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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 24.1 x 16.4 x 1.9 cm
TITLE J. S. Bach's Great Eighteen Organ Chorales by Russell Stinson.
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xii+171p. Hard back. Price: £30.
ISBN 0-19-511666-6
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.
DESCRIPTION A comprehensive monograph of this unique collection of Bach's organ works, examining its musical style, origin, issues for performance and reception history.
WORKS COVERED BWV 21, 71, 106, 172, 182, 192, 199, 208, 232, 244-5, 525-30, 528, 540, 552, 564, 574, 593-4, 596, 599-650, 651-68, 684, 688, 694, 709-10, 725, 731, 733-5, 742, 767-9, 772-817, 825-31, 846-93, 946, 949-50, 971, 979, 988, 1001-12, 1046-59, 1079, 1080, 1087, 1090-120.
READERSHIP Scholars (both musicology and performance) and students studying this collection of pieces by Bach.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION original discussion of Bach's compositional process; comprehensive coverage of various issues relating to the work's origin and purpose.

The so-called ‘Great Eighteen’ is a collection of organ preludes (or chorale fantasias) Bach compiled in the last decade of his life. At the time he had several large-scale projects he tasked himself, including the Well-Tempered Clavier II, which he possibly worked on alongside it. It is quite probable that he never considered seriously to publish it, even though he had just completed a similar collection, Clavier-Übung III, which was published in 1739. The nickname ‘Great Eighteen’ is a 19th-century invention, and presently it is also known as ‘Eighteen Chorales’ or ‘Leipzig Chorales’; we in fact do not know how Bach himself called this collection. Source evidence suggests that it was nevertheless an important project that reflects the encyclopaedic and systematic nature of Bach’s approach to composition.

This monograph is Stinson’s third, following the one on the Orgel-Büchlein (OUP, 1999); the present volume has certain similarity in approach (e.g. both books close with an excellent chapter on the reception history) but the tone and structure of his discussion have become much smoother and clearer. It is apparent also that this time Stinson seems to have addressed non-specialists as well as scholars, and while giving a plenty of background information, he engages in his argument more powerfully, which makes this book a pleasant reading.

Contents in brief
1. Compositional Models and Musical Style
The Chorale Motet
The Chorale Partita
The Ornamental Chorale
The Cantus Firmus Chorale
The Chorale Trio
2. The Genesis of the Collection
The Autograph Manuscript
Compositional Process
3. Significance
Function and Purpose
The Structure of the Collection
4. The Music and its Performance
[discussion of individual pieces]
5. Reception History
The Eighteenth Century
The Nineteenth Century
The Twentieth Century
 very informative, up-to-date as well as readable monograph
In terms of its resource value, then, this book is still quite remarkable. He certainly did an excellent job on assimilating information comprehensively from other scholars’ research, and constructing well-balanced argument when there are several possible interpretations. His discussion on Bach’s compositional process is original, and is equally an important research contribution. 
At times I also felt that opportunities for a fair argument seem to have been sacrificed a little—where he could have augmented his view more passionately and in greater detail—as there are perhaps other practical issues such as space constraints and the narrative drive for a monograph of this size. His discussion of the work’s genesis is one such example: while I agree with Stinson in saying that ‘whenever he [Bach] changed the length of a work when reworking it he made it longer, and he almost never simplified material during the process’ (p.46), his explanation for a more richly ornamented early version of ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist’ (BWV 652a) that ‘this ornamentation stems not from Bach but, at some point in the manuscript transmission, from a copyist’ could be wrong, for this may not be ‘the only plausible explanation’. While this may be the most plausible explanation (for this particular source situation and the types of variants), it is also possible that these ornaments were added by his pupils during the lesson with Bach, authorising them, or indeed the version stemmed from Bach’s own revision score. Likewise Stinson’s discussion of BWV 653b, five-part version of ‘An Wasserflüssen Babylon’, is also controversial: while his evidence (‘downright crude’ harmonic texture) supports for his argument (that it could be by Walther), there are many other issues (see, for example, Peter Williams, The Organ Music of J. S. Bach, ii (Cambridge, 1980), p.137) and if they are also discussed properly, they could lead to a different conclusion.

Overall, this is a very up-to-date, informative as well as readable monograph on the ‘Great Eighteen’, which answers many essential questions regarding its origin and purpose: musical influence Bach received for this work from his predecessors and their compositional form and styles, the role it played for Bach’s career as organist, relationship with other non-organ music (in particular sacred cantatas from the same period), Bach’s autograph P 271 as a ‘revision score’, no clear structure in the collection, as ‘it was a work in progress, a work that was never properly completed’, etc.

Published on-line on 26 August 2001

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