Bach and Friends: The Orgelbüchlein Completed

A weekend of concerts spotlighted the 118 new chorales commissioned by William Whitehead to fill Bach’s incomplete ‘Little Organ Book’. One event dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II was especially poignant.

The Orgelbuchlein Completed project staged a weekend of concerts in late September juxtaposing Bach’s Orgelbuchlein with 118 newly commissioned pieces inspired by the music originated by JS Bach.

The ‘Little Organ Book’ is a plan of a complete hymnal of short organ chorale preludes sketched out by JS Bach. There are 164 in all but Bach only completed 46. 118 titled blank pages made the hymnal until this year.

Organist William Whitehead founded the Orgelbüchlein Project, inviting contemporary composers to write a piece to complete the collection.

There are six volumes completing the collection. Whitehead’s work took 16 years.

Incomplete pages of a manuscript are a tantalising proposition. The kind of stuff that triggers the imagination and raises all sorts of questions. How to respond? In-kind, as a musical homage, in imitation, or by deploying an entirely different musical language? What is the core material in JS Bach’s music that links a present-day chorale with the original 46?

The ‘Requiem in Homage to HM Queen Elizabeth II’ – the penultimate concert in the series on Sunday 25 September – gave a hint for those without a score in front of them of the curated approach taken, juxtaposing Bach chorales with contrasting musical languages to create a unified whole that triggered reflection, contemplation, and consolation.

Peppered throughout the carefully selected pieces were excerpts from the Requiem mass as written by Jan Dismas Zelenka. Transitioning from the liturgical to purely instrumental imbued the Orgelbüchlein music both original and present-day with a sense of an emotional excursion, providing the listener with an opportunity for personal reflection at every stage within the mass.

Each section in the mass was punctuated with a distinctive musical sound accordingly, most notably Alexander Campkin whose Jesu der du meine Seele had a hint of menace with its devilish repeating ostinato underpinned with a rumbling pedal note. Pierre Farago’s Ach, was soll ich Sunder machen was stark and angular in comparison, utilising high frequencies to create sharp ‘edges’ that seemed to pulsate when clashing intervals were slowly introduced into the mix. Later, there was a cleansing effect in James Francis Brown’s more tonal setting of Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott that concluded with a sense of hope, and a folk song simplicity (and what felt like a gentle rock feel) to Sei gregrusset, Jesu gutig.

It was the visceral nature of the sounds created – originated, imitated, and ‘new’ – that had the most impact on me listening in the third row of St George’s, Hanover Square. The four-voice chorus from St George’s Choir played a key role: precision ensemble work, chilling articulation, and wondrous vocal textures combined to create magical moments every time the group sang.

In contrast, by focussing on the textures created by the church organ, there was an unexpected connection established as though the sound created was physically supporting the listener in some way. When chords finished and silence momentarily prevailed there was a feeling as though we had been cast off on our own, left to fend for ourselves.

In this way, the mix of 300-year-old music with present-day compositions that followed a deliberate harmonic arc, combined with the everyday sounds of a tube train rumbling far beneath the church and emergency vehicle sirens occasionally screaming past, made this a far more meditative listening experience than I had been anticipating.

I found myself reflecting on a great many loved ones – family and friends – who had passed away over the past 18 months, supported musically by what felt like a constant implied pulse or pace that led us all inexorably towards consolation. If combining multiple works in this way was the intent, then it was masterfully done and brilliantly executed.

Discover more about the Orgelbüchlein Project.

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