Front Page Titles (by Subject) Wenn wir in höchsten Nothen sein. - Bach's Chorals, vol. 3 The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works
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Wenn wir in höchsten Nothen sein. - Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach’s Chorals, vol. 3 The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works 
Bach’s Chorals. Part III: The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works, by Charles Sanford Terry (Cambridge University Press, 1915-1921). 3 vols. Vol. 3.
Part of: Bach’s Chorals, 3 vols.
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Wenn wir in höchsten Nothen sein.
Paul Eber’s “Wenn wir in hochsten Nöthen sein,” for use in time of trouble, is founded upon a hymn by his former master at Nürnberg, Joachim Camerarius:
Eber’s hymn was first printed as a broadsheet at Nürnberg circa 1560, and later in the Dresden New Betbuchlein (1566).
The melody (supra) is by Louis Bourgeois. It appeared first in the French Psalter of 1547: Pseaulmes cinquante de David, Roy et prophete, traduictz en uers francois par Clement Marot et mis en musique par Loys Bourgeoys, à quatre parties (Lyons, 1547). It is set there to the hymn on the Ten Commandments, “Leve le cœur, ouvre l’oreille.” The tune was attached to Eber’s hymn by Franz Eler, in his Cantica sacra (Hamburg, 1588). There are harmonizations of the melody in Choralgesänge, Nos. 358, 359. The tune does not occur in Bach elsewhere than in the Organ works infra. His text is invariable. Witt’s (No. 656) is uniform with it.
N. xv. 115. A short movement of nine bars in the “In Time of Trouble” section of the Orgelbuchlein. It will be noticed that Bach constantly states and inverts the opening four notes of the cantus,
The effect, as Schweitzer notes1 , is that the three lower parts constantly voice the urgency of their “utmost need,” while over their lament the melody flows along “like a divine song of consolation, and in a wonderful final cadence seems to silence and compose the other parts.” The cantus itself is treated in Bach’s most intimate and reflective manner, as though he sought to convey through its short phrases the utmost of the intense feeling that filled his own soul.
N. xvii. 85. The movement is the last of the Eighteen Chorals. During Bach’s last illness he continued to revise his Organ Preludes, a work upon which he had been engaged for some time. He was almost blind and passed his days in a darkened room. Paul Eber’s hymn had brought comfort to many in their distress, and to its melody Bach turned in the last weeks of his life. His strength no longer being equal to the effort, he dictated to Altnikol, his son-in-law, this movement upon a melody he had treated years before in the Orgelbuchlein. “In the dark chamber,” writes Schweitzer finely1 , “with the shades of death already falling round him, the master made this work, that is unique even among his creations. The contrapuntal art that it reveals is so perfect that no description can give any idea of it. Each segment of the melody is treated in a fugue, in which the inversion of the subject figures each time as the counter-subject. Moreover, the flow of the parts is so easy that after the second line we are no longer conscious of the art, but are wholly enthralled by the spirit that finds voice in these G major harmonies. The tumult of the world no longer penetrated through the curtained windows. The harmonies of the spheres were already echoing round the dying master. So there is no sorrow in the music; the tranquil quavers move along on the other side of all human passion; over the whole thing gleams the word ‘Transfiguration.’ ”
But it was not Paul Eber’s hymn that Bach employed to disclose the spirit of his music. His was no cry of distress, but the simple faith of a devout nature facing eternity, and ready to meet it, with the words of a prayer of daily use upon his lips. Bach bade Altnikol inscribe the music with the title “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiemit.” The hymn was first published by Justus Gesenius and David Denicke in the New Ordentlich Gesang-Buch (Hanover, 1646), and is entitled “Am Morgen, Mittag und Abend kan man singen” (For use morning, mid-day, and evening). Its authorship is attributed, on certain grounds, to Bodo von Hodenberg, who was born at Celle in 1604 and died in 1650 at Osterode, where he then was Landrost. The Novello Edition (xv. 114; xvii. 185) quotes Hodenberg’s (?) hymn as “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich allhier.” Fischer-Tümpel (ii. 410) does not sanction this form. The hymn had its proper melody (Zahn, No. 669) since 1695, but neither hymn nor melody was in general use: the former is not in the Unverfälschter Liedersegen (Berlin, 1851).
“Death,” writes Sir Hubert Parry1 , “had always had a strange fascination for Bach, and many of his most beautiful compositions had been inspired by the thoughts which it suggested. And now he met it, not with repinings or fear of the unknown, but with the expression of exquisite peace and trust. Music had been his life. Music had been his one means of expressing himself, and in the musical form which had been most congenial to him he bids his farewell; and only in the last bar of all for a moment a touch of sadness is felt, where he seems to look round upon those dear to him and to cast upon them the tender gaze of sorrowing love.”
The foundation of the movement is the Orgelbuchlein Prelude (supra), minus its elaborate ornamentation of the cantus, and with the addition of the astonishing interludes on which Schweitzer’s commentary already has been quoted.
[1 ]Chorale Book for England, No. 141. The original hymn has seven stanzas.
[1 ] The original hymn has fifteen stanzas. In the eleventh stanza the words “morning,” “mid-day,” “evening” are alternatives in the second line.
[1 ] Vol. ii. 71.
[1 ] Vol. i. 224.
[1 ]Johann Sebastian Bach, 542.