Sep. 20, 2015

Bach d minor, Part V

(continued from Part IV)

There isn't sufficient room in these blog postings to touch upon all the important points in performing this work, but its iconic opening fanfare (photo, measures 1-3), being one of the most famous passages in the history of Western music, seems to demand comment.  How this short passage of 3 measures is performed says a great deal, almost everything, about the performer.

At the outset it's helpful to mentally count 16ths, get them firmly in the mind, even mark these beats in the score in pencil with small accent markings (>), and learn it that way.  This helps us to keep track of the pulse.  While it helps to count 16ths mentally at the opening, all things in the Toccata don't have to be counted.  The rhythm is free.

Beginning with full organ I tend to remain on the main manual through the entire opening fanfare and 1st rolled chord and use imperceivably broken touch (clean legato) for the downward runs for the sake of clarity.  It's interesting that the low C#2 in the left hand part in the 2nd measure was impossible on the manuals of the Arnstadt organ.  Bach would have had  to omit this note if performing the work at Arnstadt and given the remaining C#3 in the right hand an agogic accent by holding it a trifle longer without breaking rhythm.  The first low pedal D1 may be played regularly in time or included in the first rolled chord with a slight lingering on the dissonance.  It's very effective to hold the dissonant part a slight bit before it's resolved.  The resolution in measure 3 should not be rushed.  It's good for the listener to hear that tension, to let that chord sit there for a moment, and let it squirm, then hear the release.  The player might simply hit the low pedal D and begin rolling at the next pulse, then pause.  It's also fine to play it regularly, in rhythm, but still it's best not to linger too long on the dissonance.  Some insert a crescendo here, as well as other places in this work, by opening the swell shoe and adding stops and couplers during the holding of this chord.  This dynamic effect was unknown to the German organ which Bach knew.  The interpreter is under some obligation to consider performing a composer's music with the type of instrument they knew in mind, but, let it be understood that some of the most gifted organists in history who have held important posts where a fine, large modern organ was available (Widor and Vierne are notable examples) have employed the swell shoe, with discretion, in their Bach playing, in well thought out ways prepared in advance, for the flexibility it offers, to shade prominent stops, and to bring the sound closer for climactic passages.

Bach most certainly felt dynamic change in his music, and he wrote it into his counterpoint to help provide volume control on the instrument he knew, which was entirely unenclosed.  As held notes start to pile up, one by one, wave on wave, the listener perceives a crescendo.  This happens in the exposition of a fugue as successive voices enter, one by one, and the ear perceives an accumulating dynamic effect.  In the same way, when the pedal line comes to a stop and the voices drop from 4 or 5 down to 2, the ear notices a falling off in volume.

Two and a half centuries of scholarship have not made up for the fact that Bach left behind only tantalizations, not registrations.  Registration indications are scarce in his organ works, but this much is known:  he used a full plenum (organo pleno) sound, or something approaching it, to perform his own preludes, toccatas, fantasias, the passacaglia, fugues, and several types of choral preludes, viz. choral fugues, choral fantasias, and chorale preludes written in vocal style with a tutti instrumental texture.  For all other types of choral preludes, choral partitas, and trios he employed softer, carefully selected stop combinations used soloistically or as small ensembles on individual manuals.

Bach could not use 2-foot stops in the plenum at Arnstadt, as the Wender organ was not supplied with any.  The basic core sound he had in mind for the plenum in fugue playing, at least for the early Arnstadt works, can be approached in the modern organ by drawing on manual I the 8-foot principal chorus topped by a bright 4-foot Octave and IV rank mixture, drawing on manual II a chorus built upon an 8-foot covered flute and 4-foot Principal topped with a 2-2/3 foot Nazard and III rank Mixture, and drawing on the Pedal a tame 16-foot reed at minimum.  For additional power at Arnstadt Bach would have considered adding the 8-foot Trumpet to manual I, coupling manual II to manual I, and coupling manual I to Pedal.  It's very instructive to hear this music performed on Germanic instruments using only these exact stops, but when performing on larger instruments Bach probably reduced the number of covered stops and substituted more open stops and tame reeds to create better definition with the bigger sound.  If the organ at hand happens to be supplied with a 5-1/3 foot Quint stop in manual I, or if this stop can be supplied through coupling, then it, too, has a place in the Bach plenum.  In its absence some tame 16-foot or 8-foot reed tone, if it's not too assertive, can be added to manual I with advantage for the production of the fullest effects.  On modern organs all dull sounding diapasons, thick sounding flutes, orchestrally voiced stops, screaming mixtures, if any, and big reeds obviously should be left out.  At Arnstadt there were no 4-foot reeds either because there was no need for them.  On the old German organs the upper work was voiced brightly enough for the plenum to work without them.  The Pedal at Arnstadt also lacked 4-foot stops and a mixture, but these could be coupled from the main manual, and there seems to be a lesson here.

To keep the actual pitches sounding in the bass line from overlapping the middle voices in a fugue, Bach had a fondness for drawing a tame 16-foot reed in the Pedal, usually all by itself or with a mild 8-foot "helper stop" added.  In his day the usual practice was to leave out all reeds from the manual plenum.  On the other hand, there was nothing "usual" or "average" or "typical" about J.S. Bach the organist.  His son C.P.E. Bach reported that, in his time, no one understood the registration of organ stops as well as his father, and that his father drew the stops "in his own manner."  If the manual upperwork is so piercing when drawn as to make all the voices of a fugue sound equally "high," then the inclusion of some tame reed tone would be a definite help.  Whether or not to mix reeds with the Bach plenum depends upon the organ.  A good rule to follow is:  do whatever it takes to make the organ you're playing sound like a true Bach plenum and let the effect of the music be your guide.  As always, the ear should be the judge.  Clarity in contrapuntal music demands a certain sacrifice of absolute strength.  The Bach interpreter is obliged to be discerning and economical in drawing the stops and couplers and be continually on guard against mixing too many stops together at the expense of clarity.  At the same time, Bach valued the importance of suboctave stops, particularly tame reeds, in providing gravity.  Knowing this, some very effective interpretations of Bach organ fugues have been performed with little or no stop changes, by drawing a tame 16-foot reed with the main manual plenum, even adding a 32-foot stops to the tame 16-foot reed already drawn in the Pedal for climactic passages, and obtaining variety simply by changing manuals, changing touch, and nuancing the tempo.