West Vancouver United Church
Artist: Alexander Weimann, organ
The “well” temperaments of Bach’s day were tuning systems carefully designed to let keyboardists play in every key without re-tuning their instruments. Inspired by Bach’s famous Well-Tempered Clavier, Alexander Weimann has assembled a new collection of pieces spanning the whole harmonic spectrum. This concert showcases the extraordinary range of Bach’s organ writing, seen through the lens of Alex’s profound artistry and musical knowledge.
This concert is generously sponsored by David McMurty
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Pièce d’Orgue in G major, BWV 572
Fantasia in C minor, BWV 1121
Aria in F major (“after Couperin”), BWV 587
Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 649
O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross, BWV 622
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
Toccata and Fugue in E major BWV 566
Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’, BWV 662
Fugue in B minor (“on a Theme of Corelli”), BWV 579
Vater unser in Himmelreich, BWV 682
Praeludium in A minor, BWV 569
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Fugue in G major, BWV 577
Johann Sebastian Bach’s relationship to the organ was lifelong and multifaceted; it was as an organist that he first embarked on his professional career, and some of his last published works (the Canonic Variations and so-called “Schübler” Chorales) were devoted to the instrument. The organ was central to Bach’s activities as a teacher, a legendary performer and improviser, and an exacting composer, and it shaped both his professional identity and his legacy. Bach’s obituary of 1754 remembered him as the “most prodigious organist and keyboard player that has ever been,” but his reputation did not rest on virtuosity alone. Throughout his life, Bach took an interest in organ building and design, and he was one of the technical masters of central Germany called upon to examine and inaugurate new instruments.
Organ building was a monumental enterprise, involving architectural design, church governance, civic planning and pride, and the latest mechanical, mathematical, aesthetic and acoustic understandings of the day. While some of these organs can still be played and heard today, one of the factors that Bach may have been evaluating is difficult to recapture—how the instruments were tuned. Music historians have argued that Bach lived through part of a shift in musical aesthetics away from the “meantone” tunings of previous centuries—which favoured pure euphonious thirds at the cost of some irredeemably bad intervals in keys that were therefore unusable—toward more modern “well” temperaments allowing for a greater range of keys that were acceptably in tune. The work of theorists such as Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706) helped to promote the notion of a closed circle of fifths (C-G-D-A-E-B-F♯/G♭-C♯/D♭-G♯/A♭-D♯/E♭-A♯/B♭-F-C) in which enharmonic notes like G♯ and A♭ are equivalent. (By contrast, some earlier keyboards built for meantone tunings had split keys that allowed for G♯ and A♭ to be played as different pitches—woe to the player who attempted a fifth between, for instance, G♯ and E♭!) The solutions that Werckmeister and his colleagues proposed could thus be thought of as “circular” or “circulating” temperaments, permitting the player to move freely around the whole circle of keys.
The prospect of playing the pieces of Bach’s famous Well-Tempered Clavier collections in a single sitting without retuning the instrument requires such a tuning, as do keyboard works that move a long way chromatically from the home key (as Bach no doubt liked to do when he was improvising). Interestingly, the theorists of Bach’s day were aware of the equal temperament that has become the norm today—where each fifth in the circle, and thus each semitone in the octave, is the same size—as an abstract possibility, but few of them found it at all appealing. At least until the end of the eighteenth century, close listeners seem to have cherished the subtle variations between keys produced by unequal, well temperaments. Johann Mattheson, for instance, writes that F♯ minor, “although it leads to great sadness, is somewhat languid and amorous rather than lethal,” whereas B♭ major “is very diverting and showy, however, somewhat modest.” Part of the great interest of collections like the Well-Tempered Clavier—and the new “collection” formed by this programme—is the way they invite us to notice how the composer’s approach to each key might be unique.
It is difficult to tell how quickly such temperaments caught on in German organ building. Unlike the tuning of stringed keyboard instruments, organ tuning was a relatively permanent affair, considering the time, labour, and materials needed to adjust it. (Bach, according to his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel, could tune a harpsichord to his satisfaction in fifteen minutes.) A given organ’s pitch and temperament would quite possibly have influenced the way music was generally performed in the surrounding area—a kind of acoustic centre of gravity. What seems clear is that Bach’s music frequently makes demands that it would take a well-tempered instrument to satisfy.
We can easily imagine that Bach might have often composed with an individual organ particularly (though not exclusively) in mind. The chorale preludes contained in the Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”) may have been conceived for the newly rebuilt organ in Weimar or for the Liebfrauenkirche’s larger instrument in Halle, which was noted as having a “tolerably good temperament.” “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (BWV 622) and “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) are both part of this collection, whose title page professes an intention to show “an inquiring organist . . . how to implement a chorale in all kinds of ways.” These settings of traditional Lutheran hymns are unique and endlessly inventive, and several of them push the harmonic envelope: “Ich ruf zu dir” is in the highly unusual key of F minor, which it traces out with an innovative broken-chord accompaniment in the left hand. “O Mensch, bewein” is also very close to the “flat” extreme of the tonal spectrum, perhaps to reflect the poignant Passion text. The decorated melodic line is spun out over some astonishing harmonic turns; most surprising (and notorious) is the introduction of a C♭ major triad right before the end of the piece.
The other chorale settings in this programme are also drawn from printed or manuscript collections: “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 649) from the “Schübler” Chorales, a late publication of organ transcriptions of movements from Bach’s own cantatas; “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’” (BWV 662) from a series of chorales copied and revised during Bach’s Leipzig years; and the complex “Vater unser in Himmelreich” (BWV 682), a rendition of Martin Luther’s versification of the Lord’s Prayer, from the third volume of Bach’s Clavierübung (“Keyboard Practice”). The selections that make up the rest of this programme are diverse in style and genre, from the iconic Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) to the Aria in F major (BWV 587)—an almost exact transcription for organ of a movement from François Couperin’s Les Nations. These pieces are mostly “homeless,” surviving in rare and sometimes rather mysterious manuscript copies. Perhaps Bach would have smiled to see these scattered offspring gathered together again in a celebration of the musical language—and the musical instrument—he was so intent on exploring throughout his life.
- Connor Page
Alexander Weimann, organ
Alexander Weimann is one of the most sought-after ensemble directors, soloists, and chamber music partners of his generation. After travelling the world with ensembles such as Tragicomedia, Cantus Cölln, the Freiburger Barockorchester, Gesualdo Consort and Tafelmusik, he now focuses on his activities as Music Director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in Vancouver, Music Director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and regular guest conductor of ensembles including the Victoria Symphony, Symphony Nova Scotia, Arion Baroque Orchestra in Montreal and the Portland Baroque Orchestra.
Alex was born in Munich, where he studied the organ, church music, musicology (with a summa con laude thesis on Bach’s secco recitatives), theatre, mediæval Latin, and jazz piano, supported by a variety of federal scholarships. From 1990 to 1995, he taught music theory, improvisation, and Jazz at the Munich Musikhochschule. Since 1998, he has been giving master classes in harpsichord and historical performance practice at institutions such as Lunds University in Malmö, the Bremen Musikhochschule, the University of California (Berkeley), Dartmouth College (New Hampshire), McGill University, Université de Montréal, and Mount Allison (New Brunswick). He now teaches at the University of British Columbia and directs the Baroque Orchestra Mentorship Programme there. He has received several JUNO and GRAMMY Award nominations – most recently, for the album Nuit Blanches with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Karina Gauvin.