Some examples of organ music

The following examples of organ music by Bach were recorded by for use in a half-hour lecture-demonstration in 1994. (See A quest for Bach's ideal style of organ temperament, in: Stimmungen im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert..., Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte 52, 1997. The essay can be downloaded from    here) The organist was Peter Sykes. The unequal temperament was as follows:

Please listen with high-quality speakers or earphones. For each item I will give first some identifying information and then some comments on how the unequal temperament affects it. (For four of the pieces I will include links to the 19th-century Bach-Gesellschaft edition so that readers can, if they like, readily study the compositional contexts of the excerpts.)

Track 1: BWV 541, a Prelude in G-major, the beginning. This arpeggiated triad is more euphonious and resonant in this tuning than in equal temperament.

Tracks 2–3: BWV 582, the Passacaglia in C-minor, the second statement of the thematic bass-line (after its initial, monophonic statement) and the conclusion. While the G-major triad is here just as clear as in the previous piece, the C-minor triad is notably darker than in equal temperament, and the F-minor triad even more so. These qualities are well suited to the character of the piece. Also, the harshness of the D♭-major triad in the second excerpt is expressively well suited to the particular musical context where it occurs, and the remarkably mild tempering of the concluding C-E strengthens the sense of luminous clarity in this triad with "Picardy 3rd".       

Track 2

Track 3

Tracks 4–6: BWV 552, the Prelude in E♭-major, the opening and two other excerpts. The opening shows that the nuances of the tuning are/were subtle enough (notwithstanding the peculiarly dark effect of C-minor in the Passacaglia) to enable Bach to compose virile, allegro organ music in E♭-major. Notice, however, the tender effect of the lowish A♭ in the B♭7 chord in the first excerpt. The other two excerpts show that Bach was cautious in his use of D♭-major triads and, though to a rather lesser extent, of A♭-major triads as well. The staccato marks are due to the composer. This is his longest keyboard piece in E♭-major. It was written soon after he played on the organ at Altenburg subsequent to its retuning to some kind of Neidhardt-style temperament. Years later, an article in a German newspaper commented on how Bach in Altenburg had made the congregation sing successive verses of the "Glauben" (the Credo in German) in D-, E♭- and E-minor: "Das konnte aber auch nur ein Bach und eine Orgel in Altenburg! Das sind und haben wir nicht alle."       

Track 4

Track 5

Track 6

Track 7: An isolated, sustained D♭-major triad. Here one can perceive clearly how extreme is the tempering of this triad in this tuning.

Tracks 8–10: BWV 622, "O Mensch bewein", E♭-major, the beginning, then nearly three bars from the middle, and then the conclusion. The intimate beauty of the piece is enhanced by the suitably unequal temperament. Notice the expressively low intonation of D♭, A♭, B♮ and A♮, and then the conversely high intonation of the C in the tune in Bar 7.       

Track 8

Track 9

Track 10

Track 11: BWV 654, "Schmücke dich", E♭-major, the beginning: Notice the appropriately tender effect of the lowish A♭ and of the relatively even lower D♭.

Track 12: BWV 671, a great Kyrie in G-major, the last several bars: The nuances of intonation help to prevent the relentless chromaticisms from becoming annoying in a Lisztian way.

Track 13: BWV 714, "Ach Gott und Herr", B-minor, the first half. Here are the most straightforward uses of C♯-major (or D♭-major) triads that I have found in Bach's organ music. A mitigating factor is the voice-leading with its curious diminished 5th or diminished 4th just before each such chord.

Track 14: BWV 727, "Herzlich tut mich", the beginning; Phrygian mode "transposed" up a whole-tone from E to F♯. Notice the distinctly more straightforward use of F♯-A♯ than of C♯-E♯.

Track 15: BWV 687, "Aus tiefer Not" (the beginning), likewise F♯-Phrygian. As in the previous example, so here also, F♯-A♯ is used in a more straightforward way than C♯-E♯.

Track 16: BWV 721, "Erbarm dich" (complete), likewise F♯-Phrygian: Here again C♯-E♯ is treated very cautiously. Indeed, notice at bars 40-41 the awkward voice-leading as the alto leaps from E to G♯ while the bass slips up from E to E♯ and none of the voice-parts descends. It seems to me very likely that this was done to avoid a root-position C♯-major triad at bar 41, i.e. with the alto going E-E♯-F♯ and the bass E-C♯-F♯ (which would be a more "correct" procedure according to the usual norms of harmony). In fact there is no root-position V-chord in the entire piece.

Track 17: BWV 689, "Jesus Christus", the beginning, F-minor: How dark is this key on account of the low A♭!

Track 18: BWV 1114, "Herr Jesu Christ", the beginning, also F-minor: The salient use of D♭ causes the key of F-minor to sound even darker here than in the previous example.

Track 19: BWV 540, the Toccata in F-major, the beginning: And yet the parallel major key is just as serenely euphonious as G major.

Track 20: BWV 732, "Lobt Gott", the beginning and end (executed seamlessly), E-major: This music sounds giddy with joy. A very moderately tempered key, such as F- or C- or G-major, would be less well suited to such an affect.       

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