Organ Notes for October 9

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:50 am)

Chaconne in F Minor
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

Pachelbel was the most important South German composer of the middle Baroque, a generation before Bach. He composed a large amount of organ, keyboard, instrumental and vocal music. Pachelbel’s music tends to be very well-crafted, harmonically conservative, melodic, appealing, and accessible. The famous Canon in D is a good example. It is now the most popular wedding processional piece — it is immensely appealing, but not much substance underneath the pretty surface.

A few of his pieces, however, go deeper. Perhaps the single best is the organ Chaconne in F Minor, which we hear Sunday. It is a very special, hauntingly beautiful piece.

A chaconne (or ciacona in Italian) is a musical form popular in the Baroque period. It has a repeating, ostinato bass line with variations in the hands. The ostinato for this chaconne is very simple: F, E-flat, D-flat, C. Four notes, one per measure for four measures, then the ostinato starts up again. It sounds simple, but the melodies and variations he conceived of are extremely beautiful. From the very beginning, the music is incredibly touching, introverted, and deeply felt. For nine minutes the four-measure ostinato continues, and Pachelbel keeps us totally involved with his inspired variety of melodies and textures, as well as emotional climaxes and moments of repose — all the while the haunting inner world is ever present.

All of these Baroque variations, of course, allow the interpreter to select all kinds of different organ sounds. And this is one of those pieces which really come alive on our new organ. There are so many subtle and beautiful Baroque sounds to choose from! It is truly an inspiration to play this piece on this organ.

I start with a single principal or Montre stop for the first set of variations. Then we hear some lovely flutes followed by 8’ & 4’ Montres as the piece increases a bit in energy. Suddenly a bold variation is heard on the Positif Plein Jeu (the full principal chorus of the second keyboard). The energy dissipates in the next few variations, and stops are reduced (down to murmuring flutes). Then the piece continues calm again, anew, with delicate sounds. Some of the delicate keyboard figurations here are extremely beautiful. A more solemn, sustained section follows on the Montres 8’ & 4’, then 16th notes on flutes 8’ & 2’. Right before the close, Pachelbel writes an amazing set of variations on two soft flute stops, one for each hand. The notes are written a 16th note apart from each other, creating a ravishing undulating effect. Finally, the piece ends with exactly the same music with which it began. But this time I choose the softest flute stops on the organ: the Bourdon of the Grand-Orgue division, and then the Bourdon of the Écho.

At the Postlude

Fugue in F Major
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach composed five Toccatas and Fugue for organ, including the famous one in D minor which we heard last week. This magnificent fugue is the second part of his Toccata and Fugue in F. It is actually a “double fugue.” That means it has two fugue themes (“subjects”), each of which has its own section, followed by a third section combining the two themes. The first theme, or subject, is slow and sustained. It is first played in the tenor part, then the alto, then the soprano, and finally in the bass part. This glorious music continues for a couple of pages and then comes to a close.

A new, spritely theme is then heard. It is the theme of the second fugue, and this fugue is only for three parts — soprano, alto and tenor — the pedals are left out completely. I play this section on the lighter principal chorus of the Positif division. This middle section goes into different key centers, some far away from F Major; and some measures have only two voice parts, providing a skillful thinning of the texture before the third and final section arrives.

When this final section does appear, I go back down to the fuller sonorities of the Grand-Orgue division. Here Bach reintroduces the first fugue theme in the alto voice and, a few measures later, the other, second theme in the pedals. For the rest of the piece the two themes jump back and forth between all the various voice parts, one superimposed on the other. And there is an extraordinary organic accumulation of energy and motion: what was once a slow majestic fugue is now an amazing joyous, vivacious, musical-spiritual celebration — as only Bach can do!