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Bach from memory


DariusB
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A mention of Demessieux on Twitter reminded me that she was one of a select few to play all of Bach's organ works from memory. Does anyone know how many organists have achieved this?  I know about Dupre but not sure about anyone else.   I'm assuming it's not a huge number....

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Thanks Peter - I tried Google but was less successful than you.  I hadn't heard of Arthur Poister though - I looked him up and  his Wikipedia entry doesn't mention this feat.

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Peter Allison has beaten me to it.  I was going to say Paul Jacobs and Helmut Walcha, both of whom I have heard play Bach ‘live’ - but not the complete works!  Paul Jacobs played at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Helmut Walcha, long ago in the 1960s/ 70s at the RFH.  

I heard Helmut Walcha twice, and on both occasions he played the Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540.  He was led to the console by his wife who, I think, assisted with registration (the RFH organ probably had a single memory in those days) and there was a score on the music desk which puzzled me at the time, but was doubtless for his wife’s use. Performing the same work twice in a single season at the RFH was strictly not allowed by Ralph Downes, who kept a tight rein on all programmes and repertoire irrespective of however distinguished visiting performers were.  I think there must have been a gap of one or two years between the performances I heard.  His playing of BWV 540 was absolutely riveting on both occasions.

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On 03/05/2021 at 12:09, DariusB said:

 I hadn't heard of Arthur Poister though - I looked him up and  his Wikipedia entry doesn't mention this feat.

It’s confirmed in his obituary in ‘The American Organist’, 1980.  He did it a long time ago, spread over four months starting in October 1929, on a new Casavant Frères organ at the University of Redlands, California in 20 twice-weekly recitals.  This was a first for the USA, but Dupré had done it twice in Paris in 1920 and 1921.

There may be others yet to be discovered.  

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Helmut Walcha seems to be the only known case.  André Marchal and Alfred Hollins both played Bach, but there is no suggestion that either committed to memory and performed the entire works.  Obviously any information about others (whether sighted or blind) who have completed the marathon would be very welcome.

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  • 2 weeks later...

One day, Jeanne demessieux was to give an organ recital. At the time of the rehearsal, she notices that the organ was not tuned to A = 440! So, someone had to go buy him urgently all the sheet music for the evening concert! It is true (my piano teacher, Madeleine Each, was the artist's best friend).

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That raises interesting questions about perfect pitch and memory.  I find that with slow pieces I'm effectively 'playing by ear' if I memorise, so the wrong pitch would definitely put me off.  With fast complex pieces the memorisation is more mechanical so it might be less of a problem.

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