John Harbison's Thoughts on a Bach Chorale Prelude

Renowned Bach scholar (and friend of Winsor Music) John Harbison had a wonderful conversation with our artistic director Peggy Pearson the other day. They were talking about the chorale prelude "Vater unser im Himmelreich," which you'll hear on tomorrow night's concert, so Peggy took good notes! We're very grateful to John for allowing us to publish them here. 


Vater unser im Himmelreich comes from a series of chorale preludes in the third book of the Clavier-Übung. They are based on the Catechism Chorales which were given this name because they were either composed by Luther or collected by him, and were therefore extremely important to Lutherans.  Bach puts them in a sequence and presents each one in a unique way. Vater unser im Himmelreich is in the form of an elaborate trio sonata with diverse thematic ideas imposed upon the canonic treatment of the chorale tune.

Canons require exact continuation and they technically never end; they were believed to be links to the next world. 

Bach’s sons believed him to be old fashioned and theologically much too involved in  the past. Along with Frederick the Great, they did not care for canons--no doubt Bach was trying to annoy them with the Musical Offering.

We know that the Catechism Chorale Preludes were of great importance to Bach because they are among the few pieces he paid to publish. They are long and extremely difficult.  Bach knew that very few organists in the world could play a work like Vater unser im Himmelreich, and he included a short, simpler version of each chorale prelude that would serve as a hook for less accomplished players.