Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703) – an older relative of the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) – was employed as the organist of the municipal church of St George at Eisenach in the Thuringia region of Germany. The town was then the capital of the Dukes of Saxe-Eisenach and Johann Christoph was separately employed as a harpsichordist at the ducal court. NB He is not to be confused with:
– Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93) active in Arnstadt
– Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721) active in Ohrdruf
– Johann Christoph Bach (1673–1727) active in Gehren
– Johann Christoph Bach (1676–1738) a son of our Johann Christoph Bach
History The source of Johann Christoph Bach’s Choräle is a manuscript that is widely referred to as ‘Spitta MS.1491’, the scribe unknown. It comprises seventeenth-/eighteenth-century German keyboard works. The manuscript’s last private owner was the Bach scholar Phillip Spitta (1841–94). It is now in the library of the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK); shelf-mark RH 0093. The title-page of the Choräle translates as: Chorales / Which may be used as preludes during services / Composed & distributed by Johann Christoph Bach / Corporation of Eisenach. These pieces first appeared in print in 1929 as “44 Choräle zum Präambulieren” edited by Martin Fischer for Bärenreiter (Kassel) and that edition, sill in print, remains the only published source.
Chorale-prelude “Ach Gott von Himmel” by Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703). Spitta MS 1491 | UdK Berlin RH 0093.
Johan Christoph Bach (1642–1703) ’44 Choräle zum Präambulieren’ (Kasel: Barenreiter, 2019)
Title page from the Spitta MS 1491 | UdK Berlin RH 0093.
Title from the Spitta MS as given in the Bärenreiter (Kassel) 1949 edition, ed. Martin Fischer. [Catalog BA 285]
Style These chorale preludes are akin to written-down improvisations, using simple contrapuntal forms and close major-minor shifts. They are not arranged in any particular order. Each broadly has the same musical structure in which the first line of the hymn is played as a solo that is then given a straightforward imitative treatment, often in just three voices, interspersed with short melodic sequences, ending with a coda over a sustained pedal note.
St George’s church, Eisenach. 1515-20. Tower 1898–1902. [Image source: Wikimedia]
St George’s church. West-gallery organ by Silbermann 1696–1707. Designed by Johann Christoph Bach who died before its completion. [Image source: Wikimedia]
St George’s church, Eisenach. 1515-20. Interior looking east [Image source: Wikimedia]
Although not concert-programme material these charming, straight-forward little pieces are adaptable to a wide range of registrations and they can make a most respectable contribution to the work of the liturgical organist.
Playlist: click on any title to start the playlist
References and further reading – ‘A Bach Manuscript Recovered: Berlin, Bibliothek der Hochshule der Kunste, Spitta Ms. 1491’ by David Schulenberg. Bach Notes: the newsletter of the American Bach Society. Fall 1998. – ‘Constructing Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)’ by Daniel R. Melamed.Music & Letters, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Aug., 1999), pp. 345-65. – Johann Christoph Bach. Wikipedia. Accessed 6 April 2023.
-‘Johann Christoph Bach’s New Organ for Eisenach’s Georgenkirche’ by Lynn Edwards Butler. Bach, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2004), pp. 42-60.
– Portrait of Johann Christoph Bach. Anonymous c.1700. Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin. Online resource accessed 6 April 2023.
– Spitta MS 1491. Universität der Künste Berlin: shelfmark RH 0093.
The set of ‘eight short preludes and fugues’ discussed here date to the period 1730–50 (Williams) but for stylistic reasons are no longer judged to be the work of J.S. Bach himself (Durr, Lohmann, William). However, they still retain their place in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (BWV), the official J.S. Bach catalogue, as numbers 553–560.
The earliest surviving source of ‘the eight’ is in one of five separately copied manuscripts that have been bound together into a single volume containing 12 keyboard works: ‘the eight’ plus copies of BWV 913.2; 718; 916; 735.1.
It has been suggested that the scribe of ‘the eight’ was Bach’s great-nephew J.C.G. Bach (1747–1814) and that subsequently the whole volume was in the possession of J.S. Bach’s last pupil J.C. Kittel (1732–1809) (Lohmann, Williams). The manuscript volume was latterly owned by Georg Poelchau (1773–1836) who was an avid collector of Bach materials. Since 1841 the manuscript has been in the collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin as ‘D-B Mus.ms. Bach P 281’.
The same paper used for ‘the eight’ is also found in three sections of another Bach manuscript, ‘D-B Mus.ms. Bach P 803’, one of whose scribes has been identified as J.L. Krebs (1713–80) (Williams), a pupil of Bach.
A now-lost manuscript of ‘the eight’ – scribe unknown – was once owned by Bach biographer J.N. Forkel (1749–1818) and then by a promoter of Bach’s work F.C. Griepenkerl (1782–1849). It was used to produce the 1852 C.F. Peters (Leipzig) edition of ‘the eight’ and is likely to have been a copy of Poelchau’s manuscript. (Durr)
Given that nowadays ‘the eight’ is merely “attributed” to Bach commentators have tried to identify alternative composers but with no clear consensus emerging beyond stylistic traits, e.g. Italian concerto (no.1); durezze (no.3); neo-galant (no. 4); toccata (no.5); southern fugal styles (nos. 1, 4, & 5). (Durr, Lohmann, Williams).
My own hypothesis (2022) is that ‘the eight’ is likely to be Bach-student work born out of the partimento method of teaching composition at the keyboard, as used by Bach. Broadly speaking, this method employs an independent given bass line containing sufficient elements for the student to create a complete composition. (Milka). In ‘the eight’ can be found some (not all) motifs that are strongly familiar with some of those in a c.1734 partimento collection “L’A.B.C. Musical” by Gottfried Kirchhoff (1685–1746), a composer-organist known personally to Bach (Milka); see two examples below. My hypothesis implies that there will be other (as-yet unidentified) generative sources for ‘the eight’.
In addition it is worth noting that there is evidence of a clear intention behind the organisation of ‘the eight’, i.e. that it is not an ‘ad hoc’ assembly. This is because the sequence of pieces in ‘the eight’ is in keeping with other early eighteenth-century keyboard collections with content ordered by ascending key progression and the pairing of major and minors keys, although in ‘the eight’ only one key is paired. Perhaps ‘the eight’ is an incomplete Bach-student project?
The attraction of this collection for me is not only that individual movements are useful in liturgical settings but also that the set, when played complete, makes a pleasing and varied baroque-period concert item.
In preparing these recordings of ‘the eight’ I have taken account of Baroque-period theory concerning the emotional character (affekt) of different musical keys, here pursuing a 1713 affekt-theory of the Hamburg composer and influential theorist Johann Mattheson (1681–1764). The instrument I am using is tuned according to the Baroque Werckmeister III system.
BWV 553: Prelude and Fugue in C
Mattheson’s thoughts on C-major: … it has a rather hearty and confident character suited to the expression of joy.
BWVV 554: Prelude & Fugue in Dm
Mattheson’s thoughts on D-minor: … somewhat devout and calm, at the same time affecting, agreeable, and expressive of contentment … for the furthering of devotion in the church … ‘skipping’ music must not be written in it, whereas flowing music will be very successful.
WV 555: Prelude & Fugue in Em
Mattheson’s thoughts on E-minor: … whatever one may do with it, it will remain pensive, profound, sad, and expressive of grief in such a way that some chance of consolation remains.
BWV 556: Prelude & Fugue in F
Mattheson’s thoughts on F-major: … capable of expressing the most beautiful sentiments … generosity, steadfastness, love, or whatever else may be high on the list of virtues. It is natural and unforced when used to express such affects. It compares to a handsome person who looks good whatever he may do and who has, as the French say, ‘bonne grace’.
BWV 557: Prelude & Fugue in G
Mattheson’s thoughts on G-major: … insinuating and persuasive … somewhat brilliant and suited to the expression of serious as well as joyful affects.
BWV 558: Prelude & Fugue in Gm
Mattheson’s thoughts on G-minor: … almost the most beautiful key … rather serious combined with spirited loveliness, uncommon grace and affability … it lends itself well and flexibly both to moderate plaintiveness and tempered joy.
BWV 559: Prelude & Fugue in Am
Mattheson’s thoughts on A-minor: … somewhat plaintive, modest and relaxed … relaxing but not disagreeably so, These are qualities not immediately apparent in the free Stylus phantasticus manner of the prelude nor in the confident duple pulse of the fugue. While this music is neither ‘relaxed’ nor particularly ‘relaxing’ it has a plaintive quality, heightened by the sharp intonation of A minor in the baroque Werckmeister III temperament (tuning) of the instrument used here.
BWV 560: Prelude & Fugue in Bb
Mattheson’s thoughts on Bb-major: … very diverting and showy … it can pass as both magnificent and graceful … it elevates the soul to greater things.
‘Johann Christoph Georg Bach‘. The New Grove Bach Family by Christoph Wolff (London: MacMillan, 1983). “Bach Cantatas Website” (2006). Online resource accessed 22 October 2022.
The following exordia ad missam (tr. preludes to the mass) are short and mostly meditative pieces that I recorded during the UK’s various Covid-related restrictions of 2020–22 for use as part of live-streamed church services. For some of my other lockdown recordings go to: J. S. Bach’s ‘Orgelbüchlein’ : my lockdown recordings.
Andrew Pink performs (2020) ‘Voluntary in B-flat‘ (Six Easy Voluntaries. Second set. 1891). ” … for the most part fresh and genial in character […] somewhat suggestive of Spohr in the numerous chromatic progressions.” (Musical Times. Vol. 32, No. 579 (May 1, 1891), p. 297).
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