Volume III

by James Kibbie

Beginning of Clavierübung, Volume III,
from Bach's original publication of 1739


Johann Sebastian Bach published four volumes of his own keyboard music in a series entitled Clavierübung ("Keyboard Practice"). For the Dritter Theil ("Third Volume"), his first published organ music, Bach created a brilliant cycle of twenty-seven masterworks united by a great musical and theological design. Bach published it in 1739, the bicentennial of Martin Luther's sermon at Leipzig's Thomaskirche and of the city's official acceptance of Luther's Augsburg Confessions.

Clavierübung III consists of a monumental Praeludium, twenty-one chorale preludes, four Duetti and the closing Fuga. The chorale preludes can be divided into two groups. The first contains three sets of three preludes on the hymns of the traditional Missa brevis; the second consists of six pairs of preludes on chorales relating to the subjects of Luther's Catechism. Just as Luther wrote both a Greater and a Lesser Catechism, Clavierübung III includes both pedaliter (works for organ with pedal) and manualiter (works for manual alone).

In his title page, Bach offers Clavierübung III to "music lovers, and particularly for connoisseurs of such work, for the recreation of the spirit." The "connoisseurs" may be those who understand some of the theological and esoteric significance of the cycle. For example, Bach valued the intricate order and symbolic meanings of numerology. The number three, symbolic of the Holy Trinity, is central to the structure of Clavierübung III, as, for example, in the number of Missa brevis chorale preludes (3+3+3) and the total of twenty-seven pieces (3x3x3).

The Praeludium (BWV 552,1) refers to the Trinity both in its key signature of three flats and in its formal structure of three themes. It is the first of five pieces in Clavierübung III for Organo pleno, the Baroque "full organ" registration which allowed the organist considerable latitude in the exact selection of stops. It begins with the "cross motive," a melodic outline forming the shape of the cross on the page. David Humphreys suggests this is Bach's allusion to Luther's direction in the Catechism: "In the morning, upon arising, you should bless yourself with the Holy Cross and say, 'In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.'"

The cycle continues with pedaliter and manualiter preludes on the three sections of the German chorale for the Kyrie: Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit ("Kyrie, God Father eternally"), Christe aller Welt Trost ("Christ, consolation of all the world"), and Kyrie Gott heiliger Geist ("Kyrie, God the Holy Ghost"). The pedaliter preludes are in stile antico, the "old-style" counterpoint reminiscent of Palestrina. The first (BWV 669), to God the Father, states the chorale tune in the upper voice. The second (BWV 670), to God the Son, contains the tune in the tenor voice, perhaps a reference to the "central" position of Christ as mediator, also the range of the human male voice. The third (BWV 671), to God the Holy Ghost, is a five-voice setting for full organ with the tune in the pedals. The three preludes for manual alone (BWV 672, 673, and 674) are marked alio modo ("in another manner"). They do not incorporate the complete chorale tune; instead, each is a short fughetta based on the first phrase of the chorale.

Allein Gott in der Höh sey Ehr ("Alone to God on high be glory") is the German version of the Gloria in excelsis Deo, sung each week in the Leipzig church service. The three preludes, all in three voices, are in the keys of F, G, and A, the first three notes of the tune. The first prelude (BWV 675), for manual alone, presents the complete tune in the inner voice. The second (BWV 676) is a chorale trio for two manuals and pedal in which the tune passes from one voice to another, surrounded by elaborate invertible counterpoint. The third (BWV 677), again for manual, is a lively fughetta based on the first two lines of the chorale.

Diess sind die heilgen zehen Geboth ("These are the holy ten commandments") begins the group of chorales related to the subjects of Luther's Catechism. The pedaliter prelude (BWV 678) states the tune in canon on a separate manual. This has particular significance for a hymn expounding the ten commandments, since the word "canon" literally means "rule" or "law." The second canonic voice follows the first by a strict rule of counterpoint. There is a reference to the number ten in the first measure, where each of the three voices forms the interval of a tenth with the other two. In the manualiter which follows (BWV 679), the first phrase of the tune, with its many repeated notes, becomes a gigue-like fughetta subject. Again, the musical structure reflects the number ten. The opening pitch is repeated ten times in the first measure, and there are ten entrances of the subject.

Wir glauben all an einen Gott ("We all believe in one God") is Martin Luther's German adaptation of the Nicene Creed. The pedaliter prelude for full organ (BWV 680), with its striding bass motive, is a firm, solid affirmation of faith. Unlike the other pedaliter chorale preludes in Clavierübung III, it does not incorporate the complete chorale tune. This may be because of this tune's exceptional length, or perhaps because Luther's Catechism directs that the Creed should be expounded "in the simplest manner." The French overture style is the inspiration for the dotted rhythms and ornate elaboration of the manualiter prelude (BWV 681). Despite its brevity, it, too, is a powerful setting, with rich harmonies and dramatic effects.

Bach lavishes the greatest contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity of the cycle on the pedaliter setting of the Lord's Prayer, Vater unser im Himmelreich ("Our Father, Who art in heaven"), BWV 682. The opening texture is that of a trio sonata to which two additional voices are eventually added, presenting the chorale tune in canon. Luther writes that the most important word of the Lord's Prayer is the first, "Father," acknowledging the paternity of God. Bach's intricate prelude is dominated by a single rhythm, the Lombard pattern of short-long, in which one can hear echoed the German word "Vater, Vater." In contrast, the manualiter (BWV 683) is a setting of poetic simplicity. The tune in the upper voice is suspended above flowing lines of counterpoint.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam ("Christ, our Lord, to Jordan came") evokes the biblical scene of Christ's baptism. In the setting for two manuals and pedal (BWV 684), the two upper voices are based on the cross motive. Like the waters of the Jordan River, the sixteenth-notes of the bass voice flow around and over the chorale tune, which here, as in many of Bach's Christ-centered chorales, is assigned to the tenor voice. The manualiter (BWV 685) continues the imagery of baptism. Its fughetta subject, drawn from the tune's first phrase, is paired with a counter-subject recalling the flowing "water" motive of the preceding prelude. Like the three-fold immersion of baptism, each of the three direct statements of the subject is followed by a statement in inversion.

Aus tieffer Noth schrey ich zu dir ("Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee") is Martin Luther's hymn of penance, based on Psalm 130. The setting for full organ with double pedal (BWV 686) is the most massive chorale prelude of Clavierübung III. For each phrase of the tune, six contrapuntal voices are introduced, first four in the manual, then two in the pedal. The upper pedal voice is the unelaborated chorale tune. Although more intimate and gentle, the manualiter prelude (BWV 687) employs a similar formal structure. Each phrase of the chorale is developed in imitative counterpoint culminating in a statement of the tune, here in the soprano voice.

The group of Catechism chorales closes with a hymn for communion, Jesus Christus unser Heyland, der von uns den Zorn Gottes wand ("Jesus Christ, our Saviour, Who hath taken from us the wrath of God"). With its leaping head-motive and syncopated rhythms, the chorale trio (BWV 688) seems to express joy, even exuberance, for the central sacrament of Christian life. The manualiter fugue (BWV 689) is fully developed in the manner of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier. Bach's notes on the church service in Leipzig mention "alternate playing of preludes and singing of chorales until the end of Communion." These two final chorale preludes of Clavierübung III may be examples of this kind of Communion music.

The four Duetti (BWV 802, 803, 804, and 805) belong to a tradition of two-voice organ composition which also includes the North German bicinium and the French duo. Bach may have included the Duetti in the cycle as manualiter counterparts to the Praeludium and Fuga. They may also correspond to the four closing prayers of the Lesser Catechism, or may bear some other symbolic meaning. Their keyboard texture is similar to that of Bach's two-part inventions, but the harmonic language is more advanced. Each Duetto is in a different key and meter, employs a different imitative form, and creates a different expressive character or affekt.

The extraordinary five-voice Fuga (BWV 552,2) is actually three fugues, each based on its own subject, united into a single large form. The subject of the first fugue, which returns in the subsequent sections, can also be found woven into the counterpoint of the opening Praeludium and the pedaliter "Aus tieffer Noth." It is strikingly similar to the fugue subject of Buxtehude's Praeludium in E Major, a work which Bach almost certainly knew. This main subject begins with the cross motive. Luther's Catechism directs: "In the evening, upon retiring, you should bless yourself with the Holy Cross and say, 'In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.'"

© 1999 by James Kibbie. All rights reserved