SOPP305: I enjoyed the Bach organ tour but the big surprise was how sharp most of the organs were
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 305 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Alan, and he writes:
Vidas, we are back from our travels. I enjoyed the Bach organ tour but the big surprise was how sharp most of the organs were. It wreaked havoc with my absolute pitch and made it very difficult to play.
It didn't get easier, but I didn't push it too much as there were others waiting for a chance to play the organs. For something else to do I took measurements of the temperament octaves of many of the organs in order to make some comparisons. A podcast on coping with different pitches would be good.
V: So, Alan is already introduced to historical temperaments, right?
V: This is nice.
V: Was it difficult for you to adjust, Ausra, when you first encountered different pitch levels in the tuning of different organs?
A: Well, a little bit, yes, but I wouldn’t complain about it, actually, I liked it so much.
V: What was the first organ that was different from A440 that you played or heard?
A: Actually it was a small organ built by John Brombaugh in Gothenburg, Sweden, in Haga Church. That was my first organ.
V: So, probably the same for me.
A: That’s right, and because it has split keys, I remember that you could not figure out which are flats and which are sharps, and I had to do it. And somehow, I did it fine. You just need to listen, really.
V: On that organ, I chose E major Preludium by Buxtehude with four sharps—very stupid idea.
A: Well, at that time, we simply didn’t have any idea what the historical temperaments are.
V: And what did you play there?
A: Well, I played, I think, Preludium in G minor.
V: Much better choice!
A: Yes. It was better.
V: With two flats. Anyway, so the tuning was quarter-comma meantone, and the pitch level was A=465, I think.
V: Half step higher.
A: Yes. And, you know, a couple remarks about “absolute pitch,” as Alan called it, or I would call it, “perfect pitch.” It’s usually not a pitch that is related to this, it’s usually your memory. Your musical memory. You simply memorize everything at A440.
V: And the reason I asked him if it got easier when he touched the keyboard and started to play is because for me, somehow, it became easier. I forgot somehow, but maybe I spent more time than Alan on the organ.
A: Well, let’s say, I used to have to play sometimes, even during the same recital, on three different instruments. I remember accompanying at Eastern Michigan University, for example, and I had to play on the organ, on the harpsichord, and on the piano. That was hard work. And I remember in one recital, I had to do Sweelinck’s Fantasia Chromatica on the harpsichord, which was tuned quarter-comma meantone, and then I played on the organ Bach/Vivaldi Concertos, which was tuned in A440. And for me, it was really difficult to go through the first page, and after that it was ok.
V: You mean of Bach?
V: Because you played Sweelinck first, and adjusted, got used to it, and then suddenly had to switch to Bach—to the modern organ.
A: Yes. But you know, after working for a while with historical tuning, when you go back to 440, you see that it’s really harsh sounding. That there are no pure intervals, and everything is so, so out of tune, actually!
V: Did you notice that piano sounds milder with equal temperament than the organ, actually?
A: True, because I think the pipe sound is so much more prominent than the piano.
V: And the sound doesn’t fade.
V: So, yes, it needs some adjustments and some experience with different instruments, but each new instrument gives you new perspective—new experience, right?
A: True, and I think if you are getting in trouble adjusting to a historical tuning, I think working on the 440 instrument, you need to transpose more often, to play the same pieces in different keys.
V: Mhm, why?
A: Then it will be easier for you to adjust.
V: Oh, transpose… we need to ask Alan if he practices transposition then!
V: At some point, I remember making a few videos of the same piece in different keys—a Two Part Invention by Bach in C major. I played it in C major, in F major, and in G major, recorded on YouTube, and I transposed it into all the other major keys when I practiced, but didn't record it yet. So, it really helps to do this regularly.
A: Well, and another thing, if you want to adjust to historical tunings, if you have access to a harpsichord, then it’s easier to do, because harpsichord is an instrument which you can tune in different tuning systems very easily, so you could practice.
V: Or a clavichord.
A: Or a clavichord. I think it’s easier to access a harpsichord, probably, than a clavichord.
A: But I think it’s all a mental thing.
V: But I think Alan seems to have enjoyed this experience, right? But when he started to play that it was difficult, right? Or when other people played, he couldn’t listen to the original keys. I myself remember in Sweden, back in 2000, in Gothenburg, so other people played C major. I remember Bill Porter played 545 Preludium and Fugue in C major by Bach. This was one of…
A: In Örgryte
V: ...In Örgryte New Church one the first times I heard this piece, actually. And he announced that this piece will be in C major. And I prepared myself in C major, you know, my “perfect pitch system” based on 440, and he started to play, and it sounded D flat major, and the whole time, while being downstairs, I was mentally really struggling to think, “What is happening, and what is he actually playing?” Not, “What I’m hearing,” but, “What is he playing?” But again, when I started to play this on organ on another occasion, not right away, but after a few minutes, I think, it became easier.
A: Yes, for me, it takes about one page to adjust.
V: Right. So, Ausra, do you recommend people trying out different historical instruments and going on tours, like Alan did?
A: Yes, I think it broadens your perspectives in general. I think it’s a wonderful experience.
V: Tuning and pitches is just one side of the story. Another could be adjusting to the touch, adjusting to the bench height, or to the distance of the manuals when you have to reach the top manual and it’s very far from you…
A: But if we are talking about tunings and you see how different each key sounds, actually, then you understand what all those treatises about the meaning of the keys is.
V: And also in many historical instruments, the layout of the stops is not vertical from top to bottom, but from right to left, or from left to right horizontally! And you have to reach very, very far from the distant stop handles, and that makes it very difficult sometimes, and you might wonder if they really played with assistants or made less stop changes or what!
A: That’s true! And it also teaches us that when going somewhere, abroad especially, on an unfamiliar organ, you need to find out about them in advance as much as possible, so that you will be mentally prepared for it. That it wouldn’t catch you by surprise.
V: Like a short octave, right?
V: In short octave, some of the lowest semitones are missing… sharp keys are missing… no C sharp, no D sharp, and sometimes even no F sharp and G sharp. So, if you don’t know this, and you are scheduled to play a recital on some historical organ with short octave, and you are used to playing a modern organ, then you don’t know what to play in that left hand section. Therefore, if you find out in advance, you can actually practice on your own keyboard at home or in a church with approximations of the target organ.
A: Usually next to the stop list of the organ, you get a compass of keys, so you could find out about it from it.
V: Thank you guys, we hope this was useful to you. Enjoy your travels, and enjoy experiences on other instruments—as many as possible, because each new organ gives you a new perspective. It’s like driving a car, right Ausra?
V: The more you drive, the better you become at adjusting to each new vehicle. Please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
Yesterday I forgot to add a link to Sweelinck's More Palatino variations. Some of my readers may have missed it.
Check it out here
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 175 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Howard. He writes:
“I’m working on #8 of Bach’s Eight Little Preludes and Fugues. In my organ practice I find that measures 5 and 6 are a challenge to do smoothly. I'm sure fingering is an issue. In the fugue the "rocking" motion of the fifths and sixths can be a challenge to do well.”
Ausra, this is a fascinating prelude and fugue, right? The last of the series.
A: Yes. It’s the most fun to play!
V: And the entire collection of Eight Little Preludes and Fugues can help organists to boost their technique and skill level quite fast.
A: That’s right.
V: And they’re artistically very pleasing.
A: That’s true.
V: Which one is your favorite, by the way?
A: Well...each is different, and actually, I love them all! Right now, I would say probably F Major.
V: Right now I’m thinking about B♭ Major. This one, which Howard is studying, too.
A: Okay. Yes, it’s very exciting, especially that pedal solo.
V: Yeah, after the manual entrance. So, Howard is struggling with measures 5 and 6. These are basically passages downward and upward: at first a scale downward, where hands interchange R, L, R, L, with 4 notes in each hand. And then arpeggio upwards, between the hands, on a G Major chord. Do you think that you need to do some special fingering here, downward?
A: Well, that fifth measure, I think it’s very simple.
A: I would play it in my RH, 5-4-3-2, and then with the LH, 1-2-3-4; and then again with RH, 5-4-3-2, and then again with L, 1-2-3-4.
V: Why 5-4-3-2, and not 4-3-2-1?
A: Well, I think it’s simpler. Well, you could do it both ways, but…
V: I see. Of course, if you use 4-3-2-1, then you can connect easier with the previous measure’s F in the RH, remember?
A: That’s true; maybe then start with 4-3-2-1. But what I mean is that you have to keep your fingering consistent.
A: So if you decide to play 4-3-2-1, and then 1-2-3-4, so just do it, and don’t experiment.
V: Do you recommend making articulation between each note here, or slurring every 4 notes?
A: Well, you would still have to do some articulation.
A: What about you?
V: Agreed. Me too.
A: Yes, I would articulate each note. And I would say probably m. 6, the next measure, is probably a little bit more complicated.
V: It’s because this arpeggio doesn’t seem so visually easy to understand what is going on in terms of poles.
A: Yes, because it’s divided between hands. And like in the previous measure, we had sections of 4 notes, groups of 4 notes, so here we have sort of groups of 3 notes.
A: And that’s a bizarre-looking thing in common meter.
V: Exactly. So in order for the grouping to be consistent with the meter, the composer writes 3 notes in the LH, and then detached the note in the RH, and then 2 notes which are tied together; right? And then again, 2-1-3-3-1...It’s complicated even to understand. I think Howard would benefit from marking the subdivisions of the beat with a pencil.
A: Yes, that’s true, because actually here you play 3 notes with your LH, then 3 with R, then again 3 with L, 3 with R, then 3 with L, and one with R.
A: And then go to the next measure. But I think you really need to know where the middle of the measure is; because right in that middle section, you have to make an accent again. Thinking about strong and weak in common meter.
V: Exactly. We were talking about articulating between each and every note; but what Ausra means is that before the stronger beats, 1 and 3 here, you have to make an even larger space.
A: That’s true. So keep that in mind. This might be a little bit tricky, because when you are playing that second group with your LH (which is G, B natural, and D), you have to articulate more before the D note, because this is the 9th sixteenth note of the measure.
V: Exactly. Exactly. And going on to, let’s say, the pedal solo--is that complicated to learn, do you think?
A: Well, I don’t think so, unless you try to play some notes with the heels.
A: But if you are using toes, it should be pretty straightforward.
V: And for most of the time, it’s alternate toes, right?
A: Yes, that’s true...
V: Starting L, R, L, R, L, R, L, R...
A: I think it’s all the time, alternating left and right.
A: The only one complication comes at the last measure of that pedal solo, where you have two 32nd notes. But still, it’s R-L-R.
A: Or it might give you a sort of rhythmic spasm.
V: And the structure of this beginning is very similar to how, let’s say, German Baroque composers would write: Buxtehude, or Lubeck or Bruhns, right?
A: You mean Stylus Phantasticus?
A: Yes, it sort of resembles it, at least in part. Because it has sections.
V: Plus, the first passaggio with hands, it establishes the key of B♭ Major, although it quickly modulates to the dominant key of F Major also; and then the pedal solo enters with its own theme, in B♭ Major, and finishes in B♭ Major. And then what happens later, Ausra?
A: You have sort of a combination of those previous sections. But at the same time, both hands and pedals are playing, but you sort of also have that opening motif.
A: In the manual part.
A: But it’s a thick texture. It’s very exciting.
V: So, Howard and others who are studying this need to be careful about practicing separate lines first. Maybe RH first, and then LH. And then pedals.
A: Yes. What about that measure where all voices come together after the pedal solo? Would you play 3 voices in your LH, or 2?
V: 3, definitely. Because they’re different textures--soprano and the rest. So it’s easier, of course, for people to divide the texture between the two hands.
A: Yes, that’s right, because if you would try to play that lower voice of the upper staff with your RH, you would get in trouble sooner or later.
A: So better learn it right away, in the correct way--and the easier way, actually, and play 3 voices with your LH.
V: Remember our student from Unda Maris Organ Studio here in Vilnius--Regina?
A: Yes, I remember her.
V: She played this one, I think right at the beginning of her studies with us, and at first she didn’t understand why I chose this kind of fingering and pedaling, early type fingering and pedaling. But later she told me that it makes sense, because she can produce the articulate legato automatically, almost without thinking.
V: And she has a goal to master all 8 of the Preludes and Fugues in this collection.
A: And I think she’s on the right track; I think she’s almost done with the whole collection...
V: Should be only a couple left.
V: The fugue is kind of...in a different meter. What is the meter, Ausra?
V: 3/4. Is it easier than 4/4 for you to understand, or not?
A: Well, no actually, the common meter is easier for me to understand. Because there are actually 2 ways you can treat the 3/4 meter. One way is: the first beat is the strongest one, the second is lighter, and the third one is the lightest. But I have heard some other opinion, that the first of course is the strong one, then the second one is the lightest one; and then you have a little accent on the third one.
V: That’s how Johann Kirnberger wrote.
A: Yes, and that’s actually how George Ritchie taught me to play 3/4 meter. Making a slight accent on the third note.
A: Because if you will do that, it will lead you nicely into that strong beat of the next measure.
V: This is true for minuets, right?
V: And this fugue reminds me of the minuet, as well as A Major Fugue from the A Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 536, also. It’s in ternary meter and reminds of the minuet, too. So it wouldn’t hurt to make an accent on the first and on the third beats here.
A: But of course, that third accent, on the third beat, should not be as big as on the first, on the downbeat.
V: For Howard, I think what is difficult here in the LH part, most of the time--sometimes they have rocking perfect fifths and minor sixths playing, in repetition--right? But I don’t know what is difficult here. He wrote that “in the fugue, the rocking motion of the fifths and sixths can be a challenge to do well.” Maybe articulating?
A: Well, yes, you need also to divide between strong and weak beats. But if you will lean enough on the strong beat, on the downbeat, I think you should be just fine.
A: Then just lean down on the first beat, on the downbeat, and then just relax. And I think your head will do it.
V: And of course, keep counting, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, right?
V: And make an accent on the first and on the third beat as well, a little bit.
A: And then again, at the end of the fugue, be careful that you would learn to play the inner 2 voices with your LH, not 2 voices with your RH.
V: Mhm. So if people are using my fingered score, I notate accordingly, and this will be easy to understand. Actually, I gave B♭ Major Prelude and Fugue score to Howard, because he didn’t have that before. Excellent, guys. We hope this was useful to you. And please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow, right Ausra?
V: Okay. And we’re going to practice now, and we hope you will practice, too, because when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
AVA172: About Two Years Ago I Figured I Should Study Applicatio From Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's Clavier Book
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 172 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Žiga and she writes:
Dear Dr. Vidas!
I have studied your most excellent Ultimate Guide to Organ Practice e-book. I just read it again.
Thank you so much for this wonderful gift! It has helped me immensely in my organ learning efforts. My playing and practice efficiency improved a lot by following your advice.
Although I am only an amateur, I really enjoy playing and I love Bach’s music immensely. Some years ago I got my hands on an awesome CD by the great Simon Preston, playing Bach/Vivaldi concertos and have ever since desired to be able to play them. It seemed completely impossible at the time, but now I believe I will actually be able to achieve this. But some more work is still needed!
I would like to share with you an interesting learning experience, which I have not seen mentioned around much; about two years ago I figured I should study Bach’s Applicatio from Wilhelm Friedemann piano book - one of the very few pieces fingered by Bach himself. A very short piece, only 8 bars, but what a marvel it is! Quite challenging, too, it required quite a bit of practice to play fluently! However this little gem has improved my hand posture and fingering tremendously!!! Figuring out good fingering is now much much easier for me, much more automatic, often I just do it. It is so incredibly clever! One of the most useful exercises I ever played.
Thank you again for sharing and the very best of luck and health to you!
So Ausra, do you know this Bach’s Applicatio?
A: Yes. Most organists know it, in general. People who study Bach.
V: I remember we studied it in eastern Michigan, I believe, with Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra.
A: Yes, yes.
V: She introduced us to this exercise, which includes 8 measures of 4-part music, fingered by Bach himself.
V: And at the time, didn’t it feel strange to you, this kind of fingering?
A: Yes, a little bit strange.
A: Well, because at that time I was not familiar, or not very familiar, with historical fingering.
V: Mhmm. And what’s the most striking feature of that fingering, that you noticed at the time? Probably the use of fingers without finger glissando and substitution, right? In order not to achieve legato?
A: Yes, that’s true.
V: What about...Was it easy for you to play? It wasn’t, for me.
A: Well, it was easy for me. I just felt that it was very natural, and that that’s how it should be played. It wasn’t hard to adjust, for me.
V: Now, when I look at it, it’s very simple and self-explanatory--the technique, right? Intervals of the same quality are played with the same fingers, right? And basically, it helps people achieve articulate legato probably automatically, almost without thinking.
A: Yes, that’s true, but you still have to think, at least a little bit.
V: It’s probably true for most of early music, but not necessarily the entire works of Bach, right? This kind of fingering.
A: Yes, yes. Because the harder the key is, the more sophisticated fingering you have to use.
V: And Applicatio, I think, was written in C Major, yes?
A: I believe so.
V: So it’s a relatively simple structure, although 4 parts in 2 hands is not easy to do. But if you transposed it into, let’s say, D Major, it would have been already a different story.
A: Yes, that’s true.
V: Or E♭ Major. Right? Then it becomes quite tricky to do with early fingering. And I believe you don’t necessarily have to use early fingering, with advanced keys.
A: You wouldn’t be able to do that. That’s for sure.
V: Or with advanced textures--very thick textures.
A: Yes, and because Bach’s texture is usually very thick, unless it’s a trio texture. So you have to use your own fingerings.
V: But what about--remember the 3rd Kyrie from Clavierübung by Bach, where the cantus firmus is in augmentation in the pedals, in the bass voice; the hands have 4-part texture, and it’s very thick, almost chordal texture; but it’s written in imitative style, with legato technique. So I’ve noticed--because I’ve been practicing it now, for our upcoming Bach’s Birthday recital--I’ve noticed that I still can apply early fingering there, although it’s in B♭ Major, with thick chords. Although I still can play those parallel 3rds or 6ths with the same kind of fingering. What about you?
A: Good for you.
V: Did you...Of course, you played it awhile ago, but--did you run into trouble there?
A: No; and actually, I never thought about fingering when playing that particular part, although it’s one of my favorite pieces by Bach.
A: This third Kyrie from Clavierübung.
V: Yeah. It has such a chromatic ending!
A: It does.
V: Such a haunting harmony at the end.
A: But I guess I have that early fingering so well managed by now, that I often don’t think about it.
A: I just think about meter, about articulation, and that’s it.
V: What about Fantasia Chromatica by Sweelinck? For me, I knew the principles of early fingering and everything; but it wasn’t easy, especially those runs, for me.
A: Well, it’s not an easy piece to play; but actually, this is a piece where you should use early fingering, and it will help you. It will help you to play those scales right, and not mess them up.
V: Right. So if anybody is looking for some principles and tips to finger their early music pieces--some of the things you have to avoid are probably finger substitution, glissando...what else? Placing the thumb on sharps, right? If possible.
A: Yes. But again, this applies only to certain keys, that have not so many accidentals.
V: Yeah. And trying to play the same intervals with the same fingers. For example, an interval of a third could be played with 2/4: 2/4, 2/4, 2/4, 2/4. That’s in ascending motion, or descending. Or a sixth could be played 1/5, 1/5, 1/5, 1/5. But not too detached, right? Try to be as legato as possible, right?
A: Yes. It sounds a little bit crazy; you use, let’s say, 2/4, 2/4, 2/4, 2/4, and you try to play legato.
V: Yeah, and you can achieve this cantabile style, then--articulate legato. This is in between legato and non-legato.
V: Any other ideas for Žiga, Ausra?
A: Well, I’m glad she liked that Applicatio, and she found it helpful. So I suggest for every beginner to try to play that Applicatio exercise from Wilhelm Friedemann’s book. Because it’s a good pedagogical tool, actually. Because Bach wrote it for his eldest son, so...because he wanted him to be an excellent musician, so I think he did his best.
V: If I’m not mistaken, it’s one of the first pieces in this book, right?
A: Yes. And it just means that Bach understood how important it is to have a good technique foundation. So very soon in a few years, he already wrote the Trio Sonatas for his son to play. So…
V: Yes, it’s just too bad that his health, Wilhelm Friedemann’s health, wasn’t strong enough to last, in the future; and he couldn’t stay in one organist position for a long time, right? He switched positions, and then later in life I think he even stopped being an organist altogether. Right?
A: I think so, yes. C. P. E. Bach actually, I think, did better with everything.
V: Yes. So guys, please keep up your health; it helps in the long run. And in order to be healthy, you have to sleep at least 8 hours, and then probably exercise--right, Ausra? And then, obviously, eat in moderation. Thank you, guys! This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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