One of the most unusual compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps you might even call it unique, as it is literally one of a kind is the choral prelude to the choral “Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott”. It is unusual in Bach’s oeuvre in that it does not contain any for of counterpoint, and sets the chorale melody against an accompaniment of repeated eight note chords.

A possible model for Bach for this unusual composition was one of the Biblical Sonatas composed by his predecessor as Thomas cantor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau. Specifically the first biblical sonata that pictures the fight between David and Goliath. To depict the reaction of the Israelis when they first see Goliath, Kuhnau uses the melody of “Aus tiefer Noth, schrei ich zu Dir” set against a same accompaniment of quavers. Kuhnau writes above this part: “il tremore degli Israliti, alla comparsa del gigante, e la lore preghiera fatta a dio” (the tremor of the Israelis, at the appearance of the giant, and their prayer to god)

When you play through Kuhnau’s work it is intruiging to note the many similarities with BWV 721. At the same time, it does not reach the same emotional depth as BWV 721. The means are the same, yet the effect is different. It shows that Bach learned from his contemporaries and predecessors and he did not hesitate to incorporate their best ideas in his own work. At hte same time, it shows the genius of Bach, that with the same means, he reaches far more intense results.

The recording was done with the sampleset, made by Sonus Paradis, of the Schittger organ in the St. Martini-kerk, Groningen.

Performance (Erbarm dich mein)
Bach, Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721

Performance (Il tremore degl’Israliti)

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