The author at the Rudolph Garrels organ, Purmerend, Holland.
1. The BBC Radio 3 Bach Christmas, Revisited
2. St Wenzel's, Naumburg
3. Toccata and Fugue in D minor
1. The BBC Radio 3 Bach Christmas, revisited
In the autumn of 2005 Radio 3 announced a schedule entitled: A Bach Christmas, a series of broadcasts of all the known Bach works; It would span 214 hours over a continuous eight-day period ending at 5.00 pm on Christmas Day. The details made fascinating reading. Some people believed too much fine music was being offered all at once but the BBC Message Board revealed enthusiasm for what was promised. To me, the all-night transmissions seemed questionable: 56 hours of broadcasting between midnight and 7.00am, heard by so few but hosted by Louise Fryer whose impeccable talents would be so welcome during the daytime. Much attention to detail by planners was in evidence: someone remembered, for example, the two-minute-long chorale Gottes Sohn ist kommen BWV 724 and slotted it in for transmission at 3.02 am on Christmas morning even though millions would not hear it. It was interesting to note the large number of chosen recordings by noted performers from earlier days: Casals, Ralph Downes, Dart, Walcha etc. Gould performances were few, reflecting Radio 3 and British prejudice.
This Radio feast added a new dimension to the Season for many people. Early doubts were soon dispelled as one programme followed another and a sea of Bach’s music poured into homes. One couldn’t find time in a day to hear everything; everyone has some commitments. Radio in the car helped. The Radio 3 Message Board confirmed that enthusiastic converts were emerging by the dozen. One person wrote: “Stop this; I’m getting nothing else done”. Another said: “We’ve sent our octogenarian parents to do the shopping while we remain glued to the radio”. And another “I cannot bear the thought of this being over; life will never be the same again”. One brave soul admitted: “I wept in the car during the St Matthew Passion”. And someone posited this: “If God wished to punish us by removing either all the works of Bach or all written music, the former would be the most terrible”. Audience Research statistical findings have their uses but such personal reactions on the part of listeners are rarely identified. It would be fair to claim that hundreds were awakened to Bach as a result of the project, yet there were thousands of ostensible but apathetic music lovers who made little effort to hear very many of the broadcasts, plus those to whom Bach simply does not speak.
The inclusion of almost two-hundred church cantatas doubtless contributes to the rejection of Bach in an age of diminished evangelical belief. The cantatas still huge segment of the Bach oeuvres about which the average music lover is largely uninformed. Brave attempts to address this came from Donald Macleod and John Eliot Gardiner whose survey of the cantatas punctuated the week’s schedule. In the minds of the lay public Bach is associated with the organ yet those works form less than a tenth of his output lasting for only about 18 hours; 26 different organists were represented. Two chamber choirs, the Nordic Chamber Choir and the Berlin Radio Singers, were used throughout the week to sing chorales in groups of two or three. Those interludes provided effective contrast after instrumental works. Bernard Haitink in an interview earlier in the year, when talking about the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, made an interesting comment : “We always begin with a Bach chorale. It puts everyone in a good frame of mind”. That the Concertgebouw orchestra should use their talents and precious rehearsal time playing such music (which audiences would never hear) is proof of its unique quality. Unfortunately the end arrived all to soon. The listen-again facility in 2005 was then in its infancy. Now BBC iPlayer allows repeats to be played with ease. Will storage space ever become infinite so that the seven-day limit can be dispensed with? I expect so. What details remain in the memory? Listeners from all over the world who are now able to hear quality BBC sound via the Internet sent instant e-mail feedback direct to the presenters. This was revealing. Graeme Kay made an important contribution to the Saturday morning CD Review broadcast. He appraised the 18 available recordings of the complete Bach organ works. How deservedly proud Peter Hurford must have been to learn that his Decca set were accorded first place even after twenty-five years and in the face of competition from a great deal of talent.remain a
But that was seven years ago. Happily such torches and accolades have been passed. That year Margaret Phillips was about to begin recording her series of the Bach organ corpus, now completed and referred to in the Gramophone as “a benchmark of musical integrity” (Malcolm Riley). Westminster Abbey’s Sub-Organist Robert Quinney has recently released his set of the Trio Sonatas, the first of a series of Bach recordings on the Coro label, and has already set new standards for those demanding works. Thomas Trotter says of them:
A performance of these works makes unique demands on the concentration and co-ordination of the organist, on the brain and on every muscle of the body, in a way that can never be appreciated or reproduced by any other solo instrumentalist.
Glenn Gould's 1954 Goldberg Variations recording made an unforgettable impact on thousands, yet already the record catalogues contain many alternative recordings of that work. Many presenters of the 2005 broadcasts through their professionalism and controlled enthusiasm made a valuable contribution to what was in effect a BBC experiment. The inimitable voice of Catherine Bott was a joy. She finished her last presentation at about 4.30 pm on Friday 23rd December. As with the death of President Kennedy some of us can remember where we were at the time. I can recall the exact parking area I was using at a local supermarket when she announced Cantata No. 31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, (The heavens laugh and the earth rejoices)
“……And the trumpets sounded for him on the other side…..there to sleep and rest in peace….And no man can wake him”
The opening Chorus
Perhaps we should have been content with over 200 hours of Bach’s music; but the thought that there might have been more, or even much more, is tantalizing. We shall never know how much existed or how much was lost. It is a bold broadcaster or biographer who will say “more than fifty per cent might be lost” — a conservative figure to be on the safe side. Christoph Wolff quotes some convincing details concerning lost manuscripts in his Johann Sebastian Bach. He examined the accounts for the Weimar Court’s allocation of music paper. Three deliveries of one ream (480 sheets) were made to Bach in 1714, ‘15, and ‘17 a total of nearly 6,000 pages, yet Bach’s survivingWeimar scores make up barely one-fourth of a single ream….a survival rate of performing material of 15 to 20 per cent.
Addendum: The foregoing was published in The Organ magazine in 2006. Certain details already appear 'quaint' because technology has advanced. They have been left unchanged, however, to show the advances since those days. Now, for instance, it is possible to purchase recordings of the complete Bach oeuvres — 200 hours of music, albeit at a cost of £400, pre-installed on an iPod weighing no more than 50 grammes and with 66% of its available memory unused and available to the owner; and YouTube recordings lasting over four hours are now possible.
2. St Wenzel’s, Naumburg
The most expensive organ restoration in history took place at St Wenzel’s Church,
Naumburg in the former East Germany, just half an hour’s train journey from Leipzig. At the end of seven years’ work, in the early 1990s, the final price was 4 million DM or £2 million pounds. That was just before conversion to the Euro. I like to quote the figure in any conversation with church members concerning organ purchase, repairs or restoration as evidence that in some countries the organ is respected. The work was carried out by Eule of Bautzen who had already restored 43 historic German organs. The finished instrument was dedicated in December, 2000.
Four years of life remained to Bach in 1746 during which time he made a number of visits to towns near Leipzig. His link with Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688 – 1757), a former Silbermann apprentice-pupil, began when Hildebrandt built an organ at Störmthal. There is evidence that Bach was instrumental in Hildebrant’s gaining the contract for the 52 stop Naumburg instrument at St Wenzel’s which was completed in three years. Bach played the instrument at the opening in 1746. Players of that instrument today can reflect, as they look at the paper stop labels, that Bach had also viewed those same labels and drew the same stops. And what an acoustic space the building has, with its typical German high roof.
The enlightened BBC producer Norman Stone embarked on a mammoth venture a few years ago to capture on film all of Bach’s organ works played on that instrument and the Silbermann organ at Der Dom, Strasbourg, by John Scott-Whiteley prior to his retirement after more than thirty years at York Minster. At one point in the BBC filming, cameras were attached to helium-filled balloons with a view to getting ‘pictures from on high’. At the end of a day’s work someone proposed leaving the balloons so that work could continue next day. However, during the night, one of the balloons leaked; it descended slowly and set off the church security alarm. The German Police responded and weren’t pleased to have to awaken the organist Irene Greulich at 3.00am for the church key. The cameramen had gone overboard in their search for new angles and variety but it was not wholly successful and irritated many viewers. It might have been a factor in the BBC discontinuing transmission of the series. CD recordings by a succession of organists have been more rewarding. One of the finest is by Robert Clark on Calcante CAL 041. Quentin Faulkner in the double-CD booklet writes: “No other organ connected with Bach has such inestimable significance as an ideal 'Bach organ'. That it can again be heard just as Bach heard it when he first played it in 1746 —has to be accounted a miracle of the highest order". The sound is characterised by a warm, celeste-type tutti far removed from traditional Baroque spikiness; the gentle chiff of the flues is wonderful and the power in the pedal is undoubtedly as Bach believed it should be. The Pedal specification is: Principal 16, Octaven Bass 8, Violon Bass 8, Octaven Bass 4, Octava 2, Mixture Bass 7 rks, Trompet Bass 8, Clarin Bass 4, Posaune 32, Posaune 16, Violin Bass 16, Sub-bas 16. Gloucester Cathedral, one hundred years later.
Laurence Rogers drawing a stop that Bach undoubtedly would have used.
A recording of the 3rd movement of the Sixth Trio Sonata BWV 530 played on the St Wenzell's organ by John Scott-Whiteley is available at: Sonata No 6 in G (3rd. mvt)
3. Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Peter Williams challenged the assumption that Bach was the composer of the popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor in a Radio 3 broadcast as far back as March 1981. Until then, no one had publicly questioned the work’s authenticity. He also suggested it was not legitimate organ music but was transcribed from music written for another instrument. It should not surprise us that the musical world has taken little notice of the argument and is quite content to go on printing: “....by J.S. Bach”. Few recitalists cite the work in their programmes as Anonymous; and recording companies ignore the subject. The logic in their thinking is simple: It's quite a fine piece; the public like it; they’ve heard of Bach so for certain it is by him. The strongest objectors are those whose knowledge of Bach's output is limited. Others acknowledge that the work is far from being typical Bach, though naming the likely composer or the transcriber continues to be a challenge. Much of the fugue is dull, yet most of the Toccata and the final two pages are superb which adds to the problem.
Doubt has arisen for the following reasons:
1. No copy of the work exists in Bach’s handwriting. The earliest known one is by Johann Rinck (1717 – 73) a pupil of one of Bach’s pupils.
2. The title Toccata and Fugue is an unconvincing one for an organ work from that era. A more likely phrasing would have been Praeludium et Fuga pro Organo Pleno.
3. The minor plagal cadence at the ends has no parallel in the works of Bach or his contemporaries.
4. It is odd for an organ piece of that period to begin in octaves and for the fugue subject to appear as a pedal solo.
5. Despite the attractiveness of the writing, it is harmonically and contrapuntally unsophisticated. It makes use of diminished seventh harmonies which are characteristic of the Post-Bach era.
6. No other organ work of Bach contains so many tempo markings. They are not optional but are an integral part of the writing and produce a dramatic ending in a style which is not typical of Bach.
7. Much of the writing is idiomatic string music including the fugue subject itself.
Peter Williams’ theory is that the piece is a transcription of a work for a solo string instrument by a talented organist from the Kittle/Krebbs era. Despite the above points the problem remains “because of the relatively high level of inventiveness which is difficult to credit to any other organist of the period” (Williams).
Dr Williams has himself made a re-transcription for solo violin first performed by Jaap Schröder and broadcast by Radio 3 on June 10th 1981. The topic is examined in closer detail in The Organ Music of J.S. Bach by Peter Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1980). In his Life of Bach (Cambridge University Press) 2004. On page 161 he posits that the work was possibly for a violincello piccolo — a five-stringed cello.
The above three extracts are taken from the author's book Music Matters published by Createspace.com 7290 Investment Drive, North Charleston, South Carolina, USA
ISBN 978 1492206583
4. Two Remarkably Fine Bach websites:
An important contribution to Bach scholarship by the Netherlands Bach Society is their relatively new website which aims to perform ALL the 1,080 works of Bach and to post the recorded performances for free viewing by members of the public. At the moment the work is in its infancy with only about 50 compositions recorded but they plan to make available one work per week. Subscribers (no charge) receive a link by e-mail each week which takes them direct to the newly recorded performance.
For more details go to: www.allofbach.com
Another impressive site comes from Germany. The author has published the scores of almost all the Bach works. Tobias' complete catalogue is logically organised and easy to use. Most scores can be printed for private use.