Bach's Well Tempered Psalter

© 2004, 2011 by Ed Kotski, All Rights Reserved

Bach's Secret

Bach had a secret way of writing music, and shortly after surviving the attacks of September 11, 2001, I discovered what it was. He frequently used liturgical texts, and sometimes their associated Gregorian melodies, as frameworks for his instrumental pieces, the way a builder uses blueprints and scaffolding when putting up a cathedral. Today, we can work backwards, and by trial and error find the words Bach used. Once we've found the words, we can test a candidate Gregorian melody to see how things go together.

For more on Bach's relationship to 9-11-2001, see www.JSBachFOA.Org for my articles on the Goldberg Variations and on the World Trade Center attack.

Latin and Music

Latin is the natural language of music for three reasons: First, it is rich in pleasant sounding syllables; Second, its accents lend themselves to settings with and without regular meter; and Third, it comes with a huge library of music and words which make excellent templates for new compositions. In simple terms, Latin sounds good when it's sung and there's lots of it out there just waiting to be used. (I originally said "just begging", which is a good expression until I realized that Latin should never beg - never. Shame on me.)

We take for granted the Latin settings of the B Minor Mass and the Magnificat, but Bach also relied heavily, although not exclusively, on Latin texts as inspiration for his instrumental music. Many of his best known keyboard works, both for Harpsichord and Organ, are based on prayers from the old Mass, passages from the Bible (especially the Psalms), and the great chants and hymns of the medieval Church.

In fact, these are some of the most beautiful and durable works known to man, and it shouldn't surprise us that Bach's music absorbed both their beauty and their endurance. Composers were always on the lookout for a good librettist, and Bach found the best of them all.

Program Music

His keyboard works, especially the Inventions and the Well Tempered Clavier, are often thought to be "pure" music, without special effects like gunfire or the sound of swarming fleas. This view is wrong, if you know where to look. Here are a few of examples.

Joy - 2 Part Invention Number 5, E Flat. See how joyful it when two brothers get along.

Tolling of a Funeral Bell - Prelude 2 in C Minor from Book 1. I played a lot of funerals, and I've Heard the Bell Toll. For a while the bell button was on the organ console and the sexton would come up to the choir loft, reach over me, and push it. Bach used the same effect in the G Minor Prelude from the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues. The clue is in the accompanying (WTC) fugue, which fits the words of "Laudate Pueri Dominum". This Psalm used to be sung during the funeral procession, while bringing the body to the church.

Flowing Water - 3 Part Invention Number 2, C Minor, "The Lord is My Shepherd". The Latin says aquam refectionis, or refreshing water (in the sense of water which restores or repairs). The strings of sixteenth notes and trills (beginning in measure 5) sound watery to me, maybe because I've heard so many others use the same idea (with flutes) to depict streams.

Bad Things are Coming - Prelude 20 in A Minor from Book 1. The Prelude is exactly that. The Fugue is "In Exitu Israel" which describes the Israelites' flight out of Egypt, including the parting of the Red Sea. If you don't want to read the psalm, you can watch the movie.

There are more examples, and I've pointed them out in my comments on specific pieces.

The Psalms

Bach changed my attitude about the Psalms. I had listened to snippets of them in Church, but they didn't capture my interest until I had to read them in Latin. Then I found out how much I had missed.

I learned Latin in a Jesuit high school, and the Jesuits taught me well. Even so, I never guessed how much pleasure Latin would give me later in life. Looking back, I've wondered why they didn't teach us from the Vulgate, with the classics as supplements. Now I think I know. The Psalms are earthy. For example, Psalm 126 speaks to the ages and might explain why Bach had so many children. "Beatus vir qui implevit etc." I'll leave this one to you. It's time to get your feet wet, anyway.

When my grandfather was a boy, the mills would hang out a sign "Help Wanted - No Irish Need Apply". Unfortunately for the mill owners, who had outgrown their need for divine guidance, the Irish applied themselves very well indeed, and that was the end of the sign, the town hall, and eventually the White House.

It took me a couple of years to realize that I liked Latin. It took me a little longer to find out that I liked math, too. Mr. (later, Father) Woods S.J. gave me a 4 (out of a possible 100) on a freshman algebra test and then followed with some very good advice. The test had 25 problems, and the answers were multiple choice. A monkey could have guessed six of the answers correctly, but I only got one. "What happened?" Mr. Woods asked. I ran out of time, I said. "Oh no you didn't, you had plenty of time. I watched you. You spent the entire period staring out the window, daydreaming. You need to be careful of that. Learn to concentrate on what you're doing". And I've tried to do just that.

Which Version did Bach Use?

There are actually several versions of the Psalms and of the Vulgate. I found an excellent web article by Michael Tweedale, in which he discusses the merits and drawbacks of various editions of the Vulgate, along with his own research for his digital edition of the Clementine Vulgate ("The" Vulgate, for centuries the official Catholic Bible), which he has made available to the public. I've included the address of his site in the references.

Incidentally, different versions of the Bible number the Psalms differently. The low-numbered and the high-numbered Psalms generally are the same in the Vulgate and in the King James family, but the ones in between differ by one.

I suppose Bach relied on Luther's Hebrew based German Bible for theology, but for a lot of his music, he used Latin.

I'm reasonably sure Bach used both Latin services (the equivalent of the Liber Usualis in whatever form he had available) and the Vulgate itself. The Vulgate was authorized by Pope Clement VIII and dates back to the Council of Trent in the late Fifteen Hundreds. This was more or less the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church until the Twentieth Century. The more or less part applies especially to the Psalms. At least two official versions of the Psalms, both edited by Jerome, were used in Bach's time, and Bach used both. The older of the two is known as the Roman Psalter. The somewhat newer is called the Gallican Psalter. Many of the Psalms are the same, except for a few words here and there.

My own copy of the Vulgate contains two versions of the Psalms, the original Gallican, and a revised set introduced by the Vatican in the early 1900's. This urge to tamper with perfection led to one more instance of art imitating life, as it seems to have given Hollywood the idea of recycling classic films. I received this insight while watching a remake of Miracle on 34th Street.

Some of the religious orders had their own preference for which Psalm texts they used, mixing and matching. Bach learned his Latin and his Psalms as a boy, singing at services. My Liber Usualis, published in 1953, refers to Benedictine traditions which I suspect go back at least a few hundred years, which would put us in Bach's time. I'd seek out a helpful Benedictine for guidance, but I don't want to take out my reference to the Jesuits. Oy vay.

The Liber has most of the Psalms (including accent marks), and while many of them agree word for word with the Psalms of the Vulgate, there are some significant differences.

For example, Psalm 94 (Venite Exultemus Domino) caused me all sorts of trouble. I recognized very early that this magnificent Psalm is the foundation of the great organ fugue in G Major (BWV 541) but I couldn't keep the notes and text together - at an early point, the music simply rejected the words. I finally stumbled on the solution. First, the version Bach used is not from the Vulgate, it's from the Roman Psalter, and the words are slightly different. Second, and more importantly, he took the Psalm from the Matins service on Pentecost (Whit Sunday) where the choir several times intersperses an Invitatory (Alleluia Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum: venite adoremus alleluia) and then the opening lines of the Psalm. All of a sudden, the words fit the music perfectly.

Most of Bach's fugues end with a Gloria Patri, implying that he did not always take words directly from the Bible, but instead duplicated the way the Psalms were traditionally sung in service. The Gloria Patri is the most common add on, sometimes yielding that honor to the Requiem Aeternam. It's no surprise that most of Bach's fugues end with what sounds like an Amen. So does the Gloria Patri.


Be careful if you decide to read the Psalms in Latin - their words and imagery are addictive, and you could find yourself quoting them inadvertently. No one will understand you, and you might be thought a little odd. This is an occupational risk for any reader, but Latin makes it worse.

Medieval scholars incorporated so much scripture into their own writings that "their work dripped with references from the Psalms", according to someone whose name I don't remember. Even I, who am only half medieval (on my mother's side), can't look up at the night sky without thinking Quoniam videbo caelos tuos ... For I will look up at your heavens, from Psalm 8.

English Translation

The Douay Rheims Bible, edited by Bishop Challoner in the mid 1700's, is as accurate a translation as any. I've used Challoner extensively in this work, but in a few places the translations are my own, and should be taken with a grain of salt, as they say in English.

One interesting result of doing my own translations is that I re-discovered a few characteristics of the Psalms that were lost during my own lifetime. Modern translations de-emphasize the God of the Old Testament, the God of Power and Might, in favor of a more New Testament Savior preaching mercy and kindness. Some passages have even been re-worded to remove their sharp edges, so to understand what Bach had in mind when he wrote his music, we should go directly to the source.

Here are a couple of examples of the softening that has gone on. I once heard a choir sing an arrangement of Psalm 8, in English. It happens to be one of my favorites, because of its word pictures (eg, of fish "walking" along the pathways of the sea). In the English rendition, the fish were swimming, but what really struck me was that a line was missing.

The psalm describes the cries of young infants, and calls them sounds of praise, but the missing line explains why a howling baby is such a good thing. The reason, which the Latin version makes perfectly clear, is that eventually the baby will stop crying and will grow up. Then, as a man, he will have the strength to destroy the enemy and the evil doer.

In today's liturgy, "sons" are out and "children" are in. Not so in the Latin, not so. The Psalms are bubbling over with sons, while daughters are hardly mentioned - I once did a word count and found that there are about ten sons to every daughter. The old stress was on how useful it is to have big, strapping sons who can stand with you when trouble knocks on your door.

Still, there are times when Latin needs a little help. When Rosemary and I were married, the Wedding Mass was standardized. One of the readings was a passage from Psalm 127, which in English used to go "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home, and your children like olive plants around your table." In Latin, it's sons, but children really is a better choice.

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