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Choosing Registration for the Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach

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  • Choosing Registration for the Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach

    In listening to performances of fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, have you wondered on what the performers based their choices of registration?

    I thought about this in listening to several recordings of the Great Fugue in g minor, BWV 542.

    I chose BWV 542 to discuss because it is a rather complex fugue with a principal subject, counter subject, and a second subject that enters twice. The principal subject is also used in the counterpoint, where motifs of the subject occur sequentially. This is the principal subject:

    Click image for larger version  Name:	01bwv-542-principal-subject.jpg Views:	0 Size:	54.8 KB ID:	663159

    The counter subject is stated four times in different octaves.

    Click image for larger version  Name:	02bwv-542-CSsubj.jpg Views:	0 Size:	134.2 KB ID:	663160

    This is the new subject, a four-note motif, that occurs twice in the composition.

    Click image for larger version  Name:	03bwv-542-2ndSubj.jpg Views:	0 Size:	57.9 KB ID:	663161

    One school of thought about registration favors Organo pleno (plein jeu, volles Werk, full organ). This is an example, a recent release by the Netherlands Bach Society of a performance by Leo van Doeselaar. He makes no registration changes. (Fugue begins at 6:07)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgDE3klkmtQ

    E. Power Biggs, however, does make registration changes, which show how he hears the composition in sections.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbbgic9Tv5M

    Even more extreme in registration changes is Xaver Varnus.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjsWJpR0We8

    Comments

    For many years, my preferred recording of this fugue has been by E. Power Biggs. It is much easier for me to follow what is going on, then a recording based on Organo pleno.

    What was Bach's approach? Ruth Elaine Dykstra, in her treatise on registration in the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach, writes that Bach indicated Organo pleno in 14 compositions, including the Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 542.

    In his article on BWV 542, William H. Bates writes,
    • Of the 32 manuscripts that transmit the fugue only two carry a registration indication. Written on the title pages by the respective copyist of the music, each directive reads "pro Organo pleno." Because only two manuscripts hold registration indications, it is therefore impossible to know if such a directive appeared in any of the fugue's primary sources.
    Bach scholar, Peter Williams, believes that Baroque composers' use of Organo pleno was intended for accompaniment and homophonic praeludia.

    As with many things in Baroque performance practice, lack of primary sources and recordings, and varying opinions of scholars, make it difficult for the listener to know what is "correct" with regard to registration.

    An interesting quote from the baroquemusic.org web site:
    • In the performance itself it is very important, particularly in the works of J S Bach, to display the "architecture" of the piece, especially in his organ preludes and fugues, many of which are constructed in the form of an arch with side pillars at beginning and end, curves and a keystone at the top, with excursions into carved embellishments along the way. A good performer will study the architecture and reflect it in performance through changes in registration.
    Biggs' performance using changes in registration reflects this approach.

    I thought I knew the structure of this piece from *many* hearings of the Biggs performance. However, when I heard the Xaver Varnus recording on Youtube, I became aware of much more in the piece. I downloaded the score and realized that this was a different approach altogether. Some examples.

    --> Varnus understates the initial pedal entrance - the fourth statement of the principal subject. Interesting, in that we have already heard the "tune" three times, so why blast it out? It also makes it easier to hear the marvelous counterpoint above. In Bigg's recording (and many others), the pedal is much louder/fuller in the opening section, and hides some of what is occuring in the manuals.

    --> Varnus' intentions become clear at a marvelous moment at 2:55 when the pedal line begins to increase in volume, descending along with the manuals to a long held note and following, and again at 3:24. The corresponding moment in the Biggs recording is at 3:15 and following.

    --> Another difference with Varnus is his phrasing of the new subject, the four-note group. He slurs the first two notes and detaches the last two. This gives a different "character" to this new melody. It occurs twice, at 2:20 and 4:30

    Click image for larger version  Name:	04bwv-542-2ndSubj-Xaver.jpg Views:	0 Size:	56.9 KB ID:	663162

    For me, this is an exciting, somewhat daring, interpretation quite different from anything I've heard.

    A question naturally arises: Did Baroque composers want listeners to be aware of the structure (architecture) of their fugues? If so, how best to achieve that end?

    Youtube is awash with many performances of this fugue with examples representing the three different approaches I've included above. Something for everyone!

    -richard
    Last edited by richj; 08-17-2019, 12:29 AM. Reason: correct spelling

  • #2
    Just a couple comments to start this off. There is more to say, but I need to check some resources first.

    --- Too many people forget that ARTICULATION is critical to performance.
    - BIGGS is a product of his time in that he just barely articulates. In the grand scheme of articulation, he still leans strongly toward a constant legato.
    - VARNUS, also a product of his time (the recording is made 30 years after the Biggs recording), leans away from legato. I found his playing a bit too detached for my taste. That could be the recording - the room doesn't seem too reverberant and could have handled a bit more legato.
    - DOESELAAR seems to be playing in the most reverberant room, so needs to articulate to prevent the piece from becoming muddy. When you point out how Varnus articulates the 4 eighth notes, I hear that in Doeselaar's playing, too. I also fine that Doeselaar incorporates a hierarchy of articulation, if you listen closely. Notes held for full value put more sound into the air than notes that are released early, thereby making them appear louder. Having access to a subtle gradation of note-lengths allows him to place the architectural components of the piece into foreground, middleground and background.

    Related to articulation., the rhythm of the various components needs to be considered. The head of the fugue subject starts on an upbeat with one eighth note, four sixteenths, then one eighth note. After an ascending octave leap, this pattern is repeated immediately. As far as I can tell, this pattern doesn't happen anywhere else in the fugue. If you look at the rhythms of all the other components, none of them have the same character (however you choose describe it) as this opening. If you articulate your eighths and sixteenths properly, you will clearly delineate the architecture of the piece. It is built in.

    Texture also contributes to the understanding of the architecture. Note how Bach goes from 1- to 2- to 3- to 4-part textures, then flows back and forth between these as the piece unfolds. 2-part texture with a light articulation will immediately sound different than all 4 parts with a heavier or bolder articulation.

    The option of registration and manual changes could still exist, but it is less necessary if you start with good articulation.

    Also worth considering - none of the performers played the cadences clearly enough for me. I add just a tiny dash of ritarde at cadential points. Also possible is a very slight hesitation to prepare for fugal entries. It's one of those things - if you hear it, it's probably too much. If it takes you unawares, it's probably just right. I admit that this point is open to interpretation.

    Comment


    • #3
      Rich,

      Thank you for your well-researched epistle regarding the registration of a Bach Fugue. Unfortunately, your topic wandered into performance practice as well. What you bring up clearly illustrates the changing views of both registration and performance practice during the 20th century.

      I'm not sure what you question was, but if it is about performance practice, I would say the performance practice should match the space, including the reverberation of the space. For example, if I were playing this fugue in Notre Dame (before the fire), I'd probably use as much note separation (staccato) as possible. However, in a dead, carpeted space, separation would need to be kept to a minimum.

      If your question is about registration, I would imagine it would need to be as clean as possible. At that time, there were certain conventions that were "understood," and certain elements of performance were "improvised." Those conventions also extended to ornamentation (i.e. mordents, inverted mordents, trills, etc.).

      So, to get a definitive answer to the points you raise-we won't be able to get one here-or ever, for that matter. Baroque performance practice and registration is a constantly-moving target that will never be hit while we're alive.

      Michael

      P.S. Thank you for joining the Forum. I hope you continue to participate here for a time to come.
      Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
      • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
      • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
      • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos

      Comment


      • #4
        Rich,

        Thank you for your post. I have recently begun playing this Prelude and Fugue, so I appreciate your insights. Regeron and Michael (Myorgan) both make excellent points. As Michael has pointed out, while scholarship is always searching for an answer, we will never know what an authentic historic interpretation is. That does not mean that we should ignore scholarship, but there will never be a definitive answer.

        The romantics did some things to Bach's music that clearly seem strange to us now. Most performers no longer solo out the theme at every entrance, for example. But there is a lot of ambiguity between extremes. I personally think that we also have to think about how a modern audience will hear the piece.

        In my opinion, whether I perform this piece or listen to someone else playing it, I get aural fatigue if the fugue is played on the plenum all the way through. To my ears, it benefits from some relief from full organ. That sort of relief is evident in the prelude where two quieter sections interrupt the full organ. This contrast is arresting and part of the charm of the prelude. The challenge in the fugue is that there is no obvious place where this could occur. I am still trying to work out a suitable registration plan for the fugue, but I think it is effective if the fugue begins with a smaller registration, perhaps on the plenum of the second or third manual, and then builds until it ends with fullest organ at the last entrance of the fugue in the pedal.

        Just my 2 cents.


        Bill

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

        Comment


        • myorgan
          myorgan commented
          Editing a comment
          Originally posted by voet
          In my opinion, whether I perform this piece or listen to someone else playing it, I get aural fatigue if the fugue is played on the plenum all the way through.
          Amen!!! I think sometimes those of us who also pursue a piece for academic reasons tend to forget that not everyone is listening for academic reasons, nor do many of them have the attention span to listen to an entire movement on one registration.

          Our job as organists is to help the listener understand the construction of the piece and intricacies, while at the same time not burdening the ear. Depending on the audience, sometimes I will actually explain to an audience what to listen for when playing a fugue-not that I think no one knows, but those who know will be affirmed while those who don't know will be elevated in their listening abilities. The audience needs a job to do. Those who miss it will miss it anyway.

          An example is when Regeron played as part of the Bach marathon in NYC. Presumably, the audience was educated enough and needed no explanation. Whereas, sometimes I'll play for podunk church in nowheresville, and it would be too much to expect everyone to listen knowledgeably.

          Michael

      • #5
        Originally posted by voet View Post
        ...In my opinion, whether I perform this piece or listen to someone else playing it, I get aural fatigue if the fugue is played on the plenum all the way through. ....
        If that's the case, I'd have to ask whether the organ was properly voiced and whether the chosen registration is appropriate. As an example, there are a lot of Mixtures out there that should never have been built the way they are. Some scream way too much. On the flip side, there are many foundation stops (principals and flutes) that don't have what it takes to support a good mixture. They are too weak and lack sufficient fundamental. Additionally, on some organs, the Mixture only works if it is balanced at the other end of the Principal chorus with a 16' flue. Too many organists fail to realize this, resulting in a top-heavy registration.

        As organists, just because the books say that standard Organo Pleno = a particular set of stops, it doesn't mean that recipe will work on all organs. We need to use our ears to judge and make necessary changes so that an aural assault is not committed, and that there is no chance for aural fatigue.

        Comment


        • #6
          Originally posted by richj View Post
          ... I chose BWV 542 to discuss because it is a rather complex fugue with a principal subject, counter subject, and a second subject that enters twice. The principal subject is also used in the counterpoint, where motifs of the subject occur sequentially. This is the principal subject: ...
          The counter subject is stated four times in different octaves. ...
          This is the new subject, a four-note motif, that occurs twice in the composition.
          Terminology Correction

          First, a fugue has two, main, alternating sections;
          The EXPOSITIONS present subjects and answers in a manner that comes with its own conventions. It may include a Countersubject. This fugue does include a Countersubject.
          The EPISODES separate the expositions and usually serve to modulate from key center to another. The episodes are based on imitations of fragments of the subject, answer or countersubject.

          What you call the:
          - Principal Subject is, in fact, the only subject.
          - Counter Subject and a Second Subject (or New Subject) are part of the Epsiodes and as such are only based on the subject and countersubject. I can't find a term for them other than "episodic material."

          There is, indeed, a Countersubject. It begins with the answer in measure 4 and accompanies almost every other subject or answer. There does appear to be a second Countersubject (in invertible counterpoint) that appears four times - twice each in the two instances when the texture is reduced to two parts.

          Comment


          • #7
            Originally posted by regeron View Post
            Just a couple comments to start this off. There is more to say, but I need to check some resources first.

            --- Too many people forget that ARTICULATION is critical to performance.
            Excellent point. I've listened to more than a dozen performances on Youtube and there is quite a difference in approach among the performers.

            - BIGGS is a product of his time in that he just barely articulates. In the grand scheme of articulation, he still leans strongly toward a constant legato.
            - VARNUS, also a product of his time (the recording is made 30 years after the Biggs recording), leans away from legato.
            By "product of his time" I infer that you think that approaches to Baroque performance change over the years. Does this imply that there is no "authentic" manner of performing Baroque organ music? -- that approaches to performing may change even more in the future?

            I found his playing a bit too detached for my taste. That could be the recording - the room doesn't seem too reverberant and could have handled a bit more legato.
            In reading, I found the topic of legato vs non-legato to be of great interest to many! A few writers think that motoric contrapuntal works should be played non-legato. How much?! Each listener has her/his preferences.

            - DOESELAAR seems to be playing in the most reverberant room, so needs to articulate to prevent the piece from becoming muddy.
            Certainly the room accoustics play a large role, and one of the pleasures of listening to many recordings is the effect of the accoustics on the performance: many differences indeed!

            When you point out how Varnus articulates the 4 eighth notes, I hear that in Doeselaar's playing, too.
            There is a subtle difference. Varnus detaches the second eighth note quicker than Doeselaar. This creates the impression of an accented first note. I noticed this immediately on first hearing of the Varnus recording. Doeselaar at 8:35 and 11:20; Varnus at 2:20 and 4:30.

            I also fine that Doeselaar incorporates a hierarchy of articulation, if you listen closely. Notes held for full value put more sound into the air than notes that are released early, thereby making them appear louder. Having access to a subtle gradation of note-lengths allows him to place the architectural components of the piece into foreground, middleground and background...The option of registration and manual changes could still exist, but it is less necessary if you start with good articulation.
            His is one of the finest recordings I've heard in the plenum style (no registration changes). The marvelous resonance of the church add to the listening experience.

            Also worth considering - none of the performers played the cadences clearly enough for me. I add just a tiny dash of ritarde at cadential points. Also possible is a very slight hesitation to prepare for fugal entries. It's one of those things - if you hear it, it's probably too much. If it takes you unawares, it's probably just right. I admit that this point is open to interpretation.
            Interesting... I'll have to listen again for that... any chance you can post your performance to Youtube?

            Thanks for the comments,

            -richard

            Comment


            • #8
              Originally posted by myorgan View Post
              Rich,

              Thank you for your well-researched epistle regarding the registration of a Bach Fugue. Unfortunately, your topic wandered into performance practice as well. What you bring up clearly illustrates the changing views of both registration and performance practice during the 20th century.
              Yes, a bit into performance practice. I see a sub forum, but the main forum states:
              • Discussion of classical organ music, composer's, and playing techniques. Contains sub forum devoted to learning and playing classical organ.
              This seemed to be the best place for the post.

              I'm not sure what you question was, but if it is about performance practice, I would say the performance practice should match the space, including the reverberation of the space. For example, if I were playing this fugue in Notre Dame (before the fire), I'd probably use as much note separation (staccato) as possible. However, in a dead, carpeted space, separation would need to be kept to a minimum.
              Excellent point. I wonder if touring concert organists take this into consideration as they rehearse. They would need a "listener" out front to get an idea of the resonance/reverberation in the building.

              If your question is about registration, I would imagine it would need to be as clean as possible. At that time, there were certain conventions that were "understood," and certain elements of performance were "improvised." Those conventions also extended to ornamentation (i.e. mordents, inverted mordents, trills, etc.).

              So, to get a definitive answer to the points you raise-we won't be able to get one here-or ever, for that matter. Baroque performance practice and registration is a constantly-moving target that will never be hit while we're alive.
              Probably so, Michael! Thanks for your insights,

              -richard
              Last edited by richj; 08-17-2019, 04:31 PM. Reason: correct spelling

              Comment


              • #9
                Originally posted by voet View Post
                Rich,

                Thank you for your post. I have recently begun playing this Prelude and Fugue, so I appreciate your insights. Regeron and Michael (Myorgan) both make excellent points. As Michael has pointed out, while scholarship is always searching for an answer, we will never know what an authentic historic interpretation is. That does not mean that we should ignore scholarship, but there will never be a definitive answer.
                The frustration with "scholarship" is that there are many differences among the scholars. As a professor mentioned once, for any conclusion you want to draw, you can find scholarship to support it!

                The romantics did some things to Bach's music that clearly seem strange to us now. Most performers no longer solo out the theme at every entrance, for example. But there is a lot of ambiguity between extremes. I personally think that we also have to think about how a modern audience will hear the piece.
                I've often wondered about that when listening to so many approaches to this piece: do performers think of the audience, or are they beholden to their own conviction about the interpretation?

                In my opinion, whether I perform this piece or listen to someone else playing it, I get aural fatigue if the fugue is played on the plenum all the way through. To my ears, it benefits from some relief from full organ. That sort of relief is evident in the prelude where two quieter sections interrupt the full organ. This contrast is arresting and part of the charm of the prelude. The challenge in the fugue is that there is no obvious place where this could occur. I am still trying to work out a suitable registration plan for the fugue, but I think it is effective if the fugue begins with a smaller registration, perhaps on the plenum of the second or third manual, and then builds until it ends with fullest organ at the last entrance of the fugue in the pedal.
                Building to the end is the approach of many performers I've listened to. It is certainly exciting. However,the case can be made that this is a Romantic period convention (lots of contrast) and question whether or not this was done in the Baroque period.

                Thanks for your thoughts,

                -richard

                Comment


                • #10
                  Originally posted by regeron View Post
                  Terminology Correction

                  First, a fugue has two, main, alternating sections;
                  The EXPOSITIONS present subjects and answers in a manner that comes with its own conventions. It may include a Countersubject. This fugue does include a Countersubject.
                  The EPISODES separate the expositions and usually serve to modulate from key center to another. The episodes are based on imitations of fragments of the subject, answer or countersubject.

                  What you call the:
                  - Principal Subject is, in fact, the only subject.
                  - Counter Subject and a Second Subject (or New Subject) are part of the Epsiodes and as such are only based on the subject and countersubject. I can't find a term for them other than "episodic material."
                  Your correction is duly noted!

                  "Episodic material" is the normal description. The reason for the terminology I used was to call attention to the idea of a newly introduced melody (new or second subject). The fact that it occurs twice is interesting!

                  There is, indeed, a Countersubject. It begins with the answer in measure 4 and accompanies almost every other subject or answer. There does appear to be a second Countersubject (in invertible counterpoint) that appears four times - twice each in the two instances when the texture is reduced to two parts.
                  Yes, two, and the one I listed is the second, which is the more melodic and easily heard against the counterpoint.

                  It wasn't my intention to do a complete analysis, just to point out some things that are heard differently in the recordings.

                  Thanks for your comments,

                  -richard
                  Last edited by richj; 08-17-2019, 05:01 PM. Reason: add information

                  Comment


                  • #11
                    Richard,

                    First, let me thank you for prompt us to have an educated conversation on the topics of registration and performance practice in Bach's fugues. Such a conversation is rare on this Forum, but it's nice to see it starting again.

                    Originally posted by richj View Post
                    Yes, a bit into performance practice. I see a sub forum, but the main forum states:
                    • Discussion of classical organ music, composer's, and playing techniques. Contains sub forum devoted to learning and playing classical organ.
                    This seemed to be the best place for the post.
                    My statement was not to challenge the appropriateness of your post, rather that you strayed from the stated topic of your post (Choosing Registration for the Fugues....).

                    Originally posted by richj View Post
                    Excellent point. I wonder if touring concert organists take this into consideration as they rehearse. They would need a "listener" out front to get an idea of the resonance/reverberation in the building.
                    Yes, we have to take it into consideration. Unfortunately, many do not have a knowledgeable person to assist in such an endeavor, so often one needs to rely on a local organist or someone present at the venue as a spare set of ears.

                    One thing I have found comes in handy is a digital recorder. Often, it is the only means I have to hear an instrument in the space from the audience's perspective. If the venue is full, even that changes and becomes less live as more bodies fill the space, so one needs to plan for the acoustical change that arrives with the audience.

                    Thank you for being part of the Forum!

                    Michael
                    Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
                    • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
                    • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
                    • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos

                    Comment


                    • #12
                      Originally posted by richj View Post
                      Yes, two [countersubjects], and the one I listed is the second, which is the more melodic and easily heard against the counterpoint.
                      Actually, then, there are three countersubjects:
                      - beginning - Subject alone.
                      - measure 4 - Answer plus first countersubject.
                      - measure 9 (starting on the last eighth note) - Subject plus first countersubject plus second countersubject, though the second one has some variants in the first 4 or 5 beats of each of its entries.

                      The third countersubject appears with the subject or answer alone in the sections where the texture is reduced to 2 voices.

                      Comment


                      • #13
                        Regarding articulation and the room. The more experience you have, the better able you are to read this yourself. In certain situations, it may still be advisable to have a remote method of recording so you can listen, or have someone listen while you play, or vice versa.

                        Comment


                        • #14
                          Originally posted by richj View Post
                          The frustration with "scholarship" is that there are many differences among the scholars. As a professor mentioned once, for any conclusion you want to draw, you can find scholarship to support it!

                          I've often wondered about that when listening to so many approaches to this piece: do performers think of the audience, or are they beholden to their own conviction about the interpretation?

                          Building to the end is the approach of many performers I've listened to. It is certainly exciting. However,the case can be made that this is a Romantic period convention (lots of contrast) and question whether or not this was done in the Baroque period.

                          Thanks for your thoughts,

                          -richard
                          Good modern scholarship will either support or lay to rest any previous scholarship. There is scholarship from the past that no longer has any merit. It may have helped us get to where we are, but it is otherwise of little value.

                          Interpretation and a performer's approach. Our goal should be present the music as the composer would have us hear it. With the organ, there are sometimes significant compromises due to the instrument and the room. In any event, to disregard the compose's intent seems misguided.

                          Romantic vs. Baroque. In the Baroque, grand heroic gestures are part and parcel of the art. It's not so much about a hero's development, though that might happen over time. A single piece usually presents a snapshot of that person in a specific time/action. In that light, the Varnus would fail, as it starts light and relatively weak compared to how it finishes. If the piece were, say, to describe a great heroic figure, that person needs to be portrayed as a hero from the very start. If anyone has a better way to describe this, feel free to improve my words.

                          Comment


                          • #15
                            Originally posted by regeron View Post
                            Actually, then, there are three countersubjects:
                            - beginning - Subject alone.
                            - measure 4 - Answer plus first countersubject.
                            - measure 9 (starting on the last eighth note) - Subject plus first countersubject plus second countersubject, though the second one has some variants in the first 4 or 5 beats of each of its entries.

                            The third countersubject appears with the subject or answer alone in the sections where the texture is reduced to 2 voices.
                            It gets even more interesting in that you can make the case that there are two Expositions.

                            But this is getting far afield from what I intended to discuss.

                            Thanks for your observation,

                            -richard

                            Comment

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