Academic Advisor: John Scott Whiteley
The manuscript known as the ‘Orgelbüchlein’ is held in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin. It contains 46 short ‘chorale preludes’ for organ by J S Bach, now known by the catalogue numbers BWV599-644. None lasts more than five minutes, and most are just over a minute in length. Among them are some gems – for instance ‘O Mensch bewein’, a Passiontide chorale, is Bach at his most profound and eloquent. Tarkovsky memorably used ‘Ich ruf zu dir’ in his film ‘Solaris’.
Intending Orgelbüchlein to be compendium of chorales for the whole church year, Bach began composing in around 1713 (possibly earlier), and wrote out the title of each of the 164 Chorales he wished to include. Only 46 were completed by him (with a sketch for one other) so there are 118 ‘ghost’ chorales awaiting completion. It is not known why he left the manuscript incomplete.
The task for composers contributing to the Orgelbüchlein Project is this: if Bach were alive today, how might he go about writing a short chorale prelude in the Orgelbüchlein style? The terse techniques laid out by Bach are reinvented for the modern age; the melody may be apparent, at the top, in the middle, or at the bottom of the texture; it may be ornamented; it may be put into canon with itself. More modernistic techniques which have evolved since Bach’s time are not excluded, as long as the new compositions, in their technical density and concentration of Affekt, reflect Bach’s originals. All of the new pieces will be of the same miniature scale as the originals, and most will present a ‘once-through’ of the melody rather than fantasia-like repetitions, investigations and elaborations. Multum in parvo is the ethos.
Style is entirely open. Many of the ‘schools’ of contemporary composition will be represented; minimalism, ‘spirituality’, new complexity, modernism, serialism, jazz, post-colonialisms, together with a range of styles from periods since Bach’s death. The new pieces, each in their own fashion, recast the Affekts and techniques seen in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein preludes for a new age. The eventual range of styles in the Gesamtorgelbüchlein will encompass the whole gamut available to today’s composers; such eclecticism is perhaps the only possible way for the Twenty-First Century to respond to Bach. The eventual goal is publication and recording of the ‘complete’ Orgelbüchlein, a modern act of homage to Bach, containing 118 new pieces from beginner’s level to recital standard. Edition Peters will be taking the ‘Gesamtorgelbüchlein’ for publication, circa 2017.