Johannes Brahms - Intégrale de l'œuvre pour orgue - Mélodies originales des chorals


Johannes Brahms
Complete Organ Works
Preludes and Fugues WoO 10 & 9
Fugue WoO 8 
Prelude and Fugue on the Chorale "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid" WoO 7*
Eleven Chorale Preludes Opus 122 posth.* 
Original Chorale Melodies*

Jean-Charles Ablitzer 
Valtrin-Callinet-Schwenkedel Historical Organ (1750-1848-1971) 
Saint-Christophe Cathedral, Belfort, France 

René Schirrer

"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2236


"Shakespeare's exhortation, 'To thine own self be true', has always been my guiding principle" Brahms confided to Joachim. He first discovered the organ in Düsseldorf in 1858 in the company of Clara Schumann, but did not return to it until her death forty years later, shortly before his own - 'Being true to oneself' - in the case of the organ, means joining the tradition of Bach and Lutheran choral singing.

Like Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt, Brahms is primarily a composer for piano, chamber group and orchestra rather than organ. Only their common veneration for Bach led them to tackle composing for the organ. Although his organ pieces represent only a tiny part of Brahms's total work, they share several features of his style : a predilection for minor keys, medium-low registers, modal/tonal and major/minor ambiguities, syncopated duple/triple times and, above all, the close fusion of harmony and counterpoint, with firm bass lines and active middle voices. In conformity with German tradition, Brahms never indicated a register. Contrasting nuances mark the keyboard shifts, and crescendos imply the addition of the swell-box. In Düsseldorf, the young Brahms was able to play the König baroque organ of the Maximiliankirche, and in Vienna he doubtless practiced on the romantic instruments of the Votivkirche (Walcker, 1878) and the Piaristenkirche (Buckow, 1858).

Preludes and Fugues

As a result if his contact with Schumann, who composed six fugues based on the notes B.A.C.H., Brahms at the age of twenty-three was profoundly influenced by Bach's thought. But, as a native of Hamburg, he was also the spiritual heir of Scheidemann and Reinken, whose works were both rhapsodic and magnificently constructed. Far removed from the "music of the future" advanced by Liszt and Wagner, the organ pieces written by Brahms are both austere and proud, a fusion of the Baroque and the Romantic. He might well have taken as his own the following personal statement of Mendelssohn (whose work for organ he undoubtedly knew) to Hiller :
"That my compositions have some resemblance to those of Sebastian Bach is none of my doing, for I wrote them as my inspiration dictated at the time. And if the words left the same impression on me as they did on old Bach, this should only please me all the more; - I cannot suppose that you think I copy the forms without adding something of my own. A vacuous imitation would be so repugnant to me, I would not be able to finish a single piece...".

Prelude and Fugue in G Minor

Dated 7 February 1857, unpublished. Though based on contrasts, this diptych is more authentic and open than its predecessor, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor. The prelude resembles a Nordic toccata, but the key and the detailing are also reminiscent of Bach's Fantasy (and fugue) in G Minor for organ. The structure of the prelude (type AB CB' A'C'B" and coda) alternates brilliant thematic sections with a more polyphonic motif (C). Using rich counterpoint, the fugue has little in common with the prelude except a strong recourse to chromatics and to the pedal board, although after the fourth entry with the pedal board, Brahms often sticks to three strong and constantly moving voices.

Fugue in A-flat Minor

Dated 5 June 1856, this fugue was entrusted to Clara Schumann as a birthday present for Robert (who was to die the following month). The somber key signature with seven flats, the exacerbated chromatics, the CC (4/2) beat to be played Langsam, the very close polyphony, the increased use of the pedal board, the theme featuring both a subject and several counter-subjects, all contribute to the work's extraordinary density. The mournful character of the subject, expressed in three descending phrases separated by anguished silences, confirms the presence of an underlying message of pain, and places this fugue of desolation between the Crucifixus of Bach's B Minor Mass and the Via Crucis by the aged monk Liszt. However, throughout the piece the subject is accompanied by a contrasting, ascending movement serving as a kind of promise of pardon and redemption. It is doubtless for this reason that Joachim, a friend of Schumann's as well as Brahms, felt in this tragic work an "impression of unity and beauty, of supernatural peace".
The exposition combines the subject and the first syncopated counter-subject which is also played both straight and inverted. Cast in the more cheerful keys of E-flat and G-flat Major, the divertimentos introduce a calmer atmosphere which, however, cannot keep the painful theme with its chromatic drops and enharmonic modulations at bay for very long. The pattern of the counter-subjects, the numerous canons, straight or inverted, diminished or augmented, build the expressive tension without overdoing it, right up to the final somber cadence on the A-flat Minor chord.

Prelude and Fugue in A Minor on the chorale "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid"

"O sadness, O pain! Is it not dreadful that the only son of God the Father should be carried to the tomb?"
Unified by an anonymous melody of 1628, this anguished diptych gives the young Brahms a rich basis on which to develop his talent for variation. The prelude directly echoes Bach's Orgelbüchlein and is an exemplary piece of four-part Choralvorspiel, in which the pedal board takes care of the discreetly chromatic bass line. The middle parts (in 12/8 time, or triplets played against the binary rhythm of the chorale) move to the third and sixth in palpitating syncopation, and the soprano voice "sings" the slightly ornamented, adroitly spaced melody. After an emotional broken cadence, the coda returns to the initial phrase and moves on to the B-flat Neapolitan cadence before final resolution.
This fugue is a perfect example of the composer's skill at construction for the organ. Half-way between a "fugal chorale" and a "figured chorale", it leaves the task of developing the three fugal parts to the keyboards, with the pedal board intervening at regular intervals to hold each of the fives phrases. The subject is an ornamented version of the chorale theme, with double eighth-notes betraying the pianistic sensibility of the composer. The first counter-subject uses an echo-effect for contrast with the underlying pattern of the subject, and the second counter-subject unfolds a series of sixteenth-notes up to the fugue's conclusion, with the addition of some Bach-like thirty-second notes along the way. Both appear alternately, moving either together or against each other; or occasionally combining in stretti.

Prelude and Fugue in A Minor

Dedicated to Clara on 7 May 1856, unpublished. In order to provide a unifying thread between the first lively section and the second more sedate one, the composer gives them both the same binary meter featuring triplets and sextuplets, relates the prelude to the postlude, and gives a foretaste of the fugue in the basically polyphonic prelude. The prelude begins like a two-part invention with an echo motif, becomes more complicated, and then returns to the tonic for a combination of a contrapuntal inversion of the initial theme with a flurry of sextuplets and the future fugue subject, ending with a coda in canon form featuring augmentation and inversion. The four-part fugue subject is reversed and progressively accelerated to produce a constant three-two interplay. The central reflective divertimento alternates the straight and inverted exposition of the subject, parallel with a new chromatic counter-subject. The subject then is combined with an augmented version of itself. In the postlude, a return to the opening phrase of the prelude, with pedalwork, sustains a harmonic progression concluding with a typically Brahmsian sixth.

Eleven Chorale Preludes Opus 122

Forty years separate the final musical works from the youthful ones. The Vier ernste Gesänge ("Four Serious Songs") op. 121 and the posthumous Elf Choralvorspiele op. 122 make up a seamless meditation on death, a double cycle of spiritual lieder since Brahms, like Bach, is careful to express the symbolic meaning of the chorale verses. As with his model, death for this Lutheran is a subject that inspires deep meditation, in contrast to the fantastic vision more typical of the romantics. In fact, Brahms systematically called on his musical masters when it came to expressing the deeper aspects of his personality. He was the only romantic composer who did not shrink from tackling the Choralvorspiel form, which offered him an ideal fusion of German religious and popular inspiration.
We do not know the precise order he intended for these eleven chorales (three of which were set by Bach). In most editions, they appear to follow neither the sequence of key signatures nor that of the two texts.

Chorale Nr. 4 "Herzlich tut mich erfreuen" in D Major

"My heart will rejoice on the fine summer day when God makes all things good and beautiful for eternity. Heaven and earth he will create anew; and all creatures will be made fine and pure".
This hopeful text by Johann Walter, a companion of Luther's, justifies the supple 6/4 time and the pianistic figures with broken arpeggios from which the notes of the melody emerge. Brahms at four separate points proffers a pre-exposition on the lower fourth, dolce, barely harmonized, of each section of the chorale before it finally appears fully in the soprano voice, sustained by its polyphonic framework.

Chorale Nr. 8 "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" in F Major

"Lo! how a rose ere blooming, from Jesse's root is sprung; as Isaiah's lineage foretold, in the cold of winter a midnight flower is come"
This lovely pastorale Christmas chorale in F. Major is set with rare subtlety and linguistic complexity. Highly ornamented, in 6/4 time, the melodic line is found primarily in the soprano voice. The five-part construction with added da capo (a-b-c-a-b) is extended by written repeats. Brahms took advantage of this to rework his harmonies and give the tenor line some repeats of the motif. In the soprano line, can we not hear the blooming of the rose, the birth of the Son of God; and in the tenor, the ancient promise Isaiah's lineage foretold?

Chorale Nr. 7 "O Gott, du frommer Gott" in A Minor

"O Lord good and bountiful, from whom all blessings flow, grant me a strong body, mansion for a soul immaculate and conscience pure."
This is a lengthy and complex chorale constructed along traditional lines, with a double bar indicating a repeat following the first two sections. Brahms chose a modified version of the last two phrases so that the fifth, almost identical to the first, has a da capo effect. Starting out in three parts, the chorale texture is occasionally extended by a fourth voice, and concludes with five at the entrance of the pedal board. This climax is highlighted by a theatrical pianissimo following a series of rests. The exposition is in the form of a soprano cantus firmus, moving to the tenor voice when the body (Leib) is mentioned. Inserted contrapuntal passages alternate with more homorhythmic episodes, allowing the diminishing anticipation of the cantus firmus to flow freely within each section.

Chorale Nr. 5 "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" in E Major

"Prepare Thyself, O my soul, leave behind the dark caves of sin. Come into the shining light; shine, O shine most bright, for the gracious Lord invites you to his table. He who rules the Heavens will now live in thee."
This is a luminous three-part chorale based on a melody by Johann Crüger, with six exposition sections in the soprano voice and written repeats for the first two of them. Here the deliberate imitation of Bach is at its most nearly perfect, with the addition of a few harmonic touches characteristic of the 18th century. The ease and elegance of this flowing composition are remarkable. High points include the serpentine sixteenths and double diminutive in the first chorale phrase, and the free inversion of the accompanying voices in the repeat of the first two phrases.

Chorale Nr. 1 "Mein Jesu, der du mich" in E Minor

"O Jesu, I am thine forever, thy creature sings the praises of the sacred Bridegroom."
Each of the six sections of this "figured chorale" serves as the pretext for a small three-part keyboard fugue preceding the held notes of the entrance to the fourth on the pedal board. While building up a central contrast that is more chromatic and syncopated, Brahms keeps a firm hand on the determined progression of the whole towards the concluding five-part stretto section.

Chorale Nr. 6 "O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen" in D Minor

"Happy all ye true believers, who will see God at the last! Ye will be delivered of the earthly pain that binds us here below."
Crüger's melody is carried in the discreetly ornamented soprano voice by a balanced line of ternary eighth notes in 12/8 time. The mood of joy in death and distress on earth finds remarkable symbolic expression in the ambivalence of the minor key, the ascending and descending melodic line, and the harmony. Brahms increases the harmonic tension at the mention of death (Tod) in order to enhance the impact of the final major third symbolizing the soul rising heavenwards.

Chorale Nr. 2 "Herzliebster Jesu" in G Minor

"Jesu heart's desire, wherefore this judgment on thee? Where is the error of thy ways? What sin ledest thou astray?"
Johann Crüger's well-know melody unfolds, slightly ornamented, in the soprano voice, above an extremely dense triple weave that is dissonant, chromatic, and notable for its augmented fourth and diminished seventh intervals used to express affliction and the idea of sin (as with its precursor, the Durch Adams Fall chorale from the Orgelbüchlein).

Chorale Nr. 9 "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" in A Minor

"O grant me a peaceful end, for I walk in sadness and pain. Lead me from this cruel world, I pine for eternal joy. Come, O Lord, come quickly!"
As with Gustav Mahler's Abschied and Richard Strauss's Im Abendrot, these three final chorales by Brahms crown his entire opus. Hassler's famous melody served as a setting for the poem O Haupt voll Blut by Paul Gerhardt, and appears in Bach's Saint Matthew Passion; but it was as a setting for Christoph Knoll's text on the yearning for death that Brahms used it, once for a lied, and twice in his opus 122. Here the composer treats the piece in chorale form, ornamented in the soprano voice with repeat variations in the two first sections. The third and fourth sections, "Lead me from this cruel world", are lightened by the pedal board, moving into a more ethereal 6/8 time and a piano dynamic (upper keyboard), whereas in the outer sections the complex polyphony of the inner voices, the rhythmic bass, and dissonant harmonies charge this initial "farewell" with human tension.

Chorale Nr.10 "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" in A Minor

A second setting of the same text, in which the structure and symbolism closely follow those of the preceding piece. More tranquil and balanced, in Brahms favourite 6/4 time and a medium-low register, this subsequent and sublime "farewell" quotes the cantus firmus on the pedal boards in the tenor voice, introduced by the determined repetition of eighth notes on the bass keyboard. The form is similar to some of piano Klavierstücke, with the soprano and alto voices skipping over garlands of running notes that give a hint of eternal bliss.

Chorale Nr. 3 "O Welt, ich muß dich lassen" in F Major

"O world I must now leave thee, and journey to the heavenly realm. My body and my life I give unto the blessed hands of God".
The somber emotion of this renunciation of the world is expressed in fine five-part polyphony, alternating 4/4 and 3/2 time, and imitation in all the voices weaving among the wistful, resigned double eight-notes (a favourite figure of Bach's). The soprano melody doesn't stand out, but melts into the multiple voices of the "Great Whole". The harmonic tensions upset the underlying tranquility until the final six-part measures, which are more serene and reflect the image of believer confiding himself body and soul to the hands of God (triple hold on tonic).

Chorale Nr. 11 "O Welt, ich muß dich lassen" in F Major

The final five-part chorale employs a different form, in a march rhythm that is more harmonic than its sibling (Nr. 3). Each of the six chorale phrases is separated from the next by a four-part manualiter commentary with double-echo effect, which prolongs either the chorale melody, or a transitional phrase. Each section is spun out longer as the believer quits the world below for eternal bliss above. A marvellous musical metaphor for quiet departure that becomes poignant and finally calmed by mankind's valedictory journey towards the realm of God the Father.

Text after Brigitte François-Sappey original

Jean-Charles Ablitzer


Born in 1946 and attracted early in life by the organ, Jean-Charles Ablitzer was self-taught before enrolling in the Strasbourg Conservatory, where he studied under Pierre Vidal. In 1971 he won the post of organist at Saint-Christophe Cathedral of Belfort, home of the great Valtrin-Callinet organ restored by Kurt Schwenkedel of Strasbourg. The same year he was also named professor of organ at the Belfort Conservatory. 

J.C. Ablitzer's extensive knowledge of baroque music and instruments conditions the rigorous discipline of his style, which reflects the principles described in learned treatises; his personal discoveries regarding registration, articulation and phrasing; and his research into antique organs (construction materials, keyboard and pedalboard configuration). Jean-Charles Ablitzer is an ardent chamber-music performer, and has participated in numerous baroque ensemble concerts and recordings.

The high quality of Ablitzer's recordings (Bach, Couperin) has received ample praise from the critics : "…Playing a superb Catalan instrument with the characteristic Iberian nasality, Ablitzer constructs a glittering monument resounding with vast incandescent figures. Phrasing, registration, and digital dexterity are stunning. No one since Chapuis has played Couperin this brilliantly…" (from a review by Jean-Luc Macia).

Ablitzer's two recordings of François Couperin Masses were ranked by the monthly review "Le Monde de la Musique" as among the ten best classical recordings of 1987.
"…Jean-Charles Ablitzer's abilities as a colourist enable him to etch the smallest details of a tormented work that eschews comfortable harmonies and banal equilibrium, and to confront its most lyrical effusions with aplomb. This "Complete Works" (Buxtehude) in progress is devilishly promising…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…But never fear; the Belfort organist doesn't drag Brahms over the borderline into austere pedantry. He remembers the lesson this composer learned during his long stay in Vienna, the importance of smooth flow and sunny declamation : here is a recording flooded with just that Viennese spirit…" (from a review by Xavier Lacavalerie).

"…his fervour is enough to draw tears from a stone, but it is his exuberance and joy that fulfil the crucial role of restoring to Titelouze's music its original sharp brilliance and dazzling verve. The centuries fall away, the musical themes engage with each other like flashing swords of light…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…dedicated to Georg Boehm, known for having influenced the great Bach, his works, it is now proven, deserve their own success. To the glowing chorales, Monique Zanetti lends her pureness and ecstatic innocence, while Jean-Charles Ablitzer offers glory and enlightenment.” (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…he is well aware of the recent musicological evolutions, his application of which is extremely seductive… He is not the prisoner of any fashion in his choice of tempi, phrasing, or registration. On the contrary, he is constantly inspired, proposing innovative solutions with every page." (from a review by Francis Albou /J.S. Bach, Organ works in Goslar).

René Schirrer


He comes into contact with the chant while studying classic literature at the Strasbourg university. He continues his study of the music alongside Derrick Holsen, at the Musikakademie of Basel, and at the Salzburg Mozarteum Academy too, with Heinrich Pflanzl and Kim Borg. He starts as a professional singer in The Vocal Group of France, conducted by John Alldis.

From 1983 to 1989, he is member of the permanent troupe at the Opera of Lyon. During the years, he plays many parts from key works of Britten, Charpentier, Rossini, Haydn, Monteverdi, Rameau, Verdi and Moussorgsky. He is also regularly involved in the Aix-en-Provence Festival. He has already made several recordings, conducted by William Christie and by John Elliot Gardiner.

The Historical Organ in the Saint Christophe Cathedral at Belfort


The story of the Saint Christopher Cathedral (formerly the Saint Denis Collegiate Church) begins in 1727. In 1750, the still-unfinished church (its two towers were completed in 1754 and 1845, respectively) became the focus for Belfort's "New Town".

On 7 August 1749, the City commissioned organmaker Joseph Valtrin from Porrentruy (Switzerland) to construct a classic instrument in the French style. In 1752 the instrument was installed in a loft over the main entrance to the church. The organ was decorated with gilded carvings, and boasted a total of thirty stops and two tremolo stops on three keyboards : choir organ (eight stops); main organ (twelve stops); echo (five stops); and pedal board (five stops). The carved and gilded musician-cherubs crowning the main organ are definitively original, probably the work of Antoine Cupillard who did much of the wood and stone carving in the church.

Miraculously, the organ survived the French Revolution intact, but repairs were urgently required. In 1816 the famed Alsatian organmakers Callinet were asked to work on the instrument. François Callinet extended the keyboards by two notes (C-sharp and D), repaired the mechanism of the pedal, and brought the organchest forward three feet in order to protect it from damp. Joseph Callinet undertook major restoration work in 1848, including enlarging the instrument and installing a swell-box over the main organ.

The organ suffered extensive damage during the War of 1870 and the Prussian siege of Belfort. Claude-Ignace Callinet handled repairs, giving the instrument the romantic colouration and symphonic character typical of the late 19th century. From this period until about 1929 the Saint Christopher organ had approximately 40 stops.

During the first half of the 20th century, the organ was further transformed by inexpert hands. A bad storm occurring in 1966 knocked a brick wall down onto the instrument. The organ suffered considerable damage, and could no longer be played. Restoration work was entrusted to Schwenkedel of Strasbourg. Michel Chapuis was called in by the City of Belfort to supervise the work. He ordered 2,262 pipes dismantled, and the organ was then restored in conformity with its original design. The scope of the pedal board and the instrument as a whole was extended. On 7 May 1971, Michel Chapuis inaugurated the restored instrument. The Saint Christopher organ now boasts 3,600 pipes and 52 stops, four manual keyboards, and a pedal board. The complete instrument is now a listed historical monument. Jean-Charles Ablitzer has served as official organist since 1971.

"... The construction of the great organ in the Saint Christopher Cathedral at Belfort is fairly typical of East European instruments, with its broad façade and five identical turrets decorated in rococo gold-leaf... A blend of the Germanic and French styles, the organ is ideal both for the works of Bach and those of romantic and contemporary composers...". (1)

From commentary by Colette Bertault

(1) Claude Noisette de Crauzat : "l'Orgue français", Paris, Editions Atlas, 1986.


Präludium und Fuge WoO 10 (1857)
in g-moll/in G minor/sol mineur

Fuge WoO 8 (1856)
in as-moll/in A-flat minor/la bémol mineur

Choralvorspiel und Fuge WoO 7 (1856)*
über "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid"

Präludium und Fuge WoO 9 (1856)
in a-moll/in A minor/la mineur 

Elf Choralvorspiele Opus posth. 122 (1896)*

Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (Nr.4)
Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen (Nr.8)
O Gott, du frommer Gott (Nr.7)
Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele (Nr.5)
Mein Jesu, der du mich (Nr.1)
O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen (Nr.6)
Herzliebster Jesu (Nr.2)
Herzlich tut mich verlangen (Nr.9) / Herzlich tut mich verlangen (Nr.10)
O Welt, ich muß dlch lassen (Nr.3) / O Welt, ich muß dich lassen (Nr.11)

* Les numéros des chorals de l'Opus posthume 122 sont ceux de l'Edition G. Henle Verlag München


"Un événement exceptionnelde Télérama n°2236 :

Bonsoir Clara
En filigrane de ces compositions, il y a la présence radieuse de Clara Schumann. Clara, en compagnie de qui Johannes Brahms découvre l'orgue à Düsseldorf au printemps 1856; Clara, pour qui le vieux Johannes écrira les onze Préludes de choral, quarante ans plus tard, ultime chant du cygne adressé à l'être aimé qui vient de disparaître... L'orgue de Brahms, humble et fier, s'inscrit dans la grande tradition allemande, entièrement dévolue au dieu Jean-Sébastien Bach et au choral luthérien. C'est cette atmosphère très baroque et liturgique qu'a choisi de restituer Jean-Charles Ablitzer, quand il laisse, par exemple, le baryton René Schirrer ouvrir magnifiquement et refermer chaque choral. Mais ne croyez pas que l'organiste de Belfort tire Brahms du côté de l'austérité et de la sécheresse. Il n'oublie pas que le bonhomme avait appris, de son long séjour à Vienne, le sens de la fluidité et de la déclamation ensoleillée : l'esprit viennois inonde aussi ce disque magnifique... Un mot enfin, pour célébrer la merveilleuse machine de la cathédrale Saint-Christophe de Belfort, l'une des rares villes de France où les organistes soient vraiment heureux d'avoir tant d'instruments à se mettre sous les doigts. - Xavier Lacavalerie
Technique : 4T.
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