Bach’s Missing Pages: An Expanded Orgelbüchlein

Sietze de Vries, organist and presenter.
Fugue State Films, DVD + 2 compact discs, FSFDVD016,
Available in the UK from Fugue State Films,, and in the Netherlands from Sietze de Vries’s recording label,

Sietze de Vries (b. 1973) is a Dutch organist from Groningen. His father was organist of the Reformed Church in Niezijl, a suburb of Groningen, where his grandfather was sexton. Following high school at the H. N. Werkman College in Groningen, in 1988 de Vries started organ lessons at the Prins Claus Conservatorium in Groningen. These lessons took place on the 1692 Arp Schnitger organ of the Martinikerk in Groningen. As a student at the Conservatory de Vries’s teachers included Johan Beeftink, Jan Jongepier, and Wim van Beek, and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1994. He studied organ under Jos van der Kooy at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and obtained his master’s degree in 1996, following which he studied improvisation for a further two years, again under Jos van der Kooy. Sietze de Vries won prizes at no fewer than fifteen national and international organ competitions, including first prize at the Haarlem International Organ Improvisation.

Competition in 2002. In addition to teaching improvisation at the Prins Claus Conservatorium in Groningen, de Vries has concertized in Europe, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Russia, and Australia.

As many will be aware, when Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Orgelbüchlein he intended it to be a comprehensive collection of choral preludes for the entire church year. However, he only included forty-six chorale preludes in his original manuscript, and in a further 118 cases he merely listed the name of a chorale without writing a chorale prelude for it.

Recently there has been considerable interest at an international level in getting present day composers to write chorale preludes for the 118 missing chorales, which led to the creation of the Orgelbüchlein Project. This project aimed at putting multiple international scholars to work on writing the missing chorale preludes, with the aim of producing a six-volume set of chorale preludes under the general editorship of William Whitehead. Apart from this project, in other cases individual scholars have attempted to compose some or all the missing 118 choral preludes entirely on their own, which certainly has the advantage of uniformity of style, and Sietze de Vries’s improvised recordings here represent an outstanding project of this kind.

The DVD has seven parts in which de Vries improvises forty-five of the missing chorale preludes. It is hardly feasible to comment on each one individually, so to summarize, Part 1 has Bach’s Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes for Advent and Christmas. Part 2 completes Christmas and also includes the New Year and Epiphany. Part 3 deals with Lent and Passiontide. Part 4 takes us into the Easter Season and beyond to Ascensiontide, including improvisations of five missing chorale preludes. Part 5, for the season of Pentecost, has two Bach chorale preludes from the Orgelbüchlein, followed by another three missing chorale preludes for the season of Pentecost, together with chorales for The Lord’s Prayer, Catechism, The Creed, Baptism, and Confession, and a further twelve improvisations of missing chorale preludes on these topics. Part 6 covers Holy Communion and various miscellaneous topics, featuring six Bach chorale preludes and improvisations of another twelve missing ones. Finally, part 7 has three Bach chorale preludes plus improvisations of sixteen missing chorale preludes.

The Bach chorale preludes and de Vries’s improvisations are duplicated on the two compact discs. Additional material includes demonstrations of the two organs that are used, together with samples and explanations of the registrations, and discussion of Bach’s compositional techniques. The two organs used in the recordings are at the Petruskerk in

Leens, Groningen, a two-manual, forty-one-rank Hinsz organ most recently restored by Reil in 2021, and at the Martinikerk in Groningen, a three-manual, eighty-one-rank organ, much of which was built by Arp Schnitger in 1691 and 1692 and which has most recently been restored by Jürgen Ahrend between 1976 and 1984.

There is much to be said for de Vries’s idea of improvising the missing chorale preludes rather than issuing them in a collection of published works. His approach results in a freshness that can be contrasted with compositions that are, as it were, set in stone. Johann Sebastian Bach, who often disparaged those who neglected improvisation in favor of playing from written scores, would doubtless have approved. Sietze de Vries has steeped himself in the characteristics of Bach’s style over the years, and this is most evident in the success of these improvisations in mimicking the work of the master.

John L. Speller, who has degrees from Bristol and Oxford universities in England, is a retired organbuilder residing in Parkville, Maryland.

The Diapason July 2023