Sunday, September 14, 2014

Helmut Walcha (1907-1991)



Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor

by J.S. BACH

And what, you ask, is a Passacaglia? 
A set of continuous variations on a ground bass.
What is a ground bass? A theme or tune stated repeatedly and continuously in the lowest voice.

If that sounds tedious, just listen to the magic Bach performed above the ground. One theme embroidered and embellished with magnificent, mysterious, awe-inspiring figurations each radically different from the rest, yet organically intertwined and perfectly related to the whole.

The Fugue takes the main theme and develops it further by repeating it at different levels with accompanying counterpoint in each voice then moving it through a variety of keys with different "episodic" material heightening the intensity each time till it returns to the original key 
and comes to a grand climax.

The hideously overworked term "AWESOME" must have been invented to describe the great organ works 
of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Helmut Walcha, the great German organist, was blinded at age nineteen. Nevertheless he continued his studies and mastered the complete organ works of J.S. Bach and many other masterworks for the instrument as well. His recordings are among the very finest ever made of these marvels of ingenuity, complexity, wonder, glory, mystical significance and deep commitment to faith in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.



  1. How I love this particular passacaglia and fugue! I was first exposed to it in my college Music Appreciation course and immediately fell in love with it.

    To this day, every time I listen to this piece, I hear something new, something which I hadn't heard before.

    A perfect selection for Lord's Day, FT!

  2. Good morning, AOW.

    What you said about hearing something new each time you listen is why great music has timeless significance and never goes out of "fashion" for those with ears to her it.

    Each artist, who has mastered the technique enough to play these pieces with accuracy and assurance, brings something unique to his (or her) interpretation. There are reasons why we find some players and conductors more satisfying than others. Our preferences in these areas tend to reveal more about ourselves than either the music or the performers, however.

    Some listen with the primary objectives of finding fault or making odious comparisons. Others listen in hope of hearing merit, virtue, new insights, and a heightened awareness of the beauty and wonder of it all.

    Those addicted to fault-findng and endless argumentation will always discover things to dislike and disapprove of.

    I have to admit that when firs introduced to Herr Walcha about 55 years ago, I didn't know enough to be as deeply moved and awestruck as I am today at the magnificence of his achievement. I thought then that he was a "merely accurate" player whose importance was exaggerated because he happened to be blind.

    How glad I am to have lived long enough to realize how shallow my perceptions were at age 18, even though I had achieved a high degree of competence at the keyboard, myself, and had been thoroughly "hooked" on the music of all the great masters even as a young child.

    IF we are lucky, we never stop growing, and in that process we begin to learn that there is NO END to what we might yet learn, even from things we've known and loved all our lives -- an understanding that is as humbling as it is exhilarating.

  3. I've always been a fan of Bach.
    Just curious, but what do you think of Contrapunctus XIV and other composers attempts to finish it? Such as Helmut Walcha or Tudor Saveanu.

  4. Hi, Finntann,

    I've studied a LOT of Bach, but have somehow managed to avoid the Art of Fugue. Awareness of that came late in "my" day. We've never been sure Bach ever meant it to be performed, or if so in what instrument or combination of instruments.

    HOWEVER, in general Bach's music is SO well constructed it readily lends itself to myriad forms of interpretation and transcription without suffering. Even Ward Swingle and the Moog Synthesizer couldn't even begin mar its structural integrity.

    But you asked about finishing another composer's work if left uncompleted.

    I have no problem with that -- as ling as it is labeled as such.

    Sussmayr certainly did a bang up job completing Mozart's Requiem. The composer did before completing the Lachrymosa. Sussmayr was Mozart's pupil, of course, and very cleverly reworked the master's own material to complete the work. The result has been eminently satisfactory, although those of us who care deeply about such things will always wonder with a sigh of regret what Mozart, himself, would actually have done to complete his work.

    If anyone has ever been qualified to fill in the blank left by Johann Sebastian, surely it would be Helmut Walcha, a man whose work I have come to respect and admire more and more as the decades roll by.

    As you may know, I've been professionally trained at some of the very best schools, and have done a lot of playing and some composing, myself, which no one has ever deemed incompetent. But, if I live a thousand years I will never be able to understand how very rare individuals such as Bach and Mozart were able to give us the enormous, prodigious body of work they did in so few years. It was as though performing and composing were as natural as breathing to them.

    Even so just to COPY their work by hand would take those skilled in calligraphy more years than it took these incredible geniuses o create their works from whole cloth.

    If you don't believe in miracles, just think very hard about these guys and what they accomplished, and you might change your mind. ;-)

  5. Publishing after death always creates the same quandary, was it intended to be published?

    From what I understand the Art of Fugue is in Bach's own hand and he stopped working on it two years before his death, of course there is always the possibility of "manuscript X" which was lost, but also highly improbable.

  6. Exquisite! Though if you had referred to it as ostinato you wouldn't have had me wondering what it had to do with fish. >;-)

  7. Ostinato refers to a single, usually concise motivic figure or rhythmic pattern -- often a combination of he two -- repeated persistently at varying dynamic levels to create or heighten dramatic tension throughout a single section of a larger composition. It's not quite the same thing as the fully developed melodic theme or phrase that makes up a ground bass. A passacaglia or chaconne (they are basically one and the same) takes its name from the characteristic "step of the cockerel," chanticleer or rooster, and is, therefore, always in triple meter -- usually 6/4 or 6/8 time.


    From what I have read Bach, though blind and paralyzed from a stroke, continued to compose The Art of Fugue up to the very moment of his death at age 65 by DICTATING what was fully developed in his mind to one or more of his sons. I wasn't there, of course, but I am certain the master was fully capable of such a feat -- and it was perfectly consistent with the way he had led his entire life.

    Though never to my knowledge guilty of vain acts of self-aggrandizement, Bach knew who he was. Apparently, i didn't bother him much that very few in the churches and communities he served had the faintest inkling of the magnitude of Bach's genius.

    He kept himself far too busy ever to trouble himself with petty considerations -- in every way a superb role model for anyone in every field of endeavor.

    The closest he came to self-praise, as far as we know, was in the simple admission, "I worked hard."



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