Concordia Experience

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Johann Sebastian Bach's Clavierübung, Part III

March - October 2017

In May of 1539, Martin Luther was invited for the first time to preach in the city of Leipzig. Later that year, the city accepted the Augsburg Confession, thereby becoming part of the evangelical (Lutheran) movement. Two hundred years later, in 1739, the city marked these “Leipzig” anniversaries as well as the date of October 31 as important Reformation events.

For this auspicious anniversary year, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), the organist of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, composed a remarkable collection of organ pieces. However, its title was rather plain. Clavierübung means simply “Keyboard Practice,” denoting something similar to a collection or anthology for the keyboard. Earlier, Bach had composed two previous collections with the same title. Thus, this organ collection became known as Clavierübung, Part III. Its contents, however, are anything but plain.

Within the covers of this collection, Bach composed settings of the hymnic paraphrases of the Kyrie and the Gloria from the liturgy, plus settings of each of the so-called “catechism chorales” (hymns). These chorales were written or adapted by Martin Luther himself for the six chief parts of the catechism: Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, and Holy Communion. All are found in Lutheran Service Book.

The contents of Clavierübung, Part III, then, are as follows:

            Prelude in E-flat Major

            Two settings of the Kyrie hymn—one large, one small

                        Kyrie! God Father (LSB 942)

            Three settings of the Gloria hymn

                        All Glory Be to God on High (LSB 947)        

Two settings each of the Catechism hymns

                        —one large, one small:

                  These Are the Holy Ten Commands (LSB 581)

                  We All Believe in One True God (LSB 954)

                  Our Father, Who from Heaven Above (LSB 766)

            To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord (LSB 406)

            From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee (LSB 607)

            Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior (LSB 627)

      Four Duets (imitative pieces for keyboard only, no pedal)

      Fugue in E-flat Major


While there is a practical purpose for providing two settings—one large and one small—for most of the hymns (the collection would be useful on the organ or harpsichord), it is clear to most Bach scholars that with this pattern Bach had a more symbolic meaning in mind: he intended to reflect the fact that Luther produced both a Large and Small Catechism.

Similarly, scholars have noted the high incidence of musical references to the Holy Trinity. The choice of E-flat major for the prelude and fugue is no doubt purposeful, since there are three flats in the key signature. Both the prelude and the fugue have three different themes. In the fugue Bach employs three different meters, all involving the number “3” or a multiple of three.

The hymn “All Glory Be to God on High” was widely sung throughout the Lutheran lands as the Hymn of Praise in the liturgy. After an introductory stanza, the remaining three stanzas are each devoted to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, respectively. Perhaps for this Trinitarian emphasis Bach chose to compose three settings of this tune. Each is in a different key, spanning the interval of a major third.

Taken as a whole, Clavierübung, Part III, reflects the Trinity in that there are 27 pieces total (3x3x3).


During the Reformation 500 year, the Concordia community will have the opportunity to hear each of these pieces played for chapel services on various days, starting in March and ending October 31. 

On October 8, starting at 3:00 pm, the Clavierübung Part III will be performed in its entirety by organists associated with Concordia:  Susan Leimer Brown, David Christiansen, Jonathan Kohrs, Mary Benson Stahlke, Steven Wente, Dennis Zimmer, Laura Zimmer, and current students and recent graduates: Jacob Palmer, Jessica Wilson, Peter Wykert, and Jeremy Zimmer.


Performance Date



Kyrie, Gott Father in Heaven Above April 3, 2017 Laura Zimmer View Recording
All Glory Be to God on High April 24, 2017 Steven Wente View Recording
All Glory Be to God on High May 2, 2017 Jeremy Zimmer  
Kyrie, O Christ, Our King                        May 4, 2017 Peter Wykert View Recording