Concerts to mark contemporary completion of Bach’s unfinished organ works

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After more than 300 years, Johann Sebastian Bach’s mysteriously unfinished Orgelbuchlein – Little Organ Book – is to receive a full UK premiere as the Royal College of Organists (RCO) presents a complete performance of the project.

The premiere of Bach And Friends: The Orgelbuchlein Completed will take place in September and demonstrate 118 new pieces of music composed to complete the unfinished Orgelbuchlein.

German composer Bach intended for the original manuscript to contain 164 chorales but ultimately left it unfinished with only 46 completed and nothing but the titles written for the remainder.

Over the course of more than a decade, the Orgelbuchlein project’s director and organist William Whitehead has commissioned contemporary composers such as John Rutter, Judith Bingham, Sir Stephen Hough, Sally Beamish, Louis Andriessen, Daniel Kidane, Roxanna Panufnik and Nico Muhly to fill in the Orgelbuchlein’s missing pieces.

The result of Whitehead and the composers’ work is a new and now-complete Orgelbuchlein – a collection of 164 short chorale preludes containing a cross-section of contemporary European styles, with newly edited versions of Bach’s original pieces.

Speaking about the project, Whitehead said: “The manuscript of Orgelbuchlein has always been such a tantalising mystery, with no one knowing exactly why Bach completed only a quarter of his intended 164 chorale preludes.

“But by leaving the titles for the missing 118 pieces he presented us with a unique and intriguing opportunity – what would happen if we commissioned the most interesting composers working today to meet this challenge in ways which reinvent the techniques laid down by Bach in ways which are entirely their own?

“The result is an astonishing completed work, an eclectic but cohesive whole with many of the schools of contemporary composition represented – minimalism, spirituality, new complexity, modernism, serialism and jazz, together with a range of styles from periods since Bach’s death.”

In addition to the 118 composers who were commissioned to work on the project, a number of individual sponsors supported the commissions.

Regional director of the Royal College of Organists and one of the organists performing at the event, Tom Bell, added: “The ‘crowdfunded’ nature of this project really is a remarkable feature.

Autumn weather Sep 14th 2021
Performances of Bach and Friends: The Orgelbuchlein Completed will take place at a number of London venues, including St Paul’s Cathedral (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“Through composition competitions and direct sponsorship, the RCO is delighted to have supported the commissioning of seven pieces, and other organisations have made major contributions, but more than half of those supporting this fantastic work have been private individuals – people from every walk of life who have been as captivated and inspired by this challenge as we have.

“It is an exceptional collective and collaborative artistic effort of which everyone involved should be immensely proud.”

Among the musicians joining the eight organists will be the choirs of St James’s Palace Chapel Royal and St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Fred Thomas Trio.

Bach and Friends: The Orgelbuchlein Completed will consist of 10 events, running at various venues including St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Temple Church in the City of London from September 23 to 25.

Each of the concerts will be presented by broadcaster Zeb Soanes and feature a themed collection of contemporary pieces plus a selection of Bach’s original compositions.

All performances of Bach And Friends: The Orgelbuchlein Completed will be free to attend with no pre-booking required.

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