In the year 1708—that is, at the age of twenty-three—young Joh ann Sebastian Bach resigned his highly respected post as organist of the St. Blasius Church in the Imperial Free City of Mühlhausen. He announced, among other things, that he int ended to devote himself to creating what he described as “a well-regulated church music.”Citation: 1An English translation of the complete text of Bach’s letter of resignation (actually a request for dismissal) is printed in Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader, 2nd edn. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), p. 60-61. Apparently his first systematic effort at fulfilling this self-proclaimed goal was the composition of what he called an Orgelbüchlein —a little organ book—actually an extensive series of miniature, but highly sophisticated and expressive, organ chorales whose contents were to include chorale preludes for the principal feasts of the church year, a series of chorales on the articles of the catechism, and finally, a collection of miscellaneous hymns for a large variety of occasions and circumstances.

It is now thought that work on the Orgelbüchlein had commenced much earlier than had hitherto been assumed—virtually as soon as Bach had taken up his new duties as court organist at Weimar.Citation: 2Christoph Wolff, “Chronology and Style in the Early Works: A Background for the Orgel-Büchlein,” in Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 299. But even though Bach continued to work on it over the course of the next five or six years, the ambitious project was left unfinished. Of the 164 chorales originally planned only forty-six were ever completed. But it is worth noting that of these forty-six no fewer than twenty-eight—well over half—are Reformation-era chorales, twelve of them by Martin Luther himself. Had the Orgelbüchlein been completed, it would have contained thirty of the thirty-six chorales ascribed to the reformer.

Indeed, it is hardly possible to overstate the importance of the Lutheran congregational chorale in the music of J. S. Bach. Of the 1,120 numbered compositions in the most recent edition of the official catalogue of Bach’s works, Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnism, more than 450 (or more than one in three) are chorale settings, ranging from simple four-part harmonizations to chorale preludes, variations, partitas, and fantasias for the organ to chorale motets and cantatas for voices and instrumental ensemble. Moreover, a disproportionately large number of these compositions are not only based on Lutheran chorales but literally on the chorales of Martin Luther himself and other poets of his generation. The dominant position occupied by the chorales of Martin Luther and his contemporaries—in comparison to those composed later in the sixteenth century, or those from the Baroque and Pietist periods—is dramatically evident in every category of Bach’s oeuvre. Let us return to our review of the composer’s collections of organ chorales.

While the chorale preludes of the Orgelbüchlein were to be miniature in scale—each one only a page or two in length—in Bach’s other collections of organ chorales the individual compositions frequently assumed breathtaking dimensions. The seventeen so-called “great” (i.e., large-scale) organ chorales, BWV 651-667, were also begun in Weimar, very likely at about the same time as the Orgelbüchlein, but they were revised (though again never quite completed) late in Bach’s life. They may well have been deliberately conceived as providing a contrasting counterpart to the miniature format of the Orgelbüchlein chorales, representing, as it were, the epic as opposed to the lyric modes of chorale composition—or perhaps they were regarded as an analog to the smaller and larger catechisms of Martin Luther.

Although the rationale of the design of the collection of seventeen great chorales, taken as a whole, is not altogether clear, it is evident that the chorales of Martin Luther quite literally occupy pride of place. The group is framed by Luther’s Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV 651, at the beginning and by his Komm Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist, BWV 667, at the end. The midpoint is marked by an elaborate setting of yet another of Luther’s invitatory chorales, addressed this time to the second person of the Trinity: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659. The first few measures of the opening composition, Komm, Heiliger Geist, evoke at once the sense of monumentality and grandeur that Bach was striving for in this collection.

Monumentality is also the hallmark of Bach’s mammoth collection of keyboard music, the Klavierübung, the four volumes, or Parts, of which were published over a period of fifteen years during Bach’s Leipzig period. The first installment of the first Part, a book of keyboard partitas (i.e., suites), appeared in 1726; the final volume, the Goldberg Variations, appeared in 1741. Only the third Part of the Klavierübung is devoted to sacred keyboard music. It consists of twenty-one organ chorales: nine chorales constituting the Lutheran Missa brevis (Kyrie and Gloria) and twelve settings of catechism chorales. This time the reference to Luther’s large and small catechisms is overt: there are two settings, one large and one small, for each of the six catechism chorales. It may be more than mere coincidence that Part Three of the Klavierübung, with its collection of liturgical chorales for the organ, was published in 1739, the year of the bicentennial celebration of the adoption of the Augsburg Confession in Leipzig.

Bach’s last great contribution to the literature of the organ chorale, the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (published in 1747 or 1748), has as its substance what the author of the text, Martin Luther, described as a “children’s song for Christmas Eve.” Bach’s treatment of the venerable and beloved children’s song, however, is not child’s play. As its title suggests, the Canonic Variations are a compositional tour de force, a display of the most rigorous techniques of strict canon. It is known that the Canonic Variations were composed and published as part of Bach’s initiation into the honorary Society of Musical Sciences. Nonetheless, the work could have been conceived as a companion work to the other magnum opus of contrapuntal craft with which the composer was occupied at just this time in the final years of his life: Die Kunst der Fuge (the Art of Fugue), BWV 1080. The two publications, taken together, reflect not only the two general spheres, sacred or secular, into which, one or the other, all music necessarily belongs: they also represent the two fundamental principles of musical invention as they were inherited and described by musical theorists and commentators from time immemorial. The Art of Fugue manifests the principle, or the genre, of “free” composition (in other words, the use of freely invented, “original,” thematic material); the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, on the other hand, belongs to the age-old tradition of the “bound” composition: the work is based on a pre-existent or “borrowed” melody.

In turning to Bach’s vocal music, we once again encounter the dominating presence of the great reformer. First of all, two of Martin Luther’s most revered chorale texts serve as a frame, this time for Bach’s life’s work as a church cantata composer. Bach’s earliest chorale-based cantata is the Easter composition Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, presumably composed during Bach’s year at Mühlhausen , 1707-8. At the other end of the composer’s life the cantata on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, was put into its final form (after numerous revisions) sometime between 1744 and 1747 and was very possibly Bach’s last German church cantata altogether.

But the period of Bach’s most concentrated involvement with the chorale in the context of cantata composition falls almost exactly in the middle of his career. The beginning of that involvement, in fact, can be dated precisely to the First Sunday after Trinity, June 11, 1724, when the composer began his second full year as Thomaskantor and Director of Church Music for the city of Leipzig. On that day Bach launched a series of weekly cantatas, all of which were to be based on a congregational chorale appropriate for the particular Sunday or feast of the church year. It is tempting to think that the decision to inaugurate such an ambitious cycle of chorale cantatas specifically during the year 1724-25 was informed by a desire to commemorate the bicentennial of the first Lutheran hymnbook publications: the so-called Achtliederbuch (the very first Lutheran hymnbook), the two Erfurt Enchiridia, and the Geistliche Gesangk Buchleyn, all of which appeared in 1524.

The format of most of the compositions of the chorale cantata cycle of 1724 is essentially the same. Each cantata begins with an elaborate, artful setting of the first stanza of the chorale and ends even more predictably (and far more modestly) with a simple harmonization of the chorale melody, sung to the words of the final stanza (perhaps with the participation of the congregation). As a rule, the interior movements are settings of paraphrases of the texts of the internal stanzas of the chorale, transmuted into the idioms of the modern recitative and aria, unabashedly borrowed from the world of contemporary opera.

Over the course of the next nine months, Bach composed or performed at least forty-four such chorale or chorale-paraphrase cantatas, concluding the series on Easter Sunday, 1725, with a performance of a revised version of his early masterpiece Christ lag in Todesbanden. Virtually all of the cantatas, however, were newly composed—and composed at the astonishing rate of at least one per week. Not surprisingly, in this repertoire, too, the hymns of the first generation of reformers occupy the same preeminent position as they do in Bach’s organ works. Over a third of the cantatas of the 1724-25 cycle are set to texts of Luther and his contemporaries.

And, once again, Martin Luther’s own hymns stand out not only numerically but also by virtue of their placement in the cantata cycle. Almost all the auspicious and high feasts of Bach’s chorale cantata cycle were celebrated with compositions based on the hymns of Martin Luther: for the First Sunday of Advent, the official beginning of the church year, Bach composed a new cantata on Luther’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, traditionally the principal hymn for th at day. (Bach had already composed a cantata on Nun komm, BWV 61, ten years earlier during his Weimar period.) Luther’s chorales were also chosen for the first two days of Christmas.

Bach also turned to Luther for the cantata intended for performance on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. In 1724, that Sunday fell on October 29, thus making it the last Sunday before Reformation Day. The chorale Bach chose to set on this occasion was Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir. That hymn had long been associated with the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, perhaps because the reassuring response to this ernest plea for comfort—Luther’s poetic rendering of Psalm 130—was about to be offered a few days hence, namely, on Reformation Day. For Reformation Day itself Bach evidently performed a setting of Ein feste Burg, but in an early version that no longer survives. Before the chorale cantata cycle was completed, Bach would compose three further Luther chorale cantatas and would add yet another to the repertoire in later years.