Posted by Anthony Daly, Founder of NewBaroque
April 7, 2019

J.S. Bach's Organ Music - Performance in 2019

Johann Sebastian Bach's organ works are some of the greatest works that have ever been produced. Bach's vast output contains 282 individual organ works, many of which are chorale preludes based on Lutheran chorale melodies.

What I find particularly interesting about Bach's organ works is the variety; no two compositions are the same and this fact is really important to appreciate when performing them.

Anthony Daly

Any good performance will highlight the unique features of that particular work, it will convey something to the audience which is original, new and most importantly which makes them feel like they have got something out of coming that day to hear your interpretation of that piece of music.

In this article I would like to share with you some points about my own interpretation of Bach's music, in order to inspire you to dig deeper into Bach's compositions, especially when preparing them for performance in 2019 and beyond.

Let us take one of Bach's greatest compositions, his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. This monumental work opens with a solo pedal line that outlines the foundation of the ground bass. Organists, it is useful when practicing this piece and other pieces of Bach's, to practice on a single stop, so as to force yourself to pay attention to the intricate details of melody lines. Often, when on full organ, small details like articulation get lost in the overall sound. By practicing on a solo stop, you will retain the close attention to detail when it is scaled up at performance time.

The direction of this pedal opening is important, it is after all the melody which underpins the entire work. Decide on a direction and stick to it when the variations are added on top. For me, this pedal line can be split into distinct phrases, with the first being C-G-Eb-F, the second being G-Ab-F-G, the third being D-Eb-B-C, and the last being F-G-C. Looking at it this way gives instant direction to the line.

Characterisation is especially important in the Passacaglia and Fugue. You should aim to put across the variations in a way that creates contrast and more significantly, in a way that adequately reflects their character. One way to ace characterisation in any of Bach's works is to look for new 'opportunities'. Opportunities could be for instance, the chance to slur four semiquavers to highlight the phrasing in one variation, or it might be the chance to highlight a countermelody or perhaps it's even the chance to change registration. Find what you can do differently in each variation, but work with what is actually there, i.e. the music; the opportunities are subtly suggested by the music itself.

Points of interest in the Passacaglia are bars 28-31; what is the repeated Ab-G-F-Eb trying to 'say' to listeners? There is almost a literary ascending tricolon written into the music, with the last repetition leading all the way to C (Ab-G-F-Eb-D-C-B-C). Such a device highlights the drama of the movement as a whole. Additionally, when contrapuntally the theme becomes the highest voice starting at bar 88, I would make an effort to show through subtle articulation that the parts have inverted, for example by adopting a more legato touch for the flowing semiquavers and imagining a crescendo through the melody on top.

The closing section of the Passacaglia has to have a mention with Bach experimenting with sound colour from bar 153 to the end. Work out here where to 'take a breath'; one such moment is at the last beat of bar 164. The intervening bars are special for music of this period, make something of them.

Tagged:Organ music
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