Bach d minor, Part III
(continued from Part II)
Because so many of Bach's masterpieces of organ writing were composed during his Weimar years (1708-1717) many authors have concluded that BWV 565 must have been composed after 1708. Since its multi-sectional construction and other features point to it being the work of an organist whose independent mastery is evident but still under the influence of north German models, and the young Bach was personally mentored by Buxtehude during the winter of 1705-1706, it seems almost certain that this bold work was written during Bach's Arnstadt years when he was around the age of 21 (c. 1706), if not a year earlier. Being occupied with his regular duties there only 3 days a week, he had plenty of time to practice on the Wender organ (see Touch, Part III) at that time and to grow as a composer. He also had the habit during organ inspections to check first to see if the bellows supplied enough air. The broken chords in the Toccata tests this splendidly by gradually drawing from the organ as much air as a player can demand of it with hands and feet. The gradual adding of tone on tone engenders a crescendo possible only through the means available to the organ. For example, at the end of the first arpeggio 7 times as many pipes are sounding than on the initial tone, and at the end of the 2nd arpeggio it's 9 times as many! This seems to be Bach's own discovery because anything similar will be sought in vain in the organ repertoire prior to this work. Thus the argument that this young organist wrote or improvised this music primarily to put the instrument at hand through its paces is a very strong one, even though where and when this may have taken place cannot be determined precisely.
This piece is written as a multi-sectional Praeludium in the prevailing north German "stylus phantasticus" of the time, meaning that free, improvisory sections alternated with fugal imitative sections; typically, such a piece had as many as 7 separate sections: Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free -- Strict (3/2) -- Free -- Strict (6/8) -- Free. Sometimes one or more of these sections were either omitted or consolidated, leading to pieces with only 6 or maybe as few as 3 sections altogether (single Strict section framed on each side by 2 Free sections). Bach worked the form for his "great" Toccata and Fugue in d minor by condensing the music down to 3 parts, viz., Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXII], which he would have known simply as a "Praeludium."
If this work ever existed on paper before it was premiered it's very likely that the Fugue was written first, since the elements of the Toccata spring from material in the Fugue. If you've ever written a free work (prelude, toccata, introduction, fantasia, choral, etc.) paired with a related fugue yourself, you've discovered that it's easier to develop the free work from the fugue rather than the other way around. Although it's sheer speculation, it's very possible that this work existed merely as a sketch which Bach developed into an improvisation and later committed to paper for its practical use, to which a later copyist (family member or other pupil) penned a title. The title "Toccata con Fuga" which the oldest copy of this work bears was not original with the composer.
Should this music (or, for that matter, should ANY other organ work of Bach) be interpreted? Of course. By all means. When we're exposed to all of the other great music of the world, with its great interpretations and its great feeling, there's no reason at all to isolate the greatest man of all by saying that he should not be interpreted. We just need to set some limitations as to how far we'll allow ourselves to exercise that freedom. This is because unbridled freedom makes us a slave to every whim or caprice that comes along. Within parameters therefore, we simply try to bring out all the majestic powers at work on the page and reproduce something of what we think the composer had in mind when he wrote this music, without going overboard with it.
The kind of breathtaking artistry found in this piece is nowhere to be found in the music of Bach's contemporaries, and, while the Fugue is seamlessly integrated with the Toccata, the entire work is improvisatory in nature. This is not surprising, for Bach was a superb improvisor. For as many people as can be lined up, there will be a different way of playing it. Everyone sees it, hears it, thinks of it, differently. It has structure within parameters, but there is free forum within it, and, along with this free forum comes a vast interpretative canvas. There is thus no one single way to interpret this or any other piece of music. The very best interpretations have drawbacks (and they are not mistakes, just what the interpreter feels).
At first glance it might appear that there are several thousand ways, at least, to play this work, but that would fall far, very far, short of the mark. The number of ways the free opening can be played, figuring only 2 different possibilities for each of its 30 measures, calculates to well over a billion (see Calculating Stop Combinations, Part II). This is part of the sense of the music. This free forum provides a playground which beckons every performer to take their own personal walk through it. If that walk happens to morph into an unpredictable rampage the listener tagging along will have trouble keeping up, and herein lies the danger. Probably no other piece of organ music has been subjected to such extremes in interpretation and, as a consequence, so systematically mishandled.
Because not everything in this music has to be played in strict rhythm too many performers think of it as a musical free-for-all, an excuse to tamper, to make it as undisciplined and bizarre as rhythmically possible to attract attention or maybe even to scare people as so many Hollywood movie producers have tried to employ it ... as background music for every kind of vampire-led, zombie Apocalypse scene from which they think they can work into a motion picture to turn a profit for the studio. This ridiculous association -- between this work and a few scenes from a retarded Dracula film -- is something they never fail to make. It's both childish and revealing of a perfect blindness, a lack of grasping anything meaningful of Bach's musical universe, one of tremendous richness, subtlety, and sophistication. Somewhere on the shore of this musical ocean we know as Sebastian Bach lies the American movie producer, proud that he or she took a measurement of this ocean's depth with their index finger. Bach would have been horrified -- he would have torn his French full bottom wig from his head (photo) and thrown it at these people when it was never ever, repeat never, his intention to frighten anyone with his music, connect it with the macabre, or employ it for pagan, non-Christian purposes. The very idea would have been abhorent to him.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Not every well-trained church musician or theatre organist one meets these days subscribes to Judao-Christian philosophy or is a Spirit-filled Christian. Some embrace the system of belief promoted by the worship centers where they meet and work, and some do not. Some involved in the music ministry have joined in good faith a Christian congregation having a familiar-sounding denominational name without realizing that this action alone does not automatically ensure that its congregants are exposed to and taught from the unadulterated Word of God. Some professing Christian organists do not look upon the Bible as being fully authoritative -- they accept from it what they want, reject what they want, and end up believing not the Bible but themselves. Some church organists also are atheists who just do not believe in Deity -- they replace revealed religion in their thinking with a social system of belief which discredits the Bible and emphasizes the need for "intellectual maturity" which does not need what they call a "religious crutch." Perhaps a more descriptive term for these musicians is "paytheists" in that they ignore the pastoral dimensions in their work and typically only enter a house of worship either to earn money and/or to use an important instrument. Thus not everyone reading these lines will find them meaningful or written from what they perceive to be an "educated" point of view -- but, be that as it may, with the authority to play a great instrument like the Organ comes great responsibility. This Toccata has been recorded in costume, masterfully in fact, and posted on YouTube under the Hollywood-styled heading "Halloween Music," but the major focus of today's entertainment industry in general, and the motion picture industry in particular, is to win the attention of a gullible public using any means it can, sometimes for its shock-value, to maximize profits for the studio, not to be the moral compass of a nation. And yet we know that this piece is NOT, and was never intended to be, a vehicle to incite a creepy, spooky mood for the haunted-house scenes in Hollywood films. It's one thing to love the art we practice. It's quite another to love it more than Him Who bestows upon us the very abilities needed to exercise that art. Scripture teaches that once the believer in Christ is justifed by God, He sends a measure of His Spirit to dwell with theirs which is not a spirit of fear but of power, of love, and of a sound mind (2Tim.1:7). The art of the theatre organist notwithstanding, anyone who adapts this or any other powerfully written piece of music for a deliberately scary purpose ... who has lifted excerpts from this Toccata, for example, and used it to accompany a horror film from the silent film era or to supply "haunted house music" requested by a group of young adults around October 31st for its entertainment value, promoting and fueling fear and uneasiness in the minds of listeners ... BE AWARE that this enlists the performer in doing something contrary to the Spirit of God. According to the holy Word of God such a person is playing with fire. Halloween -- no matter in what way we're reasoned with like a lawyer to the contrary -- is NOT about harmless fun. It's the devil's day ... which is why using this piece and one's abilities to play it to "enhance the program" for little trick-or-treaters who travel the neighborhood after dark on October 31st engaging in what they think is a fun and harmless annual exercise is incompatible with Christian testimony. Its focus is fear. Fear is not fun. Fear is not entertainment. Fear is a powerful and often damaging emotion, especially for a child. This Toccata can be dramatized by the performer in many ways -- it almost begs to be performed dramatically as pure music, which is all well and good -- but do we organists realize that doing so within earshot of others, especially little children, to incite a spirit of fear and uneasiness in their minds is nothing about which to be indifferent or to pass off lightly -- it has us joined in fellowship with an annual observance distilled, revamped, and repackaged from a past Celtic pagan sacrifice day involving Druid death rites, witchcraft, gross immorality, and occultic practices -- all those things which are to be renounced by Spirit-led Christians. Halloween in fact (along with the proto-metal style of rock music called occult rock, and the inauthentic garbage being forged in ghoulish shorthand by certain wayward composers today as Dark Gothic organ music) represents one of the three most frequent ways children of the present day are introduced to the occult (See blog, An Anointed Ministry, Part VI). The Christian Pilgrims of colonial America recognized Halloween's association with the occult (which they understood to mean anything involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them) by banning the observance of it. This ban lasted until 1845 when multiplied thousands of Irish emigrants flooded into New York because of the Irish potato famine of 1845-1846, bringing Halloween with them which then gradually spread throughout the rest of the country. If anyone asks or expects the organist to provide "haunted house" music, that performer does well to refuse them, and, if they insist, it sends a strong message because there is nothing an organist can ever do that would make Halloween, the Hollywood horror film industry, or the scary "haunted house" music associated with either of them, acceptable to God. The solution is simple: No one should take this writer's word for it -- they should research the dark side of Halloween for themselves and learn how beneath its candy coating and jokes about ghouls and goblins there is a history, albeit tenuous, of diabolical evil.
There is not one web site in a thousand that addresses this point, but it's an important one: organists who consider themselves true followers of Christ need to be very careful how they ply their art soas not to grieve with their playing the Spirit of Christ Who dwells within them. If indeed they sense they are a new creation in Christ, then they are obliged to open their Bible, let the Word of God unencumbered by the arguments, opinions, rulings, interpretations, traditions, or requirements of men or the fear-inciting products of Hollywood be the rule and guide of their faith and practice, ever remembering that something about which they may be uninformed, insufficiently informed, or misinformed can have them silencing and rendering inactive that same Spirit of Christ.
NOTE: It takes a combination of improvisational skill, executive ability, imagination, courage, a quick mind, knowledge and control of the instrument at hand, creative arranging, and the ability to think orchestrally for those studying theatre organ to advance to a stage where they feel comfortable accompanying silent motion pictures before live audiences and doing these films the kind of justice they deserve. That image on the screen and the audience's reaction to it are sort of tied together by the music, and the dimension it adds would be missed without it. It's therefore to be expected that a few experienced theatre organists reading these lines will be thinking, "You're saying that all the effort and sacrifice I've made to develop and enlist my own God-given abilities, such as they are, when seated at the "mighty Wurlitzer" to generate background music for the occasional silent horror film or maybe just to create an eerie mood for trick-or-treaters once a year -- not to mention many of my colleagues, some of the finest musicians and human beings I've ever known who have done the very same thing for years as part of their jobs ... you're telling us that there's something about practicing our art this way that has us crossways with Him Who grants us these abilities in the first place?" No, that isn't what this writer is saying. It's what the Word of God is saying (Ex.20:3, Deut.5:7, Ps.27:1, Prov.3:25, 29:25, Isa.26:3, 35:4, 51:12, Matt.10:28, Phill.4:6-9, 1Thess.5:19, 2Tim.1:7, 1John.3:24, 4:18). There's a difference.
If this were all that's been done to mischaracterize this music it would be calamity enough, but it's been put to worse use -- sad to say, it's been torn asunder and made into a dog and pony show as if it were some kind of proving ground. We also observe some of the same thing in certain recordings made of other Bach organ favorities -- notably the dashing D Major Prelude and Fugue, c minor Passacaglia and Fugue, and G Major "jig" Fugue -- pieces that also seem to survive somehow in spite of receiving every musical punishment known to Western civilization. We've heard this great "d minor" butchered and cut into pieces for the sake of color. We've heard its powerful opening and moving fugal lines ruined by smug ornamenting. We've heard its central fugal section overlaid with unintended pauses that would have had the composer infuriated. We've heard it played like the manual keys were burning the fingers. We've heard it played like the fingers were playing in a pot of glue. We've heard it demolished with "additions" and "corrections." We've heard it leave the station with a mighty roar, go through a bumpy ride, then chug to a stop, start up again, run out of steam, pour on the coal, then go off the rails. We've heard it circle the drain for pages and then save itself at the end. We've heard it take a nose dive from the opening fanfare only to gain altitude and crash and burn on the 2nd page. We've heard this score raced through at the fastest possible speed that human hands and feet can move on keys, leaving the powerful melodic lines shredded into confetti and the residue left in a pile waiting for the dustpan. We've heard it executed all right -- in every conceivable way a guilty criminal could be sent to the other side of the Great Beyond. Then again, we've also heard and have been very moved by some amazing interpretations, many of them on period instruments, by some very inspired performers.
We have also seen this work performed with all manner of gyrations on the bench, postural distortions, grimaces, head violently shaking "no" with every beat accompanied by the silent mouthing of words, and swaying movements of the torso which give the impression that the player was either channeling, suffering from vertigo, or having an apoplectic fit. The habit of swaying forwards and backwards, shaking the head, and introducing graceful arm choreography and other mannerisms into organ performance takes no part in the production of sound. This is cultivated merely for "show," to make it look to the casual observer like the player is actually doing something. The truth is, all unnecessary movement on the bench is a waste of time and energy which can be spent more profitably on matters of technique. How and which mannerisms to cultiviate really should find no place in the new organist's mind, ever, as it distracts from the work at hand. Organ playing, indeed, requires no physical strain, gyrations, or mannerisms to deliver all the powers at work on the page or in the player's imagination to the listener's ear [See blog, Mannerisms].
There's a certain type of player -- a concert organist who has won accalaim perhaps for musical acrobatics, astounding technical feats, and outrageous interpretations -- or perhaps a titular at a very large, important instrument, who has made a name in the organ world because of it -- who performs this work under the premise that if Bach were alive today he would be doing all of these things and more, using everything the modern organ has to offer and every means of appealing to the modern ears of a modern audience. This type of player tends to add and retire stops and couplers in huge clumps by means of the combination action with the idea that, by doing so, the music is better served; chords are doubled an octave higher or lower at climactic points; suboctave stops (Doubles) or couplers are drawn in the manuals with abandon; pedal notes are doubled in octaves, all to get a larger sound; the widest possible range of known dynamics and tempos are employed in the opening Toccata, from an ear-splitting double fortissimo down to a barely audible double pianissimo, from an insane prestissimo down to a barely moving lento, all performed in mysterioso style; the central fugal section is also performed mysterioso or perhaps in crescendo style with the echo passages disappearing as faintly as the opening exposition; extra pedal notes are added to the score, passages in running figuration are sliced and diced and scattered with both hands over every manual there is, and the notes in the final chord are multiplied and morphed into D major, all merely to demonstrate the performer's boldness, cleverness, and executive abilities; a liberal dose of foreign ornaments, foreign trills, and even trills on extra pedal notes, none of which appear in Bach's manuscript, are introduced without any sense of accountability. The result: the audience is treated to all sorts of technical feats and no musicianship -- all sauce and no beefsteak.
Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting our Bach-playing to appeal to a wider audience, to get people to notice the magic in this music by adding a little bit (emphasis on "little bit") of this or that, within limits, to spice up our interpretations in the pursuit of that objective and to make it more original and appealing. We also need to bear firmly in mind, when we're working in the kitchen, that a point can be reached very soon where, if we keep adding salt, pepper, vinegar, and everything else we can think of, to the recipe and keep messing with it, the dish quickly can be ruined. Everything in organ playing is balance, and that also applies to the ingredients in our Bach interpretations. Adding too much of a good thing, adding it in the wrong place, or worse -- working without a recipe at all, throwing any and all kinds of stuff into a blender and serving it up -- is never a good idea -- especially when it's done to try to prove before every audience that the player is a virtuoso.
This is not rocket science. The author of these lines can testify from personal experience that the last time a recipe for a banana cake was so altered, and a dozen bananas instead of two were baked into it, that "cake" cut like sausage and was inedible. Still, some organists are, in effect, doing exactly that, or something similar, with THIS piece of music. Some players heavily influenced by Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcription also like to solo the Fugue subject and color it like mad. In Karl Tausig's transcription for piano solo the ornamented first note of the Toccata is even wrongly written upside down using an upper auxiliary note (Bb) instead of the lower auxiliary note (G).
NOTHING ABOUT THIS WORK SEEMS TO HAVE ESCAPED THE WRECKING BALL. A curious and loosely structured fantasia "a la Messaien" beginning in d minor was posted recently on YouTube which lifted the Toccata's first few opening notes liberally sprinkled with ornaments as thematic material, after which the improvisation rambled through several keys with the full organ and mercifully ended in a crushing major chord in an unrelated key. The central fugal section of this composition has even been reincarnated as a French Romantic Toccata and recorded at a ridiculously fast tempo, turning it into a torrent of notes. The coda also has been rearranged with the addition of trills on held pedal notes and the final chord expanded, changing it from the tonic key of d minor as indicated in the score to the parallel major which is then reiterated under an inverted pedal point. These kinds of changes do more than multiply notes, insert massive crescendos, or employ color stops unknown to the composer -- they introduce unintended dissonances and change the composer's harmony. This kind of tampering with the score may impress the senses, help to sell a prize-winning performer's next CD, win them applause from an uninitiated audience, or elicit a chuckle or two from an orchestral player, but it would have the composer outraged. If we're going to play Bach, then we should play Bach, not our own commentary upon it. Our own flights of fancy are better saved for when we write our own music.
A retrograde version of the free opening, or Toccata portion (J.S. Bach/Enjott Schneider, Attacot), was even published having every one of its 30 measures written backwards, note for note in reverse. If this is what is meant by "poetic license," maybe that license in some cases needs to be revoked. The purpose here, obviously, is to entertain and nothing more, simply to show that it can be done, and to make a parody out of a work of art. This poor composition simply got caught in the squeeze of some fatal experiment -- and the next experiment to come down the pike may be worse. The real proof of knowing this piece forwards and backwards is how well the powers at work on the page can be communicated to the listener and deliver what went through the composer's mind AS HE HEARD IT AND AS HE WROTE IT.
As with so much of Bach's other major organ music, no autograph of this piece survives. The oldest copy surviving to this day traces to German organist Johann Ringk who studied organ with Bach pupils Johann Peter Kellner and Johann Christian Kittel, made many copies of early music, and played an important role in the dissemination of Bach's works. While it's possible that Kellner may have been the source for Ringk's copy, more surviving copies of this work are traceable to Kittel who was one of Bach's last surviving pupils. Ringk's copy therefore was very likely made from an earlier copy, now lost, once in the possession of Kittel, as it agrees with all the others. The Italian tempo marks, fermatas, and staccato dots in Ringk's copy, all of which are very unusual in pre-1740 German organ music, probably did not originate with the composer and were additions by Ringk or a later copyist. The title "Toccata con fuga" appearing in Ringk's copy is probably also a later addition, as most German organ compositions written in this style during this period were usually given the simple title "Praeludium."
The notation itself also has to be watched. Bach had the habit of including an extra bar among the stems of a consecutive run of short notes to indicate when he wanted an extra note of equal value to be squeezed into that run. This extra bar does not mean that the extra note moves suddenly faster. It simply means that between the bottom note and top note all the notes come out evenly, but with one more. This is how it was notated in early times, and an example can be found in measure 19 of this work. The run is performed in one swoop where the bottom note and top note come out on the beat. All the notes of this run written for the right hand are of equal duration. The first section of Bach's G Major Fantasia for organ is loaded with these figures.
(continued in Part IV)