Weekend of celebration marks the completion of Bach’s unfinished organ manuscript

After more than 300 years, J.S. Bach’s mysteriously unfinished Orgelbüchlein (‘Little Organ Book’) will finally receive a full UK premiere this September as the Royal College of Organists (RCO) [its headquarters pictured] presents a complete performance of a unique composition project.

The Orgelbüchlein Project has involved the composition of 118 new pieces of music to complete the unfinished Orgelbüchlein – a manuscript which the composer intended to contain 164 chorales, but which he ultimately left unfinished with just 46 completed and only the titles penned in for the rest.

Over more than a decade, project director and organist William Whitehead has commissioned contemporary composers such as John Rutter, Judith Bingham, Sir Stephen Hough, Sally Beamish, Louis Andriessen, Daniel Kidane, Roxanna Panufnik and Nico Muhly to fill in these missing pieces and rise to the project’s central challenge: if Bach were alive today, how might he go about writing a short chorale prelude in the Orgelbüchlein style?

The result is a new and complete Orgelbüchlein for the 21st century, a collection of 164 short chorale preludes containing a fascinating cross-section of contemporary European styles, together with newly edited versions of Bach’s original pieces: a grand homage to Bach, held together by the common thread of his original plan.

The Royal College of Organists’ celebratory event – Bach and Friends: The Orgelbüchlein Completed – will mark the full UK premiere of the resulting works. Taking place at London venues across the weekend of 23-25 September, each of nine concerts will be presented by broadcaster Zeb Soanes and feature a themed collection of contemporary pieces plus a selection of Bach’s original compositions.

Among the musicians joining the eight organists will be the choirs of St James’ Palace Chapel Royal and St Paul’s Cathedral feature, and the Fred Thomas Trio. All performances will be free to attend with no pre-booking required.

William Whitehead said: “The manuscript of Orgelbüchlein always been such a tantalising mystery, with no one knowing exactly why Bach completed only a quarter of his intended 164 chorale preludes.

“But by leaving the titles for the missing 118 pieces he presented us with a unique and intriguing opportunity – what would happen if we commissioned the most interesting composers working today to meet this challenge in ways which reinvent the techniques laid down by Bach in ways which are entirely their own?

“The result is an astonishing completed work, an eclectic but cohesive whole with many of the schools of contemporary composition represented – minimalism, spirituality, new complexity, modernism, serialism and jazz, together with a range of styles from periods since Bach’s death.”

The Orgelbüchlein Project is unusual not just in the ambition and diversity of the completed work, but also in the number of people involved in making it happen. As well as the 118 composers who were commissioned to write pieces, those commissions were supported by dozens of individual sponsors.

Tom Bell, a Royal College of Organists regional director and one of the organists performing at the event, explained: “The ‘crowdfunded’ nature of this project really is a remarkable feature.

“Through composition competitions and direct sponsorship the RCO is delighted to have supported the commissioning of seven pieces, and other organisations have made major contributions, but more than half of those supporting this fantastic work have been private individuals – people from every walk of life who have been as captivated and inspired by this challenge as we have.

“It is an exceptional collective and collaborative artistic effort of which everyone involved should be immensely proud.”

Bach and Friends: The Orgelbüchlein Completed, presented by the Royal College of Organists and sponsored by Professor Christopher Wood, will comprise the following ten events:

Saturday 24 September

Temple Church, 10am – ‘Laws and Canons’

Charles Andrews, organ

Pieces by: David Matthews, Gerald Barry, John Caldwell, Kalevi Aho, Guy Bovet, John Butt, Poul Ruders, John Frandsen, Andrew Synnott, Tarik O’ Regan, Louis Andriessen, Thomas Ospital, Ad Wammes, Ullrich Böhme. By Bach: BWV 600 618 620 624 635 636 643.

St Brides, Fleet Street 11.30am – ‘Symbols and Pictures’

William Whitehead, organ

Pieces by: Grayston Ives, Naji Hakim, Franz Danksagmüller, Judith Bingham, Diana Burrell, Robert Saxton, Enjott Schneider, Anthony Powers, William Whitehead, Edward Higginbottom, Rhian Samuel, Vincent Paulet, Daniel Beilschmidt. By Bach: BWV 607 621 622.

St Andrew’s Holborn 1.30pm – ‘Trinity’

Tom Bell, organ, with special guests, the Fred Thomas Trio

Pieces by: Solfa Carlile, Robert Quinney, Geoffrey Webber, Sally Beamish, Joris Verdin, Till Alexander Körber, Matthew Martin, David Briggs. By Bach: BWV 629 632 633 639.

St James Garlickhythe 3pm – Launch of Vol 3

Kyoko Canaway, organ

Pieces by: Bryan Kelly, Richard Gowers, Piet Kee, Nils Henrik Asheim, Jörg Abbing, Franz-Josef Stoiber, Joanna Marsh, Jean-Baptiste Dupont, Robert Walker, Christopher Fox, Axel Ruoff, Ernst Wally, Thomas Daniel Schlee, Andrew Carter, Thea Musgrave, Francis Grier, Jon Laukvik, Philip Moore. By Bach: BWV 609 625 637 638.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Evensong 5pm, with organ music starting at 4.30pm.

The music sung at Evensong will include Bach.

‘Grand scheme’ Imogen Morgan, organ

Pieces by: Cecilia McDowall, Roxanna Panufnik, Gabriel Jackson, Sven-David Sandstrøm, Justė Janulytė, Barnaby Martin, Grégoire Rolland, Guy Olivier Ferla, Richard Pantcheff. Voluntary after Evensong: Michael Stephens-Jones, BWV 627.

Sunday 25 September

St George’s, Hanover Square 1pm – ‘The Dance’

Tom Bell, organ

Pieces by: David Maw, Roderick Williams, Paul Ayres, Andrew Keeling, Jeremy Thurlow, Frederick Stocken, David Franke, Silas Wollston, Benoît Mernier, Andrew Gant, Jacques Pichard, Jacques van Oortmerssen, Zsigmond Szathmáry, Andreas Fischer. By Bach: BWV 601 608 612 617 631 644.

Westminster Central Hall 3pm – ‘Luther’

Gerard Brooks, organ

Pieces by: Gerard Brooks, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Daniel Saleeb, Francis Jackson, William Cole, Hayo Boerema, Ruth Byrchmore, Andrew Arthur, Joanna Ward, Stephen Hough, Catherine Kontz, João Vaz. By Bach: BWV 599 604 606 611 616 619 626.

St James Palace, Chapel Royal 5pm – ‘In Homage’

Martyn Noble, organ, with the Choir of the Chapel Royal, conducted by Joe McHardy

Pieces by: Lionel Rogg, Christian von Blohn, Lorenzo Ghielmi, John Scott Whiteley, Alec Roth, James O’ Donnell, James Francis Brown, Peter Shepherd, William Whitehead, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, Pierre Farago, John Rutter, Alexander Campkin, Gregory Rose. By Bach: BWV 602 613 614 630 641.

Westminster Abbey 7pm – Bach: A Celebration

William Whitehead and Peter Holder, organ

Pieces by: Peter Holder, Loïc Mallié, James Lark, Thierry Escaich, Nico Muhly, Daniel Kidane, Simon Johnson, Sebastian Forbes, Nigel Allcoat, David Bednall, Ronny Krippner, Iain Farrington, Peter Planyavsky, David Till, Giles Swayne, Francis Pott. By Bach: BWV 603 605 610 615 623 628 640 642.

Additionally, the weekend opens at 4pm Friday 23 September with a Bach Masterclass at City of London School, given by John Scott Whiteley and concluding at 6pm with an informal recital by the masterclass players.

For more information on the full weekend, visit www.rco.org.uk/events/bachandfriends

For more on The Orgelbüchlein Project, visit www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk/