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Title page of Schübler’s edition of six of Bach’s organ chorales based on cantata movements, known nowadays as the “Schübler Chorales.” The two last lines are instructions on where to purchase more of these: in Leipzig from Bach himself, from his sons in Berlin and Halle, and from the publisher [Schübler] in Zella.

There is no cantata for this Sunday, as no figural music was allowed in Leipzig in the 40 days before Easter, with the exception of the feast of the Annunciation (March 25).

For me this means I now finally have time to share some of what I learned during the Bach Festival in Bruges. On Friday January 26 I attended an all-day lecture by Professor Ignace Bossuyt about how Bach “reworked” his own music and the music of others in his compositions. The biggest eye-opener for me was that all Bach’s “Schübler Chorales” for organ (named after their publisher, Johann Georg Schübler) from 1747/1748 are actually arrangements of movements from Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of cantatas I have been discussing on this blog since June 2017.

While I am not an organist at all, I did grow up in the land of organs and miss hearing them. My mother comes from a family of organists on her mother’s side. When other little boys dreamed of cars, my father dreamed of being an organist and built organ keyboards from blocks at home and would pretend to play them (sadly because of class perception his parents didn’t deem it appropriate to send him for lessons). Thus my parents were extremely picky where we went to church – there had to be a good organist. So I heard my share of Bach chorale preludes and Schübler Chorales, even before I knew what they were.

Because of the funeral service for my mother in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague I already referred to last week, I also have a soft spot for Bach’s “Schübler Chorale” BWV 645, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, because the incomparable Jan Hage (now organist at the Dom Church in Utrecht) played this at the end of the service, as we were walking out behind the coffin. This music, together with smiles of dear friends we passed by, gave me great comfort at a moment that could otherwise have been unbearable. Listen to this chorale, played by Jan Hage on that same organ of the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, here on YouTube. Another wonderful, and historically significant, performance of this chorale by Ton Koopman, on the Silbermann organ* (1714) in the Freiberg Cathedral, Germany, can be found here on YouTube. Bach and Silbermann knew each other, and Bach might have played on this organ too.

What I didn’t know until Professor Bossuyt’s lecture is that this piece of music was taken from the fourth movement of Cantata 140 with the same title. This cantata is officially not part of the 1724/1725 cycle, but in Bach’s head in 1747 it probably was. Bach wrote Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme in 1731, most likely in an attempt to leave a complete chorale cantata cycle for posterity. During the chorale cantata cycle of 1724/1725, there had been no 26th or 27th Sunday after Trinity (by that time it was already Advent and it is of course no coincidence that Bach uses an Advent chorale in this cantata). Watch the tenor solo from this Cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by all the tenors and baritones of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir (on a live recording conducted by Ton Koopman) here on YouTube.

I have two more beautiful examples of how Bach arranged an existing chorale cantata movements into his “Schübler Chorales”:

Bach turned the fourth movement of Cantata 93 Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten into the Schübler Chorale with the same title, BWV 647. Watch the duet from Cantata 93 by the J.S. Bach Foundation with soprano Miriam Feuersinger and alto Jan Börner here on Youtube. Watch the Schübler chorale played by Michael Schultheis on the organ of the Basilica in Seligenstadt, Germany, here on YouTube.

The last example is from a cantata that is nowadays not considered a true chorale cantata, but if Bach used it for the Schübler chorales, we can assume that he himself did regard it as such. It is Cantata 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden for Easter Monday in 1725. Hear Dorothee Mields sing the third movement from Cantata 6 live here on YouTube. Then listen here on YouTube to Dutch organist Wim van Beek play the Schübler Chorale with the same title, BWV 549, on the historic Schnitger-Hinsz organ (1740) in the Martini church in Groningen, The Netherlands.

Wieneke Gorter, February 17, 2018, links updated December 2, 2019

*learn more about the Silbermann organ here.