Organ Notes for October 2nd

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:45 am):

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

This amazing piece almost lives in a world of its own among the organ pieces of Bach. Its construction is the “loosest” of any of his large-scale organ works, and, indeed, there are other pieces more profound, more perfectly constructed. If you were to comment on its form you could say it starts with a toccata, like a wild, highly-dramatic fantasia, followed by a highly unusual fugue: it begins as a formal four-part fugue where the fugue theme is given to each voice part, one after the other. But then, at the end of this first section, the piece suddenly stops its fugal style and enjoys a free-style section in only one or two parts, sometimes employing echoes. And then, this section is suddenly dropped, and we’re back in a fugal texture again which intensifies, and then it, too, stops suddenly on a very surprising B-flat Major chord. And finally the piece nearly explodes with an amazingly dramatic toccata-fantasia section to close the piece.

So what do we make of this? Surely the construction points back to the Preludes and Fugues of Buxtehude, which were always constructed in such a loose, improvisatory style. And it was also very influenced by the extravagant harmonic gestures of the South German composer Georg Muffat. But what this piece has that theirs do not is an organic progression through all these different elements — a progression that is so strong, so organically “right” that one cannot imagine it going any other way. The amazing musical world it creates, the elemental power of the piece — this is the force, the vision of Bach which has captivated music lovers for centuries.

The piece is played in loving memory of Esther D. Hamilton, a dear friend, and one of this parish’s most generous benefactors. It was her favorite piece of music.

At the Postlude:

Prelude and Fugue in D Minor
Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707)

Buxtehude was the most important German organ composer in the generation before Bach. His Preludes and Fugue are very different from Bach’s. While Bach would compose a totally structured prelude and a separate, totally structured fugue, Buxtehude’s consisted of one short section after another — some sections like fantasias, some like short fugues, each section different. You don’t look for development in Buxtehude. You look for one fascinating section after another, often with surprises along the way. That is his charm; and the challenge for the interpreter is to make sense of all those seemingly independent sections. It helps a lot if you have one marvelous organ sound after another to help point out the character of each section!

[Note: in the bulletin you will see Grigny’s Dialogue listed as the postlude. Between the time the bulletin was printed and now, the temperature has changed so much that the particular French Baroque reeds necessary for the Grigny piece are wildly out of tune. I think we’ll wait until the temperature stabilizes before doing that piece!]