BWV 653

All of Bach: a project by the Netherlands Bach Society

An Wasserflüssen Babylon

BWV 653 performed by Leo van Doeselaar
St. Martin's Church, Groningen

For this work Bach used the sarabande. "The character of this dance agrees quite well with the intention of this none too cheerful chorale prelude"

A sombre Sarabande

Bach strengthens faith in desperate straits.

The chorale An Wasserflüssen Babylon describes the desperate situation of the Israelites in exile. Many composers in the seventeenth century made an arrangement of it, with the Hamburg organist Adam Reincken as the absolute champion. His chorale fantasy based on this text lasts for almost twenty minutes, which fact alone brought it great fame. Bach also knew the piece. As a fifteen-year-old, he copied it down and undoubtedly studied it well. But when he made his own arrangement of An Wasserflüssen Babylon around ten years later, in his time as court organist in Weimar, he did not follow Reincken’s example. Instead of an ingenious but somewhat frivolous fantasy, he chose to create a compact, sombre chorale prelude.

In Weimar, Bach even made two different versions. One of them, BWV 653b, has five voices, and the melody sounds ethereally in the upper voice, against a sombre double pedal part. In the other version, BWV 653a, the ornamented melody in the middle voice is wedged between two upper voices and pedal. This latter version was clearly Bach’s favourite, as he revised the material in his later years in Leipzig, by adding even more ornamentation to the melody and further accentuating the drawn-out rhythm as a slow sarabande. In this way, he emphasised the point of this chorale, which is expressed in the later verses of the text, where the Israelites are forced to sing a song of praise. But how are they to sing in such hopeless circumstances? That is precisely what Bach conveys in this chorale prelude. Although the oppressors have got the exiles right where they want them, the timid middle voice keeps going courageously, and with all the ornamentation displays faith in a good outcome.

18 Choräle/Leipziger Choräle, BWV 651-668
In the last ten years of his life, Bach gathered together and completed a series of eighteen 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.


An Wasserflüssen Babylon

organ work (chorale arrangement)

18 Choräle/Leipziger Choräle



Special notes
There are two earlier, more sober versions of this composition from the Weimar period: BWV 653a and BWV 653b.

Cast & Crew

release date 8 August 2014
recording date 8 October 2013
LOCATION St. Martin's Church, Groningen
ORGANIST Leo van Doeselaar
organ Arp Schnitger, 1692
Producer Frank van der Weij
FILM DIRECTORS Jan Van den Bossche, Frank van der Weij
DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY Jorrit Garretsen, Sal Kroonenberg
FILM EDITOR Dylan Glyn Jones
Colorist Martijn de Haas
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS Marco Meijdam, Zoë de Wilde
interview Onno van Ameijde

Vocal Texts




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