The Holy Trinity According to Bach


A standard joke among seminarians and first-year priests is that the “newbie” is traditionally assigned the sermon on Trinity Sunday, as any attempt to explain the Holy Trinity (“three in one and one in three”) always ends up in a revolving circle.

Musicologists in the organ world have also attempted to correlate Trinitarian symbolism in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach with respect to key signatures, time signatures, and musical forms. Many believe that Bach’s Trinitarian symbolism may be found in the key of E-flat (3 flats), the key of A Major (3 sharps), time signatures of 3/4 and 3/2, and fugues that consist of three distinct sections rather than the standard through-composed fugal form. Alas, very little of this implied symbolism has musicological documentation and is probably a bit of a stretch at best, and we, therefore, wind back up revolving in a circle.

However, of the 350-plus compositions that exist today in Bach’s collected surviving works (and we know there were more that did not survive), some 11 of his organ chorale preludes are settings of Allein Gott in der Höh (All glory be to God on high), that great German hymn in praise of the Holy Trinity. While many are considered miscellaneous chorale settings, three Bach’s Allein Gott settings are found back-to-back in The Leipzig Chorales: two of those are in the key of A Major (3 sharps), and the middle one is a trio in 3/2 time. Trinitarian symbolism? Hmmm.

Our opening voluntary this Trinity Sunday (May 31) is one of these miscellaneous chorale settings with the catalog number BWV 711, which is a rather late number in Bach’s organ works. BWV numbers refer to the cataloging system of all of Bach’s works, the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Directory of Bach Works). This setting is for two-part manualiter (organ keyboards only, no pedals) and lines out the chorale tune prominently. This great chorale Allein Gott in der Höh is also found as Hymn 421 in The Hymnal 1982.


What’s in a (Tune) Name…

IMG_9201One of the great Holy Spirit hymns in The Hymnal 1982 is “Come down, O Love divine,” with its tune Down Ampney composed by the English master Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). We sing this hymn most Pentecost Sundays, as the text extols our desire for the Holy Spirit to burn within us. This text is captivating, with its vivid images of verse: freely burning, kindling holy flame, heat consuming, glorious light, path illumining.

The text originated as the poem Discendi amor santo by Italian mystic poet Bianco of Siena (ca. 1350-1399), then appeared in a collection of Italian poetry in 1851, and was subsequently translated and included in the Anglican hymnal The People’s Hymnal (London, 1867) by Richard F. Littledale.

Vaughan Williams composed Down Ampney for The English Hymnal (1906), one of the most important hymnals of the 20th century and for which he served as editor along with the great hymnist Percy Dearmer. The hymn tune was originally attributed to “anonymous” (Vaughan Williams’ own personal joke), but the tune was correctly attributed to Vaughan Williams in 20th-century hymnals that followed. Vaughan Williams enjoyed these playful moments: for the great hymn “For all the saints,” he titled his tune Sine Nomine, Latin for “without a name.”

RVWandCatAs many composers choose hymn tune names that are personal to them or represent an important place, Vaughan Williams named Down Ampney after his birthplace, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England. Likewise, composer William Bradley Roberts named our new parish hymn, “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” after the street location of this parish, Walnut Grove.

While the final stanza is the culmination of the text, I believe the literary pinnacle is found in the phrases of stanza 2:

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Photo of Ralph Vaughan Williams from The Telegraph