Bach to the future1:48, 8th November 2017
A milestone in organist William Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein Project has been reached with the publication by Edition Peters of the first volume of new compositions enrobing Bach’s incomplete collection of chorale preludes. Graeme Kay reports
‘It all started at Oundle Summer School about ten years ago,’ explains William Whitehead, ‘onlie begetter’ – at least initially – of the extraordinary project to fill in, with new compositions, the 118 blank pages J.S. Bach left in his Orgelbüchlein after setting just 46 of the listed chorales. ‘A young organist turned up and played his own piece at a platform concert, a chorale prelude based on Of the Father’s heart begotten – it was a beautiful little Bach pastiche piece in Orgelbüchlein style. I thought, well if a teenager can do it, why can’t we all pull together and complete it – that’s how the idea was born. And apart from those who’ve tried to complete Bach’s own one-and-a-half-bar fragment, I’m astonished no one thought of it before.’
With some experience of commissioning new music already under his belt, Whitehead set about the necessary and familiar task of calling in favours and arm-twisting to raise money and get the project off the ground. Paul McCreesh, Dame Gillian Weir and the Revd Donald Reeves MBE came on board as patrons, James O’Donnell as editorial consultant, and indefatigable Bach researcher John Scott Whiteley took on the role of academic adviser – a task not without its own challenges, as Whiteley explains in a prefatory article to the new Peters publication, about the difficulty of tracking down the original melodies of the Orgelbüchlein: ‘No single over-arching melodic source for the OB has been found, either in the form of a postulated, but now-lost Thuringian hymnal of c.1675, or an old family manuscript Choralbuch…’
With Whitehead acting as curator, editor, and artistic director of the project, a clear brief was drawn up for participating composers: from the outset, his advice was to produce a very short setting of the given chorale melody, reflecting the ethos of the Orgelbüchlein for the modern age. ‘Density of technique and Affekt are key,’ he says, staying in the present tense, as a handful of pieces are still required to finish the project. ‘The tune needs to be structural, ideally, and not “fantasia on…”. Composers should feel free to manipulate the tune as Bach might have done…
‘Initially it was hard persuading composers to sign up and write something when it was a slightly bonkers idea – so I’m very grateful to some, like Giles Swayne, who agreed to pitch in at an early stage: he came up with a brilliant little piece, and with that leading contribution, it started to take off.’
Study of the project’s website, www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk, and the list of international composers who have followed Giles Swayne down the primrose path, demonstrates not only the success of the idea but serves as a reminder that the scheme would scarcely have been possible in the pre-internet age. For the provenance of the site, which is promoted in partnership with the European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom, Whitehead credits Oundle Festival director Kenneth Richardson. Functioning as a portal for the Orgelbüchlein Community, it offers a forum through which amateur composers can upload their own contributions for editorial scrutiny and wider, free distribution; it has also presented the Royal College of Organists with a platform on which to offer a composition competition for its students. ‘I was keen that there should be a “permeable membrane” between the professional and amateur sides,’ notes Whitehead, ‘simply because of course you can commission established composers and that’s wonderful, but I love the idea of background figures who might come up with something brilliant: we’ve had a few of those, and some will, I think, be scooped up into the collection.’ The community is nothing if not diverse: a computer programmer has written ‘a brilliant little piece which we are going to adopt’; a German contributor with cerebral palsy has made a number of submissions, and a medical doctor in Russia is aiming to complete all of the missing chorale preludes by himself.
Whitehead always intended that the fruits of the project should be published: Edition Peters, a company with strong ties to Bach, took it on, and volume 4 is the first to see the light of day. ‘We’ve started with volume 4 – out of a projected six – because Bach completed more chorales than not in the first portion of the Orgelbüchlein, and later on it gets rather sparse, so to have the excitement of the new compositions we had to start somewhere else.’ And the Bach originals which appear in the collection will have a similarly fresh look: ‘We decided to do what I hope is an interesting thing: there are five manuscripts which come from the Bach circle in Weimar, so they include Krebs and Walther – Krebs being a pupil and Walther being a relative and colleague in the town: these five are the closest sources to the Bach manuscript itself, but they do have some interesting differences. It’s not impossible that there are revised versions that come directly from Bach: maybe in a lesson with Johann Krebs you could imagine Bach leaning over and saying “it would be better to have a flat there” – that’s a fantasy but it’s entirely possible. Most of the Bach pieces are in these manuscripts so we’ve taken them as single sources and said, actually these are interesting reflections on the Orgelbüchlein just as the new pieces are: Old Bach Circle, Contemporary Bach Circle, if you like.’
And how have the composers responded to the challenge? ‘In many cases, they’ve structured their settings according to one of the three main compositional types of the Orgelbüchlein: the melody chorale, the canon and the ornamental chorale. In a few cases, they’ve adopted the more fantasia-like approach of In dir ist Freude, and one or two settings imitate Christ ist erstanden, with multiple verse structures. In other cases they’ve used explicitly modernistic techniques, extending beyond those employed by Bach, so his own quest for technical adventure in the Orgelbüchlein does receive a contemporary parallel in many of the new pieces. And the local colour from composers in countries as widely separated as Spain and Latvia, Italy and Norway, adds its own special dimension.’
Although the project is nearly complete in terms of the works commissioned, Whitehead has started something which is now carried along by its own momentum: the remaining volumes have to be edited and published, and there is considerable worldwide interest in performing the pieces separately, and together: ‘The Thüringer Bachwochen want to do the whole lot – that’s seven to eight hours of music, quite a mad thing to take on but I think it will capture people’s imaginations; there’s interest from Orgelpark Amsterdam, but still no British festival… But it’s an idea that is spinning: just as Bach composed a nugget of an idea in the Orgelbüchlein, then developed it in the Eighteen… who knows where it may lead?’
Graeme Kay is a former editor of Classical Music, Opera Now and BBC Music magazines. He is a multiplatform producer for BBC Radio 3 and 4.