Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her"

Johann Sebastian Bach in 1746, holding his canon triplex a 6 voci, BWV 1076. Oil painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann.

The Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" ("From Heaven above to Earth I come"), BWV 769, are a set of five variations in canon for organ with two manuals and pedals by Johann Sebastian Bach on the Christmas hymn by Martin Luther of the same name. The variations were prepared as a showpiece for Bach's entry as fourteenth member of Mizler's Music Society in Leipzig in 1747. The original printed edition of 1747, in which only one line of the canon was marked in the first three variations, was published by Balthasar Schmid in Nuremberg. Another version BWV 769a appears in the later autograph manuscript P 271, which also contains the six trio sonatas for organ BWV 525–530 and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes BWV 651–668. In this later version Bach modified the order of the variations, moving the fifth variation into a central position, and wrote out all the parts in full, with some minor revisions to the score.

These [variations] are full of passionate vitality and poetical feeling. The heavenly hosts soar up and down, their lovely song sounding out over the cradle of the Infant Christ, while the multitude of the redeemed "join the sweet song with joyful hearts." But the experiences of a fruitful life of sixty years have interwoven themselves with the emotions which possessed him in earlier years ... The work has an element of solemn thankfulness, like the gaze of an old man who watches his grandchildren standing round their Christmas tree, and is reminded of his own childhood.
Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach : his work and influence on the music of Germany, Vol. III, 1880.
The brilliant scale passages not only represent the ascending and descending angels, but sound joyous peals from many belfries ringing in the Saviour's birth.
Charles Sanford Terry, Bach's Chorals, Vol. 3, 1921.


Title page of BWV 769

The title page of the printed version BWV 769 reads

Einige canonische Veraenderung über das Weynacht-Lied: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, vor die Orgel Mit 2. Clavieren und dem Pedal von Johann Sebastian Bach Königl: Pohl: Und chur Saechss: Hoff Compositeur Capellm. u. Direct. Chor.Mus. Lips. Nürnberg in Verlegung Balth: Schmids.

In English translation this reads[1]

Some Canonic Variations on the Christmas hymn "From Heaven above to Earth I come". For organ with two manuals and pedal, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Kapellmeister and Director of the Musical Ensemble, Leipzig. Nuremberg, published by Balthasar Schmid.

There are five variations:

  1. Canone all' ottava (Canon at the Octave)  play 
  2. Alio Modo in Canone alla Quinta (Canon at the Fifth)  play 
  3. Canone alla Settima, cantabile (Canon at the Seventh)  play 
  4. Canon per augmentationem (Augmentation Canon)  play 
  5. L'altra Sorte del'Canone all'rovercio, 1) alla Sesta, 2) alla Terza, 3) alla Seconda è 4) alla Nona (Canon with Inversions)  play 

In BWV 769a, the variations occur in the modified order 1, 2, 5, 3, 4.

History and origins

Martin Luther (1539): Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her

In June 1747 he entered the Society for the Musical Sciences ... He presented to the Society the chorale "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" completely worked out, and this was afterwards engraved in copper.[2]

Lorenz Christoph Mizler, 1754[3]

In June 1747, Bach was admitted as the fourteenth member of the "Correspondierde Societät der Muscialischen Wissenschaften" (Corresponding Society for the Musical Sciences), a society devoted to musical scholarship founded in Leipzig in 1738 by Lorenz Christoph Mizler. To mark his admission he not only presented a version of the Canonic Variations, but also a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in which Bach holds a copy of his canon triplex a 6 voci BWV 1076 towards the viewer. During the last ten years of his life, Bach had become preoccupied musically with canons and canonic fugues, already much developed in the Parts III and IV of the Clavier-Übung – the Organ Mass BWV 552, BWV 669–689, the four canonic duets BWV 802–805 and the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 – as well as the Musical Offering BWV 1079 and the Art of the Fugue BWV 1080. The triplex canon itself became part of the Fourteen Canons BWV 1087, preserved in one surviving copy of the Goldberg Variations. Mizler seems to have been unaware of the numerological significance that the number fourteen had to Bach (B+A+C+H=14).[4]

The small organ in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was organist and kantor 1723–1750. The organ, with its gilt Bach monogram, is a reconstruction by Gerald Woehl of a baroque organ played by Bach in the Paulinerkirche.
Cantus firmus, "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her"

The Canonic Variations are based on the Christmas Hymn "Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" for which the words and melody were composed in 1539 by Martin Luther. The chorale itself was set three times by Bach in his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and again as an addition for Christmas in his Magnificat in E-flat major, BWV 243a. Bach had already used the cantus firmus in earlier chorale preludes, notably BWV 606 (Orgelbüchlein), 700, 701 and 738, with accompanying motifs above and below the melodic line that were to recur in BWV 769. There are also similarities with several of the Goldberg Variations, notably the third and thirteenth, with shared motifs, keyboard technique and general structure. In the case of the earlier harpsichord work, however, the variations are written over a fixed bass line, while BWV 769 is based on a melody.

During this period Bach had been criticized vociferously by the Danish composer Johann Adolph Scheibe for producing music that was too old-fashioned, abstract and artificial. Scheibe had described Bach's output as "altogether too much art" and had referred to the canons as outmoded follies ("Thorheiten"). However, despite the logic of the canon that underlies the Canonic Variations, Bach succeeded in producing a work which, far from being abstract and severe, was imbued with an affect of "beauty" and "naturalness", quite modern for its time and in keeping with the spirit of galante music.[5] The musical language of Bach in BWV 769 is as different from his other organ music as that of the Goldberg Variations is from his earlier harpsichord music. Combining complex counterpoint with the spiritual associations of Advent and Christmas, Bach's harmony and keyboard technique produce a musical style "at times strangely new, at others very approachable" yet "elusive enough to prompt admirers to search outside music for suitable expressive metaphor." As Williams (2003), p. 518 puts it, the "canons create harmonies, melodies and progressions not only otherwise unheard but strangely rapt and intense."

Various stylistic elements in the Canonic Variations recall the compositions of Bach's predecessors and contemporaries. The running figures in the first variation can be found in Toccata No.12 of Georg Muffat (1690) and in the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The canon in the second variation is close in spirit to the Canons Mélodieux for two instruments of Georg Philipp Telemann. The galant figures of the free line in the third variation are similar to those promoted by Joachim Quantz in his 1752 treatise on flute playing. The elaborate ornamentation of the fourth variation uses many devices from his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's treatise on keyboard technique (1753, 1762); the final pedal point harks back to those of the chorale preludes of Dieterich Buxtehude, for example in his setting of "Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verdebt", BuxWV 183. The walking pedal-bass beneath the canon at the beginning of the fifth variation is similar to Georg Friedrich Kaufmann's setting of "Vom Himmel hoch" in his Harmonische Seelenlust (c. 1733).[6][7]

The Thomaskirche, Leipzig, 1735

Butler (2000) has examined the surviving manuscripts in detail to determine the manner in which the Canonic Variations were composed and published. They seem to have been composed, not necessarily in their final form, in 1746 or at least for the New Year's Fair of 1747. In the engraved version the first three, written in annotated form, could not be performed directly from the copy, since only one part of the canon was provided, the other having to be worked out "with the pen at home". The engraved version was also probably devised to minimize page turns and economize on space, so the combination of these factors speaks against any particular significance in the order of the movements. It is also not clear which of the remaining two canons was prepared specially for Mizler's Society. The exuberant Canon with Inversions, which appears last in the engraved version, builds up to a cumulative climax, but originally did not contain the passing reference to the BACH motif in its closing bars. In the autograph manuscript, it becomes the central variation, comparable to the role played by the central large-scale sixteenth Goldberg variation. The calmer Augmentation Canon, on the other hand, similar to the thirteenth Goldberg variation, has a clear reference to the BACH motif in its 39th bar, its anguished harmonies resolved peacefully by the final pedal point. Because of continual reworkings, it is now believed that Bach never intended there to be a final fixed version. Commentators have pointed out that although the order of the variations in the autograph version gives it a certain aesthetic symmetry, the order in the engraved version might be more appropriate for performance.[8]

Musical structure

Printed version of first variation of BWV 769

Variatio I

The two part canon is a derived from the first and last line of the cantus firmus. The descending scale with which it starts is similar to the accompanying figures in Chrise, du Lamm Gottes, BWV 619, of the Orgelbüchlein. They have been interpreted as representing Christ's descent from Heaven to Earth. The graceful introductory ritornello is recapitulated before the last line of the pedal cantus firmus, played in the tenor register with an 8' stop.

Variatio II

Autograph version of first variation of BWV 769a

The two part canon is based on the first and second lines of the cantus firmus. As in Variatio I, there is a recapitulation in syncopated form of the opening ritornello before the last line of the cantus firmus, which has the same registration. The ascending scales above the pedal point at the close have been interpreted as departing angels or the elevation of the soul.

Variatio III

The canon occurs in the two lower voices over which the alto part plays a free melody, with the cantus firmus in the soprano. The canon takes the form of an ostinato ritornello derived form the first line of the cantus firmus with interludes when the cantus firmus recurs. The expressive alto part, marked cantabile with elaborate ornamentation, melismatic passages and occasional dissonant appoggiaturas, resembles the solo part in an aria. It also has similarities with the figurations in the solo line of the slow movement of the F minor harpsichord concerto, BWV 1056. In bar 19, the chromaticism of the two canonic parts evoke the dragging of the cross; the tensions of this episode are gradually resolved as the variation comes to a peaceful and harmonious close.

Variatio IV

This variation takes the form of a newly composed melismatic arioso solo line in the right hand followed in canon by the bass of the left hand at half the speed. Between these two parts is a free alto line, with tenor cantus firmus in the pedal. The free alto line sometimes rises above the soprano line, creating a "halo" effect. All three manual parts derive from elements of the cantus firmus. When these occur in the elaborate and unusual soprano line, these provide apparently new ways of hearing the melody of the chorale. The compositional style, particularly of the wide ranging right hand solo part, is similar to that of the thirteenth Goldberg variation. The opening phrase recurs as a sort of ritornello in diminution in bar 34. Above the fourth line of the cantus firmus, the right hand weaves an elaborate coloratura line. In the middle parts the slower dragging motif recurs coming to a climax in the second part of bar 39 with the BACH motif in the alto part, before the peaceful coda, with elegiac piping motifs repeated over a pedal point:

Variatio V

In this variation, the canon is the melody of the chorale itself. It has three sections, the first and second further subdivided in two, building up to a grandiose and complex climax in the final bars of the third section. In the first section, the two manual parts play the chorale line by line in inverted canon over a walking bass continuo stamped out in the pedal, first at an interval of sixth and then a third. In the second and third sections, the pedal part returns to the smooth lines of the cantus firmus.

In the second section, the pedal and the separate hands again play the chorale line by line in inverted canon, separated by an interval of a second and then a ninth, with a free imitative part in the hand playing the canon and a free running semiquaver part in the other hand. The semiquavers occur first in the right hand with the imitative part above the left hand; then in the left hand with the imitative part this below the canon. The musical texture is similar to that used previously in Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, BWV 607, from the Orgelbüchlein, another chorale prelude for advent on the theme of descending angels.

Conclusion of fifth variation of BWV 769; in the original engraving the BACH motif did not occur in the inner parts in the last bar[9]

In the last section, marked forte, the pedal part plays the last line of the cantus firmus, with the first line in true and inverted forms in diminutio above it. The variation culminates over the closing pedal point with a stretto of all four lines, again with inversions and diminutio. (At this point the manual parts, move to one keyboard.) The supposed occurrence of the BACH motif shared between the two inner manual parts in the last bar did not occur in the original printing of BWV 769, where there is B flat (B in German) instead of a B natural (H in German); this was modified by editors in later editions.

Text and translation

Below is the original text from 1539 by Martin Luther with the English translation from 1855 of Catherine Winkworth:

Hugo van der Goes: Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1480, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
1. Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.
Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mär,
Der guten Mär bring ich so viel,
Davon ich singn und sagen will.
From Heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
Whereof I now will say and sing:
2. Euch ist ein Kindlein heut’ geborn
Von einer Jungfrau auserkorn,
Ein Kindelein, so zart und fein,
Das soll eu’r Freud und Wonne sein.
To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This little child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all your earth.
3. Es ist der Herr Christ, unser Gott,
Der will euch führn aus aller Not,
Er will eu’r Heiland selber sein,
Von allen Sünden machen rein.
'Tis Christ our God who far on high
Hath heard your sad and bitter cry;
Himself will your Salvation be,
Himself from sin will make you free.
Martin Schongauer: Adoration of the Shepherds, 1475–1480, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
4. Er bringt euch alle Seligkeit,
Die Gott der Vater hat bereit,
Daß ihr mit uns im Himmelreich
Sollt leben nun und ewiglich.
He brings those blessings, long ago
Prepared by God for all below;
Henceforth His kingdom open stands
To you, as to the angel bands.
5. So merket nun das Zeichen recht:
Die Krippe, Windelein so schlecht,
Da findet ihr das Kind gelegt,
Das alle Welt erhält und trägt.
These are the tokens ye shall mark,
The swaddling clothes and manger dark;
There shall ye find the young child laid,
By whom the heavens and earth were made.
6. Des laßt uns alle frölich sein
Und mit den Hirten gehn hinein,
Zu sehn, was Gott uns hat beschert,
Mit seinem lieben Sohn verehrt.
Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Follow the shepherds, and draw near
To see this wondrous gift of God
Who hath His only Son bestowed.
7. Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin!
Was liegt dort in dem Krippelein?
Wes ist das schöne Kindelein?
Es ist das liebe Jesulein.
Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
Who is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.
8. Sei mir willkommen, edler Gast!
Den Sünder nicht verschmähet hast
Und kommst ins Elend her zu mir,
Wie soll ich immer danken dir?
Welcome to earth, Thou noble guest,
Through whom e'en wicked men are blest!
Thou com'st to share our misery,
What can we render, Lord, to Thee!
Matthias Grünewald: The nativity, central panel of Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1515, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar
9. Ach, Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding,
Wie bist du worden so gering,
Daß du da liegst auf dürrem Gras,
Davon ein Rind und Esel aß!
Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How hast Thou made Thee weak and small,
That Thou must choose Thy infant bed
Where ass and ox but lately fed!
10. Und wär’ die Welt vielmal so weit,
Von Edelstein und Gold bereit’,
So wär sie doch dir viel zu klein,
Zu sein ein enges Wiegelein.
Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
She yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
11. Der Sammet und die Seide dein,
Das ist grob Heu und Windelein,
Darauf du König groß und reich
Herprangst, als wär's dein Himmelreich.
For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou King, so rich and great,
As 'twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.
12. Das hat also gefallen dir,
Die Wahrheit anzuzeigen mir:
Wie aller Welt Macht, Ehr und Gut
Vor dir nichts gilt, nichts hilft noch tut.
Thus hath it pleased Thee to make plain
The truth to us poor fools and vain,
That this world's honour, wealth and might
Are nought and worthless in Thy sight.
13. Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein,
Mach dir ein rein, sanft Bettelein,
Zu ruhen in meins Herzens Schrein,
Das ich nimmer vergesse dein.
Ah! dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
14. Davon ich allzeit fröhlich sei,
Zu springen, singen immer frei
Das rechte Susaninne schon,
Mit Herzenslust den süßen Ton.
My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I too must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song—
15. Lob, Ehr sei Gott im höchsten Thron,
Der uns schenkt seinen ein’gen Sohn.
Des freuen sich der Engel Schar
Und singen uns solch neues Jahr.
Glory to God in highest Heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad New Year to all the earth.


The Canonic Variations were among the works included in J. G. Schicht's four-volume anthology of Bach's organ music (1803–1806), prior to the publication of Bach's complete organ works in 1847 by Griepenkerl and Roitzsch in Leipzig. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms all studied the Variations, annotating their personal copies of Schicht. Mendelssohn himself composed a 6 movement cantata on "Vom Himmel hoch" in 1831 for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra, opening with the same descending figures as those in Bach's Variation 1.[10]


Selected recordings


  1. Williams 2003, p. 513
  2. In die Societät ist er in Jahr 1747 Junius .. ... etreten ... Zur Societät hat er den Choral geliefert: Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, vallständig ausgearbeitet, der hernach in Kupfer gestochen werden.
  3. Bach CPE, Agricola F. Nekrolog auf Johann Sebastian Bach. Vol 4, pt 1. Leipzig, Germany: LC Mizler Muzikalische Bibliothek; 1754.
  4. Williams 2003, pp. 512–516
  5. Yearsley 2002, pp. 112–113
  6. Williams 2003
  7. Yearsley 2002
  8. Williams 2003, p. 516
  9. Williams 2003, p. 516
  10. Stinson 2006
  11. Bach-Tscherlitzky arrangements on
  12. Bach-Vuataz arrangements on
  13. Strauss, Joseph N. (1986), "Recompositions by Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Webern", Musical Quarterly, LXXII (3): 301–427, doi:10.1093/mq/lxxii.3.301


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