latter closing today’s service), it contains preludes on ten Lutheran hymns, four associated with the communion service, and six with the catechism, by which Luther ordained that the young were to be instructed in the faith.  Each hymn tune is used as the basis for two organ pieces (with three for the ‘Gloria in excelsis’ hymn): one requiring an organ with two keyboards and a pedalboard, and one which can be performed on a single keyboard, ‘manualiter’ (by hands alone). It is the second group we hear today.  Just before the final fugue there are also four ‘duetti’ whose meaning and purpose are especially hard to pin down.  The collection may represent models of music for an idealised liturgy, or perhaps a pattern for a liturgically-inspired organ recital.  

Despite all these uncertainties, the work’s deep roots in the services of the church cry out for liturgical re-working, and the themes and moods of the hymn-based movements fit modern Eucharistic liturgy with a readiness that is perhaps surprising. Today, only the prelude on Aus tiefer Not (Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 130) has been taken out of the original order, and is used to open the service. Few of the other pieces need explanation in their new context (although the first line of Jesus Christus, unser Heiland doesn’t reveal that it is a communion hymn, used by Luther as his catechism hymn for the Eucharist). Even Luther’s baptism hymn, Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, comes just at the point where baptisms take place in the modern English Eucharist, harking back to the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry immediately before we memorialise its conclusion in the Eucharistic prayer. The arresting water-imagery of the battle-poem heard straight after lends this piece an unexpected resonance with Remembrance Sunday;  while the magnificent triple fugue (woven of five ‘voices’) with which we end is built on a main theme which, by an intriguing musical coincidence, links it too to this Sunday throughout the English-speaking world, where Isaac Watts’s fine Psalm-paraphrase is traditionally sung to the hymn-tune ‘St Anne’.

Adrian Lenthall