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Romantic Interpretations of Bach's Organ Music

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  • Romantic Interpretations of Bach's Organ Music

    This post is inspired by postings on "The Well-Tempered Clavier on organ," which I have been enjoying. I am not posting there, because it might seem like I am going a bit to far off topic.

    When I was a student, the organ world was invigorated by exposure to the old organs of Europe, the Werkprinzip, and the
    Orgelbewegung or Organ Reform Movement. My college organ professor drank the Kool-Aid and exposed his students to a rather limited repertoire of German Baroque and 20th century pieces, by composers like Helmut Walcha. He thought Brahms was OK, but generally eschewed anything Romantic or French. We were taught the "correct" tempos and performance practices, at least as understood at the time. This era was clearly a pendulum swing away from Romanticism.

    One day I was practicing "Es ist das Heil" from the Orgelbuchlein. I was playing from Albert Riemenschneider's edition, which lists tempo suggestions from other editions. Barenreiiter suggested a tempo of 72 for the quarter note. Guilmant suggested 72 for the eighth note! I checked my own tempo and I was playing it at Barenreiter's speed. I decided it would befun to play it at the Guilmant tempo. As soon as I did this, I realized that I needed to change the registration. I took off all the higher pitches and used most of the 8' flues. I then decided that the tempo should have a bit of elasticity.

    As I was doing this, something interesting began to happen. What started as a break in my practice turned into a revelation of some interesting things in Bach's piece that I had not heard before. This experiment changed the way I play this piece. While I reverted to my previous tempo and registration, I began to have more nuance in my playing, My tempo had a bit of subtle elasticity. The biggest lesson I learned is that even people with a very different interpretation from me, can provide useful insights into the music.


    Bill

    My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk

  • #2
    While I don't embrace a completely romantic interpretation of Baroque music, I do think that musicality is an important part of playing any instrument, and I don't think the essence of that has changed over time. After all, if all we wanted was a mechanical interpretation then a music box would suffice. Subtle variations in timing are an inherent part of having a human play the music.

    I think the Chorale portion of Bach's prelude in D (BWV 532) if often played to fast to appreciate the stately nature of this section of the work, and often on too rich of a registration.

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    • #3
      The important point for me is that we are open to exploring multiple possibilities in the interpretation of music - that includes a given performer changing the way the perform a piece at each instance. Regardless of which aesthetic pleases ones ears, subscribing to the thought that there is one and only way way to play a piece of music nips off the bud of creative music making before the fruit even has a chance to grow. When the exclusive singular perspective is allowed to prevail, music is reduced to a series of comparatives: if one completes all the items on the checklist one is considered successful, nothing more nothing less. The music becomes muszeumized, and on lookers are encouraged to worship the aesthetic idealism, and not observe or bear witness to the creation in-the-moment. However, if we allow our ears to truly listen and our mind to be open, there is a wealth of art to be made and discovered.

      As voet noted above, one can learn much by simply exploring the possibilities and contrasts of approaches. One does not have to commit to an approach or even like it, but being open to investigation of alternatives can provide insight into ones own music making.

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      • #4
        It’s a good thought voet. While I’m not fully on the side of what quantum said, I think his sentiment has value. The performer is communicating how they see a piece of music and that variation is the essence of performing. I do think performers should make an effort to understand the way the composer saw the piece and be faithful to that vision, but we all see things differently and the performer must be authentic in how they see it as an individual to be an effective communicator.
        Viscount C400 3-manual
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        • #5
          After my original post, I watched a YouTube of Charles Tompkins coaching David Kiser on registrating Buxtehude's "Toccata in F Major" on the Fisk organ in Daniel Chapel at Furman University. It is an interesting clip. Here is the link:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoFLMr90KCQ

          He offered many intersting ideas about registering that piece. To Quantum's point, he suggests several alternatives.

          However, one comment he made really got my attention. At about 12:30 Tompkins says to chose a registration appropriate to the organ you are playing. He uses the example of playing on an E. M. Skinner and suggests that you might want to chose a registration and style appropriate to that period. This is a really interesting idea. How many organists complain that the instrument they are playing does not do an authentic job for a particular piece. I had the good fortune to play an E. M. Skinner for a number of years and it is still one of my favorite organs. As a church organist, I played a lot of Bach. Authentic? Well, not an authentic German Baroque sound, but in its own way, it handled Bach nicely. I certainly was not willing to limit myself to only play literature that might be best suited for that organ.

          I used to go to Europe every summer and heard many organ concerts there. The Europeans play French Romantic literature on organs that do not have swell boxes or celestes. That does not stop them; and they manage to capture the spirit of the music in spite of what many would consider serious limitations.
          Bill

          My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk

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          • #6
            For whatever reason the link in Post #5 is not alive. This one may be more convenient: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoFLMr90KCQ

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            • #7
              Originally posted by voet View Post
              I used to go to Europe every summer and heard many organ concerts there. The Europeans play French Romantic literature on organs that do not have swell boxes or celestes. That does not stop them; and they manage to capture the spirit of the music in spite of what many would consider serious limitations.
              Not only do Germans play French music on German (and Dutch) instruments without celestes or even strings but the French play Bach (and Buxtehude, etc.) on Cavaille-Colls! Sacre bleu, but what are you going to do if you are a well rounded French musician working with a very French instrument? It probably wouldn't be the thing to bring $10K of recording equipment into Saint Sulplice to record the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, but probably someone has done just that at some point in time.

              It makes me smile (not) the way some people angrily denounce any performance of a work they like that isn't done exactly the way ____________ does (or did) it. Really? Why bother then? Try as I might I cannot play any piece of Bach exactly the way E.Power Bigg's did. Nor can Chris Houlihan. Not exactly. The critics fail to understand that time marches on. Chris has got to eat. Bigg's died fat and happy and if future organists have to play just like Bigg's they will all starve because the box sets of Bigg's performances are all there on Amazon for a song.

              Mostly the critics are not organists (the worst kind of critic btw) sometimes not even are they musicians. As a musician I have met my share of people who once were musicians. Serious musicians. On the way to concert careers. Sadly they met with mental breakdowns and/or crippling neuromuscular injuries trying to play to an unattainable performance model. Cameron Carpenter just might be the worlds most despised musician but he is unlikely to be sidelined with a mental breakdown from trying to play just like Chris Houlihan or Felix Hell!

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              • #8
                Well, if I have to be honest... I do have recordings of baroque works on romantic organs and romantic works on baroque organs and baroque works on baroque organs and romantic works on romantic organs. But with a good organist, a baroque work on a baroque organ or a romantic work on a romantic organ will always sound better than the other combinations or a mediocre or worse organist. Somehow playing the work on an organ it was intended for will always be that bit better that makes the difference. It just gells, no second thoughts that maybe...

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Leisesturm View Post
                  For whatever reason the link in Post #5 is not alive. This one may be more convenient: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoFLMr90KCQ
                  Leisesturm, thank you for providing the ability to click on the link. I guess I do not know how to do that on this forum. I apologize to anyone who was frustrated by that.
                  Bill

                  My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by voet View Post
                    Leisesturm, thank you for providing the ability to click on the link. I guess I do not know how to do that on this forum. I apologize to anyone who was frustrated by that.
                    Probably a good time to direct people to the FAQ for instructions on the preferred way of linking videos to posts by embedding them.
                    https://www.organforum.com/forums/sh...l=1#post288417
                    -Admin

                    Allen 965
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