Day 37: Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 636

Today’s prelude, “Vater unser im Himmelreich,” BWV 636, is the second of our mini-section of catechism chorales. Martin Luther’s text paraphrases and amplifies the Lord’s Prayer, probably the single best-known passage from the Bible.

This was probably the very first Orgelbüchlein chorale I mastered. I remember working on it when I was in grade school, probably in 7th grade. I learned it well enough to play it as a prelude to Mass once, on the large organ at St. Paul Church in Harvard Square. The organ console, which controlled divisions both in the front and back of the church, was massive, and the instrument could really roar when called for – but for this prelude I used only a pair of quiet 8′ and 4′ flute stops, with a light pedal registration to balance. I’ve always thought of the piece with that sound in mind.

Above all, BWV 636 needs transparency. It’s a classic case study in how the Orgelbüchlein preludes were constructed out of basic four-part harmony. Here’s the melody Bach started with:

We can reverse-engineer a little bit of Bach’s compositional process. Like any decent organist of the 18th century, Bach could immediately produce an accompaniment, note against note, in four voices:

Not actually a harmonization by Bach.

To go a bit beyond the run of the mill, one could then dress things up with passing-tones, suspensions, and other goodies:

Not actually a Bach harmonization either.

But the Orgelbüchlein accompaniments are even more elaborate. Bach typically used sixteenth notes in the accompaniment against quarter notes in the melody – a ratio of 4-against-1. With his ability to juggle musical motives, he could weave a consistent motive through the harmony from the previous two examples. And Bach was able to do this all in his head while improvising!

Actually by Bach!

Harmonizing four-part chorales was fundamental to Bach’s teaching, and ever since his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel published Bach’s chorale harmonizations between 1784–1787, they have been the basis of music theory instruction. When I was studying for the British A-level exam, my teacher would plunk a melody down in front of us and give us half an hour to harmonize it. Then he’d hand out Bach’s version, which was inevitably rich, inventive, and entirely free of the miserable parallel fifths and octaves we’d produced. There’s no better training, either for theory, for composition, or for practical church music. A few days ago, for instance, a friend posted this on Facebook:

The dog ate my harmony.

Just like Bach, he had to improvise an accompaniment in four parts!

With enough skill and practice, it’s even possible to improvise preludes in the manner of the Orgelbüchlein. You’d start with a melody, harmonize it, and then embellish each part in turn with ornamental figures. Here’s Balint Karosi improvising in Baroque style on a very familiar tune:

Here’s Thomas Radnai playing “Vater unser” on the organ of St. James Church in Pécs, Hungary. The registration isn’t quite the same as what I’d use, but if you want to hear my take on this piece, you’ll have to come to St. John the Divine on March 21!

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