Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 147 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. Today’s question was sent by William. He writes:
“Thank for all the help you have helped so many organists. My question is about articulation of Bach. When I went to school I was taught to play everything legato. I am now reworking the first organ works I studied e.g. 8 Little Preludes and Fugues by Bach. Are all notes legato. I have found I can make them much more exciting. But what about Orgelbuchlein? Are the themes played strictly legato or articulated. I play in Cathedral with 6 seconds of reverb. Same with choral preludes of Buxthehude. Are they ever played legato? E.g. Our Father In Heaven (Vater unser im Himmelreich). Third movement in d minor. Melody is beautiful. But is it played legato?”
V: So this is very important question for organists, right?
A: Yes, a very important question, and to make the long story short, it was a period, quite a long period when all Bach music was played legato, but then there was a movement I believe, one of the starters was Ludger Lohmann who defended his dissertation about Bach articulation. And basically we need to thank people like Ludger Lohmann and Harald Vogel who recreated the original performance practice of Baroque music, and all the music by J.S. Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude must be played in articulate style. So basically almost non-legato must be used in Bach or Buxtehude or these contemporaries music. Because that’s what historical instruments tell us.
V: That’s right, Ausra. And sometimes there is some confusion even in historical sources. Like this title page of Bach’s two-part inventions and three-part sinfonias. He writes that they should be played in cantabile style. So in the middle of 20th century when people were issuing modern editions of these beautiful little gems, they thought they should be performed legato, cantabile style, singing style. But taking into account how other instruments were articulated at the same time in the baroque period, like violin or wind instruments, they all articulated with small spaces within in each note, unless composers indicated otherwise with slurs. So, doesn’t it, Ausra, seem to you that articulation in keyboard instruments is similar to those melodic instruments?
A: Sure. It must be the same.
V: Mmm, hmm.
A: Because that’s the style it requires. And I also remember when I was a student at the academy of music, I had to go to Siauliai, the city in northwestern part of Lithuania, where they have each year sort of big sacred music festival. And that year I had to go and to be assistant to one professor who came from Germany, with another man, professor Conrad Voppel and he was complaining to me now that all German now days are full of young organists and his meaning that those young organists at that time were almost like 40, 50 years old. You know Ludger Lohmann mong them, I believe. And he was telling me, they play Bach, and articulate his music, and they call it Bach style, and he was just outraged.
V: Mmm, hmm.
A: Well, and I understand him because he was actually a student of legendary organist Karl Straube.
V: Oh, yeah.
A: Yes, and at that time, Straube in Germany and Dupre in France, were really the most famous organists I believe in the world at that time. And Straube told him to play Bach legato. And there were only some particular place where you articulate like maybe at the end of phrase or at the end of a period, that’s it. But it was a romantic tradition to play Bach like this. But, you know, if you don’t believe us, that Bach needs to be played articulated, come to Europe or then go to America to places that have historical Baroque instruments and try to play legato on those instruments and you will see that it’s basically impossible.
V: Impossible, what, to play legato?
A: To play legato, yes.
A: That’s the nature of those instruments.
V: What makes it so difficult to play legato, let’s say with pedals?
A: Pedals are almost impossible to play legato. That’s true because the keys are much, much, much shorter compared to romantic or modern instruments. And you probably would break your leg if you tried to play legato. It’s just physically impossible.
V: Personally I’ve played a number of these historical organs, where your foot doesn’t fit on the pedal bar. Your heel cannot play the pedals at all.
A: Sure, yes.
V: You have to play with toes,
V: A number of them.
A: Yes, and how would you play legato on the pedal bar unless you play Bach and play legato only with your toes, that’s impossible.
V: Unless you slide them in glissando fashion, but it’s also not the case historically. Remember, that many organists back in the day practiced on clavichords. And with clavichords, you have to have a decent touch and it only sounds well when you play with toes.
V: Not with heels. Although, I heard some modern organists try to master a sonata by Julius Reubke, romantic piece, famous master work in legato fashion on the clavichord. It’s just for fun, of course. So it’s possible but in a concert situation doesn’t sound well.
A: So, yes, I think that appropriate music must be played in appropriate style. So in Baroque music, use almost no legato, and in romantic music, we play almost everything legato.
V: Except, there are exceptions.
A: Right, there are exceptions.
V: Like repeated notes, like other instances where the composer has indicated ending of the slurs, ending of the phrases you have to breathe, and the breathing and the articulation then is very precise and you have to shorten it by a certain rhythmic value.
A: Yes, and for example in Baroque music, you can play legato some of, for example, so called famous style motif, where you play legato two notes,
V: Mmm, hmm.
A: And play sort of prolonged first note: té-dem, té-dem, té-dem.
V: But you know Ausra, it all is relative, depending on the acoustics, right? Sometimes, like William says, he has six seconds of reverberation.
A: So the larger acoustic you have, the more articulation you need.
V: Even if you want to achieve legato, then you have to perceive that your listeners should hear legato, not you, right? Like downstairs in the pews, it should sound those few notes legato, then you probably still need to articulate upstairs in the balcony.
A: Sure, yes. And another thing I wanted to tell you about Baroque music when you have to play at least some legato. When you are playing chromatic pieces, sometimes you have to play legato. And the so called Toccata per Elevazione, Italian style.
V: Dissonances and suspensions, right?
A: Yes, so in those places you also have to play some legato.
V: Or in Baroque compositions which remind you of those styles, sometimes episodes with dissonances, dissonant chords and suspensions, they need to be played legato then.
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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