Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam

Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam

BWV 685 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
Walloon Church, Amsterdam

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Salvation through water

Contrapuntal secrets under the surface of a rippling baptismal hymn

The Clavier-Übung, a large-scale arrangement of the most important hymns in the ecclesiastical year, would of course not be complete without baptism. For this subject, Bach naturally turned to the hymn Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, in which Luther refers to the Passion of Jesus, as well as to his baptism, in a comparison between the healing blood and the clear baptismal water.

However, this short fughetta, the second setting of this hymn in the collection, is more cloudy than clear. We seem to hear a chorale melody, but a very curious one. What is happening here? In his fughettas, Bach never felt obliged to cite the chorale in its entirety, and that is the case here. He uses only the first phrase, going straight on to present two variations: the original theme in long notes, and an altered counter-theme in short notes. The roles are reversed immediately afterwards and the whole construction is turned upside down. This forces Bach to pull out all the harmonic stops. And he continues in this vein, as after an intermezzo, we return to the ‘straight’ themes again, which are inevitably followed by their inversion... and so on. In this way, moments of tension and relaxation stream past almost intangibly, in stark contrast to the dense perpetuum mobile of BWV 684, Bach’s other setting of Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam.

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.

Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam
organ works
Clavier-Übung III

Extra videos

Organist Leo van Doeselaar

“Leo van Doeselaar says that we must conclude that Bach was trying to illustrate the phrase “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    19 June 2015
  • Recording date
    24 June 2014
  • Location
    Walloon Church, Amsterdam
  • Organist
    Leo van Doeselaar
  • Organ
    Christian Müller, 1734
  • Producer
    Frank van der Weij
  • Film director
    Jan Van den Bossche
  • Directors of photography
    Sal Kroonenberg, Ruben van den Broeke
  • Grip
    Antoine Petiet
  • Music production, editing and mix
    Holger Schlegel
  • Film editor
    Dylan Glyn Jones
  • Colorist
    Jef Grosfeld
  • Production assistants
    Marco Meijdam, Zoë de Wilde
  • Interview
    Onno van Ameijde

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