“I need a project!” I told my husband, Carl, a couple of weeks ago. We were reminiscing about an all-Bach concert he and I played in 1979 in which between the two of us, we performed Bach’s Clavierübung III, the so-called “German Organ Mass,” a collection of 21 chorale preludes, bookended by the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, nicknamed the St. Anne. That was also the debut of the Bach Chamber Choir, which sang all the chorales in-between.
Now that I play the organ only for daily chapel services at Iolani School, and don’t have to prepare preludes, postludes, and communion pieces for Sundays anymore, I found myself wanting to add some goals for my life. And to no one’s surprise, I’m back to practicing Bach. I’ve decided to work on the Great Eighteen chorales, BWV 651-668. They’ve been called the “summit of Bach’s sacred music for solo organ,” by Russell Stinson, who wrote an entire book on these settings of chorale preludes called J. S. Bach’s Great Eighteen Organ Chorales, published by Oxford University Press. Stinson writes, “With the possible exception of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Great Eighteen chorales are the most diverse collection of pieces Bach ever wrote.”
In looking over the collection, I found there were only 5 pieces out of 18 which I had never played before. I decided to look at Herr Jesus Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 655 (Lord Jesus Christ, be present now) first, because although I’ve played it before, I haven’t touched it since college! I remember having to struggle through its trio texture years ago. That means that the right hand, left hand and pedal have completely independent parts and go every which direction on separate manuals. The left hand part is frequently in the high register with the right hand in a lower register which means I find my arms cross numerous times! Here’s an excerpt (from Wikipedia):
If you click here, you can view a YouTube video of this piece. I especially chose this clip because it shows the music flying by as it is being played. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the organist or the instrument on which it is performed, because that information wasn’t supplied.
Guess what! Even though it’s been nearly forty years since I’ve played this piece, everything seemed to fall into place rather quickly. It’s amazing what the mind stores in its mental filing cabinet, and can pull out after decades!
By the way, unknown to us, our 1979 Clavierübung concert was recorded and sent to us about thirty years after the event. We have now posted it to the LCH website, which you can hear by clicking here.