About this work
During his Weimar years, Bach played an improvisation on the chorale theme to An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon) for composer and mentor Johann Adam Reincken, who was also organist either in actuality or in a titular capacity at St. Catherine's in Hamburg for nearly 70 years (!), until his death at age 99. He liked the young composer's work and shortly afterward, Bach fashioned this version, which is perhaps the best of the three he wrote at that time, BWV 653 and BWV 653a being the other two. Bach used this same melody in one of his Leipzig Chorales, BWV 267. This lovely instrumental version features soft and muted sonorities throughout on the organ's two manuals, with the theme constantly repeating, but not in any monotonous way. For all of its serenity and peacefulness, though, the music deftly expresses the cries of the exiled Jews here in its repetitions. Yet Bach manages to create a mesmeric sense here as well, time seeming suspended as the music seems to effortlessly float along in the heavens. There is no break in the peaceful ambivalence of this work's mood, its masterful music holding the listener's attention throughout its nearly five-minute duration.