Musical Notes for September 18

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:45 am)

Toccata Quinta
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
(from Second Book of Toccatas and Partitas)

Frescobaldi was the first great composer of keyboard music in Italy. Prior to his time, the great composers were writing for voice (especially choral music) or small instrumental ensembles. At first, keyboard instruments were used primarily for improvisations. In each of the European countries the first masterpieces of written-down, “composed” pieces were beginning to be published during this period: the first decades of the 17th Century. In Holland the great composer was Sweelinck; in France it was Titelouze; in Spain Cabezon; and in Italy it was Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Frescobaldi was born in Ferrara and was an amazing child prodigy. He was extremely famous in his time and held many distinguished posts, including organist at St. Peter’s in Rome. When he was first elected to the post (in 1608) that extraordinary basilica was still under construction. When Frescobaldi published the Toccata Quinta (Toccata Five) in 1627 construction had just been completed.

This 3-minute piece is as fine as any Early Baroque organ piece ever composed, and represents the summit of organ composition in Italy. The organs and organ music created during this period were never again equaled in Italy. Italian composers had other musical interest starting in the mid-17th Century – most notably: opera.

The work seems simple enough: improvisatory sections alternate with contrapuntal sections, and with brilliant “toccata” fast scales and passages. To be honest, it is difficult to explain what makes this piece as substantial as it is. Except that, when one is in the midst the work, there is no doubt you are in the middle of great art. Emotion and architecture balance perfectly. There is great stature to the piece, and one is drawn completely into its world.

Vater unser im Himmelreich
Georg Böhm (1661-1733)

Georg Böhm was one of the most important organ composers of the middle of the Baroque period in Germany (a period which would include Buxtehude). His most important post was that of organist at the Johanneskirche in Lüneburg from 1698 until his death. During his tenure there a young organ student named Johann Sebastian Bach lived and studied there. We have no evidence that Böhm actually taught Bach, but of course Bach would have come to know him and his music very well.

This lovely chorale prelude is based on the traditional German hymn tune – or “chorale”- that went with the Lord’s Prayer (Vater unser im Himmelreich is Our Father who art in Heaven.) Böhm starts with a lovely accompaniment on a flute stop, and then the beautiful aria-like melody sings forth on a combination of Baroque stops: Voix humaine, Flûte 4, and Nazard 2-2/3 with Tremulant.

“Gigue” Fugue in G Major
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

This absolutely captivating piece has long been a favorite of organists and audiences because of its catchy tune and joyous gigue dance rhythm. It was on E. Power Biggs’ first Bach Organ Favorites album, and Virgil Fox featured it on all his “Heavy Organ” tours.

Although there is no manuscript in Bach’s own hand, it was probably composed when Bach was 20 or 21 years old, around the same period as the “Little” Fugue in G Minor. It is wonderful, happy piece, and great fun to play!

At the Postlude

Toccata Primo
Georg Muffat (1653-1704)
(from Apparatus musico-organisticus, 1690)

Muffat is considered the most important composer of the “South German Baroque Organ School.” The style of his music is highly influenced by both French and Italian music. Born in Megève (a French town in the Alps), Muffat was a very cosmopolitan musician. He studied with Jean Baptiste Lully, but also with Pasquini, a follower of Frescobaldi. His major posts were in Germany and Austria.

This Toccata is a highly-charged musical fantasia. Bold gestures of harmonic dissonance are dramatically followed by rapid-fire passage work, or, at other times, by quiet pensive moments.

The work absolutely comes alive on our new organ! – the rich, bold plein jeu (principal chorus) at the beginning (with deep pedal tones); then, when the piece gets quiet, an amazing timbre you have not heard before: this is a special Baroque string stop that Pascal Quoirin developed for us (It is called simply Salicional. But that is usually a Romantic 19th Century string stop. This one is breathy, and thin, quite marvelous, with a strong Baroque “chiff” speech. It is perfect for this introverted section! Later, the brilliant plein jeu stops return with rapid passages, and eventually the piece ends with reeds added and pedal Bombardes.

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