The manuscript known as the ‘Orgelbüchlein’ contains 46 short ‘chorale preludes’ for organ by the young J S Bach.
None lasts more than five minutes, and most are one or two minutes in length. Among them are some well-known gems. For instance, ‘O Mensch bewein’, a Passiontide chorale – Bach at his most profound and eloquent. Tarkovsky memorably used ‘Ich ruf zu dir’ in his film ‘Solaris’. Many others are standard repertoire for the student organist, or are heard frequently in a liturgical context. One might call them an exercise in multum in parvo – big pieces in a small skin.
Intending his Orgelbüchlein to be a compendium of chorales for the whole church year, Bach began composing in earnest around 1713, 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 commission brief for composers contributing to the Orgelbüchlein Project ran as follows: if Bach were alive today, how might he go about writing a short organ chorale prelude?
The terse techniques laid out by Bach are reimagined 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. In addition, modernistic techniques which have evolved since Bach’s time are included. The given style of each new composition was not prescribed – composers had completely free rein here. Many of the schools of contemporary composition are represented; minimalism, ‘spirituality’, modernism, serialism, jazz and various pop and dance styles, together with a range of styles from periods since Bach’s death. The whole gamut of style available to today’s composers is seen in this new collection, such eclecticism being, perhaps, the only authentic way for the twenty-first century to respond to Bach.
The Orgelbüchlein Project is to be published in six volumes, including the Bach pieces, edited in a new way. In addition, ‘Orgelbüchlein Extended’ will offer longer compositions springing from the project, and some based on alternative melodies. These pieces will be offered for online purchase. The Orgelbüchlein Community offers a public notice-board for sharing submitted compositions – anyone, anywhere in the world, can submit a composition based on one of the missing chorales.