The organs of J.S. Bach A HANDBOOK
By CHRISTOPH WOLFF MARKUS ZEPF
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One bach—organist, composer, organ expert
An Introductory Sketch
It was hardly by chance that the obituary drafted only a few months after Johann Sebastian Bach's death and later published in volume 4 of Musikalische Bibliothek (Leipzig, 1754) referred in its title to the "World-Famous Organist ... Court Composer, and Music Director" (NBR, no. 306; BDOK III, no. 666). The author and publisher of the obituary no doubt took into account the fact that the extent of Bach's fame and special renown as organ virtuoso was much greater during his lifetime than his limited recognition generally. And it was no exaggeration to use the term "world-famous." After all, in March 1750—before Bach's death—Padre Giovanni Battista Martini of Bologna had written in a letter: "I consider it to be superfluous to describe the singular merit of Sig. Bach, for he is thoroughly known and admired not only in Germany but throughout our Italy" (NBR, no. 385; BDOK II, no. 600). This sounds like an exaggeration, and probably is. However, it cannot be forgotten that Padre Martini owned a number of Bach manuscripts and prints, including a copy of Clavier-Übung III (Leipzig, 1739), one of Bach's most important organ works.
Bach's historical position as organist was recognized soon after his death. The Prussian court musician Johann Joachim Quantz, discussing the development of the art of organ playing in his Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversière zu spielen (Berlin, 1752), referred to such figures as Froberger, Reinken, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Bruhns, noting at the conclusion: "Finally the admirable Johann Sebastian Bach brought it to its greatest perfection in recent times" (NBR, no. 350; BDOK III, no. 651). In Quantz's view, the "art of organ playing" included both performance and composition. As a flute virtuoso and composer for his instrument, Quantz understood only too well that one's technical skill on an instrument affected one's compositional concepts, and vice versa. This was also true for Bach. From childhood onward, his instrumental orientation and vocal background complemented each other, just as his keyboard skills were supplemented by his string experience and augmented by a compositional focus that eventually included the widest possible spectrum of musical instruments and human voices. All of this was supported by a deep knowledge and keen awareness of technological and physiological details and balanced by intellectual discipline and temperamental sensitivity.
The foundation for Bach's systematic approach to his musical undertakings was firmly established before he started his career. Nevertheless, the years in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen and the early years in Weimar, when easily managed duties coexisted with considerable personal freedom and economic security, offered this gifted, highly motivated, industrious, and ambitious musician ideal opportunities for extensive practicing, reflection, and composition. Above all, by a stroke of luck he had access in Arnstadt (where he held his first position) to a brand-new and perfectly functioning instrument constructed by one of the best and most advanced organ builders of his time. The instrument boasted a modern well-tempered tuning that offered no limits to his harmonic experiments and that did not require—as church organs then did of most organists—that he constantly repair it. For four critical years of his artistic life, from 1703 to 1707, he had an ideal—one might even say a more than perfect—performance laboratory at his disposal in which he could strengthen and expand his virtuosity and, as a composer, build and develop his harmonic fantasy and tonal ideas. In addition, Bach enjoyed early on the encouragement, recognition, and support of respected and influential older colleagues, among them in particular the organists Georg Böhm, Johann Adam Reinken, and Johann Effler, and the organ builder Johann Friedrich Wender.
Already as a young organist, and to no less an extent as a mature player, Bach was interested in the entire gamut of musical genres, whether chorale-based or not, contrapuntal or free, written in a few voices or many. By approximately 1714–15, he had investigated practically all of the various ways in which organ and keyboard music could be composed: from the various types of organ chorales (such as large-scale fantasias, chorale partitas or variations, and chorale fugues) to the wide spectrum of genres common to both the organ and harpsichord (such as canzona, passacaglia, toccata, prelude, fantasia, fugue, sonata, and concerto). Added to this was his never-ending interest in the compositional technique of others, from the earliest to the very latest repertoire. Bach's library eventually contained collections as old as Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach's Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur (Leipzig, 1571), of which he owned no less than three copies, and Frescobaldi's Fiori musicali (Rome, 1635), of which he prepared a handwritten copy in 1714, as well as works of German, French, and Italian masters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He also assembled compositions not only of his contemporaries, but also of the generation of his students—all of which allowed him to grapple with the most diverse technical and stylistic challenges.
By no later than 1710, when he was twenty-five years old, Bach had mastered all the technical demands of organ and harpsichord playing. What remained was to set standards for the future. As a thoroughly conventional work written before 1710 reveals, moreover, Bach already operated at the very pinnacle of compositional technique. This is seen in even a glance at the artistic demands of a piece such as the Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582, and quite apart from the technical demands that performing such a uniquely large-scaled work requires. The same can be said of the basically new aesthetic premise of his small-format compositions, as demonstrated in the motivically compact structure and formal symmetry of the chorale "Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottessohn," BWV 601, also written before 1710 and later included in the Orgel-Büchlein. In both works, the inclusion of obbligato pedal parts demonstrates Bach's independent development of the pedal far beyond Buxtehude's basic approach. Bach also took new paths in organ playing and composition in other equally exemplary works, such as the large preludes and fugues of the Leipzig period, the trio sonatas, or the chorale repertoire of Clavier-Übung III. Over and over again, he explored new territory, in both performing technique and composition. The organist and organ composer Bach maintained these innovative tendencies in his art right until the end of his life, as can be seen in the Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch," written in the late 1740s.
The repertory of Bach's organ works genuinely reflects the important role of the church instrument in the Lutheran worship service. The "Order of the Divine Service in Leipzig" that Bach entered in the score of Cantata BWV 61 for the First Sunday in Advent 1723 (NBR, no. 113) indicates three "preluding" functions of the organ within the service: playing preludes (1) at the beginning of the service, (2) for the chorales sung by the congregation, and (3) for the cantata. Chorale-based preludes served the purpose of introducing the melody of the hymn to the congregation, free preludes could be played at the opening of the service (and by implication at its conclusion), and the prelude for the cantata was supposed to provide cover for tuning the instruments and to establish the pitch for the ensemble performance.
Not mentioned in Bach's note is the organ's accompanimental function. While in Thuringian towns like Eisenach, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, or Weimar the organ traditionally accompanied hymns, congregational singing in Leipzig and throughout Saxony remained unaccompanied until the later eighteenth century. On the other hand, the participation of the large, west-end organ in the continuo group of the cantata orchestra, although self-evident, is worth stressing. Bach's assigning the organ an obbligato function for a series of cantatas in 1726–27 (e.g., BWV 49, 146, 169, 188), and thereby featuring the instrument within the orchestra in an unprecedented and particularly prominent way, undoubtedly grew out of this continuo practice.
It is important to understand that service playing by professional organists, the "Figural-Organisten," was always done ex tempore. Only the less accomplished or amateur players, the "Choral-Organisten," who often worked under the supervision of the main town organist, would ordinarily have read from music. Bach himself would have improvised any kind of free or chorale-based prelude. (For a reference to Bach accompanying the congregation, see the Altenburg entry.) Therefore, the majority of Bach's extant organ works were written for his activities as a recitalist, which involved a great variety of preludes, toccatas, fantasias, and fugues, as well as a broad spectrum of organ chorales. The smaller, shorter, more functional, and technically less demanding pieces within the repertory appear to have been written for pedagogical reasons or for the use of "chorale organists" unable to improvise.
Organ and organ music, the critical area of experimentation for the young Bach, remained an absolutely essential point of orientation also for the middle-aged and older Bach. A special attribute in pieces like the Brandenburg concertos or the Weimar and Leipzig vocal works with their instrumental dimensions, is that over and over again, in comparison to similar compositions by his contemporaries, they allow Bach's identity as organist to be recognized. Even in his compositions for orchestra and vocal ensemble, Bach understood how to "register," often with the goal of creating new tonal experiences. This can be seen quite clearly in the scoring of four violins in the cantata "Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee," BWV 18, the use of four different instruments (recorder, oboe, viols d'amore, and viol da gamba) in the cantata "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," BWV 152, the scoring of two viols d'amore with lute in "Betrachte, meine Seel" in the St. John Passion, or the use of corno da caccia with two fagottos in "Quoniam" in the B-Minor Mass.
Bach's interest throughout his entire life was not just in the sound, and sound combinations, of individual instruments, but also in the building and development of new musical instruments of all kinds. His name is connected with the improvement and sale of fortepianos built in the Silbermann style, with the lute-harpsichord of his Jena relative Johann Nicolaus Bach, with the oboe da caccia and bassono grosso of the Leipzig instrument maker Johann Heinrich Eichentopf, and with the violoncello piccolo of the Leipzig court lute maker Johann Christian Hoffmann (who named Bach executor of his will). This hands-on, experimental side of the musical fraternity was not merely enjoyable for Bach—he must have found himself entirely in his métier. From his earliest school days, his primary interest had been the organ. The Ohrdruf organ-building workshop of Georg Christoph Stertzing may have provided Bach's first insights into the practical side of organ building, for during the time that he was a student in the Ohrdruf Lyceum, Stertzing was making preparations for building the organ for Eisenach's St. George's Church. At that time it was Thuringia's largest instrument, an organ whose disposition was devised by Bach's relative Johann Christoph Bach. Bach remained in contact with the elder Stertzing; in 1716, only a few months before Stertzing's death, he examined the instrument Stertzing had started in Erfurt's St. Augustine's Church.
Bach's vast practical experience with the organ, his intense and wide-ranging self-education, his innate curiosity, and his active contact with skilled and experienced organ builders made him an organ expert of the first rank. His undisputed competence was recognized at an early point, and he exploited it all his life, both to his own advantage and to the advantage of others. That Bach was involved time and again, even into his later years, with proposals for a wide range of organs, rebuilds, and repairs is an aspect of his professional life that should not be underestimated. His experience is highly unusual in the history of music and has clear implications for understanding important connections in his musical art.
At his first organ examination in 1703 at the New Church in Arnstadt, when Bach found himself at the age of eighteen judging the work of Johann Friedrich Wender, a master organ builder some thirty years his senior, the result was not generational conflict but rather a lasting relationship based on reciprocal respect. This close relationship then extended to Wender's son, whom Bach advised as late as 1735 in Mühlhausen. Well-established acquaintance with a large variety of instruments in Thuringia and north Germany, and also, no doubt, the reading of the writings of Andreas Werckmeister, formed the foundation for Bach's expertise. His technical knowledge was probably augmented through his close relationship with Wender, who enticed Bach from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen and at the same time dissuaded Bach's distant cousin Johann Gottfried Walther from competing for the position (Wolff 2000, 102). A similar ongoing and productive relationship can be seen later in Bach's dealings with the young Heinrich Nicolaus Trebs in Weimar or with Zacharias Hildebrandt in Leipzig.
Bach's written examination reports impressively demonstrate thoroughness, a deep understanding of the material, and comprehensive knowledge of the construction and use of the organ. Not even the smallest detail escaped his attention. The Mühlhausen renovation project, for which Bach's report has survived, demonstrates in particular how highly Bach valued the organization, specific character, and balancing of an organ's stops. He paid special attention to the gravity of the instrument, which ideally would be provided by a new "Untersatz," a 32' register. But he also had the idea of strengthening the gravity further by enlarging the resonators and replacing the shallots of the existing Posaune 16'. He also recommended replacing the existing Gemshorn with a "Viol di Gamba 8', which will blend admirably with the present Salicional 4' in the Rückpositiv." He specified a wide variety of materials for the pipes, demanding "good 14-worthy [87.5%] tin" for the three "Principalia" in the facade of the "new little Brustpositiv." In addition, he requested that a "Stillgedackt 8', which is perfect for accompanying concerted vocal music," be built from "good wood" because then it would sound "better than a metal Gedackt."
In his report on the Hildebrandt organ in the St. Wenceslas's Church in Naumburg, which he and Gottfried Silbermann examined in 1746, Bach wrote that in a proper examination "every part specified and promised by the contract—namely, keyboards, bellows, wind chests, wind lines, pedal and keyboard actions along with their various parts, registers, and stops, both open and stopped, as well as reeds" needs to be inspected to see that everything is "really there." In the same report he remarked that the examiners have inspected whether "each and every part has been made with appropriate care" and whether "the pipes have been properly built from the materials promised." He recommended, however, that the organ builder "go through the entire instrument once more, stop by stop, in order to achieve more evenness in the voicing as well as in the key and stop actions."
The Scheibe organ in the University Church in Leipzig had similar problems, and Bach recommended taking appropriate precautions against the "occasional wind surges" and correcting the "uneven voicing" so that the "lowest pipes in the Posaunenbass 16' and Trompetenbass 8' do not speak so roughly and with such a rattle, but with a pure and firm tone." In addition, higher standards were to be met so that the organ's playing action is "somewhat lighter" and "the keyfall ... not so deep." The report on the Scheibe organ also shows that Bach was in a position to delve into basic construction problems. He criticized the case of the organ and the fact that "it is difficult to reach each part," but showed sympathy for the organ builder, who "was not granted the additional space he had desired in order to arrange the layout more capaciously." He also recommended that "as far as the window rises up behind it, the organ should be protected from further threats of weather damage by means of a small wall or a strong piece of sheet iron placed inside the window."
"Despite all of this knowledge of the organ," the obituary notes, "he never enjoyed the good fortune, as he used to point out frequently with regret, of having a really large and really beautiful organ at his constant disposal. This fact has robbed us of many beautiful and unknown inventions in organ playing that he would otherwise have written down and displayed in the form in which he had them in his head" (NBR, no. 306; BDOK III, no. 666). The instruments Bach had at his disposal in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar were comparatively medium-sized organs. It is therefore understandable that the organist position available in 1720 at St. Jacobi in Hamburg must have been tempting to Bach, even if there was an even better organ at Hamburg's St. Catherine's Church. In Leipzig, Bach certainly would have had unhindered access to the large Scheibe organ (III/48) in the St. Paul's Church. But it is also true that it was not actually his instrument. If it had been, he most certainly would have written more organ works during the Leipzig years. On the other hand, the number of organ compositions by Bach that has been transmitted is astonishingly high. Beyond this, there remains the fact that Bach's organ compositions were never conceived entirely for a specific instrument. Rather, from the beginning the composer took for granted that his works would be played on various organs. It is thus all the more instructive from the point of view of modern interpreters, listeners, and organ enthusiasts that the spectrum of historical organs in Bach's world be considered in its full breadth, diversity, and beauty.
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