Ein Feste Burg

For Organ
(2017) 4 minutes

Commissioned by William Whitehead for the Orgelbüchlein Project. Premiered by William Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms on 20th August 2017.

Programme note

I was delighted to be asked to be part of William Whitehead's Orgelbüchlein project, especially when it was suggested that I set Ein Feste Burg (Martin Luther's best known hymn). The idea of setting the tune as Bach might have done today really appealed, and allowed me to immerse myself in his compositional techniques and then take them off in directions I thought might of appealed to him if he had been composing in 2017. My setting features an exact (occasionally inverted) two part canon throughout (first between the soprano and alto parts, then the alto and bass). The hymn tune is played very slowly at the top of the texture, above the three other voices which gradually get faster and faster (each at different rates, so that at many times there are effectively three or four different pulses going on simultaneously). In addition, the organ gets louder and louder as the music speeds up, so that the full might of the RAH organ is felt at the end. My rather un-pious image when writing was of Martin Luther and his Mighty Fortress approaching at an increasing pace until they were millimetres away!

© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2017


"Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s take on the great Lutheran hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott sets itself apart in two important respects. First, it’s the only one of the three to sound demonstrably Germanic, and while i’m sure that’s not a condition of Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein Project, the fact that it’s setting out to complete a project of Bach’s perhaps suggests that this quality wouldn’t go amiss. But much more importantly, it’s the only example here of a meticulous and convincing musical argument. Quite how meticulous is hinted at in the work’s somewhat terrifying subtitle, “An occasionally inverted metrically-modulated two-part canon”. But that’s by the by, as the music’s aural immediacy is absolute. It starts in an almost absurd state of po-faced formality, entrenched in the early 1700s. But in no time at all, the music around the melody – which Frances-Hoad ensures has the intense focus of a laser-beam throughout – becomes increasingly complicated, its rhythmic and harmonic language evolving at an accelerating rate. Thus, what started out sounding like an undergrad counterpoint exercise quickly becomes a demonstration of extensive contrapuntal convolution, establishing an entirely new kind of musical coherence (see right; click to expand). It’s a process that pulls one in more and more as it advances, and before you know it you’re swept into the swirling maelstrom of its formidable climax, a fitting parallel to the metaphor of solidity in the text of the hymn. If anyone thought the chorale prelude was a spent idea, this piece emphatically proves otherwise.." 


"Cheryl Frances-Hoad treated Luther's best-known hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott by beginning with simple harmonic distortions but swelling to complex gargantuan force with, as she puts it, "Martin Luther and his Mighty Fortress approaching at an increasing pace until they were millimetres away"; Whitehead on the RAH monster applied due shock and awe. David Nice, The Artsdesk

"Whitehead skilfully displayed a different sort of control and attention in the growing pace and volume of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Prelude on that most famous of Reformation chorales, Ein feste Burg, which swelled with consistent momentum as the music came into clearer focus." Curtis Whitehead, Classical Source

Performance history (post-premiere)

18th May 2019 - William Whitehead at The Orgelpark - Amsterdam, Netherlands

29th October 2017 - Geoffrey Webber at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK 


Listen to William Whitehead's live performance on Youtube