Clavier-Übung III

(‘The German Organ Mass’)

The so-called ‘German Organ Mass’ was published towards the end of September 1739 as the third instalment of the Clavier-Übungen series. It was Bach’s first published work for organ. It was also the longest and most problematic of all the printed works that appeared during his lifetime; in many respects it was a powerful demonstration of Bach’s skill in composition produced against the background of a turbulent period of his life.

Bach gave the following title to the collection:

Third Part
various Preludes 
on the
Catechism and other Hymns
for the Organ
For Music Lovers and especially for Connoisseurs 
of such Work, to refresh their Spirits 
composed by 
Johann Sebastian Bach,
Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon 
Court Composer, Capellmeister, and 
Directore Chori Musici in Leipzig. 
Published by the Author.

The collection consists of multiple settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria (BWV 669-677), pairs of settings for each of six catechism chorales (BWV 678-689) and four duets (BWV 802-805), all of which are enclosed by the prelude and fugue in E-flat major (BWV 552).

The common nickname ‘the German Organ Mass’ did not in fact derive from Bach. Strictly speaking, it is incorrect because the work encompasses more than the Lutheran Missa Brevis of Kyrie and Gloria. Traditionally, the Missa pieces are invariably related to the Trinity, and it is no mere coincidence that the Trinitarian symbolism is found in various aspects of the collection. One of these is the use of the three-flat key of E-flat major used not only in the opening and closing movements but also in the first Kyrie setting; in fact, the whole collection is built on this numerical foundation, which is evident from the number of movements in the Mass chorales (9=3x3) and the entire collection (27=3x3x3), not to mention the presence of the number ‘three’ as the headword in the title of the work.

Also present in the collection is the symbolism for ‘two’, the dualism (e.g. God and Man, light and shadow, and life and death—an important concept in Christian faith) as well as symmetry: each chorale tune is set twice, first in a grander pedaliter setting, and then a shorter manualiter setting. It has been frequently pointed out that these may be connected respectively to Luther’s Greater and Lesser Catechisms, or to the ‘connoisseurs’ and ‘music-lovers’ that are specifically mentioned on the title-page.


We do not know for what occasion Bach composed this collection, or how much of the music was intended for performance within the Lutheran liturgy; nevertheless one may assume that it was an attempt to secure the Royal title from the Dresden court, as his earlier attempt of 1733 (i.e. Kyrie and Gloria, BWV 232, Part 1) had not been successful. It may also be connected with the fact that 1739 was the bicentenary year for both Luther’s historic sermon given at the Thomaskirche (25 May 1739) and the Augsburg Confession (12 August 1739); it is possible therefore that Bach planned this publication to mark these events. This theory is supported by the fact that there is no previous record of Bach writing a piece dealing with the Lutheran catechism.

There is sufficient cause to speculate that Bach started working on this collection not long after the publication of Clavier-Übung II in 1735. While his involvement with the Schemellisches Gesangbuch, published at Easter 1736, may have brought to his mind closely such compositions exclusively dealing with chorale tunes, it is highly conceivable that the Kyrie and Gloria from this collection were part of the programme he performed on the new Silbermann organ at the Frauenkirche in Dresden from 2 to 4 on Saturday, 1 December 1736, an occasion marking his conferment of the title of Royal Court Composer that he had received less than a fortnight ago.

Yet the most striking aspect is that the work reflects Bach’s growing interest in expanding his stylistic horizon in both directions, i.e. old techniques of motet style and ancient church modality and modern stylistic elements. In some pieces, one can identify various influence from the contemporary works of his close friends, namely C. F. Hurlebusch, J. G. Walther and S. L. Weiss. As is common among several other large-scale works composed in his late years, this manifests Bach’s determination to seek endless possibilities in a particular genre of composition, in this case the treatment of organ chorales. For a Royal Court Composer it seems quite appropriate to produce such a highly impressive work; yet at a personal level it is conceivable, too, that Bach also meant it to be his emphatic response to Scheibe’s notorious attack on his compositional style made publicly in 1737, accusing it of being ‘turgid and confused’. Actually this was a common understanding shared by Bach’s close friends, as one can learn from a review of the work by L. C. Mizler published in 1740: ‘The author has here given new proof that in this field of composition he is more practised and more fortunate than many others. No one will surpass him in it, and few will be able to imitate him. This work is a powerful refutation of those who have made bold to criticize the composition of the Honourable Court Composer.’

Process of Development and Revisions

As regards Bach’s manuscripts, there survives no autograph of the work. The Stichvorlage (exemplar for the printers) is reported to have been possessed by C. P. E. Bach, but this was lost as well. All the surviving manuscript copies apparently derived from the printed edition of which only twenty survive today. Except for two cases, all the surviving copies of the original edition contain corrections, which Manfred Tessmer, the editor of the Neue Bach Ausgabe, distinguishes in three stages. Together with the two that do not contain the corrections (as they were proof copies produced at an intermediate stage of engraving), careful analysis reveals an interesting history of the work’s process of development and perfection by the composer.

The most significant finding from the study of the original prints must be the recent discovery of corrections in pagination made on the copper plates. From a careful analysis of these corrections, Gregory Butler successfully reconstructs the prepublication history of Bach’s compositional activity in three layers. It emerged that an earlier version of the collection contained the entire Missa settings and the pedaliter catechism chorales only (Layer 1). The scope of the work was then expanded sometime prior to the beginning of work on the engraving around late 1738 (Layer 2). This included the prelude and fugue that frame the collection and manualiter catechism settings. And finally, in the summer 1739, the four duets were added (Layer 3).

Understanding the process of development—a long, drawn-out affair that stretched for more than four years—in turn provides an answer to certain myths surrounding the work, such as the reason for not mentioning on the title-page those movements that were added subsequently. Knowing the order of compilation also limits the scope for our speculating as to the function or meaning of those pieces in the entire collection.

Individual movements

PRELUDE in E-flat (BWV 552/1)
The collection begins majestically with the prelude featuring three contrasting motives: they presumably represent the three persons of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The stately French overture that opens the movement also appears at various points in the piece as a refrain, thus establishing itself as the binding character of this piece. This is followed by a light homophonic trio section where the use of syncopation and suspension becomes increasingly prominent; the contrasting musical effect is such that we may identify Bach’s intention to portray the destiny of Jesus as the Son of Man, especially where the piece modulates to a darker key. After a short refrain, the piece moves on to a fugal section featuring a florid passage-work.
The ‘German Organ mass’ starts with the Kyrie in strict stile antico. Within the group of three grand pedaliter preludes (BWV 669-671) in 4/2 metre, the cantus firmus is transferred from the soprano to the tenor, and then to the bass as if three persons in the Trinity are introduced individually. In the process, the music gradually gathers intensity; in the third piece, which is marked ‘cum organo pleno’, the texture is increased to five voices, and an early climax is achieved through intensified contrapuntal complexities and the effective use of dissonance towards the end.

The following three pieces in manualiter setting (BWV 672-674) are written in free imitative styles using various ‘progressive’ metres, i.e. 3/4, 6/8 and 9/8; themes and motives are taken from the chorale melody and developed into a unified texture.

The next three are the settings of the German Gloria (BWV 675-677), all lively trios arranged in an ascending order on the scale, F–G–A. The outer movements are manualiter settings. BWV 675 has the cantus firmus in the alto; the outer voices form a two-part Invention featuring many lively figures, rhythmically well contrasted with the plain cantus firmus. BWV 676 is a strict but extensive trio in concerto style, incorporating the chorale melody as cantus firmus and paraphrases derived from it, all treated in ingenious counterpoint. BWV 677 is a double fugue marked ‘Fughetta super’: the sharply-articulated subject is a diminution of the first two phrases of the chorale tune.

The core of the collection are six catechism chorales by Luther, respectively referring to the Ten Commandments (BWV 678-679), the Creed (BWV 680-681), the Lord’s Prayer (BWV 682-683), the Sacrament of Holy Baptism (BWV 684-685), the Office of the Keys and Confession (BWV 686-687), and the Sacrament of the Altar (BWV 688-689). As already mentioned, each pair consists of pedaliter and manualiter settings, but from a different angle of observation a larger symmetrical design emerges whereby these pairs of six are grouped into two. Taking the pedaliter settings, placed right in the centre of each group is the ‘organo pleno’ movement (BWV 680 and 686 respectively), which is framed by the movements containing the canonically-treated cantus firmi. Likewise, the manualiter settings can also be grouped into two, consisting of two fugal and one cantus firmus setting.

The compositional techniques used in the pedaliter settings are of particular interest here, as the character of each group is clearly differentiated by the way the bass part is formulated in the texture, viz. the first employing free but rhythmically regular melodies, and the second featuring the cantus firmus. Evidently Bach was trying to explore as many different styles of composition as possible. In BWV 678, a peaceful, pastoral mood is created by the long pedal on which the two upper parts are worked out canonically; joined subsequently to this texture are two cantus firmi in canon placed in inner voices. BWV 680 is the only pedaliter chorale setting that does not employ through cantus firmus; appearing periodically beneath the fugue instead is a quasi-ostinato motive derived from the chorale melody. BWV 682 is an extraordinary specimen of Bach’s complex chorale setting; recognisably French in style, it is nevertheless a ritornello trio sonata with a variety of distinctive ideas including triplets and Lombardic rhythm, which is further characterised by firm chromatic motion in the pedal. BWV 684 is a lively concertante; three manual parts constitute the ritornello accompanying the cantus firmus in the pedal. The flowing semiquaver motive may be the depiction of the flowing waters of the river Jordan. In contrast, BWV 686 is a powerful, large-scale chorale motet setting in stile antico. It is the only organ piece Bach wrote in six parts with double pedal. BWV 688 is modern again; it is a lively mono-thematic fugal trio on two manuals with cantus firmus in the pedal. The image portrayed by a very fast-moving, disjunct motive may be depicting Jesus’s fight with death.

The manualiter settings are equally rich in both technical and stylistic varieties. With its idiosyncratic repetitive notes of the chorale melody, the fugue subject of BWV 679 makes ‘ten’ appearances to mark the meaning of this Catechism chorale. The cheerful, gigue-like character of the piece may echo the sentiment of rejoicing in the Law (e.g. those pointed out in Psalms 19 and 119). BWV 681 is a sort of fugue using French Overture rhythms; its melodic idea is taken from the chorale tune. BWV 683 is an Orgelbüchlein-type setting, where the chorale melody is heard unbroken and undisturbed on the top of the texture; the tune is accompanied by three lower parts featuring distinctive motives. BWV 685 is a multi-sectioned fughetta; it takes its subject and countersubject from the chorale melody, and exploits inversion and the motives derived from it. Keller suggests that the three rectus / inversus entries represent the threefold immersion in baptism. BWV 687 is a dense motet organ chorale with augmented cantus firmus on the top of the texture; the contrapuntal lines are constantly derived from the subject, and the incessant use of inversion to answer the subject may have some theological significance. According to Robin Leaver, it is a depiction of confession answered by the assurance of forgiveness. BWV 689 is characterised by the clarity of the subject entries as well as the use of stretti at various entry points; the fugue subject clearly derives from the chorale melody, while the countersubject assumes its background role in stirring gentle movements and giving focused directions in the piece.

FOUR DUETS (BWV 802-805)
Four duets are two-part Inventions on a grand scale, featuring free, expressive motives that are not based on a chorale melody. As we have already discussed, they were added to the collection virtually in the ‘last minutes’ of publication presumably to bring the total number of pieces to twenty seven. Whatever the truth may be, it is very unlikely that Bach added them here without due care and profound thought. The fact that their keys are arranged in ascending order on the scale, e–F–G–a, can be hardly considered coincidental, especially since a similar pattern is found in the earlier part of the collection, namely BWV 673-677, e–F–G–A, forming a symmetrical pattern in the collection.

While they are commonly believed to be ‘communion music’, in the past scholars offered various interpretations of their significance in the collection: the four elements, four virtues, four gospels, four great prophets, four beasts around the throne (Revelation 4), and four teachings in the small catechism. Peter Williams speculates further that they were included as contrapuntal models of various kinds gathered within the framework of a pious composer’s faith in the Lord and giver of life. More recently, Albert Clement claims that Bach was inspired by a contemplative text in Heinrich Müller’s Geistliche Erquickstunden (1710); according to him, these duets depict musically ‘four sweet things’, i.e. the word of God, the cross, death and heaven.

Duetto I is a double fugue in 3/8 metre, featuring a rapid scale passage followed by a syncopated angular figure contrasted with a chromatic line. Duetto II is a fugue of ternary design in 2/4 metre; the outer sections feature a firm triadic subject, whereas in the middle section there is introduced a smooth second subject that is treated canonically, exploring chromatic harmonies. Duetto III is a straightforward Invention in 12/8 metre, featuring rolling sequential figures. Duetto IV is an extensive fugue in 2/2 metre, featuring an extraordinarily long subject. Partially due to the sheer length and partly due to the closed tonality of the subject, the piece does not explore much modulations.

FUGUE in E-flat (BWV 552/2)
Being separated from the opening prelude and placed at the end of the collection, this fugue is as equally unusual as the prelude. Nevertheless, both movements have a strong musical connection, by which the entire collection is embraced; they not only share the same key (E-flat) and the sonority of ‘pro organo pleno’ but also the three highly individual characters (i.e. the fugue subjects) employed therein expressing the Trinitarian symbolism, the concept of which is penetrated deep into the entire collection.

Technically speaking, this is a double fugue, and not a triple fugue, for the three subjects do not appear all at once. Each subject has very distinctive character: the second being a gently floating figure in 6/4 time, and the third being lively and jubilant character in 12/8 time; after the respective expositions, they are combined with the opening stile antico subject in double counterpoint.

(c) Yo Tomita, 2000
This essay is originally written for Masaaki Suzuki's recording of this work released in the autumn 2000 from BIS. (BIS-CD-1091/92)