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And now, a word from our friend, Mr. Bach:

Having recently turned my attention to some of the organ works of our dear Johann Sebastian Bach I thought I would seek counsel in order to improve my approach to these venerable works.  It was nice of him to leave behind some advice for the playing of the organ, particularly since he was such an avowed master of the instrument (his contemporaries heaped praise on him from all sides) and since he himself ought to be a recognized authority for the playing of his own works. I don't think he will mind if I share his wisdom with you:

"[with regard to playing the organ] There is nothing to it. You simply strike the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself."

That's it. That's his glorious advice. And I think he might still be getting royalties for it.

Still, when a great master says something, if at first it sounds simplistic and stupid, like something anybody else could have said, there might be a hidden depth, a profundity that can only be grasped by those with insight. In other words, you have to be something of a sage yourself. If you are a card-carrying member of "the rabble" you won't figure it out in a million years.

So I considered his advice, which he refused to amplify. Bach let his music do the talking.

Was there a bit of sarcasm lurking behind those words? After all, it might look simple to somebody who didn't actually play the organ. The woods are full of people who thought piano playing was such a great idea they'd try it themselves and then abandoned the pursuit when it turned out to require some effort. Maybe some enterprising lawyer will find a way to sue concert pianists for making it look easy and thus misleading the public into trying it at home where their efforts might result in significant mental anguish and a sense of failure when they couldn't get the same results in 24 hours. And this from an instrument that leaves two of your appendages free most of the time.

It could be that Bach was merely irritated when some well-meaning ignorant soul wanted to know his secret, preferably short and to the point. The same Bach who wrote such epic musical sagas as The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of the Fugue was being asked to distill his lifetime of wisdom into a sound bite. So he bit.

Alfred Einstein--no, not the guy who decided that E=mc2  --the musicologist. You're thinking of Albert.  Alfred had more respectable hair.  Alfred Einstein wrote a book one summer (doesn't everybody spend their summer vacation that way?) in which he talked about greatness in music.  Mr. Einstein decided that one of the give-away characteristics of great souls is that they get irritated easily. Lots of clueless people getting in the way of their artistic mission make them that way.

So maybe it was just a brush-off.

That wouldn't be terribly helpful. Didn't Bach know he was going to be a celebrity in a couple of centuries and that with such celebritiness comes the responsibility to give the public an up close and personal look into everything they want an up close and personal look at? Somebody wrote a book about Beethoven's hair, for crying out loud. The least Bach could do would be to sit still for an interview. Maybe spray some platitudes about taking his preludes one note at a time and how great his fans were.


Well, this wasn't helping too much. I needed some advice. Not that I couldn't play his pieces without it, I just thought that there was an awful lot of room to interpret some notes on a page and that maybe he favored one way over another. Did he play his own pieces differently depending on his mood? Did he incline toward crisp tempi  or more leisurely? Did he favor reed stops or flute stops? What about the articulation?

Just play the notes. hmmm.

I decided to take him seriously for a moment. Bach's organ  didn't do dynamic swells. There are no indications of loud and soft in Bach, and very few that deal with which stops to use. There are also very few articulation marks. When you are playing in a church the length of reverberation depends entirely on the space you are playing in. Sometimes you have to shorten the length of the notes a little so that the piece doesn't sound like noisy mud. You may have to adjust the pauses a bit also to give separation between passages while the echo dies away at its own pace. Like any professional ballplayer knows, it is necessary to constantly adjust. That is something one can't indicate on a page. And since Bach's organ wasn't capable of gradual changes in dynamics he couldn't indicate them. But he could have indicated changes of registration, and he didn't. Maybe he changed his mind a lot. Or didn't want to give away his secrets. Or figured that since every organ was different approximations weren't worth pursuing.

Bach probably also subscribed to the prevailing philosophy of his times. Society was well-ordered and ordained from above. Kings were kings. Peasants were peasants. There was no such thing as upward mobility. People knew their place in the world. Things didn't change that quickly. (Bach was from a family of church organists going back generations) They were a manifestation of the eternal. And the organ was perfectly structured to give one that sense. It didn't get louder or softer depending upon how the keys were struck. It could sustain indefinitely in contrast to the mortality of instruments powered by human lungs. It was capable of building up masses of sound but was rarely called to do so. Sound for sound's sake didn't make sense. It was for the elaboration of an idea, the spinning out of orderliness in sound. The universe was a rational place, and music another craft with definite principles. Follow those principles and you had a piece worthy of the name music. As Newton's Laws of Motion governed the universe, so the laws of counterpoint, of the simultaneous combination of separate melodies, governed the musical firmament. So Bach probably wasn't kidding when he suggested that simply following the written instructions would insure the music sounded as it should. Interpretation? Individual interpretation? A piece that sounds different when somebody else plays it? Who are you kidding? The eternal is the eternal. Period.

The splendiferous ness of this thought is that everything that is necessary can be perfectly represented on the page. Except the tempo. If that matters. Maybe it doesn't. Only the notes matter, and their relationship to each other, not to the whole universe of sounds outside the piece's view. I've tried this approach, but I'll confess, sometimes it seems cold and impersonal. Sometimes even my own recordings on this website strike me that way. Perhaps if I added some swells, a more affective leaning on certain tones, playing with the rhythmic tension in the phrase. My organ has technology that Bach's didn't have. Would he have used it? If he had, would he have still been Bach?

I asked Bach's advice, and I got it. He lived in a very different time and place, and his mind traveled in very different directions than my own. He'd never heard of existentialism; never had to put up with postmodernism. There weren't many isms in those days. Diversity? Points-of-view? How about Democracy? Communism? Cell phones?

There are plenty of views about how Bach should be played, which is convenient since none of those views is Bach's own.  There have always been those who felt appointed to speak on his behalf.  Some favor a "notes only" approach. Some claim the Baroque era allowed for quite a bit of emotional fantasy. There are extremists and there are moderates. And since Bach's fame is assured and since there are literally hundreds of recordings of the same works available to anybody who wants them, I don't think I need worry about damaging Bach's reputation by playing him the "wrong" way.  In fact, the medium of this website allows me to try out different interpretations and to allow you to hear them instead of commercially releasing only one.  In keeping with the times, you can decide which ones you like and which ones you don't.  Personally I've always found most valuable those recordings which taught me something about music whether I would have played the piece that way or not.  So I hope as you listen to these recordings that you learn something new--or simply enjoy the music--or...both!

Bach won't mind.


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