J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, transcribed for String Quartet

— Each volume is coil-bound to lie flat on the stand, in a handsome dark-blue cover (90-pound cardstock)
— The parts are laser-printed on heavy paper (24 pound). 
Each part is 30-40 pages; the score is 135 pages.

Bach’s Orgelbüchlein has long been studied and admired. My goal in transcribing these intricate miniatures– some of them barely ten measures long– is to make their remarkable riches available to string players “from within”.

Aaron Copland, in his book What to Listen for in Music, writes that Bach’s “Orgelbüchlein is a collection of short chorale preludes containing an inexhaustible wealth of musical riches, which no music lover can afford to ignore.” And Albert Schweitzer (in his classic book J. S. Bach) wrote eloquently about the important place of the Orgelbüchlein in the context of Bach’s work as a whole. He concludes, “the Orgelbüchlein is thus the lexicon of Bach’s musical speech. This must be our starting-point if we would understand what he is striving to express in the themes of the cantatas and the Passions.”

I have worked from the authoritative Bach Gesellschaft (BG) edition. In many of the chorales, the inner voices descend lower than is possible on violin or viola. One way around this (“option A”) is simply to transpose everything upward: in no case is transposition greater than a perfect fourth required. A second strategy (“option B”) is to keep the chorale at its original pitch, and make some judicious octave transpositions in the middle voices. There are good arguments for both options, and I have resolved the issue on a case-by-case basis. An Appendix details the transpositions I have made, and gives “option A” versions for six of the chorales which appear in “option B” form in the main text.

The almost complete absence of slurs in the Orgelbüchlein presents no problem for organists, who tend to play legato unless instructed otherwise. But in transcribing these lines for strings, one is immediately on the horns of a dilemma: putting in even some “obvious” slurs unfairly prejudges all questions of phrasing, whereas showing only long strings of slurless notes suggests a relentless one-note-to-a-bow style which is certainly not always the best choice. I have chosen to meddle as little as possible, showing only those slurs (few and far between!) that occur in the BG. Phrasing in Bach is a realm in which final decisions are neither possible nor desirable. My only editorial suggestion about bowings in these pieces, therefore, is that they be entered in the parts in pencil, not pen!

Customer comments:

“What a pleasure it is to have these arrangements of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein Chorale Preludes for string quartet. We at the TSO (Tenacious String Orchestra) have thoroughly enjoyed being able to dig into this fantastic music. Thank you!”
— Nathan Cook (TSO music director and Associate Professor of Music, Memorial University of Newfoundland)

“Thanks for all your effort to make this important work available to us string players!”
— RC, Washington DC

“In our sequential playing of your transcription of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, we got up to #30 last night. They are just wonderful. They soothe the soul.”
— AM, Maryland

Price, to US or Canadian addresses:
score $52 + $6 postage; set of parts $55 + $8 postage;
score and set of parts $100 + $12 postage (prices in $US).
To anywhere else on the planet,
equivalent price plus my actual postage cost.
Please inquire by e-mail to confirm cost before ordering.