On the day I tuned the reeds of my organ, one of my students helped me by pressing the keys. After the tuning was over, he had a nice chance to practice on his own. Currently he is practicing Pachelbel’s Chaconne in F Minor.
Although I worked on my own things during this time, I overheard him play and couldn’t resist the urge to help him a little with this piece. So here’s what we found out.
1. Start And Finish on Principal 8’
Although Mattheson from the 17th century argues that Chaccones and Passacaglias have to be played on Organ Pleno registration, I used a different approach because we played a rather modern and eclectic organ.
Isn’t it nice to hear a simple Principal 8’ on its own? This could work for the theme in the beginning and the end of Chaconne.
When my student played, I didn’t hear anything wrong with this kind of registration. Yes, you could start and finish with Principal Chorus and mixtures, Posaune in the Pedals, but remember, this Principal chorus should be of very high quality to be able to hold the listener’s attention for a long time.
2. Find One or Two Culminations
When you try to register this piece using a different approach from that of Mattheson, you have to find one main culmination and at least one other variation with the close level of loudness. Preferably the main culmination shouldn’t be in the middle but towards the end of 2/3rds of the way or maybe 3/4ths in other cases.
The main idea is that the way which leads to the main culmination is longer than the way which leads from the culmination to the end of the piece.
It’s true in this Chaconne also. We have found a very active variation in the manuals where some of the loudest stop combinations could be employed.
3. Change Manuals on Each Variation
Should you change manuals on each variation or should you play on a single keyboard all the time? Again, it depends on the nature of the instrument and its stops. On my organ more variety is always a pleasant thing (although I shouldn’t say that the Organ Pleno sound for extended periods of time couldn’t be pleasant in some cases).
But it’s always a good idea to be gentle with listeners ears and changing the manuals frequently allows for an easier change of registration on mechanical action organs. That’s just the nature of this beast.
4. Contrast Same Color Stops on Different Divisions
When you decide to change the manuals frequently, you obviously are left with the question of what colors to use? One of my favorite techniques is to register each variation so that one hears Principal 8’ contrasted on a couple divisions in a row, then perhaps Principals 8’ and 4’ and so on. Because of this approach the listeners will also get a nice glimpse into the color possibilities of your organ.
By the way, if you don’t like any particular division on your organ, don’t use it on every piece. On my organ, the Swell works well for the Romantic and Modern music but for the Baroque style it’s too dark. That’s why I use Great and Positiv only for early music most of the time (with some exceptions, of course).
5. Too Much Loudness Isn’t Always a Good Idea At first my student and I came up with the concept to keep adding stops until the main culmination and then gradually subtracting them. But the result was too loud, I think. I even played on Bombarde 16’ with manuals coupled. That sounded more like a Romantic idea.
When you couple the manuals together and use doublings of the same pitch level throughout the piece, little by little you forget that it was written in the Baroque period, even though the harmonies and figuration remind you of that. It’s not that in the Baroque times they didn’t play loudly but it’s this thickness of sound which reminds more of the Romantic school of writing and playing the organ.
6. Achieve Crescendo Up to Mixtures, Trompette or Manual Coupler
We decided to add principal stops gradually until the 1st culmination, then to back off a little, playing without some of the loudest stops. This way we could postpone them until the real culmination came in. The result was I think we used Principal Chorus with mixtures and Manual Coupler or Trompette 8’.
7. Use Flute Combinations for More Variety
You probably have a question if one can use flute stop combinations for more variety in places which have a thin texture or slow rhythmical values. In other words, can you use flutes in pieces like Passacaglia and Chaccone?
It’s not a convention, of course, because traditionally the flutes might be suited well for chorale variations or chorale fantasias to showcase the colors of the organ. But again, it depends on what kind of instrument do you have at hand.
On a real Baroque organ I wouldn’t need to use flutes because the Principal chorus sounds convincing and not too much in your face. On the modern eclectic instruments – feel free to experiment any way you like because the most important thing is whether or not the piece will connect to your audience.
8. If In Doubt, Simplify
What if you don’t know what type of sound combinations sounds best on your organ? What if you lack experience in playing hundreds of different instruments which will provide you with good taste eventually?
I always try to simplify things – I stay on the same manual when there isn’t a real need to switch, I don’t change the stops more often than you need to. It’s rare that my performance will improve because of this. In a high quality piece, music will speak for itself (don’t play any other kind of music, by the way).
9. Pedals Can Have Posaune in Culmination
I’ve heard an idea before that the pedals should stay on the same registration throughout the Chaconne or Passacaglia. It depends on the piece, really. It’s nothing wrong to add Posaune 16’ at the culmination, even if you don’t use Principal Chorus throughout.
In this Pachelbel’s Chaconne, the secondary culmination also asks for Posaune. So my student and I ended up not softening the pedals until the main culmination after which we gradually reduced to Principals 16’ and 8’ in the pedals.
10. Analyze Harmony of the Theme to See Patterns
It seemed strange to me that after working on different layers (right hand, left hand, and pedals) and combinations my student couldn’t play the piece quite fluently. Not only his technique needed more work but there was something else too that was going on.
I felt that he couldn’t recognize the harmonies and patterns he was playing. It’s important because we all know that Chaconne or Passacaglia has a number of variations on the ground bass. This means that the theme in the pedals most of the time stays the same and the harmony doesn’t change. The only thing that changes are figurations. So I suggested him to analyze the theme and its chords which should help him eventually.
11. If You Like This Chaconne, Use the Same Figuration for Different Themes
Here’s the thing – any piece can be used as a model for improvisation or composition. So one thing you can do is to come up with a different 8 measure theme and apply the same type of figuration throughout each variation.
I once took a longer Gavotte by Rameau, converted the theme into triple meter, analyzed another Chaconne by Pachelbel and improvised my own set of variations based on his model. It’s a very fun process, you’re sort of becoming a student of any particular composer that you like.
(And.. if nothing else, you can try to make friends with an octopus. They're really smart.)