No.20 Jesus Christus unser Heiland

Johann Sebastian Bach

No.20 Jesus Christus unser Heiland


About this work

This is a trio setting of Martin Luther's hymn tune to "Jesu Christus, unser Heiland" ("Jesus Christ, our Saviour"). It is part of Johann Sebastian Bach's greatest published organ collection, Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) III, published in 1739.

Bach also wrote another pair of chorale preludes on this hymn theme, "Jesu Christ unser Heiland," BWV 665 and BWV 666, and these both have variant versions.

The main portion of the collection is a set of pairs of settings of hymns from the catechism. The last pair of these is this setting, followed by a fugue on the same subject, which is the finale to the entire volume. The complexity of the music, mastery of material and treatment, and the existence of a structural ground plan that covers these catechism preludes all make it virtually certain that this prelude was composed specifically for the Clavier-Übung III and is therefore a late work.

Despite the liturgical origin of the theme, the keyboard writing is elaborate and difficult enough that it is virtually a little concerto for organ. It is in a 3/4 meter that is practically a dance, with short note values in the upper two voices and longer notes in the bass line, which sketches out Luther's theme.

There is a remarkable sense of forward drive and tension in this short organ composition. This is partly due to the syncopations and other rhythmic displacements that occur in the upper voices, and to the showy leaps in the melodic lines.