On 13 January 1775 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote to Nicolaus Forkel in response to a number of questions the latter had asked about Johann Sebastian Bach. In this letter Emanuel provided a list of composers whose works Sebastian had loved and studied, concluding with “the Lüneburg organist Böhm”. Emanuel had originally written, and subsequently deleted, “his Lüneburg teacher Böhm”. Presumably the alteration was due to some uncertainty about the exact relationship between his father and Georg Böhm. But a discovery of 2005 suggests that Emanuel’s first version was correct: a copy of Johann Adam Reincken’s great chorale fantasia An Wasserflüssen Babylon in Sebastian’s hand concludes with the inscription “â Dom. Georg: Böhme / descriptum ao. 1700 / Lunaburgi:” (copied in the home of Georg Böhm in the year 1700 in Lüneburg). Examination of the paper on which the work was copied has revealed that it was of a type unknown in Lüneburg except for its use by Böhm. The copying of such a work would certainly have taken a number of days, presenting us with the likely scenario that the fifteen-year-old Bach was living in the Böhm household as an apprentice to the esteemed organist of the Johanniskirche.
Georg Böhm was born in Hohenkirchen, near Ordruf, on 2 September 1661. Early musical education with his organist/schoolmaster father was followed by studies at the Goldbach Lateinschule and Gotha Gymnasium and he matriculated at the University of Jena on 28 August 1684. The musical influence of members of the Bach family, already renowned throughout Thuringia, would have been significant during his formative years, as many cantors and organists of the towns in which he lived had been trained by various Bachs. In 1693 he moved to Hamburg, where his activities are as yet unknown, and in 1698 he was unanimously elected to the post of organist at Lüneburg’s Johanniskirche, a position he was to retain until his death on 18 May 1733.
Böhm’s extant compositional output, though not voluminous, is significant both in its intrinsic quality and in its influence, especially on Sebastian Bach. He is best known for his fine organ chorales. The chorale partite, in particular, are polished pioneering examples of the genre. A keyboard compass down to AA in Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig and broken textures in Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten suggest that the works were conceived for the harpsichord, though performance on the organ cannot be ruled out. His suites, certainly for harpsichord or clavichord, adopt the general Allemande–Courante–Sarabande–Gigue pattern, subject to variation in a few individual cases. Stylistically they are an important bridge between the suites of Froberger and Bach. The authorship of a couple of them is open to debate, while a second Suite in F minor is by Johann Mattheson, being part of a larger suite that concludes his Pièces de Clavecin published in London in 1714. Three pedaliter praeludia and three manualiter praeludia are extant, two of the latter perhaps connected to suites; and there is a capriccio. Böhm’s choral works include a handful of cantatas and motets as well as a Johannes-Passion long attributed to Handel.
The tripartite Praeludium in G minor, often referred to as “Praeludium, Fuge und Postludium”, is one of Böhm’s finest and most original creations. Its striking opening section, in particular, seems to lack either predecessors or successors. The lyrical theme of the central fugue is worked out effortlessly at considerable length, while the closing section showers us with descending broken chords, often harmonically unexpected. The work has been transmitted in two manuscripts, one in the hand of Sebastian Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph in the so-called “Andreas-Bach-Buch”, the other in a volume, now lost, where the work was extended by a Chaconne, of which Böhm’s authorship is considered very doubtful.
Four other works on this disc are preserved uniquely in the hand of Christoph Bach: Suite in C minor, Suite in E-flat major, Ouverture in D major (all in the Andreas-Bach-Buch) and Suite in F minor (in the so-called “Möllersche Handschrift”). The first of these is an intimate work, the keyboard writing very close in style to Bach’s ’French‘ Suites. The Suite in E-flat is wonderfully adventurous, particularly in its rhythmic vocabulary. Both Allemande and Courante explore an unusual range of rhythmic patterns, while the fugal Gigue, in 6/4 metre, possibly stands alone in the genre in its rhythmic construction. On the other hand the Sarabande, here played on a lute stop, is beautifully simple.
The exuberant Ouverture in D major is almost free of idiomatic keyboard writing: except for the absence of an “original” we should be inclined to think of it as a transcription of an orchestral work. The style of Jean-Baptiste Lully is present throughout and one can virtually hear the orchestral colours and feel the dance movements.
The Suite in F minor explores the flattest key in common use around 1700, so it is not surprising that it is generally subdued in tone. This suite departs from the normal layout by replacing the Gigue with a Ciaccona, though even this usually uplifting dance is here rather sober, even containing a tinge of melancholy.
Christoph Bach and the Andreas-Bach-Buch also transmit the remaining suite of the disc, the Suite in A minor, though there is a concordance, a manuscript belonging to Hamburg’s Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, missing since World War II, but preserved in a film copy in Winterthur, Switzerland. Harmonically and rhythmically this is one of the simpler suites of Böhm, though its musical worth is not at all diminished thereby. Unusually, and possibly alone in the genre, the Allemande commences with an anacrusis of seven semiquavers.
The brief Menuet in G is another unicum, in the hand of Sebastian Bach (in the Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach), where it is titled “Menuet fait par Mons. Böhm”. Its inclusion in such collections as The Children’s Bach makes it without doubt Böhm’s most popular composition.
The two chorale partite included on this disc are preserved solely in manuscripts copied by Bach’s cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, organist, composer and lexicographer. Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig consists of eight partite. Whether Böhm imagined each partita as relating to a particular stanza of Michael Franck’s hymn of 1652 (of which there are thirteen stanzas in all) we cannot be sure, but the text of the first stanza gives the mood of the whole (note the poet’s play on “Nebel” and its mirror, “Leben”):
Ach wie nichtig,
Ach wie flüchtig
Ist der Menschen Leben!
Wie ein Nebel bald entstehet
Und auch wieder bald vergehet,
So ist unser Leben, sehet!
Ah how vain,
ah how fleeting
is the life of man!
As a mist soon rises
and as soon disperses again,
behold! so is our life.
This piece, in particular, seems to have been taken as a model by Bach for his Partite diverse sopra O Gott, du frommer Gott.
Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten consists of seven partite, which may well equate to the seven stanzas of Georg Neumark’s hymn of 1641 (published in 1657), but again the first stanza sets the mood for the whole:
Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten
Und hoffet auf ihn allezeit,
Den wird er wunderlich erhalten
In allem Kreuz und Traurigkeit.
Wer Gott, dem Allerhöchsten, traut,
Der hat auf keinen Sand gebaut.
Whoever lets only the dear God rule him
and hopes in him at all times
will be wonderfully sustained by him
in every cross and sadness.
Whoever trusts God the most high
has not built upon sand.
The superb quality of all this music makes one appreciate that the young Sebastian Bach was fortunate in finding such a mentor. While we may assume that Böhm also appreciated the genius of his (supposed) pupil, he cannot have foreseen that the survival of most of his own music (along with the bulk of the North German organ repertoire of this generation) would depend on the copies made by this boy in his mid-teens and disseminated among his family members. The two musicians presumably maintained some degree of contact over the years, though the only documentation to support this is an advertisement in the Leipzig Nouvellen of 19 September 1727 of Bach’s second and third keyboard partitas, which could be purchased directly from the author or from five other musicians in various cities, including “bey Herr Böhmen, Organisten zu St. Johann in Lüneburg”.