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Clavier-Übung III, BWV 552, BWV 669-689
General Discussions - Part 1

Clavierübung III, German Organ Mass/Catechism Chorales, BWV 669-689

William Hoffman wrote (July 9, 2017):
Clavierübung III, German Organ Mass/Catechism Chorales, BWV 669-689

German Organ Mass/Catechism Chorales

In 1735 Bach turned to sacred songs with the Schemelli Sacred Song Book and then returned to organ composition with his omnibus Clavierübung III, German Organ Mass and Catechism Chorales, published in 1739 and celebrating the Trinity and the Catechism at the beginning of the omnes tempore second-half of the church year. It was composed in two parts, beginning with the Mass: Kyrie and Gloria chorales, BWV 669-677, and the pedaliter Catechism chorales and at a later stage the manualiter Catechsim chorales, together BWV 678-689, as well as the four manualiter canonic duets, BWV 802-805, and the opening/closing Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, sometimes known as “St. Anne,” described in Richard D. P. Jones’ “The middle Leipzig years: Clavierübung II-III.” 1

The Clavierübung III, German Organ Mass and Catechism Chorales collection fills a significant void in the church year calendar, systematically portraying the essential chorales of basic Lutheran teachings. These hymns are a transition from the chorales of de tempore (Proper Time) time of Jesus Christ to the omnes tempore (Ordinary Time) Christian themes found in the paired sermons and teachings of Trinity Time, now called the Sundays after Pentecost. The order is found in Bach’s Das new Leipziger Gesangbuch (NLGB) of 1682, of Gottfried Vopelius.2 These following the Pentecost feast and the Trinity section with the German settings of the Missae: Kyrie and Gloria, NLGB 139-149. The saints John the Baptist, Michael and the Apostles feast, plus the feast of Visitation with Magnificat settings follow, NLGB 150-169, as well as the liturgical Te Deum litany. The Catechism Hymns section follows with the Commandments, Creed, Baptism, Confession, NLGB Nos. 170-189, and other liturgical settings, of Morning and Evening Songs, Communion Songs, and Justification, NLGB Nos 190-233. The thematic omnes tempore section begins withe the rubric, “Christian Life and Conduct,” and concludes with school student teachings, NLGB 234-432, ending with “Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit” and “Sey gegrüßset Jesu Gutig.”

The German Organ Mass/Catechism Chorales constitute one of a Bachian musical triumvirate of German-language, Luther-initiated transcriptions from the Latin music and texts to the vernacular language of the people. The other two are the Latin-derived German Language settings in Luther’s Magnificat, found in chorale Cantata BWV 10, “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (My soul praises the Lord, Luke 1:46), NLGB 153, and in Bach’s plain chorale settings of Luther’s 1525 Deutsche Messe (German Mass) of the Latin Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, BWV 371; Gloria, BWV 260; Credo, BWV 437; Sanctus, BWV 325; and Agnus Dei, BWV 421). In addition, Bach provided liturgical settings of the Catechism chorales: Commandments, BWV 298; Lord’s Prayer, BWV 437; Baptism, BWV 280; Confession, BWV 38/6; and Communion, BWV 363.

Chorale Preludes: Missa, Catechism

The German Mass/Catechism organ chorales involve nine settings of the Kyrie and Gloria, BWV 669-676, followed by Luther’s Catechism doctrinal teachings on the Ten Commandments, Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Penitence, and Communion. Bach’s 21 alternate chorale settings in old and new styles and forms represent two types of Sunday services, the early Main Services of the Word and Communion, with the Mssae: Kyrie-Gloria, and the afternoon Vespers/Catechism Service, observes Peter Williams in “Chorales from Clavierübung III BWV 669-689.3 The larger pedal preludes probably were intended to be played during appropriate places in the Main Service and Vesper Service of the Word, with the alternate manual preludes played during the Main Service of Communion.

The chorales are (Bach Compendium K 1-21): 1. Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, BWV 669; 2. Christe, Aller Welt Trost, BWV 670; 3. Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist, BWV 671; 4. Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, BWV 672; 5. Christe, aller Welt Trost, BWV 673; 6. Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist, BWV 674; 7. Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr', BWV 675; 8. Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr', BWV 676; 9. Fughetta on Allein Gott, BWV 677; 10. Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot', BWV 678; 11. Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' (Fughetta), BWV 679; 12. Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV 680;13. Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV 681; 14. Vater unser in Himmelreich, BWV 682;15. Vater unser in Himmelreich, BWV 683; 16. Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 684; 17. Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 685; 18. Aus tiefer Noth schrei' ich zu dir, BWV 686; 19. Aus tiefer Noch schrei' ich zu dir, BWV 687; 20. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, BWV 688; 21. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (Fuga), BWV 689. Topics are: The Ten Commandments, Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot; The Creed, Wir glauben all an einen Gott; The Lord’s Prayer (the "Our Father"), Vater unser im Himmelreich; Baptism, Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam; Penitence, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir; and The Eucharist, Jesus Christus, unser Heiland. The four non-chorale-based duets in fugal treatment, BWV 802-805, were added probably in mid-1739 to complete the printed publication at 27 numbers (3x3x3), and to proceed the closing fugue, BWV 552/2.4 The four could be appropriate for any communion service, particularly feast day main services which also could have included Bach’s Misse: Kyrie-Gloria, BWV 233-235, composed at the same time as Clavierübung III in the second half of the 1730s, as well as in any Sunday afternoon vesper/catechism service.

Bach’s motivation for composing Clavierübung III involved four agendas, suggests Peter Williams:5 1. Organ recital plan for a Sunday afternoon; 2. Practical settings of Lutheran liturgy and doctrine for use in actual services; 3. Compilation of French, Italian, and German musical idioms from stile antico to modern styles; and 4. Learned study of counterpoint and invention, found in Bach’s final decade of studies in the Art of the Fugue, the Musical Offering, and Canonic Variations.

Genesis, Method, Influences

“There is sufficient cause to speculate that Bach started working on this collection not long after the publication of Clavier-Übung II in 1735, says Yo Tomita in his 2000 liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki recording ( “While his involvement with the Schemellisches Gesangbuch, published at Easter 1736, may have brought to his mind closely such compositions exclusively dealing with chorale tunes, it is highly conceivable that the Kyrie and Gloria from this collection were part of the programme he performed on the new Silbermann organ at the Frauenkirche in Dresden from 2 to 4 on Saturday, 1 December 1736, an occasion marking his conferment of the title of Royal Court Composer that he had received less than a fortnight ago.”

“Yet the most striking aspect is that the work reflects Bach’s growing interest in expanding his stylistic horizon in both directions, i.e. old techniques of motet style and ancient church modality and modern stylistic elements,” says Tomita, “In some pieces, one can identify various influence from the contemporary works of his close friends, namely C. F. Hurlebusch, J. G. Walther and S. L. Weiss. There are strong similarities between Bach’s music and similar works of Georg Friedrich Kauffmann (1679-1735), Director of Church Music for the Duke of Saxe-Merseburg, says Williams 2003 (388ff). Bach’s Clavierübung III and Kauffman’s unfinished Harmonische Seelenlust (1735) comprise similar chorale settings in older and newer idioms, with and without pedals, using similar rhythms and motives. 6

“The most significant finding from the study of the original prints must be the recent discovery of corrections in pagination made on the copper plates,” says Tomita (Ibid.). “From a careful analysis of these corrections, Gregory Butler7 sreconstructs the prepublication history of Bach’s compositional activity in three layers. It emerged that an earlier version of the collection contained the entire Missa settings and the pedaliter catechism chorales only (Layer 1). The scope of the work was then expanded sometime prior to the beginning of work on the engraving around late 1738 (Layer 2). This included the prelude and fugue that frame the collection and manualiter catechism settings. And finally, in the summer 1739, the four duets were added (Layer 3).”

The German Organ/Catechism Mass was published in Leipzig for the Michaelmas Fall Fair 1739, while the city observed the celebrations observing the Bicentenary of the establishment of the Reformation in Leipzig. Bach may have performed the music as a “dedicatory piece in commemoration” of the observances, during a special service, says Martin Petzoldt in “Bach as Thomascantor.” 8 A special service was held on Wednesday, August 12, for the 200th anniversary of the acceptance of Reformation theology and practice by Leipzig University.9 Previously, on Pentecost Sunday, May 17, a bicentenary commemoration was held for Martin Luther’s sermon preached at the early main service of the Thomas Church, followed by Luther preaching that evening in the Pleissenberg Castle on the plaza. Peter Williams speculates (2003: 388) that Bach may have performed the organ music “on his visit to the new organ at [St. George’s Church in] Altenburg Castle in September 1739.” Details of Bach’s visit and possible performance of the Credo chorale, BWV 580, on September 6, the 15th Sunday after Trinity, are found in the Marshalls’ recent Exploring the Worlds of J. S. Bach.10

Collection Meaning, Purpose

The contents and form of Bach’s Clavierübung III, notably the framing and inclusion of an opening prelude and closing four duets and fugue, have puzzled Bach scholars and organists. A comprehensive exploration and explanation of this collection is found in David Humphreys’ monograph, The Esoteric Structure of Bach’s Clavierübung III.11 As an exemplar of Bach’s well-regulated church music from a Christological and Trinitarian perspective, Bach’s organ settings suggest that the “religious motive for Clavierübung III was inherent in the design of the whole series (of keyboard studies) and was in Bach’s mind from the early 1730s,” says Humphreys (Ibid.: 87). The collection is “the provision of music for a complete Lutheran Sunday,” more liturgically figurative than functional, that provides the music for a Lutheran Mass and Vesper services. In its historical context, the collection is motivated in part by learned humanistic pursuits as well as the so-called Scheide Controversy regarding Bach’s compositional style, says Humphreys.

The symbolic and esoteric ordering of the 27 movements are as follows, “Prelude in E-flat,” BWV 552/1, represents the morning blessing of the Trinitarian Sign of the Cross, the last of Luther’s Catechism instructions; the nine Mass Kyrie-Gloria preludes, BWV 669-677 represent “Musica arithmetic”; the 12 Catechism preludes, BWV 678-689, represent the “Musica oratorical”; the four Duetti, BWV 802-805), represent Luther’s Lesser Catechism four rules for instilling their teachings on commandment, petition, and portion into young people; the closing “Fugue in E-Flat,” BWV 552/2, represents the Catechism evening blessing, also the Sign of the Cross. The chorale prelude manual and pedal versions could symbolically represent both the Lesser and Greater Catechisms as well as Luther’s advocacy in the Deutsche Messe for its use in private devotion as well as public worship.

While the six Catechism chorales are based on Luther’s own vernacular adaptation with versification of the Latin settings, the German Mass Kyrie-Gloria organ chorale settings are based on other sources: The Kyrie is the well-known German trope, “Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit,” an anonymous contrafactum of the Latin trope, Fons bonitatis, first published in 1537 (NLGB: 423ff), and the Gloria versification, “Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr’,” of Nikolaus Decius, 1522. The Small Catechism is the model for Bach’s preludes in the Catechism group, says Humphreys in “The Significance of the Duet" (Chapter 2, Ibid.: 7). The Catechism addresses the Commandments, Creed and Lord’s Prayer, followed by baptism, confession, the sacraments, morning and evening blessing, and grace before and after meals, similar to the pattern in the NLGB hymnbook.


The purpose of the Duetti setting in this collection seems an enigma with little practical explanation (description, see BCW Details & Discography,, and recording, The duo or bicinium was a popular musical form of imitation, canon and (later) fugue in Germany beginning in the reformation, representing the teacher-pupil relationship as a didactic symbol, says Humphreys (Ibid: 8). The Duet settings of the ascending four triadic thirds (e minor, F Major, G Major, and a minor) form the Dorian mode, “most suited to producing the required moral qualities in the young citizen,” observes Humphreys. The four Duetti represent Luther’s Catechism teaching rules: 1. maintaining the form of the essential teaching text, BWV 802 as a straightforward 3/8 two-part invention; 2. maintaining the form of the commentary for better understanding, BWV 803, a 2/4 strict fugue; 3. enhancing the pupil’s understanding of religious texts through the Greater Catechism, BWV 804, a 12/8 siciliano style simple fugue; and 4. applying the teachings through devotional, periodic use of the communion sacrament, BWV 804, a regular, two-part fugue in 4/4 that in its melody, harmony, and rhythm expresses errancy and then conformity.

Prelude and Fugue

“The prelude and fugue, like the Duetti, have long presented a seemingly intractable problem,” says Humphreys in Chapter 3, “The significance of the Prelude and Fugue” (Ibid.: 19). “They two seem to have no place within the general liturgical plan of the collection” of chorale preludes. The key comes from the last portion of Luther’s Catechism, the morning and evening blessing with which the Lutheran day opens and closes. The music is a theological-symbolic explanation in the prayer for the Trinitarian principles of three one. The prelude expresses three Persons, the fugue, one God,” says Humphreys (Ibid.: 25f). “The two opposed types of symbolism they represent — verbal and numerical — are only our first encounter with a dualism that runs right through the esoteric design of the Clavierübung.” The opposition of styles is found in the prelude as style galant and the fugue as stile antico. The Prelude begins in the style of a French Overture, representing the majesty of regal God the Father (, patience!), similar to the manual setting of “Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott,” BWV 681, This first phrase is followed by an exact repetition, followed by the same phrase a fifth higher, representing the Christ as the image of God, incarnate and one run substance. In summary of the first section, says Humphreys, “Christ is the image of God, begotten of the Father; he descends into generation to do battle with the forces of darkness, to become man and to undergo suffering.” The Holy Spirit is portrayed by rushing semiquavers at bar 71 representing the wind, then the tongues of fire and the dove in descending figures, linked through rhythmic figures portraying the Nicene Creed reference to the Holy Spirit that “proceeds from the Father and the Son together.” The closing fugue ( has no graphic musical description, instead using contrasting numerology in a dualism of the morning and evening dualistic doxology of land dark. The prelude and fugue frame the dualism of the orartorica and arithmatica internal, chorale-based groups where there is no verbal symbolism in the Mass preludes and no numerical symbolism in the Catechism vesper preludes and Duetti. “Bach was deeply interested in number symbolism, and in the esoteric structure of the Clavierübung he employed it with a clarity, elegance and precision which makes fanciful speculation superfluous,” says Humphreys (Ibid.: 28f).

Mass: Kyrie, Gloria

The key of E-flat Major, which opens and closes the framing prelude and fugue, is the symbolic tonal center of the greater Kyrie cycle, says Humphreys in Chapter 4, “Musica arithmetic (The Mass Preludes)” (Ibid.: 43). Technically, “the Kyrie cycle is tonally unstable, the polyphony being permeated strongly by the Phrygian modality of the chant but within the esoteric structure, the Kyrie key is E Major, followed by the three Glories in F, G, and A Major. The mathematical basis of the Mass is the numerical world-order of Plato’s Timaeus, the principles of the universe, (Ibid.: 30f). The “Central Design” (Chapter 6) is a geometric microcosm of the Lutheran Sunday: morning, Mass, Vespers, evening. It is graphically (visually) represented as a circle with a hexagram inside, with the circle delineated in a four-fold cross and square, as an object for religious contemplation connecting the opposite poles of the human and universal elements (humana, mundata) of the structure, suggests Humphreys (Ibid.: 36, 74).

Musically, the opening Greater Kyrie cycle, BWV 669-671, has the entire 41-measure Kyrie- trope Fons bonitatis in the German trinitarian contrafactum: “Gott Vater in Ewigkeit” (God Father in eternity, 12 mm), “Aller Welt Trost” (All World Trust, 16 mm), and “Gott, heiliger Geist” (God, Holy Spirit, 13 mm). The three division are one continuous melody, not a repeat of three stanzas with the same melody. The chant appears in the soprano (Kyrie I0, senior (Chroste), and bass (Kyrie II) as a cactus firms in short segments, with accompanying voices of stile antico counterpoint, observes Humhreys (Ibid.: 33). The Lesser Kyrie circle, BWV 672-674) for manual are shorter pieces of free contrapuntal workings of motifs derived from the Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie melodies, observes Humphreys (Ibid.: 35). There large Kyrie set is in alle breve 4/2, while the lesser set is in 3/4, 6/8, 9/8. The two Gloria settings are in triple time 3/4, 9/8. In the “opposed concepts in the esoteric structure,” Humphreys outlines the elements of each as found in the Mass and Vespers. The musica arithmetica involve the concepts in the Mass of universal, number/geometry, and symbol, based on the ancient-pagan Graeco-Roman of Pythagoras, in the music of the fugue, stile antico, Italian-based and choral with the qualities of spirit, odd, active, male, light, fire, and Heaven.

Postscript. In the late 1730s, Bach was caught up in the great debate between the two intellectual communities: traditional, conservative, rhetorical, church and humanistic versus the progressive enlightenment of reason, naturalism, and aesthetics. Bach in part produced the Clavierübung III to demonstrate his mastery of all styles, old and new. His defenders included Lorenz Christoph Mizler, whose learned society he joined in 1747 and composed the “Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her’ for organ, BWV 769 (


1 Jones, Part II, Chapter 2, The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. II: 1717-1750, “Music to Delight the Spirit (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2013: 232f).
2 See Jürgen Grimm’s NLGB compendium and indices, Berliner Studien zur Musikwissenschaft (Berlin: Verlag Merseburger No. 1464, 1969: 416ff [NLGB: 419ff]).
3 Peter Williams, The Organ Music of J. S. Bach, 2nd ed. (Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, 2003: 390).
4 There are three different recordings that offer the setting: Kay Johannsen on Hänssler,; Leo van Doeselaar with Jos van Veldhoven and chorus on Channel Classics,; and Masaaki Suzuki on BIS, Doeselaar omits the eight manual versions and substitutes choruses of Schütz (Kyrie), Schein (Gloria, Credo, Baptist), Praetorius (Commandments), Scheidt (Lord’s Prayer), and Hassler (Confession, Communion). Suzuki with choirs offers only one version of each chorale, interspersed with the plain chorale setting. Recording with vocal chorale settings inserted and scrolling score (BGA) is found at, BGA III (Organ Music, C. F. Becker, 1853. The original publication is found on-line at Bach Digital,, NBA, IV/4 (Manfred Tessmer, 1969: 2, 105ff), Critical report (1974): 35, 46).
5 Williams, “Background and Genesis: Clavierübung III,” Chapter 1, Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001: 25f . Wikipedia offers an extensive commentary with graphics on-line atÜbung_III; Contents: 1. History and origins, 2. Textual and musical plan (including form and key), 3. Numerological significance, 4. Prelude and fugue, BWV 552, 5. Chorale preludes BWV 669–689, 6. Four duets BWV 802–805, 7. Reception and influence, 8. Historic transcriptions, 9. Selected recordings, 10. See also, 11. Notes, 12. References.
6 Cited and examined in Butt, John (2006), “J.S. Bach and G.F. Kaufmann: reflections on Bach's later style,” Bach studies 2, ed. Daniel R. Melamed (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995: 47ff), both the Clavierübung III and the Schübler Chorales. Kauffmannn, see
7 Gregory Butler, Bach's Clavier-Übung III: the making of a print (Raleigh NC: Duke University Press, 1990: 65ff). See also Christoph Wolff (1991), “The Clavier-Übung Series” in Bach, essays on his life and music (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1991: 205-208).
8 Martin Petzoldt, “Bach as Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig , 1723-50” ed. Robin A. Leaver (original address 1997; Bach, Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, Volume XLVI, No. 2, 2015: 7-21, with a Leaver introduction, “The Historical Context of Martin Petzoldt’s Paper in Bach’s Cantorate in Leipzig” (Ibid.: 1-6)
Cited in Robin A. Leaver, Chapter 20, “Life and Works,” The Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach, ed. Leaver (Abingdon GB: Routledge, 2017: 530).
10 Robert L. and Traute M. Marshall (University of Illinois Press, 2016: 99f), published in cooperation of American Bach Society.
11 David Humphreys “The Esoteric Structure of Bach’s Clavierübung III” (Cardiff GB: University College Cardiff Press, 1983).


To Come: Bach’s settings of Luther’s Vesper Service Catechism Chorales, Luther’s Main Service Deutsche Messe and other Liturgical Chorales .


Clavier-Übung III BWV 552, BWV 669-689: Details
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
Bach Great Organ Mass by L.v. Doeslaaar | Bach Great Organ Mass by K. Johannssen | Bach’s Clavier-Ubung III from M. Suzuki (2 Parts)
General Discussions:
Part 1

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Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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