Johann Sebastian Bach - Organ Masterpieces


Johann Sebastian Bach
Organ masterpieces
Toccata and Fugue BWV 564
Preludes and Fugues BWV 546, 544
Passacaglia BWV 582
Pastorale BWV 590

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

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°206
"10" de Répertoire n°97

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

It was only for fifteen years, or the first third of his active professional life, that Johann Sebastian Bach served as a church organist. As such, he was mainly expected to accompany church congregations during hymn singing, and to provide them with musical support before the singing began. This involved outlining the melody, giving the key note, and setting the tempo and the mood, both musical and spiritual. When seated before his organ manuals, Bach the musician, believer, and poet instinctively paraphrased the religiously-charged hymn tunes, providing a sort of theological commentary in music. This was the chorale prelude. Bach inherited the basic musical form from Johann Pachelbel, enlarged on it in the style of Georg Boehm and Diderik Buxtehude, and raised it - as he was to do with so many other musical forms - to a peerless degree of development and perfection. No absolutely accurate count of these works can be made, but there are known to exist at least 200 chorale preludes to the hymns most frequently sung in the Lutheran churches of Thuringia.

The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major BWV 564, composed before Bach reached the apogée of his final works, presents a vivid picture of the composer as performer and improviser. This piece probably began as a two-part processional or recessional for church services, with the adagio section inserted at a later date between the free-form toccata and concluding fugue to make it more suitable for concert performance. There are other examples of this in the Bach canon. Opening on a trill that could be a vestige from the original improvisation, the toccata goes on to a prelude concertant in which a mighty sequence on the pedal board contributes to the piece's showy virtuosity. The central adagio section is an ornate melodic line embellished with Italianate figures modulating tortuously into a mysterious transitional passage whose somber chords suddenly break into a joyous and inventive fugue combining the strict rules of that form with those of the concerto. The piece concludes in a free-style apotheosis of the imagination.

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.

Although Johann Sebastian Bach’s study of French composers may have made his music more elegant than that of his Saxon contemporaries, it did not diminish his determined effort to exploit the great contrapuntal and declamatory German forms inherited from his glorious predecessors. Impelled by his powerful musical imagination, he stretched these forms to the utmost, devising a proliferation of musical motifs with ever denser and more complex phrasing. Prime examples are the fugues written during the Weimar years, especially his great masterpiece, the Passacaglia in C Minor BWV 582. This impressively grandiose piece may even be a tribute to Bach’s master Diderik Buxtehude, whose Passacaglia in D Minor must surely have left its mark on the youthful twenty-years old who once visited his elder in Lübeck for the purpose, in Bach’s own words, "of learning various things relative to his art". In Bach’s Passacaglia, the admirably configured ground bass motif rises and falls in solo exposition. Twenty variations are then spun out over the insistently repeated motif, increasing the tension until, following a momentary lull in the polyphonic web, they conclude with an impressive augmentation of the original theme. After this the motif receives a lengthy fugue treatment although, in contrast to the classic fugue form in which the subject is varied and transformed, here the subject is repeated twelve times in all of its original majesty. We know nothing about the background of this work, the purpose for which it was intended, or even what the subsequently-lost manuscript actually looked like. All we have, is the music itself, with its hint of mystery. This consummate masterpiece raises questions as to how the arcana of its atypical and yet supremely eloquent form should be interpreted. Is there a "key" to decoding it? Is there an underlying symbolic similar to those that were to inspire Bach at the end of his life? The ground bass motif is repeated first 21, and then 12 times. The Bible lists 21 attributes of Wisdom, the number of supreme perfection; and 12 is the universal number. Is this significant? Was Bach attempting to convey a spiritual message? The sum of 21 and 12 is 33, the age of Christ the Redeemer when he suffered, died, and was resurrected. Is this also part of the message? Bach leads us to the threshold of his secret but does not reveal the answer, which his listeners are left to elucidate for themselves.

After exposure to influences from both Germany and France, one further step remained to be taken in Bach's musical apprenticeship, the obligatory rite of passage all artists of his time underwent : the revelation of Italian art. Unfortunately, first as a penniless orphan and then as a family man with heavy financial responsibilities, Bach never managed to make the pilgrimage over the mountains. However, he explored the music of Rome and Venice intellectually, learning about its flamboyant formal inventions through the scores circulating all over Europe by composers such as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, Giovanni Legrenzi and Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni, and - above all - Antonio Vivaldi. During the years 1714 and 1715 Johann Sebastian Bach immersed himself in the study of this style whose radiant formal perfection and exuberant vocalism was totally new to him. Extensive evidence of the Italian influence on Bach survives, first, in the transcriptions he made; and, second, in the original compositions he penned in the new style, including all his subsequent concertos and sonatas.

An example is the Pastorale BWV 590, entitled Pastorella pro organo in contemporary copies, an homage to the Italian style and to popular adoration of the Nativity. The first movement of the four-movement piece exhibits the conventional features of this form, its delicate imagery trilling with a distant echo of shepherds’ pipes. In the second movement Bach gives us a more personal response to the scene, using a solemn Allemande to evoke the procession of worshipers led by the Magi in adoration of the Christ Child. The third movement is a mournful and expressive cantilena foreshadowing the suffering on Calvary that lies ahead for the miraculous child. Finally, the fourth and last movement concludes with an endless, whirling dance of angels above the manger.

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.

Gilles Cantagrel
English adaptation by Louise Guiney and Judy Swierczewski

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).


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 564
in C-dur/in C major/en ut majeur

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

Passacaglia BWV 582
in C-moll/in C minor/en ut mineur

Pastorale BWV 590
in F-dur/in F major/en fa majeur

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


"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°206
"10" de Répertoire n°97 :
Selected by "Le guide des meilleurs disques de l'année" du Monde de la Musique
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