Johann Sebastian Bach Œuvres pour orgue


Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorals Schübler BWV 645, 646, 647, 648, 649, 650
Praeludium et Fuga BWV 534, 544, 546
Toccata et Fuga en D minor BWV 565

Jean-Charles Ablitzer
Christoph Treutmann Historical Organ (1737)
Sankt Georg Stiftskirche, Goslar-Grauhof, Niedersachsen, Germany


Paradox of fame : the most popular work of Bach, one of the most chosen finales of wedding ceremonies, "The" Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 is possibly neither composed by Bach nor written for organ. At least, this is what recent hypothesis have shown. It is not impossible that the fugue was originally conceived for violin and not organ. The Theme "en bariolage" is typical of violin composition - hence the fact that there already exist quite convincing versions of this work for violin. However, we must not forget that the violin was the first instrument of Bach who apparently played extremely well, and that his instrumental language incorporates an intimate amalgam between the styles and techniques of writing for keyboard and those for strings. Undoubtedly, it would be jumping to conclusions to suppose that the work is perhaps not attributable to Johann Sebastian Bach just because the form of the work is quite weak and more typical of the composition of North German organists preceding Diderik Buxtehude. We know that the young Bach spent three years in high school at Lüneburg, not far from Hamburg, where according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, he liked to listen to the Cantors playing the famous organs. The general structure consists of a vehement toccata in "stylus phantasticus", followed by a fugue with such a florid subject that the theme tends to lose itself in voluble diversions ultimately to conclude in a type of toccata. This is, in reality, what the apprentice composer would have heard in Lüneburg or Hamburg and what he would have read in scores existing at that time. How could the adolescent composer not have been inflamed by such a model allowing free expression to the most outrageous fantasies of his ardent juvenile imagination? The outburst of the introduction, like lightning flashing across a stormy sky, the contrast between the accumulation of chords piling up and the virtuosity of the running figures in a fantastic visionary expression, what invention, what a will to hold the listener spellbound! In spite of the fact that all criticisms of this work might well be justified, its popularity still remains unchallenged.

In contrast, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 546 is a work of the utmost maturity. This applies especially to the prelude, for it is probable that the fugue was composed earlier and was added to the former afterwards, not, of course, without having been revised beforehand. Highly impressive, the prelude unfolds in the sombre splendour of the C minor tonality - the same as in the final chorus of St. Matthew's Passion. Divided into six segments, each of equal length, the prelude comprises 144 bars : 144 being the sacred number of perfection in the Scripture, of which Bach was a great connoisseur. Each segment consists, for the most part, of 24 bars : 24 symbolizing the 24 old men of the Apocalypse, and representing the harmony between heaven and earth, between space and time. Each of these six segments divides itself evenly in half (12 +12); thus, the totality of the prelude represents numerically 12 x 12. Here, undoubtedly, Bach reveals to his public, his vision of a world of admirable architecture. This is further reinforced by the fact that the sixth and last segment is identical to the first, in such a way that it is possible to play the prelude "ad infinitum", like a star that rotates forever on its orbit, or like the Creation of Him "whose Kingdom is without end". If the fugue follows an harmonic structure comparable to that of the first chords of the prelude (the dissonance between a perfect chord and a diminished seventh) the fugue subject is much freer allowing for improvisation. It is noticeable however, that, if the exposition introduces five voices, the divertimento itself, generally uses only three, giving a lighter and more transparent texture to the work before the re-exposition which culminates in adding two supplementary voices to the original five; hence concluding the work in seven voices which are none other than a reminder of the initial chords of the prelude.

Another example from Bach's youth (this time perfectly authentic) is the Prelude and Fugue in F minor BWV 534. Very probably, the work dates from the time when Johann Sebastian Bach was organist at the ducal chapel in Weimar. Bach rarely uses the key F minor in his composition for organ - another example, being the small chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ" ("I call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ") BWV 639 from the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). This tonality possesses a strong, underlying significance. One of Bach's contemporaries, the theorist Johann Mattheson indicates that : "F minor appears in order to represent a tenderness and calm, just as much as a depth and a heaviness of spirit not far removed from despair, a fatal anxiety of the soul; and this is extremely moving. It expresses perfectly a black and incurable melancholy, and can sometimes give the listener a sentiment of horror or the shivers". Indeed, these are the affects developed by the diptych : the sombre grandeur of the prelude with its harmonious equilibrium of proportions, and the pained, resigned nature of the fugue. As with the greater majority of Bach's works, the conditions under which this work was composed are unknown. However, the intensity of tone leads to the supposition that it might well reflect some cruel personal experience.

One of the most uncontested masterpieces of Bach’s organ music, the Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV 544 is connected with very precise historic, musical and affective circumstances. In the absence of documentary evidence, an accumulation of concordant facts permit the hypothesis that this page of melancholic splendour, of which there remains an autographed manuscript in calligraphy, was destined for the funeral ceremony (organized 17 October 1727 in St Paul's Church of the University of Leipzig) of the Saxon princess elect, Christiane Eberhardine disappeared some weeks earlier. The ceremony commenced with the prelude, followed by the first part of the Funeral Ode BWV 198, also composed especially for this occasion. After this, in the grim, dark church with its ornate catafalque, the funeral oration was pronounced to the congregation of Leipzig’s high society. The rest of the ceremony comprised the second part of the Funeral Ode, and finally, the fugue. The prelude begins with a poignant lamentation in B minor, the tonality representing pain, melancholy and despair emphasized all the more by the tension derived from the uneven temperament (of the intervals of the scale) then used in organ playing. It is in the same key as the Kyrie from the Mass in B minor and also as the aria "Erbarme dich" (Have pity on me, Lord) from the Saint Matthew's Passion which dates from the same period. And indeed one is reminded immediately of a mortal lament on hearing these sorrowful phrases, the desperate musical outbursts, the florid ornamentation wallowing in desolation, the plaintive diminished seventh chords prevalent in this solidly constructed, eloquent funeral oration. With regard to the fugue, Bach chose for the theme a popular Central European song, one certainly known to the Princess, having as a subject, an unhappy marriage, which was the case of the Princess. Characterized by its dense construction, the fugue progresses obstinately by way of richly constructed episodes coming to a climax toward at its conclusion, terminating in a luminous resolution of comfort and of hope.

The Schübler Chorales BWV 645-650 

On the contrary to what is often stated, Johann Sebastian Bach was, by the end of his life, a musician recognized not only by his peers, but also by a public of music lovers. One instance of this is evidenced by the demand of one of his former pupils, the young organist Johann Georg Schübler, around 1746 - 1748. In his small town of Zella, the latter wished to create, in liaison with his brother, a company of music publishing. To launch the enterprise, what could be better than publishing a selection of Bach's works accessible to a large public. Then preoccupied by the composition of highly complex works, Bach confided to his pupil a small manuscript of six chorales for organ, of reasonable difficulty and based on popular hymns. These chorales were drawn from the immense repertoire of his cantatas and then transcribed for pipe organ. Bach continued to support his former pupil by confiding to him the engraving of the Musical Offering and by giving his brother, Johann Henrich that of the Art of Fugue. 

The Chorale "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" BWV 645 ("Awake, cry to us the voices of the watchmen"), by which the musical anthology opens, is an extract from the Cantata BWV 140 (1731) of the same name. In reality, it deals with the second verse of Nicolai's famous canticle, "Zion hear the watchful voices sing". The tenor melody can be heard singing in trio with a supple, fascinating soprano ritornello, peacefully punctuated by the bass line.

We have not been successful in finding the original cantata on which is based the trio chorale "Wo soll ich fliehen hin" BWV 646 ("Where shall I flee"), also titled "Auf meinen lieben Gott" ("To my beloved God"). It is more than likely that it is drawn from the unfinished Cantata "Ich habe mein Zuversicht" ("I have placed my trust in God") BWV 188. The score shows one of the rare Bach's annotations of registration : 1st keyb. 8 foot (soprano part), 2nd keyb. 16 foot (bass part), ped. 4 foot (canticle melody). 

"Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten" BWV 647 ("He who lets himself be guided by the Beloved God") is derived from the Cantata BWV 93 (1724), the theme of which appears in the duet for soprano and alto accompanied by the strings. Here, the composer has transcribed it into a work of four parts : the transcription of the two solo voices should be played by the right hand, the accompaniment by the left and the melody of the chorale with the pedalboard, with a 4 foot registration (heard an octave higher) resembling a tenor line.

The hymn "Meine Seele erhebt den Herren" BWV 648 ("My soul exalts the Lord") is the Lutheran adaptation, in German, of the Magnificat. Bach uses this theme on several occasions. Here, it corresponds to the version dealt with in the Cantata BWV 10 (1724), to illustrate the fifth verse, "Suscepit Israël" ("Israel resuscitated"). Here is another four-voiced work : the melody is heard in the right hand, while the left hand provides the double-voiced commentary and the pedalboard assures the bass line.

"Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ" BWV 649 ("Ah stay beside us, Lord Jesus Christ") is derived from the Cantata BWV 6 which is a commentary on the Apparition to the Pilgrims at Emmaus. Here the transcription is very natural. The original trio composition is once again found in the version for organ : the melody of the hymn (soprano voice in the cantata) heard in the right hand, the ritornello (piccolo violoncello) in the left and the continuo by the pedalboard.

The last of these six Schübler Chorales which Johann Sebastian Bach extracted from his cantata repertoire is "Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter" BWV 650 ("Come from heaven now, to us here on earth, Jesus")  takes it origins from the Cantata BWV 137 "Lobe den Herren" ("Praise the Lord"), commemorating a miracle healing. In rupture with the triumphal character of the work, the second part praises with tenderness the Mystery of the Incarnation. In the cantata, the chorale is given to the alto line accompanied by solo violin with underlying bass continuo. In his transcription for organ, Bach confines the chorale melody (one of the most famous of the Reformed Church) to a 4 foot register on the pedalboard, the left hand playing the bass part while the right hand takes the florid, ornamented violin line. 

Gilles Cantagrel
English adaptation by Judy Swierczewski

Jean-Charles Ablitzer


he is titular of the post of organist at the St Christopher Cathedral in Belfort. He enjoys an international career as a concert player and also works with singers and instrumentalists. He was employed for almost 15 years by the Fondation Royaumont as a continuo player and as the organist for the Il Seminario Musicale ensemble directed by Gérard Lesne.

Jean-Charles Ablitzer initiated in Belfort the construction of instruments with complementary and strong charactered sound aesthetics. These instruments proved to be useful teaching materials as part of the lessons he taught at the Belfort music conservatory from 1971 to 2007. An Iberian style pipe organ, built by the Spanish organ-builders Christine Vetter and Joaquin Lois Cabello completes this organistic heritage since 2017. It is set up in Grandvillars, its hometown.

In 2005, he heads the rehabilitation and reconstruction project of the legendary organ (1596) of the Gröningen castle in Germany. Instrument played by Michael Praetorius. He was made honorary president of the Organum Gruningense Redivivum association in Halberstadt in Germany as recognition for his founding role in this fabulous project.

In the year 2000, Jean-Charles Ablitzer was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and in 2010, Chevalier de l'Ordre national du Mérite by the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication.

His musical research that he shares with enthusiasm and humility and his talent as a musician make him a very appreciated and endearing organist.

The high quality of Ablitzer's recordings (Bach, Boehm, Brahms, Couperin, Buxtehude, Titelouze...) 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, Diapason).

"…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, Télérama).

"…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 j just that Viennese spirit…" (from a review by Xavier Lacavalerie, Télérama).

"…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, Télérama).

"…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, Télérama)

"…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." J.S. Bach, Organ Works in Goslar, Germany, (from a review by Francis Albou, Répertoire des disques classiques).

The Sankt Georg Stiftskirche historical organ in Goslar-Grauhof


Although some gaps still remain in our knowledge of German organ builder Christoph Treutmann's life and work, the major points are thoroughly familiar. Christoph Treutmann the Elder was born in Silesia about 1673-74, and served his apprenticeship under Heinrich Herbst the Younger at the Herbst family workshop in Magdeburg.

Christoph Treutmann is believed to have set up his own workshop sometime between 1695 and 1700. Since the early years of the 20th century, musicologists specializing in the history of the organ have been able to assert with almost complete certainty that Treutmann also served as an assistant to famed Hamburg organ builder Arp Schnitger. This hypothesis rests on certain technical and aesthetic features common to organs built by both men. Geographic and chronological coincidences imply that Christoph Treutmann must have taken part in the construction of Schnitger's organ at St Johannis church in Magdeburg, the first of the great Arp Schnitger organs in Central Germany, which was built from 1689 to 1694. This is the instrument that made Schnitger famous throughout Germany and, in terms of size, it ranks second among the impressive total of 159 instruments attributed to the Hamburg organ builder.

On 13 May 1734, Treutmann was commissioned by the Grauhof Abbey to build the organ that was to be his finest work. A copy of the contract, in which Treutmann offers his services to the parish for the construction of a new organ, was recently discovered in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld university library. The Grauhof organ was completed in 1737. In 1738, the following year, Johann Hermann Biermann wrote a detailed description of the instrument in his Organographia Hildesiensis Specialis. This organ, which has recently been restored, is substantially the same as when first constructed, and today is the only authentic surviving example of Christoph Treutmann's work.

Treutmann's instrument resembles Schnitger's organ at St Johannis of Magdeburg in terms both of overall technical design and specific features connected with the reed pipes, windchest, and pipes. Most notably, the expanded manual and pedalboard octave was pioneered by Schnitger at Magdeburg, an innovation that during the 17th century was as costly as it was rare.

The extensive pedal includes four windchests placed by two's on either side of the great organ. There is a forward windchest on the organ chest side for the principals, and a rear windchest for the bass flute stops and reed pipes (Posaune 32'). This registration was a brilliant invention imitated by most German organ builders until the end of the 18th century.

The elimination of the rear positive, which during the 17th century was habitually placed towards the front of the organ loft, dramatically changes the organ's tone from the differentiated 17th century quality, to a more "melting" one. Gottfried Silbermann was obliged to follow this new acoustic style in Freiberg, in 1710, when he eliminated the rear positive, a component that continued to be standard in France until after the Revolution.

As far as we can judge from archival evidence, it is to Gottfried Fritsche that we owe the first bass flute stops. In the organ he completed in 1621 for the Marian chapel at Wolfenbüttel castle, Fritsche even installed a complicated acoustic variant, a 12' flute stop coupled through the pedalboard. The St Nicolai organ in Hamburg, the largest of those built by Arp Schnitger, also has this stop. The installation of two coupling devices making it possible to play three tonal ranges simultaneously appeared for the first time in Schnitger's organs at St Johannis in Magdeburg and St Nicolai in Hamburg. All of these features are combined in the Grauhof organ. Modifications in the original design, made by Treutmann after the contract was signed, are also of considerable interest because of the light they cast on the history of organ manufacture.

The Brustwerk originally planned for the front, above the console, is moved behind the Oberwerk. This improved the acoustics of the instrument, shielding the organist from the instrument's shrillest frequencies while also improving resonance under the vault of the ceiling. Treutmann did not stop there, however. He also modernized the registration, although some of his "modernizations" were actually a return to the tried-and-true traditions of the past. He eliminated a 16' Violin stop made of wood from the pedalboard, and replaced the 2' Octava and 2' Gemshorn stops with a 16' Viola da Gamba and 3-rank Rauschpfeife containing a 2' Octava in the lowest-pitched rank. The most daring of these acoustic innovations is the 16' Viola da Gamba, used for the basso continuo. The Rauschpfeife harks back to one of Schnitger's earlier registrations, in which the main stops are supplemented by a small-sized third, a procedure also followed at St Johannis in Magdeburg. Lastly, a 2' Octava and a 1-and-1/3' Quinta are added to the Hinterwerk, and the originally planned 1' Sedecima eliminated.

Christoph Treutmann the Elder's organ at Grauhof is of special interest because of the inestimable value to posterity of an instrument that has been preserved in its original state. This is the sole surviving instrument built by a master whose art can be compared with that of the greatest builders of his time, such as Joachim Wagner's in Berlin, Gottfried Silbermann's in Freiberg, and Christian Müller of Andreasberg's in Amsterdam; and also with that of Arp Schnitger's most talented followers in Northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Here is an exquisitely preserved instrument, built by a master who combined outstanding craftsmanship with an extremely personal conception of instrumental tone.

Note should also be made of the technical and acoustic theories of the organ formulated by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Treutmann's organ presents the quality of depth required by J.S. Bach, and also meets his other demands – diversity of solo and accompanying registers (Viola da Gamba, for example), and a full set of reed pipes and principals – which were found elsewhere only in the more modest Lahm/Itzgrund instrument.

Artistically, Christoph Treutmann the Elder's organ at the Grauhof Abbey church, near Goslar, occupies a pivotal place between the late baroque and early rococo periods. It is one of the rare instruments in northern Germany with a filigree-carved organ chest, and compares favourably with the admirable instruments found in the abbey churches of Southern Germany.

from the text by Uwe Droszella President of the Appraisal Commission


Toccata et Fuga BWV 565
in D-moll/in D minor/en ré mineur

Choral BWV 645
"Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme"

Choral BWV 646
"Wo soll ich fliehen hin"

Praeludium et Fuga BWV 546
in C-moll/in C minor/en ut mineur

Choral BWV 647
"Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten"

Choral BWV 648
"Meine Seele erhebt den Herren"

Praeludium et Fuga BWV 534
in F-moll/in F minor/en fa mineur

Choral BWV 649
"Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ"

Choral BWV 650
"Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter"

Praeludium et Fuga BWV 544
in H-moll/in B minor/en si mineur


Jean-Charles Ablitzer is an excellent French organist who has made brilliant recordings of Buxtehude’s organ works, as well as several recordings of works by Bach, Couperin and other baroque composers. While he has not yet embarked on a complete Bach cycle, this is his fourth Bach set. Perhaps completion is approaching. This recording contains the eight Schübler chorals, some of Bach’s finest organ writing, framed by some of his finest larger works, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, and others. It is presented with one "large" work, followed by two chorals, and so on.
Ah, yet another recording of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, opens this disc.....Yet another one. This overplayed work is so familiar that I often shudder when hearing it. It can be played in any way, in many forms, in movie soundtracks and in supermarket aisles. Yet my ears perked up when listening to Jean-Charles Ablitzer performing this piece. The opening toccata did not stand out too much, but when he began playing the fugue I realized that he was coming from a more different place than many organists. It is difficult to reproduce the subtle counterpoint of this work on the organ - the notes can blur if played too quickly, but Ablitzer has the perfect touch, allowing the different voices to be heard individually, playing almost as if on a lighter instrument, such as a harpsichord. Part of the beauty of this performance is the excellent organ he plays. This organ has a beautiful range of sounds, and the church it is in resonates perfectly without carrying the low notes too long.
Ablitzer gives the chorals an intensely intimate reading, almost as if he were playing them on a positive organ instead of a large church organ. This approach is quite fitting, because of the subtle intimacy of these chorals, with their delicate writing and themes. He performs them as lyrical works, not divorcing them from their roots as songs. His choice of registers is always interesting, and his tempi fit the music perfectly.
This is a very satisfying recording of some of Bach’s finest works - the Schübler chorals represent perhaps the apex of this form, and the longer works, the Toccata and Fugue and Preludes and Fugues, show the more demonstrative range of his compositions. Ablitzer shows a deep sensitivity and a true understanding of these different types of works, and the program he has selected is interesting and varied
. - Kirk McElhearn

Le Monde de la Musique n°248 :

Dans ce second volume Bach, Jean-Charles Ablitzer fait judicieusement alterner œuvres de jeunesse et de maturité, formes libres et chorals. Si elle n'en épouse pas au plus près les contours (l'étourdissant stylus fantasticus de la toccata peut suggérer une lecture plus échevelée), son interprétation se distingue par un soin admirable porté à la ligne mélodique, à la limpidité harmonique et à la construction architecturale. Sans effet de manche, sans virtuosité conquérante, sans coups de théâtre, Ablitzer organise, peaufine et colore chacune des pièces, privilégiant une compréhension sûre à une dramatisation aléatoire. Les Chorals de Schübler sont à cet égard admirablement conduits. Le toucher aérien, le legato, l'ornementation discrète, le choix des registrations, colorées mais transparentes, la mise en lumière de la ligne du choral dans l'entrelacs polyphonique participent à une lecture sereine et pourtant imagée de chacun de ces commentaires liturgiques (merveilleux BWV 647).- Philippe Venturini
Technique : Une prise de son exemplaire de naturel restitue comme jamais la beauté de l'instrument (teintes lumineuses et douces) et place l'auditeur dans un environnement acoustique (perspective, image) troublant de vérité.
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