No.24 O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross

Johann Sebastian Bach

No.24 O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross


About this work

Johann Sebastian Bach was possessed of an unusually ordered mind, utterly resentful of chaos in all its guises and dedicated to striving after systematic understanding and mastery of all matters that directly concerned him in the day-to-day affairs of his many musical crafts. It is therefore in no way surprising that some of his best-known and most highly regarded compositions are encyclopedic compilations of closely related pieces intended in equal parts to provide a useful and enriching repertory for the active performing musician (in this category, of course, we include the composer himself) and to serve a basic didactic purpose. The two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier come immediately to mind as such genre-based teaching aids, as does the even more systematic Art of the Fugue. Less well known is Bach's first really concentrated single-genre collection, the Orgelbüchlein that he composed in Weimar during the years between perhaps 1713 and 1717. Although Bach finished fewer than half of the pieces he intended to include in this massive collection of Lutheran chorale preludes, some of his most beloved organ works, including the delightful chorale prelude on O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross, BWV 622, are found in it.

O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross (O Man, Bewail your Great Sins) is a traditional Passiontide chorale, or hymn, whose melody and text both date from around 1525. Bach's organ treatment of this simple E flat major melody could hardly be more lush -- indeed, BWV 622 is one of the most thoroughly ornamented of all Bach's compositions; the melody as laid out in the top voice of the organ part is coloratura in the best and most original sense of the word. All of the repeats indicated in Greitter's hymn melody by symbols are written out in Bach's prelude, and each of these repeated phrases is given a completely new suit of clothes -- not just ornamentally but also in terms of basic harmony and voice leading -- the second time around.

O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross, in addition to being the most elaborately decorated piece in the Orgelbüchlein, is probably the most chromatically adventuresome as well, especially in the final few bars (the last one is marked adagissimo by Bach, calling attention to the last line of text: "long on the cross"), in which we are treated not only to a steadily rising chromatic bass line that moves with great conviction towards a shocking C flat major chord, but also to some wonderfully pungent G flat/F flat decoration in the top voice.