Johann Sebastian Bach - 6 Trios Sonatas BWV 525-530

Johann Sebastian Bach
6 Trios Sonatas BWV 525-530

Kei Koïto
Schnitger Historical Organ (1690)
Martinikerk Groningen, Netherlands 

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°143
"Diapason d’Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°375
"10" de Répertoire n°36
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2174

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To those who lived immediately after Johann Sebastian Bach, he was known primarily as an organ virtuoso. Like Haendel, who was considered a peerless master of the harpsichord, and Telemann, leading-light of the young German composers destined to put their latin counterparts in the shade, Bach was held in very high esteem indeed : "...the German Orpheus! (...) Where is his equal at the organ to be found? To whom can he be compared? With his left hand, for example, he can span a twelve-tone interval, using the middle fingers to add ornamentation. His pedal footwork is impeccable, combining registers so subtly that listeners are literally swept away by what they hear..." (1)

We know that Johann Sebastian Bach's instrumental concertos and sacred music sank into oblivion after 1750 - but even during his own lifetime, these works were considered loud and heavily rhetorical. They were appreciated primarily for their complicated contrapuntal inversions and other tricks. But the organ works long remained in the repertoires of his many pupils, and of their pupils after them. In late-18th century Saxe-Thuringia, virtually every organist claimed to have been a pupil of a pupil of the great Bach, and belonging to the tradition handed down from the old Master was a sign of competence. "The best organists and harpsichordists in all Germany were trained in his methods, and if Saxony is still the leader in the field today, it is due to this great man" (1).

This is why many manuscript copies of Bach's organ works survived into the early 19th century, providing a continuous line with the advent of the first printed editions shortly after 1800. Paradoxically, however, of all Bach's works, it is the compositions for organ that are the least consistent with autograph manuscripts. The reason for this is undoubtedly that when Bach's estate was divided in 1750, the organ manuscripts probably went to his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. an organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle from 1746 to 1764, and the heir who would have had an immediate use for them.

For youngest son Carl Philipp Emanuel, a Court retainer in Berlin, owning the organ works would have been a burden more than anything else. For the two other sons, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, who had gone off in entirely different directions, it would have made no sense at all. However, Wilhelm Friedemann was not exactly reverent in his manner of dealing with his heritage. Falling on hard times in his later years, he sold off the autograph manuscripts he owned, impelling his brother Philipp Emanuel, whose veneration for his father had never flagged, to write in anguish : "What a torment to see our late father's work dispersed; but I am too old and too preoccupied with my own affairs to save it."

In today's musical world, the place occupied by Johann Sebastian Bach's organ works is a somewhat marginal one. Apart from the few rare pieces in D and C Minor that have been played into the ground and, like so many warhorses, are familiar primarily as arrangements, most of them are little heard because of their religious cast and vocation. In an era when concert halls are warm and comfortable, it seems almost anachronistic to sit on a hard bench in an icy church listening to music whose intense spirituality has been lost to us today.

Furthermore, in many localities there are no adequate instruments for playing baroque music. As an instrument closely associated with religious services, the organ has been the victim of constant change and modification over the centuries, transformed and adapted to shifts in contemporary taste. This king of instruments has also served as a "one-man band" : biting and precise during the Renaissance, richly colored and nuanced during the baroque period, overwhelming and somewhat hazy when romanticism held sway.

Our knowledge of Johann Sebastian Bach's education and itinerant life is extremely slim. Even his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, when interviewed by his father's biographer Forkel (1749-1818), was able to answer only vaguely, or with a laconic "nescio" (I don't know).
We do have reason to assume that Bach was destined by family tradition for a career in music, and that he received his early keyboard training in Ohrdruf from his brother Johann Christoph, a pupil of Johann Pachelbel.

Was young student and choirboy Johann Sebastian a pupil at Lüneburg in 1700 (2) of Georg Böhm, then serving as organist at the Michaelis-Kirche in that city? Or was he taught at a later date by Johann Adam Reinken? How was he able, after first being engaged as violinist in the Court orchestra of the Weimar Ernestine Residence, to take the post of organist at the Divi-Blasii-Kirche in Mühlhausen (Thuringia), which he was to occupy from 1703 to 1708? What kind of contact might he have had with Buxtehude, organist at Lübeck's Marienkirche, during his lengthy stay there in the winter of 1705-1706? Where and how did he swiftly become a sought-after expert in the manufacture and repair of organs? Where did he learn the intricate vocal and instrumental techniques he used in his 1707 Cantata (BWV 131) and the even greater Cantata (BWV 71) composed for the City Council election?... These questions remain unanswered to this day. AlI we can say is "nescimus" (we don't know).

We do know that Johann Sebastian Bach maintained a special feeling for the organ throughout his life. His earliest surviving compositions are, first, the Chorale "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" BWV 739, composed in 1705 or thereabouts, and, second, the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, (BWV 535a), contained in the so-called "Möller Manuscript" (Möller'sche Handschrift, c.1706) named after its contemporary owner.

Bach's final composition for the organ came four decades later : an autograph score of the intricate Partita on the Chorale "Von Himmel hoch, da Komm' ich her, per Canones, a 2 Clav : et Pedal" which was presented by Bach in June 1747 as a demonstration piece for admission to the Mizler Society for the Musical Sciences.

Between these two landmarks came the prolific 1707-1717 period spent as "Court organist" at Weimar ("it is here that he composed most of his organ pieces"), and the Leipzig period beginning in 1723. Requests by his pupils (including his growing son Wilhelm Friedemann) and the demands of his own recitals in Dresden may have incited Bach to compose an increased number of organ pieces during these years.

During the Cöthen period (1717-1723), however, chances are the organ was silent. Bach was likely at that time to have been occupied exclusively in composing profane music for festivals, concertos for the Court Chapel virtuosos, and the great chamber music cycles. He did find time for organ recitals, however. In the fall of 1720 he performed at Saint Catherine's in Hamburg, "Variations on the chorale "An Wässerflüssen Babylon", which at the request of those present our Bach played impromptu, with extreme dexterity, for almost an entire half-hour and in a number of different styles (...) Johann Adam Reinken, the elderly organist of the church, and then almost 100 years old, was transfixed as he listened, complimenting the performer afterwards with the words, "I thought this art was dead, but I see it still lives in you" (...) Reinken followed his compliment with an invitation to his home, treating Bach with the greatest courtesy imaginable" (3).

The Weimar years were difficult in more ways than one. Life at Court was constantly threatened by the intense rivalry between the two reigning princes and its impact on Chapel politics. That the musicians were implicated in the violent quarrels between the two regents, Prince Wilhelm Ernst and his nephew Ernst August is a matter of record.

Forkel's famed biography "The Life, Art, and Work of Johann Sebastian Bach" (Leipzig, 1802), supported the conclusion that the organ transcriptions were studies written by the mature Bach in order to expound the Italian concerto style. The motive lying behind their composition now appears more obvious, however, and related primarily to the political tensions between the two Weimar regents. The Court Chapel was subject to the authority of one of the combatants - provably Wilhelm Ernst, who was struggling to assume complete control of the situation and as a last resort attempted to prevent Bach's resignation and to break his resolve by having him thrown into prison. Meanwhile, Court organist Bach - who could play the entire orchestral repertoire on organ or harpsichord in a kind of "one-man-show", seems to have come up with a means of assuaging (through this didactic piece) a patron of whom it has been written : "The pleasure His Gracious Highness felt on hearing (Bach) play inflamed his desire to master for himself the intricate art of the organ" (3).

Other upheavals Bach had to grapple with were primarily spiritual in nature - but European economic events also played their role. The Court musicians in Paris were at the time preparing for the imminent death of King Louis XIV. Music publishers were thus underemployed, receiving only the odd theatrical pieces but nothing major. They thus began to look for other markets, and quickly found one in the Venetian composers around Albinoni and Vivaldi, and in the post-Corelli masters in Rome and Bologna, who were happy to exchange the illegible work of Italian printers for the fine engraving of the Dutch. This cross-fertilization opened up extensive new horizons, especially in Germany. There, the seed of the Venetian concerto fell upon fertile ground, since the once-flourishing German violin virtuoso school was moribund. Johann Paul von Westhoff, the last representative of the German school, died in 1705 in Weimar, and the highly coloured and sonorous "Consort" music also died at about 1700. At both Court and Universities, a vacuum existed that the public was eager to have filled.

The posthumous tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach edited by Philipp Emanuel Bach and J.F. Agricola, and published in 1754 in Mizler's "Musical Library" series, provides biographical information and a list of works "accessible to all through copperplate engraving". Next, under the heading, "Unpublished works by the late Bach", we find a list of vocal pieces and freestyle organ works, plus (at number 6) : "Six Trios for pedalboard organ".

These works are known familiarly as "Sonatas for organ", following the designation given them by Forkel in "The Life, Art, and Work of Johann Sebastian Bach", and even earlier, if we look at the title of each individual piece in the original manuscript and oldest copies. Although we may think it strange for Bach to have by-passed formaI designations that were strictly observed by others, writing "sonatas" in three movements, it must be said that Telemann and other contemporaries did even worse : Suites were called "concertos" and real three-movement concertos were plausibly called "sonata".

The "organ" trios raise another question : did Bach really "write" them, or did he just "cobble them together", re-working and adapting existing pieces? Is this really music written expressly for the organ?

After the Master's death in 1750, but before his estate was divided, his youngest son Johann Christian was given a "Keyboard and pedal board" - i.e. pedal harpsichord - a practical instrument for organists, who could use it to practice at home. This was useful, since before the invention of the electric bellows, organists had to have an assistant to blow wind into the pipes while they played.

Another twist to the problem arises because, despite the recorded statement that "Bach wrote these Sonatas for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, to prepare him for his subsequent career as a great organist; they cannot be praised too highly, were written when the composer was at the height of his mature powers, and must be considered his masterpiece in the genre"; the fact is, the paternal manuscript (in which there is a total absence of register notation) went to Carl Philipp Emanuel (and not to his brother the organist) when the estate was divided. Fortunately so, of course, since otherwise it would have been lost. However, despite an assumption that has now been with us for over two centuries, the question of the instrument for which these pieces were really written - organ or harpsichord? - will never be definitively answered.

The one thing we can say for certain, is that virtually none of the movements gives evidence of having been originally written for a keyboard instrument. In addition, the fact that the first and last movements of the E flat major sonata can be found, from another hand than Bach's, in a contemporary C major "Concerto" version for violin, cello, and continuo, is revealing : in Bach's day, there existed a long tradition of transcribing instrumental music for the keyboard, but never the reverse. This is because it is impossible to adapt keyboard sequences to instruments with limited tessitura. Based on this fact, we must disagree with Schubart's 1784 assertion that "Bach's pieces are not transcriptions of pieces for other instruments, but genuine keyboard compositions". Recent research tends to prove that only the Sixth Sonata may have been composed specifically as a keyboard piece.

In the early 1730's Bach had not yet demonstrated a clear penchant for music theory and stylistic analysis, and this makes it interesting to speculate as to the practical considerations that may have impelled him to work as he did on this cycle. It was not until the end of the same decade, the conflict Scheibe-Birnbaum tells us, that Bach's "midlife crisis" set him in pursuit of concrete forms - a pursuit that was eventually to lead him away from the haphazard conventions of the time, and towards the triumphant consummation of his later works.

By devising tight polyphonic links between the two top voices, Bach side-stepped the virtuoso toccata and the purely sonic opulence then featured by works written specifically for organ or harpsichord. We can reasonably assume that the "Six Trios" constitute a piece composed by the Master for use in teaching organ pupils how to control their hands and feet, hands working separately, feet together. The work both in intention and form follows in the line of the "Two and Three-Part Inventions" and "The Well-Tempered Clavichord". A comprehensive examination of the annotation shows that in putting together this cycle, Bach wanted to draw up a compendium of all the rhythms, meters, and tempos in use during his time.

Reinhard Goebel
translated from the French adaptation

(1) Christian Daniel Friedrich Schubart : "Ästhetik der Tonkunst", 1784.
(2) Bach, as a destitute orphan, was admitted to the Saint- Michaelis choir school because of his fine soprano voice (Translator's note).
(3) Nekrolog, 1754.

Kei Koïto


Born of a family of artists, Kei Koïto began her musical studies at the age of six - successively piano, theory, voice, harpsichord and cello. She discovered the organ at the age of twelve, and this became her preferred instrument. After studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts where she obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (organ, musical aesthetics, philosophy and psychology), she entered the class of Pierre Segond at the Geneva Conservatory. There, she was awarded the First Prize "with distinction" in organ and improvisation, the Otto Barblan Prize for her interpretations of J.S. Bach, and the Special Grand Prize of the Year, all awarded unanimously. She then did advanced study in Fribourg with Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, in Toulouse with Xavier Darasse, and in Cologne with Reinhard Goebel. She also studied orchestration, analysis and composition with Eric Gaudibert.

While specializing primarily in the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, she also plays a great deal of the repertoire "around Bach": his precursors, contemporaries and successors. Her approach to this repertoire is coupled with thorough musicological research that seeks to bring together music and the most authentic historical instruments possible.

Regularly invited by the most prestigious festivals, she has performed on every continent. She plays the concerto repertoire with symphony and chamber orchestras and, with Baroque ensembles, the repertoire of that era. An interpreter of Liszt, Schumann and Brahms, she also devotes part of her career to contemporary music and has thus premiered numerous important works by renowned, as well as by young composers from all countries and cultures. As a composer, her imagination is often inspired by the soul of dead poets : Rimbaud, René Char, Hölderlin or Simone Weil. She has written several works for various formations and solo instruments.

In 1992, she was appointed professor of the advanced organ classes (Virtuosity and Concert diploma) at the Lausanne Conservatory. She gives master classes and lectures in Europe, the USA and Asia, and has sat on juries of the great international organ competitions. She is the founder and artistic director of the Lausanne Bach Festival and the International Bach Competition.

The historical Schnitger Organ, Martinikerk Groningen, Netherlands


If we go back to the distant origins of the instrument, we find records of the existence of a great organ as early as 1450, rebuilt and enlarged around 1482 with humanist Rudolphus Agricola serving as advisor.

Major changes were made in the 16th and 17th centuries. Because of the serious damages sustained by the organ during the siege of the city in 1672, the Town Council contracted in 1685 with the organ-builder Jan Helman for repairing and enlarging the instrument. Helman died in 1690, before the work could be completed. The town councilmen decided in the following year to call in Arp Schnitger, who managed to complete the work to universal satisfaction in less than a year. Enthusiasm for what he had done ran so high, the Council immediately (in the same week) awarded him a new contract, this time for additional stops, including a 32' prestant. His son, Franz Caspar, was asked to enlarge the organ further, an effort lasting from 1728 to 1730 and completed by his assistant Albertus Anthoni Hinsz. This excellent organ-builder, to whom we owe several outstanding examples in Holland, made additional changes in 1740.

The most radical alterations were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, changing the very nature of the instrument : a "romantic" sonority, pneumatic-traction pedal board and electric console were just a few among the added features. This will give some idea of the state the organ was in when Jürgen Ahrend, assisted by expert C.H. Edskes, was entrusted with the 1976 restoration. The work was completed in 1984. The entire keyboard and register mechanism was replaced. The stops were restored to their 1740 condition, with just a few later additions retained.

Today, this instrument is a peerless example of its kind, a masterpiece of the Northern Baroque organ building.

(source : Stichting Schip Martinikerk, Groningen)


Sonata I BWV 525
Es-dur / E-flat major / Mi bémol majeur

(sans indication de mouvement)

Sonata II BWV 526
C-moll / C minor / Do mineur


Sonata III BWV 527
D-moll / D minor / Ré mineur

Adagio e dolce

Sonata IV BWV 528
E-moll / E minor / Mi mineur

Adagio - Vivace
Un poc' allegro

Sonata V BWV 529
C-dur / C major / Do majeur


Sonata VI BWV 530
G-dur / G major / Sol majeur



"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°143
"Diapason d’Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°375
"10" de Répertoire n°36
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2174
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