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Scholarly Works

J. S. Bach and the Organ – Some Neglected Threads

by Stephen Bicknell, Scholarly Works

Lecture read at the International Organ Festival at St. Albans 2nd December 2000 By Stephen Bicknell To use imagination in any area of serious study is a difficult business.There are no facts to be found in imaginary exercises. There may be insight of a kind, but that insight is deeply compromised by being at one stage removed from reality. Even with this cautionary note an imaginary exercise can sometimes be useful, and I am going to start by inviting you to consider just such a speculation in the hope that it may generate some tiny fragment of concrete information. Imagine that there was once a celebrated Thüringian organist and composer named Bach, widely respected for his ability as a performer, for his genius as a composer, and for his understanding of the art of organ building. Suppose further that Herr Bach had had the opportunity, at the height of his career, to commission a completely new organ that exactly represented his wishes as regards a really fine instrument. Imagine that negotiations with a leading organ builder led to a scheme for a substantial three manual organ of, say, about fifty stops; that a contract was signed, and that in due course the instrument was completed and delivered. Imagine that this instrument exhibited many innovative features which reflected not just the precise areas of development and interest that preoccupied musicians and craftsmen of the day, but also the specific inspirations and insights of the great man himself. If such an instrument had existed in respect of J. S. Bach himself we would have a far greater understanding of the man and his music. In truth the historical record conspicuously lacks any such instrument. There is no identifiable Bach organ, and despite the hopes of many researchers the possible connection between J. S. Bach and the design of any particular instrument – whether the Trost organ at Altenburg or the Hildebrandt at Naumburg – is at best treacherously tenuous. The study of Bach and the organ is very like the study of Stonehenge. At Stonehenge we have a leviathan monument of palpable importance. It has been studied extensively and with modern methods it is possible to trace with some accuracy the various stages of construction and use over a period of fifteen hundred years. Yet the archaeological record is infuriatingly slight. Apart from the stones themselves, the various filled holes suggesting previous states, and the earthworks which complete the site, there are virtually no artefacts or other evidence that might help to complete the picture. It is as though a Neolithic sanitation team had deliberately scoured the entire area removing every item which might conceivably give any clue as to the true purpose of the structure. There is an exceptionally fine book about Stonehenge by the archaeologist Christopher Chippindale, entitled ‘Stonehenge Complete’. Far more than describing in readily accessible terms what modern archaeology has discovered about Stonehenge, a job which can be satisfactorily completed in remarkably few pages, he presents a complete modern history of the monument, describing its rediscovery in the seventeenth century and explaining without fear or favour every single one of the sometimes mad theories which have been applied to it over the last four hundred years: that it was a temple at which Druids performed human sacrifices; that it was a giant astronomical observatory; that it was a landing site for flying saucers; and so-on. Chippindale makes several points from this study, especially that in the absence of any more coherent understanding based on fact these flights of the imagination are the very stuff of which Stonehenge history...

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