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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 23.3 x 15.5 x 1.7 cm
TITLE BACH: The Orgelbüchlein by Russell Stinson
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xv + 208p. £10.99. Paper back
ISBN 0-19-386214-X
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, UK.
DESCRIPTION the only substantial monograph on the Orgelbüchlein written in English currently available on the market; first published by Schirmer in 1996.
WORKS COVERED BWV 23, 26, 60, 77, 83, 105-6, 125, 132, 180, 227, 243-5, 248, 540, 547-8, 552, 546, 574, 582, 599-644, 651-68, 678, 680, 683, 688-9, 691, 695, 700-1, 703, 709, 713-4, 724-5, 727, 734, 738, 742, 753, 764, 768-9, 772-801, 825-30, 846-93, 922, 988, 993, 1001-12, 1079-80, 1087, 1090-1120, Anh.200.
READERSHIP musicology students and organists studying this popular work by Bach
revised chronology of individual pieces; detailed discussion of Bach’s compositional process in BWV 608, 612 and 622; reception history

No other work is so popular among organists as Bach’s Orgelbüchlein; for many generations of organists this was the music to grow up with, as they saw in it immense pedagogical values. In a sense, it is comparable with the Well-Tempered Clavier for pianists. For Bach, it was one of the most ambitious projects he set upon himself, and was certainly the earliest one that he attempted to produce a collection of this magnitude. Being the earliest, it in turn played an important role in Bach’s own development as composer; it attests to the development of his personal idiom for expression, which we now know as a new type of organ chorale as the ‘Orgelbüchlein type’. Although only forty-six chorales were entered out of 164 that were initially intended, the present collection sufficiently demonstrates Bach’s masterful skill in composition.

The literature on the work is equally numerous, covering a diverse range of issues surrounding the work’s origin, process of revision, reception as well as those dealing with theological significance. There are also several important developments in recent research, such as those addressing the chronology of individual movements in the collections (by Christoph Wolff) and Bach’s understanding of the basic corpus of hymnody (Robin Leaver).

This is the first substantial monograph in English devoted to the Orgelbüchlein. When compared with the classic three-volume set by Peter Williams (The Organ Music of J. S. Bach, Cambridge, 1980-4) or the Kritischer Bericht of Neue Bach Ausgabe by Heinz-Harald Löhlein, Stinson clearly has the advantage over his predecessors from the recent research. Through a detailed and critical examination of Bach’s autograph manuscript, Stinson not only points out the tenuous ground on which Löhlein proposed his version of the chronology and offered a more plausible alternative, but also demonstrates how Bach wrote the Orgelbüchlein in the order that he set each piece into the autograph manuscript, and how the work was developed stylistically.

Contents in brief
1. The Orgelbüchlein Project.
Historical Position; The Layout of the Autograph; Genesis; Purpose
2. Compositional Process
Background; Precomposition and the Order of Events; Three Case Studies; Compositional Process and the Pursuit of Perfection
3. The Music in its Historical Context
  Significance; Chorale Types and Musical Style
4. The Early Chorales
5. The Middle Chorales
6.  The Late Chorales
7. Reception
The Eighteenth Century; The Nineteenth Century; The Twentieth Century; Degrees of popularity
Apdx.1 "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr jesu Christ", BWV Anh. 73
Apdx. 2 Transcriptions of Orgelbüchlein Chorales
In addition, there are two more areas where Stinson’s contributions can be considered valuable. The one is the issue of compositional process; for those readers who are interested in this subject, Stinson’s analysis of three pieces, i.e. BWV 612, 622 and 608, will be a fascinating reading: by carefully reading Bach’s change of mind attested to the corrections recorded on the page, he unfolds quite successfully a hitherto untold story of Bach’s workmanship. 
Good quality facsimile of these pages is also supplied, which is very helpful. There are certainly lots of technical details to take in, and this may prove to be a tough reading for some readers; it may be helpful to have in front of you the NBA Kritischer Bericht, which gives a table of Bach’s corrections.

For a more general readership, his one-page commentary of individual pieces in Chapters 4-6 is perhaps more immediately useful. Written in a style similar to Peter Williams, his discussion addresses certain stylistic issues as well as the interpretation offered by the previous scholars. The main difference between his and Williams’ is somewhat superficial, i.e. the arrangement: while Williams discusses them in the order of BWV, Stinson does it in a hypothetical order of compilation. By dividing the collection into three chronological groups, i.e. early, middle and late, Stinson attempts to draw our attention to Bach’s stylistic development over the years. While his intention is good, there is an unfortunate drawback: since each piece is discussed individually, there is little narrative drive or connection to the other pieces. Furthermore, some readers may find it difficult to consult each piece at a second reading using either the contents or index provided: it is a mistake, in my view, not to have supplied BWV number in the ‘contents’ page. Moreover, the index gives the pieces in BWV order, but since the works are discussed and referred to so frequently, it can be frustrating to locate the pages where the main discussion of the piece is made. This could have resolved by simply highlighting the page number(s) in bold or italics.

The other contribution by Stinson is the engaged, scholarly discussion on the work’s reception in eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Chapter 7). The reception history is a hot topic in recent Bach Studies, and Stinson’s contribution is particularly welcome here, filling in an important gap left by the scholars in the past.

Published online on 30 September 2000

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