Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot

Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot

BWV 678 performed by Reitze Smits
St Jacob's Church, Leeuwarden

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Canon becomes law

Ten commandments, five parts and two canons in pastoral peace

At the heart of Bach’s Clavier-Übung III are some clever chorale arrangements linked to the Lutheran Mass and the catechism. In this second group, the six parts of the Lutheran catechism – the principles of the religion – are each presented in a version with pedal and a version without. It begins with Luther’s little known ‘ten commandment chorale’ in (how else?) ten verses, plus a conclusion and the following introduction: ‘Dies sind die heil'gen zehn gebot' / die uns gab unser Herre Gott / durch Mosen, seinen diener treu, / hoch auf dem berge Sinai. / Kyrieleis.’ It is a melody in five phrases, which Bach doubles to ten in a simple canon.

Coincidence? Of course not! The Greek word καν?ν means ‘law’, so for that reason alone a composer can hardly avoid this technique in the case of this text. It is remarkable that the piece as a whole exudes a warm, pastoral atmosphere, rather than a purely technical one. The doubled chorale melody meanders smoothly between a melodically rich interwoven canon in the upper parts, notwithstanding a few harmonically exciting moments. This makes these ten commandments a peaceful counterpart to their more rousing pendant without pedal; the fughetta BWV 679.

In Leipzig, between 1731 and 1741, Bach published four parts of Clavier-Übung, a title used previously by Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor as cantor at the Thomasschule, for similar collections of works for organ and harpsichord. The compositions are very varied in nature and, although the title suggests otherwise, were difficult to play. Bach addresses all the styles, genres and techniques for harpsichord and organ that were prevalent at the time, but then in the superior form to which only he had the patent.

Clavier-Übung I (1731) contains the six partitas, BWV 825-830; Clavier-Übung II (1735) the Concerto nach italienischen Gusto, BWV 971 and the Ouverture nach französischer Art, BWV 831; and Clavier-Übung IV (1741) the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. The largest part, Clavier-Übung III (1739), is the only one devoted to organ, containing mostly chorale arrangements, or organ preludes based on Lutheran hymns. Bach made two versions of each chorale: one for great organ and one for a smaller type of organ. Most of the chorales refer to the six parts of the catechism. It is unclear whether Bach also played them during the services, or whether he developed his musical ideas in them for his own use, with no intention of performing them in public.

Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot
organ works
Clavier-Übung III

Extra videos

Organist Reitze Smits

“Long notes, insistently played and a canon in the octave. The octave stands for God. You can't get around it.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    27 February 2015
  • Recording date
    15 September 2014
  • Location
    St Jacob's Church, Leeuwarden
  • Organist
    Reitze Smits
  • Organ registration
    Mayuko Banno
  • Organ
    Christian Müller, 1727
  • Producer
    Frank van der Weij
  • Film director
    Jan Van den Bossche
  • Directors of photography
    Diderik Evers, Ruben van den Broeke
  • Music production, editing and mix
    Holger Schlegel
  • Film editor
    Dylan Glyn Jones
  • Colorist
    Jef Grosfeld
  • Production assistant
    Hanna Schreuders
  • Interview
    Onno van Ameijde
  • Acknowledgements
    Rob Tigchelaar

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