Because of fast runs and passages, the opening and closing parts remind of a toccata, and the central solemn episode is written in a 5 part polyphonic texture. In this article I will give tips and advice on how to play and practice this wonderful composition.
The Italians would call the opening section the Passagio which was also a common feature in the North German Praeludia. However, it is questionable whether the Italian term is appropriate in the French style composition.
Basically it is a virtuosic episode written in a monophonic texture where we can find both the elements of arpeggio and scale-based passages. At any rate, even at this early stage of Bach's career, the composer shows a unique angle of blending multi-cultural elements in one work.
Although written in deceptively simple and clear one-voice texture, the opening section has various potential dangers for an organist. This includes note grouping and articulation. Note groupings have something to do with the meter signature which is 12/8.
Such a meter has 4 relatively accented beats (on sixteenths 1, 7, 13, and 19, or if we count the eighth notes – 1, 4, 7, and 10). In a measure of such a meter, there are four groups of sixteenth notes. Each group has 6 notes. However many sixteenths are grouped not by the meter requirements, but according to which hand has to play them.
For example, in measure 2, the sixteenths are grouped in threes for the right hand and left hand respectively. If we play and make accents according to such a grouping, then inevitably the listener will have the feeling of triplets which is not the correct way to play this passage.
Instead, the organist should try to make very gentle accents on every other note and emphasize beats 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the measure.
Concerning the articulation, articulate legato touch should be used which was the traditional way of playing any instrument in the Baroque period. Articulate legato means that there should be very small distances between each and every note.
However, this does not mean, that the musical passage should be choppy and very detached. On the contrary, the organist should strive to have a Cantabile or singing manner of playing where the notes are connected into one line.
However, playing with articulate legato touch in such a lively tempo is not exactly easy. Try to keep all your fingers in contact with the keys at all times. Practice in a slow tempo and with correct articulation.
Rhythmically lean on the places where there are important changes of harmony (before measures 17, 21, and 27). Slow down before reaching the end of this section so that you could naturally connect it with the next central section.
In the longest main central section, we can hear very imposing stepwise rising theme in long note values which is treated in a fugal manner in various voices. This is a typical French 5 part texture, because the French employed 5 stringed instruments in an ensemble (2 violins, 2 violas, and a violon).
Therefore, many of the French classical type of compositions are written in this texture as well (especially the fugues). By the way, can you guess what kind of ominous chord sounds at the end of this section?
This central section raises various performance difficulties for many organists. Notice that the meter signature is alla breve or cut-time. That means that there are really two beats per measure and the first is strong and the second is weak.
The harmony also changes mostly twice per measure. We have to be aware of that and emphasize rhythmically various important harmonic changes, especially occurring in cadences.
Apparently for Bach this central section was like a case study in suspensions. Just look at any measure you want and you will see tied notes over the bar lines. The suspension technique gives a constant feeling of tension and continuity. Most of the cadences in this section are deceptive.
That means whenever Bach ends a fragment in one key, he does not use chords of the Dominant and Tonic but rather Dominant and the chord of 6th scale degree. Try to emphasize rhythmically these cadences. Such an approach will help you to clarify formal structure of this section.
Because this section is written in 5 independent voices, there is an inherent danger that the organist will not be able to listen to each separate line, everything will just sound legato, and correct articulation will be lost.
In other words, it is easy to understand that all the notes should be played with articulate legato touch but the suspensions over the bar line make it exceedingly difficult to control the releases.
If you truly want to have a precise articulation, my suggestion would be to take a fragment of four measures and practice each of the 5 voices separately, then combinations of 2 voices, 3 voices, 4 voices, and only then practice playing the entire 5 part texture.
Then take another fragment of 4 measures etc. Practicing this way will ensure that your articulation will be unbeatable and that you will hear each part separately which you have to strive for in every polyphonic composition.
Pièce d'Orgue ends with a virtuosic but a little slower and heavier texture which has 5 voices encoded: 4 voices could be perceived in both hands and magnificent Dominant pedal point in the pedal line.
Try not to play this final section too fast because it has a tempo marking Lentement. Like in the opening section, here too, the notes are grouped according to which hand plays which of the three note groups.
When you play them, instead of emphasizing two groups of triplets, try to feel three groups in each sextuplet. Make a natural connection between the hand part and the magnificent long Dominant pedal point in the middle of the measure 200.
Because this is the French style piece, the ornaments also should be performed in such a tradition. Always start the trills and mordents from the upper note.
By the way, it is worthwhile looking at the heavily ornamented version of the middle section in the Neue Bach Ausgabe edition (Volume 7 of Bach Organ Works). You can try to adapt many of the ornaments in your performance, too.
The most trusted registration of this piece obviously would be Principal chorus or Organo Pleno (with or without 16’ in the manuals). Manuals could be coupled as well. The use of the deep pedal reeds, such as Posaune 16’ (or 32’ if there is one on your instrument) is most welcome.
If you use a modern instrument with unnaturally sharp sound mixtures, sometimes it is a good idea to add some additional 8’ and 4’ flutes in the manuals for thickness. Feel free to play on the secondary manual in the opening section, if you wish.
In this case, avoid using 16' in your opening registration. That way you will achieve the true gravity which Bach wished for his Pleno sound.
Overall, this is a rather difficult composition to play. If you are new to the organ, I suggest you start with shorter free works, such as 8 Short Preludes and Fugues for organ earlier attributed to J.S.Bach and leave the Piece d’Orgue for the future.
At any rate, even an experienced performer should have much perseverance and attention to detail while practicing this wonderful work. Memorizing the piece would give the organist a full mastery at a much deeper level.
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