Jump to content
Mander Organ Builders Forum

Is It Bach?


Vox Humana
 Share

Recommended Posts

If philosophical topics aren't your cup of tea, read no further! On the other hand, if anyone cares to debate it, I'd be interested to read your views. It's a matter I've pondered from time to time without yet reaching any firm conclusion.

 

A question was asked on another thread about what type of organ you can play Bach on and whether all his works require the same type of organ. My eye was caught by this response: "it's a question of making Bach's organ music work on the instrument at your disposal and making a musical effort of it."

 

Now this begs some interesting questions (well, they're interesting to me!) We may get it to work, but is it still Bach? What exactly it is that constitutes a given piece by Bach - or anyone else for that matter? It certainly isn't the dots on the page, which are no more than a notoriously imprecise mechanism for composers to attempt to communicate their compositions to others. I would suggest that the composition itself exists at a somewhat more intellectual level: the sound in the composer's head, or at his finger tips. However much we try, we cannot know exactly how Bach played and interpreted his music. We can call on historical evidence and scholarly arguments to produce the most honest approximation we can, but true "authenticity" is impossible.

 

So at what point does an interpretation of the given piece cease to become Bach? Is there even any point in trying understand how he would have played it?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I can answer you from an historian's point of view.

 

If we lose the original instrument, we lose the music, even

if we can re-interpret it with something else.

You can play Couperin on a piano.....You can. But it

won't be satisfying, and save if we re-invent the clavichord

the music will soon vanish.

 

The history of the organ is one of ruthless updating according

to fast changing fashions.

Up to a point a need was felt to "go back"....To something that

did never exist, but was tought to be "baroque" organs.

Today we cherish the ancient organs we still have, at least, this

is the positive side of the "Reform".

The negative one is everyone wants "would be this or that"

ancient-style organs.

So we have nor correct baroque nor really modern organs,

only "would-be". With the exception of the ancient organs

we still have, and the few builders that dare do something different.

 

If we have some "Trost-organs" -credible ones- in an area, playing Bach

after an innovative manner on a post-symphonic organ would be completely

harmless; the reference would still be there.

If there are only post-symphonic organs and innovative Bach playing, then we'd

be in trouble.

You may like a presentation of Shakespeare with a modern scenery from time

to time; not every time. We need to be able to do it credibly too.

 

So my "belief" is we need to maintain old organs -from all styles without

dropping one because of "music box" judgments and the like- and to build

credible copies (not neo-baroque interpretations), while at the same time

we need innovative organs.

The present-day situation is therefore a bad one and the organ as a living

musical instrument is endangered.

 

Best wishes,

Pierre

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I suspect that this is rather like trying to ascertain the number of angels which can stand on the head of a pin.

 

I am also not sure if things are worse, now. It must surely be better than the '20s and '30s, when JSB was played with as many 8p stops as possible - with the addition of the Swell reeds occasionally. Generally, fugues were treated softly at the start, with a gradual crescendo towards the end, when the Tuba was brought into play - and the roof fell down.

 

Then there were the '50s and '60s, when quite a number of players started playing Bach as if the keys had been heated to a temperature slightly in excess of boiling point.

 

Then there was Cochereau.

 

Listen to his recording of the JSB Prelude and Fugue in C (BWV 547 - the 9/8 one). Personally, I think that it is brilliant. Yes, there are mistakes - but to me, he makes the music come alive. As VH has said - since we do not know exactly how JSB played, in a sense, all efforts at 'authenticity' will prove self-defeating. Whilst I am not suggesting that the great JSB would necessarily have used chamades 8p and 4p coupled to the pedals for the downwards arpeggio figurations, I do think that this particular interpretation conveys excitement and life. His treatment, too, of the Fugue follows closely the thickening of the texture - building up to the tutti (with chamades); then, as the texture thins out - a decrescendo, ending very quietly on one or two 8p bourdons.

 

A few years ago I heard a broadcast of a cathedral organist playing Bach. It was one of those broadcasts where the performer spoke about his registration. He informed us that he was going to use two contrasting choruses, with one stop of each pitch (the instrument was a Harrison, incidentally) with Pedals to balance and, oh yes - a light reed on the pedals. He then played (perfectly) the P&F. There followed another P&F - with the same registration. At which point, I turned off, because I was, franky, bored. It all sounded the same - and somewhat lifeless. The music had become a slave to a pre-conceived notion of 'historically-accurate' registration - and then imposed on a much-rebuilt romantic/eclectic organ.

 

I freely confess that I often treat the Fugue of the P&F in C minor (BWV 546) almost Romantically - I commence on GPR tutti fonds 8p - and gradually build - often one stop at a time, until I add the rest of the Positive chorus to the full Pedal, GO and Swell - in other words, full organ - minus the chamades. Other Preludes (and Fantasias/Toccati) I treat differently - I try to approach each one with a fresh viewpoint - I do not always play the same piece in the same way, with the same registration - even on the same instrument. Rather, my performance style is informed according to the occasion - and the space to be filled.

 

Others may feel that this approach is not for them. Fair enough. I just dislike hearing Bach played the same way with a 'standard so-called Baroque' registration throughout - with minimal changes of manual. If one is playing to an audience of musicologists this may well be appropriate. For the average man in the pew, I suspect that it is doing a great dis-service to some of the most sublime music ever written.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There was a time when I took music a lot more seriously than I do now, if only for the reason that I now work well away from it and practise-time is severley limited.

 

However, in my post-student days, I took the trouble to travel: always the inspiration being musical and especially concerned with the organ. I therefore went to America and played organs by Skinner, Aeolian-Skinner, Fisk and Flentrop among others. I went to Holland several times to hear and play possibly the best preserved organs in Europe (as a region). Naturally, I have played many, many English organs, including some of the best neo-baroque ones, and in fact lived with one, on and off, for the best part of 30 years and never tired of its' beauty.

 

As a musician, I lean towards the baroque, but love to perform romantic music; especially that which is contrapuntal in nature....Reger before Dupre or Vierne any day.

 

That establishes a certain credential, a certain passion and a lasting interest in contrapuntal form and writing.

 

So when I played Bach, the question always presented itself as to how Bach would have played his own music; given that the organs he played did not have many of the features of later instruments.

 

Obvious enough so far perhaps, but when I travelled to Holland after the US, I did not quite expect the free lesson the old organs taught me. Like so many, there was a time when I would play Bach too fast, with cavalier disregard for the natural crescendi in Bach fugues; adding this Mixture with the flick of a thumb, or that battery of reeds for the big ending.

 

I was extremely fortunate, in that the first organ I played in Holland was Alkmaar, and off I launched into the B-minor P&F with gusto; coming to a screeching halt after just twelve bars. My Dutch host aqnd friend smiled knowingly.

 

I knew immediately that what I was doing was much the same thing as trying to drive an old Le Mans Bentley as if it were a super-light Formula 1 car. The superlative F C Schnitger was talking to me, and demanded that I listen.....so I did.

 

The mechanical-action required a deliberate and concerted control, and it certainly would not be rushed. I couldn't add stops on the fly or on a whim and fancy....they were too far away to reach.

 

My only means of expression was restricted to nuances of phrasing on the one hand, and within a strictly overall metronomic regularity, the possibility of allowing some degree of elasticity as if to emphasise this point or that in the music.

 

Slowly but surely, the organ and myself entered into a certain affinity, then a warm embrace, and finally, a new understanding devoid of compromise. The organ, the acoustic and everything which makes this such a special place, was my teacher.

 

I am not in the least ashamed to admit that the next day, when I had wound my way nervously up the stairs to the St Bavo, Haarlem console and drawn the stops to play the exact same piece (the B-minor P&F) I had played at Alkmaar the day before, I didn't come to a grinding halt at the twelfth bar, but simply marvelled at the music as tears flowed copiously down my face. My Dutch host smiled knowingly again when the music stopped, and then said, "Bravo! Now you understand, yes?"

 

I understood, but I couldn't possibly explain it.

 

MM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Clearly an Epiphany or, if you will, a 'Road to Damascus' experience, MM.

 

Whilst I would very much like to play Bach on these organs (every time I have visited Haarlem, Sint Bavo has been closed), I think there is also the point to which others have alluded - namely, that Bach is supremely adaptable.

 

I do not doubt that it did sound wonderful under the conditions which you described (I did know about the limitations on speed and registration); however, I think that it can sound equally wonderful - but in a different way - under other conditions, too.

 

Take the Forty-eight' - 'for the well-tempered clavier' - not clavichord, harpsichord or even organ. Bach did not specify, possibly because he knew that every situation is different - and that these pieces could be equally effective, yet different, on each of these instruments. His orchestrations of the cantatas - again there is some flexibilty; a melody one day given to the flute, the next day, to the oboe - depending upon the resources available.

 

My apologies, it is late and I realise that I am not explaining this very well.

 

I think that what I am trying to say - without in any way seeking to detract from the incredibly moving experience which you were kind enough to share - is that the music - his music - is supreme. It surely has the power to transcend different cultures and traditions, different instruments - and different occasions.

 

It is possible that, had I been in the loft at the time of the experience which you describe, I too would have been deeply moved. Yet at the same time, I can listen to a recording of Cochereau playing Bach - or Léfébvre playing the Choral De profundis at N.-D. (with a colleague suplying the upper part of the pedal doppio in octaves on the Récit chorus with chamades ) and also find this deeply moving.

 

Surely, at the end of the day, it is the music, this wonderful music of Bach that has the power to reach us, sometimes despite the nature of the vehicle utilised in the interpretation.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I confess that I do not have the musical ability or technical skill possessed by many of your correspondents. I do, though, love the music of JSB - I only wish I had studied and practised earlier in life so that I could play it well. No other composer I have heard has the same power to move, to thrill, to overwhelm with his genius. I recall Peter Hurford, I think, telling on the radio that when he had recorded the Passaglia and Fugue, he was unable to speak for some time afterwards. I have never had that experience, but I think I can understand what he was saying.

One point bothers me in all discussions of JSB's music. It sometimes feels as if we imagine that his own playing of his music was somehow static; that he used the same registration, played at the same speed, whichever instrument he was playing, whatever occasion. Our own experience of playing different Organs shows this cannot be true - witness MM.'s experience at Alkmaar and Haarlem (and I echo the thanks expressed for his sharing of his experiences).

Bach was a practical musician, using his own and other people's music in different forms for different purposes. Which is authentic? Does it matter? I have enjoyed JSB in so many different places, played so many different ways, on so many different styles of Organ, from ancient instruments to modern, big and small - as I am sure we all have - and have also been bored by a too technically correct but lifeless rendering on some ocasions also. Surely, what matters is not that we use 'authentic' registrations, on Organs of the right type, but that we approach his music with the respect it deserves, and (as with all musical interpretation) try to use such skill as we have to bring out some of the spirit of the man, to reveal whatever it was he was trying to say, regardless of the instrument we are using. I believe that means there are times when we have to admit defeat with some pieces. Some just do not 'go' on a given instrument; something about the sound produced just doesn't sound right.

Will it ever be perfect? Of course not; but much marvellous music making will take place, many will, we trust, be moved and uplifted by the music. Surely we can ask for no more.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Clearly an Epiphany or, if you will, a 'Road to Damascus' experience, MM.

 

 

 

============================

 

Quite right, but I also agree that Bach often transcends the limitations of the medium.

 

One of the finest performances I ever heard of a Bach "48" was on a Steinway piano, where the performer did everything a harpsichordists wouldn't dare or be able to do.

 

With delight, I recall being in York Minster listening to the St.Matthew's Passion, sitting alongside a friend who had tears in his eyes as he listened.

 

"You're Jewish!" I hissed.

 

"This is Bach!" He replied.

 

That says it all, doesn't it?

 

MM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

============================

 

Quite right, but I also agree that Bach often transcends the limitations of the medium.

 

One of the finest performances I ever heard of a Bach "48" was on a Steinway piano, where the performer did everything a harpsichordists wouldn't dare or be able to do.

 

With delight, I recall being in York Minster listening to the St.Matthew's Passion, sitting alongside a friend who had tears in his eyes as he listened.

 

"You're Jewish!" I hissed.

 

"This is Bach!" He replied.

 

That says it all, doesn't it?

 

MM

 

That is wonderful, MM - thank you!

 

On the subject of our Jewish friends, I do have a copy of the [in]famous recordings by you-know-who - complete with sotto voce grunting and groaning throughout....

 

Call me cautious - but I am willing to bet that Bach never did that!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Surely, at the end of the day, it is the music, this wonderful music of Bach that has the power to reach us, sometimes despite the nature of the vehicle utilised in the  interpretation.

 

... needing an artist who understands what this music is about and who is able to naturally convince/move the audience with his understanding (of both this music and his instrument).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

JSB -  No other composer I have heard has the same power to move, to thrill, to overwhelm with his genius.

 

I recall Peter Hurford, I think, telling on the radio that when he had recorded the Passaglia and Fugue, he was unable to speak for some time afterwards.

 

==========================

 

 

Maybe this is why the Dutch so love the music of Max Reger; making due allowance for the dark melancholy which often prevails. Reger wrote some very deep music, though he could ramble a bit at times.

 

On the second point, I recall being similarly stunned into silence by Dr Francis Jackson performing the Bach "St.Anne" at Leeds PC, and Fernando Germani playing Reger on the same organ.

 

The latter shouldn't make sense really, should it?

 

An organ with a varied pedigree, successive re-builds and no acoustic whatsoever!

 

It just goes to show.......

 

MM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A very interesting question.

 

I see a performance of a piece of music has 3 major elements: the piece of music, the performer and the instrument. Each of these has their own character to bring to the performance. The performer brings his own ideas and personality to the piece and the instrument also adds its own voice. I believe a performance of a piece of music is about interpreting it - bringing it to life - and communicating it.

 

I started having singing lessons a couple of years ago and I started to learn that skill of actually performing and communicating the piece of music before me. It's partly doing some "internal conducting" and partly communicating what the music is about to the people around me. It's almost like acting and bringing words to life with meaning. Yes, it is a question of looking at what the composer intended and was thinking about but ultimately, it's about my own interpretation of the composer's intentions and what I think he means and what I want to express. On the organ it's very easy (and necessary, in my case) to focus on the many technical aspects of playing the instrument that the skill to communicate through the music can be overlooked very easily.

 

So I'm beginning to think that the "what makes music" is as much about the performance of the dots on the page as the dots themselves. From the composer's viewpoint - and I've only written one piece of music (if you can call a psalm chant that) and I realise what I was thinking about when I wrote it I was not the "correct" way of singing it but what the possibilities were for interpreting the dots on the page. I was thinking "how would choir x sing this chant to verse n in psalm a?" and "how would choir y sing it to psalm b?" Perhaps rather than look for the authentic way of playing Bach we should look for the possibilities for interpretation that Bach had in mind. Perhaps he was wondering how would J.G.Walter play his new Prelude and Fugue under his pen on the town church organ in Weimar or how Willhem Friedman would play it in the Johannes Kirche in Leipzig.

 

I believe that one of qualities of Bach's music is the sheer number and qualities of possibilities of interpreting his music -unparrelled anywhere else - and another quality is its inscrutability. It is this that makes me come back to it time and again and I believe the reason why there is so much debate about how to interpret his music. It never quite gives definitive answers to the questions it raises.

 

I was extremely fortunate, in that the first organ I played in Holland was Alkmaar, and off I launched into the B-minor P&F with gusto; coming to a screeching halt after just twelve bars. My Dutch host aqnd friend smiled knowingly.

 

I knew immediately that what I was doing was much the same thing as trying to drive an old Le Mans Bentley as if it were a super-light Formula 1 car. The superlative F C Schnitger was talking to me, and demanded that I listen.....so I did.

 

The mechanical-action required a deliberate and concerted control, and it certainly would not be rushed. I couldn't add stops on the fly or on a whim and fancy....they were too far away to reach.

 

My only means of expression was restricted to nuances of phrasing on the one hand, and within a strictly overall metronomic regularity, the possibility of allowing some degree of elasticity as if to emphasise this point or that in the music.

 

Slowly but surely, the organ and myself entered into a certain affinity, then a warm embrace, and finally, a new understanding devoid of compromise. The organ, the acoustic and everything which makes this such a special place, was my teacher.

 

I also smiled knowingly when I read this. I had the exact same experience, down to Alkmaar being the first organ I played in Holland. In fact, the only difference was that I played the G minor F&F... but I justed wanted to say "I understand" too, MM, - and I certainly couldn't put it into words any better than you have.

 

The only thing I would add is that I experienced heaven on earth that day in that church and I can't explain it either.

 

I believe that we need to continue to look for those possibilities Bach was thinking about and the study of the "authentic" way Bach performed his music and the instruments he had at his disposal helps to shed new light and new perspective on how to interpret his music. And that is one reason why I support the authenticity movement.

 

Certainly, my visit to Holland taught me a huge lesson about how to play music - Bach especially - and it taught me that by making me listen and feel what the organ I was playing was "telling me". That's what I meant by "it's a question of making Bach's organ music work on the instrument at your disposal and making a musical effort of it".

 

Let me explain: When I got back from Alkmaar, I had a big revalation when I got back to the 1910 Walker I played at the time - all of a sudden, by listening to it and responding to what it wanted to do, Bach's music started to make sense on it, and I lost my frustration with it. I knew from my experiences at Alkmaar what to look out for and what effects it had and I suddenly realised that my organ - which I had all but written off before as hopelessly slow and dull - had a lot to give to the performance of Bach's music and had its own voice to add. Suddenly, I didn't mind the lack of an independant pedal division and no ruck positive - I suddenly realised the strengths of the organ I had and to play to those. I learnt how to play to that organ's strengths to bring Bach's music alive and let it have its voice and influence on the performance. Going to Alkmaar had taught me to work with what I had at my disposal, rather than dream about what I could do on "the ideal authentic organ" and try to emulate that and that a satisfying performance could result.

 

If I were to comment on many of today's organs, I would say that they seem to have lost that ability to educate and communicate like Alkmaar does through becoming equally versatile in all schools of music so that they have nothing to say. They appear to me to be blank canvasses that we are asked to paint on, leaving the performer and music to speak for themselves with as little interference from the organ as possible. You can perform a piece very well on them but a dimension has been lost. Perhaps they are victims of their own success. They'll let you play Bach at a snail's pace on all the 8s quite happily or at warp 9 overtaking the Battlestar Waynemarshall with 8' flute and mixture without communicating the slightest thing back to you about what's the best way to do it. But perhaps I'll lose my frustration for that when I finally become a recipient for a new organ.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Let me explain: When I got back from Alkmaar, I had a big revalation when I got back to the 1910 Walker I played at the time - all of a sudden, by listening to it and responding to what it wanted to do, Bach's music started to make sense on it, and I lost my frustration with it. I knew from my experiences at Alkmaar what to look out for and what effects it had and I suddenly realised that my organ - which I had all but written off before as hopelessly slow and dull - had a lot to give to the performance of Bach's music and had its own voice to add. Suddenly, I didn't mind the lack of an independant pedal division and no ruck positive - I suddenly realised the strengths of the organ I had and to play to those. I learnt how to play to that organ's strengths to bring Bach's music alive and let it have its voice and influence on the performance. Going to Alkmaar had taught me to work with what I had at my disposal, rather than dream about what I could do on "the ideal authentic organ" and try to emulate that and that a satisfying performance could result.

 

If I were to comment on many of today's organs, I would say that they seem to have lost that ability to educate and communicate like Alkmaar does through becoming equally versatile in all schools of music so that they have nothing to say. They appear to me to be blank canvasses that we are asked to paint on, leaving the performer and music to speak for themselves. You can perform a piece very well on them but a dimension has been lost. Perhaps they are victims of their own success. They'll let you play Bach at a snail's pace on all the 8s quite happily or at warp 9 overtaking the Battlestar Waynemarshall with 8' flute and mixture without communicating the slightest thing back to you about what's the best way to do it. But perhaps I'll lose my frustration for that when I finally become a recipient for a new organ.

 

Some good points, Colin.

 

My first experience of organs in Holland was playing on Sweelink's old organ (although 'restored' in the 19th Century) in the Oude Kirk, Amsterdam. This was probably less illuminating than your own at Alkmaar, since the Amsterdam organ was somewhat the worse for wear, at the time.

 

I found your points regarding your 1910 Walker quite interesting - having myself, like many others here, played Bach on a variety of organs - some good and some not so good.

 

Do you have plans for a new organ, or is it just a pipe-dream (sorry)?

 

Best wishes.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some good points, Colin.

 

My first experience of organs in Holland was playing on Sweelink's old organ (although 'restored' in the 19th Century) in the Oude Kirk, Amsterdam. This was probably less illuminating than your own at Alkmaar, since the Amsterdam organ was somewhat the worse for wear, at the time.

Ah, yes. I played this organ too. They had just returned the tuning of the Sweelink organ to meantone temperament. I think it was actually a new organ in the old case. we also played the old Vater instrument along the west wall but it was in a terrible state of repair. I know they're looking at what to do with it.

 

I found your points regarding your 1910 Walker quite interesting - having myself, like many others here, played Bach on a variety of organs - some good and some not so good.

 

Do you have plans for a new organ, or is it just a pipe-dream (sorry)?

 

Best wishes.

Yes, I do have plans for a new organ. :P See www.twyford-organ.com for details. It will be installed later this year.... :P:P

 

All donations gratefully received.

 

BTW, I note you're upto message 666 pcnd. I hope that's not auspicious!!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ah, yes. I played this organ too. They had just returned the tuning of the Sweelink organ to meantone temperament. I think it was actually a new organ in the old case. we also played the old Vater instrument along the west wall but it was in a terrible state of repair. I know they're looking at what to do with it.

 

That is odd!

 

I was told that the west end organ was Sweelink's instrument - and that the smaller organ on the north wall (by the transept) was a newer instrument (a modern copy?).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That is odd!

 

I was told that the west end organ was Sweelink's instrument - and that the smaller organ on the north wall (by the transept) was a newer instrument (a modern copy?).

 

========================

 

The name of Jurgen Ahrend springs to mind from memory, but it was about 25 years ago when I played it.

 

NIce organ, as they all tend to be in Holland.....even the ones on the streets.

 

:P

 

MM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

========================

 

The name of Jurgen Ahrend springs to mind from memory, but it was about 25 years ago when I played it.

 

NIce organ, as they all tend to be in Holland.....even the ones on the streets.

 

:P

 

MM

I believe that's right. Isn't the case of the little organ (the Ahrend) from Sweelinck's organ? Heva?

 

The west gallery organ is, I think, approx 1760 by Vater. So a little after Sweelink's time.

 

Talking of streets, there are some interesting shop window displays around the Oude Kirk...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I believe that's right. Isn't the case of the little organ (the Ahrend) from Sweelinck's organ? Heva?

 

The west gallery organ is, I think, approx 1760 by Vater. So a little after Sweelink's time.

 

Talking of streets, there are some interesting shop window displays around the Oude Kirk...

 

The first parts of the transeptorgan date from 1658 by Hans Wolff Schonat, that's 37 years after Sweelinck's death.

 

The shop window displays pull out all the stops, if you pay them :P:P

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Shop windows - hmmm.... do you both mean those ones with the pink and blue neon lights and the ladies knitting in the windows....?

 

I think that they knit to order....

 

:P  :P

Knitting !?!? :P

 

hmmm, are you thinking of the same place? they don't do that any more. more likely to be listening to music on their ipods or browsing the internet.

 

I've never tried their skills pulling out all the stops on my organ. But I may give them a go. :P

 

Look at where out high minded philosophical discussion on Bach has got to! This is dreadful. It always seems to happen tho ...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Talking of streets, there are some interesting shop window displays around the Oude Kirk...

 

Reminds me of the day, many years ago when I was quite naive, taking out my camera to photograph the Oude Kerk, in all innocence.

 

All the nearby 'shop windows' were rapidly obscured by curtains. Realising my error, I beat a hasty retreat.

 

John

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...