Jesus Christus, unser Heiland

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland

BWV 665 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
St. Catherine's Church, Hamburg

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Suffering for the sacrificial bread

Bach was clearly inspired by the words 'bitter Leiden' (bitter suffering), which Luther added to a mediaeval hymn

In 1524, Martin Luther based the words and melody of the chorale 'Jesus Christus unser Heiland', as he often did, on an older hymn. In this case, he chose the fifteenth-century hymn 'Jesus Christus nostra salus', which was then attributed to Jan Hus, a Bohemian forerunner of the Reformation. 'Jesus Christus unser Heiland' is a Eucharist hymn, intended to be sung during Holy Communion. The words underline the transformation of Christ’s body and blood into bread and wine for the salvation of Christians. The specification ‘sub communione’ for BWV 665 confirms that Bach’s arrangement was also used in the celebration of Holy Communion. In this setting – originally composed in Weimar and later adapted slightly in Leipzig – each of the four lines of the chorale melody is heard four times: twice with ornamentation but clearly recognisable in the upper parts, then once straightforwardly in the pedal and finally once again with ornamentation in the top part.

While the first strophe of the Latin hymn speaks of Christ giving himself to us as sacrificial bread, Luther rewrote it more colourfully, adding that he did so ‘through his bitter suffering’ (‘durch das bitter Leiden sein’). It was clearly this line – the third one – that Bach wanted to emphasise here. In doing so, he wears himself out in criss-crossing chromatic lines that run from up to down and from down to up again. So as the congregations in Weimar and Leipzig received the bread and wine, they were able to hear Christ’s bitter suffering.

18 Choräle/Leipziger Choräle, BWV 651-668
In the last ten years of his life, Bach gathered together and completed a series of chorale arrangements, presumably planning to have them published, just like the third part of the Clavier-Übung in 1739. It concerns a selection of his compositions from much earlier years, when he was working as an organist in Weimar, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. The collection became known as the 18 Choräle or Leipziger Choräle. Incidentally, 18 Choräle is a misleading title, as the set originally comprised 17 pieces. The eighteenth, Vor deinen Thron tret ich (BWV 668), was added to Bach’s manuscript later on.

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland
organ works
18 Choräle (organ)
Special notes
Part of a manuscript containing 17 chorale arrangements, BWV 651-667, which Bach collected in the 1740s, and of which the earliest versions sometimes originated in his Weimar period.

Extra videos

Organist Leo van Doeselaar

“Every line of text gets an incredible dramatic charge; Bach goes all out.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    20 November 2015
  • Recording date
    22 October 2014
  • Location
    St. Catherine's Church, Hamburg
  • Organist
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Organ
    Various builders between the 15th and 19th century. Restoration: Flentrop 2013
  • Producer
    Frank van der Weij
  • Film director
    Jan Van den Bossche
  • Director of photography
    Sal Kroonenberg
  • Camera assistants
    Andreas Grotevent, Lucas Lütz
  • Music production, editing and mix
    Holger Schlegel
  • Interview
    Onno van Ameijde
  • Production assistant
    Hanna Schreuders
  • Acknowledgements
    Vadim Dukart, Andreas Fischer

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