Johann Sebastian Bach - Chorals pour le temps de Noël / Carols for Christmas Time - Mélodies originales des chorals


Johann Sebastian Bach
Carols for Christmas Time BWV 599 - 617 (Orgelbüchlein) 
19 original melodies* of the Little Organ-Book Chorales

Jean-Charles Ablitzer
The Sainte-Croix Church Organ, Aubusson, Creuse, France

Ian Honeyman

"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°318
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°1995
Sélectionné par "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

Bach's chorale works contained in the Orgelbüchlein are today among his most popular compositions. Very different in character, these pieces appeal by their effusiveness, conciseness and concentration, and for the piquant colours with which organists, by their registration, highlight the main line and subtle tracery of the polyphony.

On closer inspection, however, these collections reveal other treasures, together with a spiritual and musical dimension which reaches far beyond the ephemeral charm of the pretty miniature.

Let us first turn to the manuscript of the Orgelbüchlein, preserved, like most of Bach's remaining manuscripts, in the State Library in Berlin (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek). The first page of this precious little oblong book, laid out in the Italian style, contains a large title written in the composer's own hand (in German, with a few words in French and the signature in Latin) :

"Little organ-book in which the student organist is taught to execute a chorale work in all kinds of ways and to progress in the study of the pedal, the pedal being treated as essential in the chorale works that it contains.

For the greatest glory of God the All-Mighty, for the subsequent (generation) so that it may learn from it.

The author, Jean Sebast. Bach, currently Kappelmeister to his Excellency the Prince Regnant of Alhalt-Coethen".

There follows 184 pages of music manuscript with hand-drawn staves. On each stave is the title of a hymn corresponding to a title in a book of Thuringian hymns then in use. Two thirds of the staves, however, remained empty. In all, forty-six pages are annotated with hardly any erasure marks. How did this come about? It is today possible to answer this question with some certainty.

In the ten years that he spent in Weimar (1708-1717), Bach occupied the post of church organist, a post he was not to hold again during the second half of his life. Recent studies and the statements of his youngest son Carl Philipp Emanuel indicate that Bach composed most of his organ works in Weimar. These works were primarily intended for the young and famous virtuoso. On sundays and holidays, in the ducal chapel, his main task, like any organist, was to accompany the hymns of the congregation which were taken from the hymns of the Lutheran church. Accompanying also meant introducing and paraphrasing the hymns or chorale works. This important function gave rise to the "Chorale Preludes" for organ, established by an already long tradition of composers. In Johann Sebastian's day, an outstanding specialist of the genre was none other than his distant and learned cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, his contemporary and, like Bach, recently settled in Weimar, as organist of the Church of St Peter and St Paul. The proximity of the two young men must certainly have generated a rivalry and reflection between them. Gradually, during these happy years, Bach formed and perfected a standard repertoire, and given his encyclopaedic mind, and his penchant for organization he was predestined surely to compose a basic manual for organists covering the repertoire of hymns for all religious services.

Accordingly the opening of the Little Organ Book resembles the large organ books in which the French catholic teachers annotated all pieces which accompanied entire masses; it also resembles the many hymn-books (Gesangbücher) used in the Lutheran Church. For this same reason the hymn titles are given at the top of each page. The musician had only to copy the chorale paraphrases he felt to be among the most accomplished that he had composed and the most suitable to appear in a collection intended for future publication.

Unfortunately the project was not completed. It is generally assumed - although there is no supporting historical evidence - that the composer used the time he spent in jail at the end of his stay in Weimar to do this work. By requesting rather too insistently his leave from the ducal chapel in order to take up his new appointment in Coethen, the musician annoyed His Royal Highness, who had him arrested and held under guard for an undetermined period on November 6th, 1717.

It may be assumed that to occupy this enforced leisure time without losing heart, the composer undertook the systematic copying of the best chorale works - more exactly the "Chorale Preludes" - composed in the final years. Released after four weeks, on December 2nd, as arbitrarily as he had been arrested - he was, moreover, now issued his official leave together with a no less official disgrace - the musician quickly packed his belongings and travelled to Coethen, taking with his scores the unfinished Little Organ Book which his many new activities prevented him from completing.

After physical and graphological examination of the manuscript, it seems more likely that the project, which had matured during the early years in Weimar, was implemented around 1713 or 1714. The collection would have been composed and the early compositions annotated at this time. His time under house arrest in 1717 must have enabled the musician to continue the incomplete copying work and to sign it with his new title of Kappelmeister at Coethen, unless he considered continuing his task on arriving in Coethen but did not have the time.

Bach, however, did return to the organ chorale work, much later in Leipzig, more than twenty years after the period of the Orgelbüchlein, he composed a new Organ Book which was also intended as an exercise book - Clavier Übung - These are the 21 chorale works which together with the grand Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major and 4 Duettos are meant for the Lutheran Mass, a worthy counterpart to the Masses of François Couperin or Nicolas de Grigny. A few years later towards the end of his life, the musician returned to the Chorale Preludes, as he had done in Weimar, to give them a final form. These works are lofty meditations on the threshold of death and are highly complex. In this final collection christened "Leipzig Autograph" we find a developed and expanded refrain of one of the chorales that entitled "Orgelbüchlein", the "KommGott Schöpferheiliger Geist", otherwise the "Veni Creator", of which we have yet another version predating the Orgelbüchlein.

In composing the Orgelbüchlein, the young and widely recognized master organist gave a striking insight into his genius and imagination, but he was also concerned with giving organists, mainly those beginning their careers, a practical collection of works, and, as the title page shows, a method. This work by the young Bach - he had just turned thirty when he prepared to leave Weimar - clearly shows how the musician-poet always doubled as a theorist and teacher. All organists today agree that the Orgelbüchlein is a supreme lesson in how to phrase distinctly the voices assigned to the fingers and feet, and how to registrate. It is a lesson in all the possible forms of ornamentation and counterpoint and in the various ways of augmenting and diminishing a theme.

This is taught through a series of beautiful and repeatedly inventive pieces which contain intense expression in their ornamentations, modulations, melodic lines and rhythms. The question remains, "what is it that they express?" This brings us to the crux, the most precious quality of these chorale works.

The Chorale Preludes have long been considered in France as pieces of "pure music" which developed impressionistic degrees of emotion around such titles as "In a sweet joy" or "When we are in dire distress". This view seriously overlooked their strictly liturgical function and the hymns on which they are based, the hymns or chorale works which Luther made central to his new religion. According to the Reformer, singing exorcised evil and temptation, and bringing men together by uniting them with God; it put peace in their souls and prepared them to listen to the holy word. Accordingly Luther and his colleagues, and later other poets and musicians, provided the young reformed church with a series of edifying hymns, regularly structured chorale works which fill the lungs and instill a sense of balance in all those who sing them aloud and with an open heart.

These chorale works were sung in church, when the congregation assembles, several times during the service and one last time at the end. They were also sung at home with the family every evening; this was ritual of becoming reconciled, of making peace, with God and with others. Where we sing, God is among us. The Lutheran German of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries continually sang these chorale works which became his daily bread. From his early childhood, in the family and at school, he was familiar with the melodies and the words which he would meet in church. Once in church, before the singing began, the organist would give an introduction, sound the A and give out the melody; while he played, the faithful would mentally sing along with the organ, putting the words of the first verse with the tune of the hymn. Hence the developments of counterpoint and harmony in constantly repeated symbolic figures played by the organist offering a musical commentary, and allowing us to experience the holy text which he and the faithful hear together. Through this mental association of ideas and music, the organist fulfils the function of a preacher, and for this reason Bach may be considered one of the great theological commentators of the Lutheran church.

In the home, unlike in church, when a keyboard instrument was available, the chorale works were provided with a simple accompaniment rather than with a paraphrase or commentary as before. Bach himself, like many other musicians in Lutheran Germany, has left us these modest harmonies for domestic use, which may be compared with the solid and structured accompaniment which helped the faithful to sing the verses of hymns in church after the ornamented introductions of the organist.

To fully appreciate these chorale preludes it is essential to be familiar with the chorale works themselves, with their words and music, as were Bach's contemporaries. Accordingly, the present recording offer us first the domestic version of each chorale; supported by a discreet harmony, a single voice is heard singing the text of the first verse, that is the verse upon which the organist comments in his introductory prelude. The versions in this recording are those of Bach, when available, of his contemporaries like Kaufmann or Pachelbel, or of the present performers in accordance with the tradition of church organists. After this simple sung version, the melody of the hymn in the chorale prelude is then played on the organ. To complete the picture, the congregation should then be heard to sing in unison the hymns in their entirety, as is still today the practice in the Lutheran church. There is however clearly little point in going to such extremes for all forty-five chorale works.

One final remark on the production of this recording in the simple, domestic version, as in the rendering by the congregation in church, the chorale work would be sung aloud with well-defined phrases and without subtleties of interpretation. In this recording the performer is left to follow his own inspiration and to convey the wealth of theological and emotional allusions and intentions contained in the chorale works. The sonorous symbolism of the musical commentary of the organ preludes is thus all the more strongly felt.

Gilles Cantagrel

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).

lan Honeyman


The English tenor (also actor and pianist) of international fame, Ian Honeyman, studied at the prestigious school of King's College. Ian Honeyman has been soloist amongst other things with the Opéra of Paris. The extent of his work is broad, and includes opera, oratorio, recital and creation. But he is particularly noticed for his strong scenic presence as an actor, as for his interpretations of the roles of Evangelist in the Passions of Bach and for his courses and recordings with Paul Dombrecht and his Baroque Orchestra Il Fondamento.
With the Opéra Comique of Paris Ian Honeyman was Hippolyte in the work of the same name by Rameau. As an actor-singer he reveals meditative and paroxistic aspects in the role of The Madwoman in Curlew River by Britten. With the search for a greater proximity with his public, he combines his talents of singer and pianist, hoping to thus find a greater freedom in his emotions.





Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 599 "Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 600 "Gottes Sohn ist kommen"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 601 "Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gott's Sohn"


Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 602 "Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 603 "Puer natus in Bethleem"

Mélodie originale 
Choral BWV 604 "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 605 "Der tag, der ist so freudenreich"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 606 "Vom Himmel hoch, da Komm' ich her"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 607 "Von Himmel Kam der Engel Schaar"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 608 "In dulci jubilo"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 609 "Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 610 "Jesu, meine Freude"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 611 "Christum wir sollen loben schon"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 612 "Wir, Christenleut"

Nouvel An

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 613 "Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 614 "Das alte Jahr vergangen ist"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 615 "In dir ist die Freude"


Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 616 "Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin"

Mélodie originale
Choral BWV 617 "Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf"


"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°318
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°1995
Selected by "La Discothèque Idéale" de Flammarion/Compact
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