As organist at Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach was
charged with providing a harmonic underpinning for the
singing of Lutheran chorale tunes chosen for each day.
Bach wrote out many of these harmonizations, in part as
instruction for younger composers (they are still used
for this purpose). A derivation of this practice,
Bach's conception of the organ chorale, as manifested
in the chorale preludes, dates from 1713 -1714, about
the time he became familiar with Vivaldi's
Bach's Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) contains
chorale preludes for the church year written during the
composer's service at Weimar (1708 - 1717). In about
1713, Bach began assembling the Orgel-Büchlein, and his
earliest entries seem to be Her Christ, der ein'ge
Gottes-Sohn, BWV 601, In dulci jubilo, BWV 608, Christ
ist erstanden, BWV 627, and Heut' triumphieret Gottes
Sohn, BWV 630. These were very original compositions,
highly expressive miniatures based on a chorale melody,
supported with refined counterpoint, and featuring
highly condensed motivic writing.
Bach's Orgelbüchlein was essentially complete by 1716.
Only the fragment O Traurigkeit and the chorale
prelude, Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen, BWV 613, were
added later. "Complete" is used with some reservation
here, because Bach originally projected 164 pieces but
completed fewer than 50. In Bach's manuscript, pages
with finished pieces alternate with blank ones intended
for other chorale preludes. The later pieces differ
from Bach's earlier chorale elaborations, in that they
contain only one statement of the melody and are
intended to demonstrate how to accompany a chorale with
contrapuntally proper figurations that support the
meaning of the text.
In the early 1740s Bach assembled a number of chorale
preludes, possibly with the intention of publishing
them as a set. These Achtzehn Choräle (Eighteen
Chorales) BWV 651 - 668 were almost certainly written
before 1723 and revised later. The Fantasia super Komm,
heiliger Geist, BWV 651 is an especially impressive,
extended elaboration of the chorale melody, which is in
the pedal. The tune is treated in a less ornate fashion
in the next prelude of the set (BWV 652). The highly
convoluted Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658 also
contains the chorale melody in the pedal.
The six Schübler chorales (BWV 645 - 650) are derived
from Bach's cantatas and contain one of his most
popular chorale preludes, on the melody Wachet auf,
ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645.
The third part of Bach's Clavier-Übung, published in
Leipzig in 1739, contains 21 chorale preludes (not all
appear in every publication), many of which are for
manuals only. Nine of these are meant for use during
the Mass, while the others are for the catechism. Among
the most impressive is Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist, BWV
671, which is in five voices with the chorale melody in
the pedal. More complex is the first of two preludes on
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 686, which is in
six parts, including two pedal parts.
This work is not to be confused with the bevy of Bach
works having the same title, including the chorale
preludes BWV 663, 664, 711, and 715; the Fuga super,
BWV 716; or three Chorale preludes from the German
Organ Mass, BWV 675, 676, and 677. This particular
version, BWV 717, finds the composer once again
providing a brief, prelude-like work meant to serve as
an introduction to the congregation's singing of the
chorale during the church service. "Allein Gott in der
Höh sei Ehr" is a popular chorale, which when sung in
English has the title The Lord, he is my shepherd true.
Bach fashions a soothing, flowing accompaniment in this
chorale prelude that is rich in contrapuntal activity,
while the chorale theme itself has a subdued, muted
quality. Most of the time, the music seems to be
building and pulsating, contracting and reviving, and
moving in several directions at once. In the end, the
mood here mixes serenity with a sense of expectation,
ecstasy with joy. The rather abrupt ending seems almost
abortive to what might have worked into some climactic
moment of epiphany or ecstasy..
Although originally written for Pipe Organ, I created
this Interpretation of the Chorale Prelude (BWV 717)
"Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" (o God alone on high
be glory) for Oboe, Viola & Cello.