Bach’s Missing Pages: an Expanded Orgelbüchlein

Sietze de Vries, organist and presenter
Films by Will Fraser
Review by Dr Peter St John Stokes

I was delighted when Mark Jameson asked me to review this set of one DVD and two CDs. There were four reasons for this pleasurable reaction: firstly it is about the Orgelbüchlein, secondly it is about improvisation and thirdly because it involves fine historic organs and finally, but not least, on account of it being an opportunity to hear and watch Sietze de Vries.

The Orgelbüchlein is incomplete and we know how Bach intended to complete it because he headed the blank pages with the first line of the chorales for which he intended to write preludes. In fact Bach wrote forty-five pieces and the basic: concept of this set is that of playing the forty-five pieces by Bach and improvising to fill the same number of incomplete pages.

My interest in the Orgelbüchlein was really heightened years ago when I was given the facsimile of Bach’s original Büch, which Sietze shows us in the demonstration DVD. This resulted in my learning the preludes which I had not played previously – an absorbing exercise.

The Organ Club has a particular reason to be grateful to Sietze as he generously spent a week of his life taking us on a tour of that wonderland museum of historic organs in the Groningen area of the North East Netherlands. An illustrated account of this tour can be found in The Organ Club Journal 2018/1.

Sietze introduced and demonstrated the organs with a succession of wonderful improvisations which showed both the individual beauties of these organs and their fine plenos. It was during this week that Sietze was announced as the organist for the services at the Martinikerk in Groningen. This prestigious appointment is to the grandest church in the area and to one of the world’s great historic organs. It is this combination of player and instrument which features in this recording and which expresses itself in the regular services. So it is relevant to this set of discs of the Orgelbüchlein, not merely because he uses this organ, along with a smaller one nearby at Leens, but also because of the practical and contemporary liturgical character of the chorale prelude form.

I have always maintained the significance of improvisation for organists. Not only was it the way in which organists had to play most of their music before the ready availability of printed music, but also because it is, at any time, an immediate response to the liturgical moment.

Nowhere is this coupling of music and liturgy so close as it is in the Protestant chorale prelude. Early in the Reformation, Lutheran and, a little bit later Calvinist, churches invented the congregational singing of hymns or chorales as an essential part of worship. (The English equivalent of this hymnody did not take root until the nineteenth century.) To introduce the chorales, which were at first often themselves sung unaccompanied, the organist plays a short piece not only to establish both melody and key but also to suggest the mood of the text.

The desirability of brevity in a liturgical concept is a practical consideration which is a feature of the Orgelbüchlein. This limited timescale produces the intensity of character and emotion over a short span equivalent to the best later romantic miniatures. This intensity and concentration also applies to the harmony, which changes frequently and irregularly. The overall impression of each piece is strongly marked by the figurae, or short motifs, which are tightly wrought into the structure. All these aspects joined together create the Affekt or the ability to express the emotion of each piece.

I have been aware of the remarkable improvisatory skill of the organists, whose regular work it is to produce several preludes within a service in traditional style, since my visit to the Grote Kerk, Haarlem as a student back in the 1960s so | was not surprised that Sietze was capable of improvising brilliantly in appropriate 18th-century styles. However, I am astonished by his capacity to recreate the rare and incredible complexity, coupled with the powerful emotional directness, of the Orgelbüchlein preludes. It would be indeed almost impossible, if you do not know them or have access to the booklet, to distinguish between the pieces by Bach and those by Sietze – an inspiring achievement, which takes us stylistically well beyond the early Bach of the Neumeister Chorales.

I highly recommend this set. In the DVD Sietze provides us with an introduction to the music and to the organs. Not least, this provides a valuable insight for those of us who are really interested, as we should all be, in the individual registers of Schnitger organs. We are also introduced to the Hinsz instrument in the Petruskerk in Leens. Before arranging the tour, I had been only vaguely aware of Hinsz whose organs are of a matching quality with those of Schnitger and it is really good to have this recording of a fine example.

In a way the DVD serves primarily as an introduction to the two CDs which contain recordings of the Bach and improvised preludes, some of which are played on the Groningen organ and some on the Leens organ. The recording quality is exemplary in both cases. Quite correctly there is no obvious attempt to balance out the two organs. In the Groningen recordings we are aware of the slightly less focused tone of this enormous organ filling up the West End of a large church. The concentrated tone of the Leens organ, a village church organ in a village church, adds a welcome freshness. Full registration details are given in the accompanying booklet and it is extremely interesting to understand the enormous variety of registrations both quiet and loud, including a richly and varied approach to the pleno sound on both organs. It is noticeable that most of these louder movements the pungent manual reeds and that the pedal reeds are not necessarily beefed out by the flue stops.

Apart from the phenomenal improvisations, | would recommend these CDs as outstanding examples of how Bach’s Orgelbüchlein preludes should be played. The accompanying small booklet, much of it written by Sietze, is excellent and includes all the registrations. On this scale it would be impossible to introduce the texts of the chorales.

Peter Williams in The Organ Music of J S Bach gives theopening verses and therest of the texts and their translations can be easilyfound online. Discovering these poems will appreciate your enjoyment and the appreciation of how both composer and improvisermatch music to meaning.

It might seem odd to listen to these short pieces one after the other but they are really fascinating in their changes of mood and colour. Like all good music, they take you, your emotions and intellect, on a rewarding and inspiring journey.

The Orgelbüchlein and me
Sietze de Vries’ introduction

My first acquaintance with the Orgelbüchlein took place a long time ago.
I must have been about twelve years old when I purchased the score in consultation with my teacher. I gave the beautiful Barenreiter edition with added chorales a protective-cover and this is still the edition I prefer to play from. The first work that I learnt was O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross; I remember well that I found it quite difficult with the many embellishments and three flats! I also remember what a surprise it was to discover that this beautiful chorale arrangement was based on the Genevan melody of Psalm 68: a hymn I knew well from an early age. The festive start of my conservatory final exam in 1994 was formed by In Dir ist Freude: another piece that regularly returns in my-concert programming. These two chorale preludes also indicate why the use of the Orgelbüchlein can sometimes be problematic. Both works have a length of several minutes, which fits well in a concert programme. But most Orgelbüchlein chorales are extremely compact and only last one or two minutes. When programming several chorales in succession the result can be a fragmented whole, without cohesion. It was not Bach’s intention to write works for concert performance. Bach’s preface shows that there was a didactic purpose behind it:
In which a beginner organist receives instruction in performing a chorale in a multitude of ways. while gaining mastery in the study of the pedal, since in the chorales contained herein the pedal is treated as entirely obbligato.

In honour of our Lord alone That my fellow man his skill may hone.

Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach Capellmeister for his Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen