SOPP585: Someone is bound to ask me to play the BWV565 Toccata, so I must learn to play it properly
Vidas: Hello and welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Ausra: This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better organist.
V: We’re your hosts Vidas Pinkevicius...
A: ...and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene.
V: We have over 25 years of experience of playing the organ
A: ...and we’ve been teaching thousands of organists online from 89 countries since 2011.
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V: Let’s start episode 585 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by James. And he writes,
James here from Rustington, England. Hope you are keeping well.
Just getting ready for the first ever UK National Organ Day on April 18, when we'll be opening our church for the morning and hoping to welcome visitors- not least young ones- to explore the 'Hidden Mysteries of the Pipe Organ' with demonstrations, powerpoint presentations, to have a go themselves and play nursery rhyme tunes in a group on hand-held pipes if the coronavirus scare has passed. England desperately needs young organists!
Someone is bound to ask me to play the BWV565 Toccata, so I must learn to play it properly. But my fingers refuse to obey in bars 12-15 however much I practice: they always want to play together rather than alternately. Can you give me some simple advice to train them?
Best wishes and happy memories, James
V: James was a guest recitalist a number of years ago at our church, and played wonderful recital of English music and also some organ favorites. And of course, he is talking about organ demonstrations on April 18, but we are recording this episode later, on May 1. So he was hoping that corona virus scare will pass, but we know from experience that it has not.
A: It didn’t, yes.
V: It only increased.
A: And from what we heard on the news, that England isn’t going to cancel the quarantine right away.
V: Yes. So hopefully this UK National Organ Day could be postponed for a later day. Talking about Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor bars 12-15, we have the score here in front of us, and we’re looking at it. It’s easy to discover the challenging points here. If you don’t have the score in front of you, we can sort of describe what’s happening. In measures 12-15, there is this passage which imitates violin - both hands play this single-voice passage - but it’s written like two voices. Right hand plays sixteenth notes up and down, and left hand plays sixteenth notes, but on repeated A. And it’s in syncopation with the first voice, a 32nd note later, not together. Sort of this pattern looks like, really violinistic. And therefore, many scientists believe that this work might be not written for the organ.
A: Yes, because it doesn’t look like an organ piece, at least not this episode.
V: And even, this might have been written not by Bach, right?
A: Yes. I have heard rumours like that.
V: Could be, Peter Williams, who passed recently, that was a great Bach scholar, and he wrote many books about organ and about Bach’s music, and in one of the volumes, he writes that the speculation is that either this piece was written for violin, or it could have been written by some organist from the region of Bach’s area - maybe Kellner, maybe even Böhm, or someone with similar skills. But, in the entire cycle, it’s a little bit different than North German compositions, right?
A: Yes, it’s different, yes.
V: It’s more emblematic for Middle Germany, Central Germany. And therefore, he concludes, Peter Williams concludes, that there wasn’t anyone with such a perfect pedal technique in that area. And therefore, in the Fugue, you have very lively subject, playable in the pedals as well, and he concludes that probably still, we have to believe it might be written by Bach.
A: Well, maybe he was young at the time, and he wanted to show off his technique.
V: Yeah. So Ausra, what do you think James could do to improve this passage?
A: Basically, what I would do, I would really prolong each, the first note of the right hand, that makes an accent. That way, the left hand is just a complement here, and the right hand is much more important.
V: You mean every 4th note?
A: Yes, every 4th note.
V: Mm hm. And practice slowly.
A: Yes. And imagine if you would play this part on the piano, you would play the right hand louder, and the left hand softer. So I think even if you play the same registration on the same manual, you could have feeling that still your right hand is louder, and left hand softer. And then everything, I don’t know how James is fingering it, but I would alternate left hand between 2 and 3 - 2nd and 3rd finger.
A: I wouldn’t play it with one finger all the time.
V: I don’t remember exactly how I fingered this piece for our students, but since I didn’t suffer the challenge in this particular place, I might have not used alternating fingering in repeated notes. But it’s a good idea, if you want to do 2-3, 2-3, on the note A. But what I remember for myself, when I was practicing it, I had a problem here in measure 14, where the hands cross each other, right? From the beginning, they have interval of the 4th and up, because the melody goes up, and the left hand stays the same. But then, melody goes downwards, from the middle of measure 13. And when in measure 14, those hands meet, this is a trouble spot for a lot of people.
A: But I think what you have to do, you have always to play your hands that your right hand will be above…
A: Above the left hand. Otherwise, you won’t be able to play it.
V: So even probably at the beginning of this passage, place the left hand closer to the edge of the keys.
A: That’s right.
V: That’s it. This advice will help, definitely.
A: And I have heard that some organists play this spot on different manuals as well. I wouldn’t do that myself, but if this is the case, that’s why it’s hard for you to play, you might try to do that as well.
V: Mm hm. Good advice. Excellent. So guys, I hope you will practice like James probably will sometime in the future, this fugue and prelude. This is really worth doing. It’s probably the most famous Bach piece, and even organ piece, right?
A: I think so, yes. Maybe just Widor’s Toccata might compete with it. But still I think Bach would win this competition.
V: Depending in which country you are playing it. In France, probably Widor’s Toccata is very very famous.
A: It is, but it’s not so much like this in America, let’s say.
V: Yes. In our country, probably D Minor Toccata by Bach is more famous.
V: People don’t know Widor that much. I know some organists don’t like to play very popular organ music. They prefer to play less-known compositions, and that’s okay. But at some point, somebody might ask you, “Can you play D Minor Toccata?” You know, like a group of children during organ demonstration. Like James is describing his situation. What will you do then?
A: Well, at least you can learn the first page of it.
A: I think that might be enough. Just to demonstrate it.
V: Yes. Lots of people don’t know the music beyond the first page.
V: Or even beyond the first passage.
A: That’s right.
V: Good. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
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Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra
V: Let’s start episode 533, of Secrets Of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by May. She’s our Total Organist student. And he writes:
I read from your post that you classify BWV 565 as advanced level. Actually, which part of this piece do you think is the most challenging? I personally find the fast passage towards the end (especially that part to be played by hands only with alternate hands. I find it very difficult to play each note evenly and clearly. Is this the most difficult part of this piece in your mind? What do you suggest I can do to improve my playing of such fast passages?
Vidas: Do you like playing Hanon exercises, Bach Inventions and Sinfonias?
May: Thanks Vidas! I wish I played more technical exercises before. The fact is, my piano teachers never instructed me to do so in the past (when I was a teenager). My piano at home is now awfully out of tune. I seldom play it ever since I started learning organ.
To be honest I would rather spend time on compositions that require pedals. I always choose compositions that require more hands-feet coordination and less manual techniques. This doesn't mean I do not want to improve my manual skills. I just don't want to spend too much time on manual only pieces like Bach's inventions and sinfonias.
I have little knowledge of Hanon exercises. How many of exercises does it have and how many shall I work on? I assume I'll have to practice them on the piano...
Vidas: How about Bach's Orgelbuchlein? How many chorales have you mastered from this collection?
May: Hi Vidas,
With the Orgelbuchlein, here's the list of pieces I have played in the Church and that I am fairly comfortable with.
BWV 609, 610, 621, 623, 625, 627(verses 1,2,3), 631, 636
Below is the list that I believe I have mastered.
BWV 599, 602, 605, 606, 613, 626, 630, 639.
I am quite comfortable with BWV 659 and 645.
V: By the way, 659 is Nun komm from Eighteen Great Chorales, the first one, and 645 is "Wachet auf" from Schubler collection.
May: I have been playing them in Church during the advent season in the past few years.
Any advice from you will be greatly appreciated.
Vidas: And I finished my writing to her like this:
Thanks May! There are 45 chorale preludes in this collection. It's worth mastering them all. Also the Schubler chorales. Do one per week. In fact, you can record one piece every week for our Secrets of Organ Playing Contest. This would quadruple your results.
V: What do you think, Ausra?
A: Well, I think that you never give up a chance to advertise your competition on the…
V: But it’s our competition.
A: Well, it’s more your competition than mine. But anyway when May mentions that she struggles with D minor Toccata by J.S. Bach, I thought that she really needs to exercise on the piano and to do the manual part because those spots that she indicated shows the lack of muscle strength, strength from on her fingers.
A: Because I think that D minor Toccata in general is the piece suited actually for piano performers, because it doesn’t require a lot of pedal technique, but it takes good finger work.
V: What about the fugue?
A: Well the fugue is already more complex piece.
V: Mmm-mmm. Toward the end of the fugue there is this passage or couple of passages with a little more pedal involved. But yes, it’s sometimes difficult to play in a fast tempo reliably those passages in the hands which have echo between the hands, alternating hands. You jump from manual to manual. This is difficult for me too. So, yes, playing exercises like Hanon, wouldn’t hurt for her. But if she wants to play something with pedals, I definitely recommend Bach’s Orgelbuchlein and Schubler Chorales—all of them.
A: Well, you know, I love Schubler Chorales, but to be honest, some of the Orgelbuchlein Chorales are boring for me, for example. Of course I’ve played them all but…
V: What do you mean, boring?
A: Well, they are, most of them are not exactly like concert level pieces. They are well suited for liturgical purposes.
A: And for in general studying the style of Bach, and baroque figures too. But it’s not the most exciting collection Bach composed.
V: But in her situation it would work, wouldn’t it?
A: Yes, of course. And she has learned already quite a lot of them.
V: But she only had mastered one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. Eight out of forty-five.
A: Do you think it’s crucial to master all of them?
V: I think it wouldn’t hurt, yes.
A: But I always go back to that question and ask myself ‘why Bach hasn’t finished composing this collection’.
V: And, your answer is, what?
A: That maybe he got bored with himself.
V: Like you are bored with…
A: In that collection. Is that possibility?
V: He clearly didn’t think it as a priority at the time. He got distracted by more important projects, probably.
V: But these pieces which were created, right, only a third I think from the planned collection. There should have been much more, many more. Those which are created would serve pedagogical level very well because in every piece pedal is completely obbligato.
A: Yes, that’s right. And there are some really, really tricky pieces, like Hilf' Gott, dass mir's gelinge, BWV 624 for example.
A: He used various polyphonic techniques and it’s quite challenging. Actually I would find some of those chorales actually even more challenging than that spot of D minor Toccata that she describes.
V: And if she masters all of them once a week, in let’s say, in a year or even less probably, she can come back to D minor Toccata and check how she is doing with that difficult passage. My guess is, it will not be as difficult any more.
A: Yeah. Could be.
V: Thank you guys, for listening, for applying our tips in your practice. Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen!
If you like this piece, check out my new BWV 565 practice score with complete fingering and pedaling which will save you many hours and lots of frustration (it's 50% off until the end of June).
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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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