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On-line Book Review



Dimension: 24.5 x 17.3 x 3.1 cm

TITLE The Organ Music of J. S. Bach. Second Edition by Peter Williams
PUBL. DETAILS Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2003); x+624 pp; £26.00 (US$40.00) paperback [£80.00 / US$110.00 hardback]
ISBN 0-521-89115-9 (paperback) [0-521-81416-2 (hardback)]
TO ORDER Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
DESCRIPTION A revised edition of volumes 1 and 2 published under the same in 1980, widely considered as the most important reference works on Bach's organ music.
WORKS COVERED Very comprehensive coverage of Bach's works from BWV 1 to Anh.II.78.
READERSHIP Scholars working in the fields of reception, style analysis and source studies; an essential resource for organists of any standard
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Brings together a wealth of scholarship on Bach’s organ repertoire into a single volume; a catalyst for future research.

The music of J.S. Bach is at the core of every organist’s repertoire. In recent years scholars have brought to light a wealth of information which has deepened our knowledge of this monumental corpus of music. Their research has shaped and re-shaped our understanding of source studies, reception history, stylistic analysis and performance practice. The complexity of the various aspects under scrutiny often makes such research difficult to digest; indeed, at one time there was an urgent need for an accessible, ‘one-stop’ reference guide which drew these elements together. In 1980, Peter Williams published his solution to this problem. His three-volume monograph, which shares its name with the present edition, divided Bach’s organ repertoire in two: Preludes, Toccatas, Fantasias, Fugues, Sonatas, Concertos and Miscellaneous Pieces in volume 1, and Chorale-based works in volume 2. Volume 3 of the first edition—A Background—provided a commentary on historical performance and placed the music in context.


List of abbreviations

BWV 131a Fugue in G minor

BWV 5250530 Six Sonatas

Preludes and Fugues (Praeludia) BWV 531-552

Eight Short Preludes and Fugues BWV 553-560

Miscellaneous pieces BWV 561-591

Concertos BWV 592-596

BWV 597 and 598

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Schübler Chorales BWV 645-650

Chorales formerly called 'The Eighteen' BWV 651-668

Chorales from Clavierübung III BWV 669-689

Chorales formerly called 'The Kirnberger Collection' BWV 690-713

Miscellaneous chorales BWV 714-765

Chorale variations (partitas) BWV 766-771

BWV 790

Four Duets from Clavierübung III BWV 802-805

BWV 943, BWV 957, BWV 1027a and 1039a, BWV 1029.iii, BWV 1079.ii, BWV 1085

Chorales now called The Neumeister Collection

Further works, in part of uncertain origin




Index of names

Index of BWV works cited

a catalyst for future research

Some thirteen years later Williams published his second edition: a hybrid of the first and second volumes of the first edition in which 722 pages have been condensed into a 624-page single-volume monograph. Williams has made a number of improvements and revisions; the most obvious is the inclusion of the Neumeister chorales discovered in 1985 (BWV 601, 639, 714, 719, 737, 742, 957, 1090—1120). Here, as with his discussions elsewhere in this book, Williams’ delivery is cautious, yet assertive and convincing; he avoids drawing conclusions on behalf of his reader, offering instead thought-provoking insights from original angles.

Eighteen years after the emergence of this collection, Williams is well-placed to provide a synthesis of the discussions which the Neumeister collection has since generated: he achieves this with considerable success, succinctly engaging with issues raised in Michael Heinemann’s ‘Neumeisters Choräle. Zu einer Sammelhandschrift “früher” Bach-Werke’ (2000), Russell Stinson’s ‘Some thoughts on Bach’s Neumeister Chorales’ (1993) and Christoph Wolff’s ‘Aspekte und Probleme des Bachschen Frühwerkes unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Orgelchoräle der Neumeister-Sammlung’ (1992).

The plan of the original edition has been preserved and remains a most successful formula. Each work (organized according to BWV number) is broken down into digestible pieces: (1) there is a concise description of the source situation, pointing readers to more detailed information where necessary (for example, the Kritischer Bericht accompanying NBA series IV and the most recent version of Schmeider’s BWV catalogue); (2) a physical description of the autograph MS or copies through which the work is transmitted; (3) a discussion and translation of the text and melody (in the case of chorale-based works); (4) a stylistic analysis which highlights interesting compositional features within each work and cross-references these features with other areas of Bach’s output as well as works by his contemporaries.  Well-chosen musical examples, clear user-friendly formatting and a thorough index assist the reader in navigating these discussions.

It is unfortunate that the publication of the second edition of The Organ Music of J.S. Bach coincided with the release of the Kritische Berichte accompanying vols. 9 and 11 of series IV of the NBA (Christoph Wolff: Orgelchoräle der Neumeister-Sammlung and Ulrich Bartels & Peter Wollny: Freie Orgelwerke und Choralpartiten aus unterschiedlicher Überlieferung, respectively). However, given that Williams leaves us with many open-ended questions, this monograph remains at the cutting edge of research; in other words, Williams’ observations and hypotheses are standing the test of time with impressive authority. The result is a highly accessible, indispensable reference tool which should not be kept far from the reach of any scholar or player, regardless of their experience or expertise. I hope organists in particular will regard this volume as a catalyst to explore further the writings listed in the extensive bibliography and look afresh at their interpretation of this cherished repertoire.

I am left wondering: what has happened to volume 3 of the original edition? As the author explains in his preface, this volume ‘needs a separate revision, taking in the results of current thinking on historical performance and how it might contribute to an understanding of the music’. Although work on it may have given way to the author’s most recent major scholarly contribution, his 2004 biography The Life of Bach, I hope the project will materialise and I look forward to its eventual publication.

Published online on 31 March 2008