The young J.S. Bach was employed as court organist in Weimar when he composed the tender and intimate chorale prelude, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV 641 (“When we are in utmost need”). The brief liturgical interlude is part of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) BWV 599−644, a compilation of 46 chorale preludes, written between 1712 and 1717. Albert Schweitzer commented that the soprano line, heard below as a pastorale reed voice, flows “like a divine song of consolation, and in a wonderful final cadence seems to silence and compose the other parts.”
This performance, recorded at the Freiberg Cathedral by the Netherlands Bach Society, features organist Daniel Seeger:
The melody which inspired Bach’s chorale prelude was written by Louis Bourgeois in 1543. A text by the Lutheran theologian, Paul Eber (1511-1569), highlights themes of death and redemption. Here is Bach’s BWV 431 chorale setting:
At the end of his life, Bach returned to this melody. Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit, BWV 668 (“Before thy throne I now appear”) concludes the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes. Known as the “deathbed chorale,” it is music which the composer, having lost his sight, may have dictated to a student during the final months of his life. A version of the chorale (BWV 668a) was published as an appendix to the Art of the Fugue, perhaps to compensate for the unfinished final fugue, Contrapunctus XIV.
The chorale melody forms a fugue subject which is answered in inversion. The same melody emerges in augmented form in the soprano line. This contrapuntal tour de force triumphantly reaffirms the enduring majesty of the original chorale theme.
This performance, recorded on June 6, 2021 at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Music, features the Danish String Quartet and the Danish National Girls’ Choir:
- J.S. Bach: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV 641, Kåre Nordstoga Amazon
- J.S. Bach: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV 431, Daniel Reuss, Vocalconsort Berlin Amazon
- J.S. Bach: Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit, BWV 668, Danish String Quartet Amazon
Featured Image: the “Golden Gate” at Germany’s Freiberg Cathedral, photograph by Andreas Praefcke
1 thought on “Bach’s “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” BWV 641: Evolution of a Chorale”
What a surprise to see this being discussed. It;s Desert Island for me. My favourite version is Ton Koopman’s, and his version of ‘O Mensch Bewein’ is also my favourite of that beautiful chorale prelude. Thank you for doing this.