Puer natus in Bethlehem (from the Orgelbüchlein), BWV 603
by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 1:16]  [Download the MP3]

J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The greatest of them all

"Who's your favorite composer?" is as tired a question as "Whomever I'm listening to at the moment" is an answer. If pressed, however, and with apologies to Ludwig, Wolfgang, Pyotr, and all the other greats, I would give the nod to Bach. His supreme blending of beauty, logic, and inventiveness has never been surpassed, and much of my avocational music-making is devoted to listening, learning, and making synthesized realizations of his music.

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Text - ?, 1542
Tune - 14th cent.

A boy was born in Bethlehem

for which Jerusalem rejoices. Alleluia!

He who reigns over all the skies

Lies in a humble manger. Alleluia!

How better to begin the set of Christmas chorales in the Orgelbüchlein than with this exquisite charmer. As in BWV 602, a prominent rhythmic motive pervades the bass line.

The syncopation in this motive provides a bouncy underpinning to the chorale in the soprano, while the inner voices carry on a lovely dialogue.

Interestingly, Bach includes a repeat at the last bar, indicating the entire chorale is to be played twice, the only such instance in the collection. The piece is on the brief side without it, but not excessively so by Orgelbüchlein standards, so the reason for the repeat is not obvious. Is Bach trying to emphasize the second person of the Trinity in this Christmas chorale? That's pure speculation; I don't know. In any case, all the better: one gets to hear this delightful setting twice, and in this realization, I have set the two repetitions with different scoring. The first time through the verse emphasizes the cantus firmus and the bass, while on the repeat, I have tried to bring out the interplay in the inner voices, while also adding a bit of heft to the outer voices for balance.

This is one of the gems of the Orgelbüchlein, a timeless evocation of the boy in Bethlehem by the genius of Bach.

For a comparative setting of this chorale, listen to the version by Buxtehude.

BWV 602 < Index > BWV 604

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