In Thee is Gladness!

This morning’s preludes come from Bach’s famous Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), one of the most important examples of organ chorale treatments in the whole of the literature.  Written at the end of Bach’s time in Weimar, where he worked from 1708-1717, the collection may have been planned at least in part as an instruction book for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.  Here is a translation of the Orgelbüchlein’s title page:

A LITTLE BOOK FOR THE ORGAN wherein the beginning organist may learn to perform chorales of every sort and also acquire facility in the use of the pedal which, in the chorales found herein, is handled entirely obbligato. To the most high God alone be praise, for what herein is written for man’s instruction. Composed by Johann Sebast. Bach, pro tempore Capellmeister to His Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen.

Bach’s grand design had been to include 164 settings of 161 chorale melodies on 92 sheets of paper.  The task was not completed, however, because Bach accepted (against the will of the Duke of Weimar) the court musician’s office for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen.  Since Bach’s duties in Cöthen did not call for this type of music, he never finished the book (organists certainly wish he had!).  The order of these splendid miniatures was that found in the hymnbook of the Grand Duchy of Weimar authorized for use in 1713.  The contents fall into two parts: chorales arranged according to the Christian year, and chorales of faith and different aspects of the Christian life.  The 46 pieces Bach finished are perfect examples of the Orgelchoral, settings of one stanza of a chorale, without interludes, incorporating rich harmonizations and colorful decorations.  The pieces are absolute gems, Bach’s genius apparent in each and every one.  Bach repeatedly used certain motives which could be associated with different words.  Words such as joy, weeping, arising, and sorrow stimulated Bach’s imagination and contain particular musical symbols (see music notes from January 22nd, which describe the use of musical affects in more detail).

One of the most exuberant pieces in the Orgelbüchlein is the prelude on In dir ist Freude (In Thee is Gladness), based on a lively dancelike melody by Giovanni Gastoldi.  The prelude’s joy is expressed by means of rhythmic figures and exuberant scale passages, coming together with irresistible force.   The pedal part is dominated–to the point of being a repeated ostinato–by a figure one measure in length, but full of wonderful energy.

At 11:00 worship, our Chancel Choir sings this lively chorale as the offertory anthem.  Gastoldi’s melody comes from a collection of 1591, and the text, punctuated by snappy Alleluias, was written by Johann Lindemann (1549-1631), here in a translation by the prolific Catherine Winkworth.  The overall effect is one of sheer unadulterated joy.

Our middle hymn is a powerhouse built around a text by Fred Pratt Green and set to the ancient chorale melody Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, which may have been composed by Martin Luther and which appeared in an early hymnal, Joseph Klug’s Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, 1543).  The chorale derives its title–which translates to Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word–from the hymn text it was originally paired with and which association it retains, particularly in Lutheran usage.  The harmonization in our hymnal is that of none other than J. S. Bach, who based his Cantata 126 on the tune.  If you have time, I urge you to listen to at least the opening portion of the wonderful recording of this cantata embedded in these notes.  It gives a glimpse into Bach’s creative genius, one example of the many ways Bach routinely built a cantata around a single melody (which operates as a muse of sorts).  This morning we hear three different organ settings of Erhalt uns, Herr by Lutheran composers including J. G. Walther (Bach’s cousin), and the 20th-century composers Jan Bender and David N. Johnson.  This mighty tune has rightfully retained its place in the top tier of chorale melodies, and if it is new to you this morning, we hope you find yourself delighted with a "new" treasure.  The text we sing today was written by Fred Pratt Green in 1969, during deliberations concerning the supplement to the Methodist Hymnbook of Great Britain known as Hymns and Songs. The group felt that a hymn addressing mental healing needed to be included; after wrestling with the theme during a sleepless night, Green produced the first draft of his hymn, titled "A Prayer for Wholeness," the next day.