Dec. 25, 2015
There are some organists out there who subscribe to a more general approach concerning perfomance style and technique. Some interpret Bach, for example, with their own slant, adopting a little from each "school," employing techniques from various schools, leaning toward some techniques earlier in their careers and to others later on. They also freely admit that the acoustical environment of every building is different, and this can demand a change in touch, tempo, and at times, even technique to get things clear. We thus see and hear people who play Bach at the organ differently in different venues, at times not quite the way we prefer to perform it ourselves, but we truly enjoy listening to them, anyway. Therefore we can still respect, appreciate, and applaud anyone who plays Bach in an enjoyable manner whether it's strictly legato, strictly broken, or a joyous mix of all 5 types of touch [See blog, Touch, Part I].
If you're going to teach beginners there's the responsibility to teach well, and we do need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the fact that musical aesthetics have changed over time. Bach is not Beethoven, nor is a Romantic pianoforte legato aesthetic applicable to the early 18th century. At the same time it helps to teach on a much broader level, where students will weigh the conversation, because students will ultimately decide for themselves on what is true, authentic, right, correct, and what is not. The problem with some schools today is that they teach a method, a particular way of doing things, but they don't always teach how to think. This is where some teachers are leading a different school. Each artist, each person, each musician, above all, must think for themselves, then all of life will be interpreted well. What will make a student a unique performer is their critical decision about which things to take away from their teacher. The way an organ student is introduced by their teacher to Bach forms their approach to a composer whose sheer mastery of the techniques of composition have never been equalled and to the kernel of all organ music for the rest of their life. This means doing a bit of research before holding students to any particular manner of interpretation. The issue is not 100 per cent certain as to the one "correct" way of playing Bach, which is why we need to do some studying.
The specific French approach from the turn of the 20th century, i.e. the absolutely strict legato style, is clearly at odds with the aesthetic of Bach's time. Many American teachers and schools were formed by the French (mainly Dupre and Widor) dogmatic insistence on legato in Bach. So we can still find high caliber organists teaching who have not grappled with the issue (or they just do what their teachers did). We can presume to eliminate some specific methods without having to propose that there is only one way to play something. When we start doing that, to insist that there's only one way, we immediately put ourselves up as the expert, no questions asked, when, in reality, every performance, in one way or another, is imperfect. In my mind, there are no experts, only artists, but there seems to be so many Bach "experts" running around these days that organists often find serenity in not playing Bach at all. This, for some, can even be a factor in choosing, at times, what to play. While his organ fugues are the finest in existence, and the remainder of his enormous output is a treasure trove demonstrating at every turn his almost superhuman invention and sheer mastery of the techniques of composition, something which has never been equaled, it's probably best not to develop an exclusive obsession with Bach. Certainly his is some of the greatest music of all time and worth every minute of study, but the fact is, there's a lot of other excellent stuff out there that's easier and just as effective in weekly worship service situations.
We should never approach art as an absolute, for then we shall be absolutely unartistic, and worst of all, inhuman. A simple experiment is all that's necessary to prove this. Try drawing a simple stick figure exactly the same way twice, right next to each other. You can't do it, no matter how hard you try. That's the beauty of being human. Now try recording a performance of any Bach piece, even the simplest, three times in a row, then superimpose these three recordings in a multitrack audio app. They're not the same, and they'll never be the same, even when you try. Conclusion: One person's legato interpretation of Bach can be just as beautiful, if not more so, than another person's non-legato performance, and vice versa.
A good teacher always makes a positive, encouraging comment first to the student of Bach playing, something like, "It's clear that you really want to work at it, that's instantly evident," or "You've put some real time into this," or "You have a very good feel for it," or "Your concentration is excellent," and only then follows it with comments of critique, such as "Let me caution you about this," or "Here are some ways to make Bach better, in my opinion." It also helps for the teacher to include themselves in the struggle for self-improvement, i.e., to share with the student the fact that, in the past, they needed to look in the mirror and work on the very same things for themselves. Students like to know that their teacher traveled the exact same road and either once was, or still is, in the same boat with them. Dwelling first upon something good and positive the student is doing before dissecting what can be done to improve things is an elementary, tried and true, battle tested, rock solid principle of musical pedagogy. In my own studies I've often been told that the foundations of my playing were well in place but there were a few things I could do to hone that around, to do some different things, and add in new concepts. I've also been told, at times, that something I was doing was not good, thus flat wrong. This kind of critical analysis never broke my spirit. On the contrary, I appreciated working with excellent teachers who had substantial things to say, but I also remember checking my ego at the door when appearing at my lessons. Those students who approach organ study with the attitude that their personal way is already best typically don't do very well with instruction, and the Christian tradition, I believe, has something to say about humility and teach-ability. Credentials can be suspect, which is why it's important to know above all how to think and not base one's understanding solely and blindly upon the two or three teachers with whom one happens to have studied.
The fact is, Bach utilized a broken, articulate, non-legato touch he learned at and transferred from the clavichord, for a lot of his organ playing. The separations between notes in the fastest passages, in terms of what they sounded like, were shorter still, more like clean legato (imperceivably broken). Students need to be exposed to that, call it what you want, method, style, whatever ... but this was what he used [See blog, Touch, Part I]. Organists of all sorts can utlilize that very method or style exclusively, even for the slower notes and chords, and still interpret the music in a very exciting and joyful manner. It's not a matter of being wrong, boring, or uninspired when in fact a judicious mix of non-legato and clean legato for the moving notes, with strict legato reserved for the slower notes and chords, may also lend animation or interest [See Touch, Parts I, III, IV].
The most important thing to remember with Bach playing, as with all organ playing, isn't to show how well you can conform to some systematized recipe but to get things clear for the listener [See Listening for the Listener]. The French Romantic legato school of thought codified in Dupre's ubiquitous and often utilized Methode d'Orgue was the predominant one engrained in everyone's minds for generations, but we know today that the playing of a Bach organ fugue isn't, and cannot be, confined to the rigid consistency of a strictly legato style, not 100 per cent of the time. The fact, not open to debate, that connecting the left hand line has a tendency to compromise the clarity of the right hand line, that at times we have to break it [the left hand line] by detaching so the right hand can be heard more clearly, is an illustration of this. To be fair to Dupre, he did place articulation markings at certain places in his Bach edition, and we can give him credit for going to the Bachgesellschaft to get things in an original, unedited state. But we can move one finger over another to reach other notes and articulate the notes in a way known to Bach, in Bach's own very artistic and improvisorial sense, and in an innovative, pleasing, clear, and very satisfactory manner to the ear, without the legalism of Dupre legato and its fingerings.
Bach the organist seemed to have appreciated innovation, experimentation, and adaptation, introducing it even when it was risky (for example, upon returning from visiting and learning from Buxtehude during the winter of 1705-1706, he "mingled many strange tones" in the chorales being sung by the congregation at Arnstadt to the point that they were confounded by it). He was keen on newly invented instruments and the possibilities for elaboration inherent in a prevailing harmony, marking this cantankerous, old wig-wearing schoolmaster as anything but a museum keeper. In terms of boldness and innovation he was the famous organist, the "switched on" superstar, even the jazz artist, of his time, and in better utilizing the method or technique, whatever we wish to call it, that was familiar to him, it opens the door to how he would interpret his own works. His coloratura, variation, and other techniques, not holding to some of the expected ways of playing, were very much a jazz of his time, a phenomenon that opened the way to a more exciting way of playing without making sure he substituted on that descending scale or used heels to move over to the next note. From all research on him, it wouldn't have mattered, he would have just picked up his foot and moved it an octave without worrying about substituting to make that happen.
Why harp on this? Because the choice of legato or broken touch changes everything about the fingering, learning, and interpretation of the piece. This is incredibly important for a beginner, for example, to know whether or not it is fine to just pick up a finger and play the next note with the same finger. Constantly in Bach's organ music we see a descending soprano line in long notes, with activity in the alto. The preferred method here is just to pick up your pinky and move it to the next soprano note, which in turn allows you to relax the hand and keep all other fingers free to play the alto part. Your choice of fingering IS your learning of the piece, as you figure out hand positions and so forth. A legato approach completely changes how you learn a piece and how you understand it motivically. It is not neutral. Some organists believe they can just finger the piece legato and then do whatever they want with the touch later. Any teacher who rightly encourages the student to break themselves of that habit will revolutionize their approach to Bach.
Still, some very heated debates have arisen and seem to be continuing concerning the proper, right, correct way to play a Bach fugue. One teacher of mine expected me to observe strict legato in all the moving parts, insisting that no other way was permissible, and this in a building with very wet acoustics (7 seconds of "bounce"), while another teacher of mine, in a building just as reverberant, wanted the moving notes imperceivably broken (clean legato), insisting quite correctly that the ear should be the final judge (he also admitted to playing the moving notes at times more broken than that, with definite, audible separations between them, i.e. non-legato). Both teachers were world class performers and were venerated as a near legend of the organ world in the urban areas where they lived and worked. And both were diametrically opposed. Since then, I've heard renditions of Bach fugues by other world class performers where every type of touch was used which, to be perfectly honest, succeeded in bringing out all the majestic powers at work on the page in a very convincing, effective, and artistic way. There will be times where you, as well, will like the way someone plays Bach, and they're playing it differently than you would. Thus, we just need to keep an open mind. As we define the word "correct," one possible definition might be the way Bach did it. But "musically interesting and expressive" or something similar could also be a possible definition. As far as how we need to be going about our own playing of early music and how we should be encouraging others, in the end we all have to figure out which side of the fence we're going to come down on (or to what extent we're going to ride the fence rail, if at all), and then stick with it. At the same time, it's important to be able to continue seeing around and through that fence and keep these decisions of ours in perspective.
The people who thought that Bach played legato at all times also thought they were performing his music "correctly," so the question becomes, what's going to become of "correctness" if or when the next round of Bach research occurs and brings still more new information and possible interpretations to light? The truth is, in art, there is no single, one, absolute, correct way (this may have a few people in every camp ready to get up, grab me by the neck, and shake me, but, that's just the nature of art). There are, however, many artistic ways. We can provide ten names of famous organists who play Bach, and no two will be the same, not even nearly the same. But humanity likes them all, nonetheless. The same goes for "chant schools." The truth is, the minute we subscribe to a "school," any school, as the best and only right way, we're no longer making artistic decisions for ourselves. We're simply joining a musicians union of thought. And for every union like this we can expect, as new research comes to light, that there will eventually be a reaction followed by the institution of a new twist on an old problem, if not a newer union. Granted, people have preferences (all for good and sufficient reasons), but that doesn't make it the only way to play Bach, however, or anything else.
I can say this because, as a budding composer, I myself do not limit the performer to any one way to perform my own scores. There are as many "right" ways to perform my music as there are artists who attempt to perform it. That's all. And, someone probably can, and does, and will play my music better than I ever will. Therefore, I don't believe Bach, if he were alive today, despite his personal leanings with touch, would very much care how people performed his music either, as long as they were competent performers (he was very adamant about that) and they performed it well. How happy he would be, to see the majority of his musical output not only surviving to the present day but some of it actually being performed, recorded, and even being launched into deep space aboard both Voyager spacecraft!
Bottom line: old Bach, in his day, was one cool dude, and anyone today who can perform his organ music with dignity and respect and, in so doing, bring to life his amazing spirit and communicate a language of warmth and meaning to an audience, deserves to be heard and appreciated [See Touch, Part V]. If only one Bach organ fugue were the only thing left after the human species was finished, it could be said that it wasn't all in vain.