The Holy Trinity According to Bach


A standard joke among seminarians and first-year priests is that the "newbie" is traditionally assigned the sermon on Trinity Sunday, as any attempt to explain the Holy Trinity ("three in one and one in three") always ends up in a revolving circle.

Musicologists in the organ world have also attempted to correlate Trinitarian symbolism in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach with respect to key signatures, time signatures, and musical forms. Many believe that Bach’s Trinitarian symbolism may be found in the key of E-flat (3 flats), the key of A Major (3 sharps), time signatures of 3/4 and 3/2, and fugues that consist of three distinct sections rather than the standard through-composed fugal form. Alas, very little of this implied symbolism has musicological documentation and is probably a bit of a stretch at best, and we, therefore, wind back up revolving in a circle.

However, of the 350-plus compositions that exist today in Bach’s collected surviving works (and we know there were more that did not survive), some 11 of his organ chorale preludes are settings of Allein Gott in der Höh (All glory be to God on high), that great German hymn in praise of the Holy Trinity. While many are considered miscellaneous chorale settings, three Bach’s Allein Gott settings are found back-to-back in The Leipzig Chorales: two of those are in the key of A Major (3 sharps), and the middle one is a trio in 3/2 time. Trinitarian symbolism? Hmmm.

Our opening voluntary this Trinity Sunday (May 31) is one of these miscellaneous chorale settings with the catalog number BWV 711, which is a rather late number in Bach’s organ works. BWV numbers refer to the cataloging system of all of Bach’s works, the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Directory of Bach Works). This setting is for two-part manualiter (organ keyboards only, no pedals) and lines out the chorale tune prominently. This great chorale Allein Gott in der Höh is also found as Hymn 421 in The Hymnal 1982.


Posted by Cara Modisett at 1:52 AM
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