“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele,” BWV 654
BACH (arr. Schoenberg)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote only one passacaglia for organ, and the Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582) represents more a hybrid than a simple application of the passacaglia form. The anchoring theme in the pedals is eventually removed, transforming the work into more of a solo chaconne, before changing it yet again by adding a concluding elaborate double fugue.
This familiar music might remind the listener of the famous baptism scene from the movie The Godfather, although scholars with more numerological propensities will also happily demonstrate the intricate way this theme and 21 variations represents the Biblical numbers 3 x 7. Others have even found quotes from famous Lutheran hymns in it. Otherwise, it starts out slowly and ominously, gradually becomes busier with scalar movement, and ends with the grandeur that only Bach fugues can accomplish.
Bach’s career included much revision and adaptation of earlier works, and during the final decade of his life he felt the need to codify many works into carefully edited final versions. Information about the origins of many of 18 chorale preludes Bach prepared during this period remain incomplete, although we certainly know Bach wrote many of these arrangements of famous German hymns early in his life, later adapting them into his cantatas while working as Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
Of these finished chorale preludes, “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele,” BWV 654 (Adorn yourself, O dear soul), traditionally accompanies Holy Communion more as a joyous feast than as a lamentation. The familiar melody is attributed to Johann Crueger (1598-1662), and true to the first word of its title, Bach has “adorned” it with ornaments and melismas to the point of being difficult to recognize.