Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bach Questions

For many years, prominent Bach scholars including Harald Vogel (to whom I mean no personal disrespect) wanted us to believe that the organs of North Germany and Holland were the "ideal Bach organs" -- i.e., the best organs on which to play the music of the Thuringian master.

Well, Bach wasn't North German. And he'd never been to Holland. Why, then, make these illogical claims?

The answer is quite simple: many of the more Bachian and less tampered-with organs were in the former East and were, thus, not easily accessible to Vogel and others. Part of their data pool was roped off.

Strangely, this rather obvious answer has been disputed by some. An organist working in the former East wrote on a popular listserv:

[Vogel] used to come here p[r]etty often, even before the fall of the wall. It wasn't impossible, just unpleasant.

However, on the website of the Constellation Center here in Cambridge, MA, future home to what promises to be a stupendous Taylor & Boody, one reads:

While playing the music of Bach has been an important consideration in the design of organs for a long time, the relative inaccessibility of surviving instruments in Thuringia and Saxony during the East German period had prevented the research necessary for musicians and organ builders from the West to gain a thorough understanding of the traditions that Bach knew.

Now this situation has changed. Study of these instruments by builders and players has been taking place for a number of years and some of the most important Thuringian and Saxon organs have recently had fine restorations. Because of recent and ongoing research in connection with the restoration process, it is now possible to have a much clearer understanding of the sounds that Bach worked with and how they were produced

This landmark Taylor & Boody instrument will be modelled after the much-hyped Hildebrandt organ in Naumberg. And it will be a wonderful instrument for the music of Bach. But is the Hildebrandt organ really "THE ideal Bach organ," as their publicity would have us believe?

The afore-mentioned organist in the former East wrote:

As for Naumburg - JSB helped design it, he examined it and found it excellent, and he pulled quite a lot of levers to get his student and son-in-law appointed there.

True, it is likely that Bach thought highly of this instrument. But how could anyone stretch, "I approve of this instrument," into, "This is The Ideal instrument for my organ music"? I know musicians are creative, but that requires something beyond the normal dosage of creativity!

The late, great Stephen Bicknell wrote:

If such an instrument [i.e., a true "Bach organ"] had existed in respect of J. S. Bach himself we would have a far greater understanding of the man and his music. In truth the historical record conspicuously lacks any such instrument. There is no identifiable Bach organ, and despite the hopes of many researchers the possible connection between J. S. Bach and the design of any particular instrument - whether the Trost organ at Altenburg or the Hildebrandt at Naumburg - is at best treacherously tenuous. [...]

From the record of surviving instruments we have none at which he presided. There are several which he played, even a few where he made a formal inspection at the time of their completion. All have suffered from the vicissitudes of time and, even where they have been conscientiously restored, the sounds that can be heard today give only a partial insight into the instrumental world that the great man inhabited.

In the relative absence of any coherent archaeological record the study of the relationship between J. S. Bach and the organ occupies exactly the same imaginary world as the study of Stonehenge, and the results of that study are witness not to Bach's own genius but to the affairs and concerns of those who have made the various studies. [...]

With this in mind I prefer to see the connection often made between Bach and the organ building of late seventeenth century Hamburg - instruments by Arp Schnitger and his immediate predecessors - as being a story of twentieth century preoccupations. First and foremost it is a story of political upheaval. In the division of Germany after the Second World War the Bach homelands of Thüringia and Saxony became relatively inaccessible, their organs and organ culture obviously so. The instruments of Gottfried Silbermann retained their specific cachet, but that widely acknowledged award of distinction was a matter of survival, not of revival. The remarkable craftsmanship in Silbermann's instruments led them to be revered not only in his own time but in following generations too. I would go as far as to say that in the nineteenth century he was the only organ builder of the past whose name was widely known in the international organ world. When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe even Silbermann's instruments fell for a time into shadow, and the idea of them belonging to an indigenous and varied local organ culture passed completely into oblivion. Attention was naturally diverted for a time to the other great area of importance to Bach's understanding of the organ - Hamburg and the North.

This removal of focus from central Germany to the North was also propelled by the engine of twentieth century musicology[.]