johann sebastian bach chorals schübler bwv 645 - 650


Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorals Schübler BWV 645, 646, 647, 648, 649, 650

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


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 StimmeBWV 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 waltenBWV 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 HerrenBWV 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 ChristBWV 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 herunterBWV 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


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


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

Choral BWV 646 
"Wo soll ich fliehen hin"

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

Choral BWV 648 
"Meine Seele erhebt den Herren"

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

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


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... 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 (Schübler) 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...
 - Kirk McElhearn
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