It was only for fifteen years, or the first third of
his active professional life, that Johann Sebastian
Bach served as a church organist. As such, he was
mainly expected to accompany church congregations
during hymn singing, and to provide them with musical
support before the singing began. This involved
outlining the melody, giving the key note, and setting
the tempo and the mood, both musical and spiritual.
When seated before his organ manuals, Bach the
musician, believer, and poet instinctively paraphrased
the religiously-charged hymn tunes, providing a sort of
theological commentary in music. This was the chorale
prelude. Bach inherited the basic musical form from
Johann Pachelbel, enlarged on it in the style of Georg
Boehm and Diderik Buxtehude, and raised it - as he was
to do with so many other musical forms - to a peerless
degree of development and perfection. No absolutely
accurate count of these works can be made, but there
are known to exist at least 200 chorale preludes to the
hymns most frequently sung in the Lutheran churches of
The Chorale "Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott" ("Lord
God Have Mercy On Me") BWV 721 occupies a unique place
in the canon of Bach organ chorales. The stately melody
rises from a heavy, mournful bass line in a somewhat
archaic style reminiscent of Johann Kuhnau. Bach was
acquainted with the affable, highly cultivated Kuhnau,
a lawyer as well as an organist and composer, and
eventually succeeded him at Leipzig's St. Thomas
church. The piece can thus be considered as both a
musical tribute to Kuhnau’s art, and a prayer for the
repose of his soul.
This chorale is one of Bach's most strikingly simple
arrangements: Within this simplicity, however, is
profundity. The setting has the affekt of a mysterious,
somber procession, evoking the plea for mercy of the
text (in English):
Have mercy, Lord, my sin forgive;
For Thy long-suffering is great!
O cleanse and make me fit to live,
My sore offence do thou abate
With shame do I my fault confess,
'Gainst Thee alone, Lord, have I sinned.
Thou art the source of righteousness,
And I the sinner just condemned.
Although originally created for organ, I created this
arrangement for Viola and Concert (Pedal) Harp.