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Thread: Bach Passacaglia: registration questions (or controversies perhaps!)

  1. #1
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Bach Passacaglia: registration questions (or controversies perhaps!)

    Hi All,

    The 'Favourite Bach work' thread prompted me to ask the following. Since my vote went to the mighty Passacaglia - and since I'm performing it later this year - I'm interested to find out where folk stand on the issues of registrations for this work.

    The first time I performed this piece, way back for my Honours recital, I opted for a "Romantic" style of registration, ie, starting quietly and gradually building. I gather that many scholars have argued that for historical authenticity, it is played plenum throughout. However, this grates on me rather quickly. Yes, I will forever adore the King of Instruments, but 12 minutes is too long to be listening to full organ for me. Furthermore, I feel strongly that much of the inner beauty of Bach's writing is lost amidst a loud registration, regardless of the instrument's clarity or the acoustic. The last time I heard this piece played live, the organist had a very heavy pedal registration (including 16' reeds and a bass 32') which mostly swamped the manuals, all but ruining it for me. My other strong feeling is that the style of writing in many of the variations call for some dynamic shading.

    I realise this topic can lead to opposing viewpoints. I am interested in opinions - scholarly, emotive or otherwise.

    Who's next?

    Matt

  2. #2
    Ensign, Principal Jeffrey Hall's Avatar
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    Hi Matt,

    I'm sure we're butting heads with the scholars, but I agree with you. I think it's much more effective with the ground stated very quietly, a steady growth to the climax in Var. XII, then quieter before returning to the plenum for Vars. XVI-XX.

    I also think that if you're getting through it in 12 minutes, you're playing it too fast. I prefer a slower tempo. At 15+ minutes, it's a little pokey, but 14 is about right.

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    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Your comment about the timing prompted me to get out my score and check (I usually try to pencil in performance times at the end of pieces I've done). Lo and behold, it said 15! (I must have been thinking of something else when I posted earlier at work). The previous preformance was in a quite lively and long acoustic so I was taking a few liberties with ends of phrases etc.

    My other general question about the work is how people handle the segue from the final chord of the Passcaglia into the start of the Fugue.

    But I'm still interested in the registration issues - keep them coming people!

  4. #4
    Commodore con Forza
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    When I played the Passacaglia some years ago, I started with a plenum, not too heavy to avoid the grating you referred to, but still "affirmative" enough in the pedal to impose the theme to the listener. I find it very important that the listener has a clear picture of the theme in his head before you reach the variations in which it is more hidden (the first of which is var. 5!).

    Keeping such a plenum isn't really a problem in my view, provided you (a) think about means of variation other than registration changes (most notably variations in touch), and (b) try to take advantage of the way Bach's writing changes, especially between vars. 9 and 10, then again between 10 and 11.

    There again, the soprano must impose the theme to the listener, having this time only two variations at its disposal, before the theme hides again in var. 13.

    If the instrument permits, I usually switch manuals to a lighter registration for vars. 14 and 15, before going back to plenum at var. 16. This plenum may be a bit fuller than the initial one, but I usually refrain from adding yet more stops between vars. 16 and 20 - again, exploiting Bach's changes in writing to make things vary, rather than changing registration: var. 16 is rather dramatic (and reminiscent of the final bars of Franck's Chorale in A minor - or rather the other way round), var. 17 needing of course a much lighter touch. Then the writing just gets denser and denser by itself until the end, from the parallel sixths in var. 18 to the double parallel thirds in var. 20.

    In short, my view is that Bach's own writing, if properly exploited, makes for enough variation by itself. If registration changes can serve to underline these variations, then they are welcome, but if they are too frequent, they only draw attention to themselves and therefore risk becoming counterproductive.

    (P.S. It's good that you put "Romantic" between quotes - you might be surprised what Widor, for one, had to say about registrations in Bach's music!)

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    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Bach's use of 32' (though reed or flute is somewhat unclear) is almost a given considering its one of the pieces composed at that awkward to get at organ (see Bach's use of 32' stops thread).

    I agree with you about full steam ahead, it is plain tedious in a work of this length. Nothing says you can't start loud and gradually diminish 'til the end, I heard it performed this way once, and whilst I wouldn't play it that way, didn't mind it at all.

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    Ensign, Principal Jeffrey Hall's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Contratrombone64 View Post
    full steam ahead...
    Nicely put.

    I'd have to hear a steadily diminishing registration before passing judgment. That's a new one to me.

    Regarding the question about the fugue segue, I like the final chord of the Passacaglia leading directly into the fugue with no break. The shift in texture and volume makes it perfectly obvious what's going on, and with the ground continuing in the fugue subject anyway, it has always seemed to make a bit more sense to just plow ahead. A break doesn't really bother me a lot, though; I just prefer the former.

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    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by acc View Post
    (P.S. It's good that you put "Romantic" between quotes - you might be surprised what Widor, for one, had to say about registrations in Bach's music!)
    Well don't keep me in suspense!
    And unless I'm referring to a composer or repertoire from the era commonly known as The Romantic Era, I'll always use quotes as the term is highly subjective anyway.

    You have put a fair argument for the plenum registration.

    Contretrombone, I'm intrigued by the suggestion of starting loud and gradually diminishing - that I've not heard either. Also, the one thing that bothers me with the use of a 32 is the last two pedal notes of the whole piece (ie, the left foot on the bottom c and the right playing the f to g). Even though the intervals are compound, it would still have a slightly muddying effect. In the plenum-throughout performance that I mentioned in my first post, the organist ommited those upper notes, probably for that very reason. Your thoughts?

    Matt
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

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    Commodore con Forza
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    Quote Originally Posted by Soubasse View Post
    Well don't keep me in suspense!
    OK, but right now, I'm away from home, and therefore of the relevant literature. End of next week, I'll start a new thread with some interesting citations on Widor's registration (of the same vein as the one I recently started about rhythm).

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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Here is a relatively old thread that I missed while I was away, but it is one that I am very interested in.

    I have to say (surprise, surprise to those who've gotten to know me) that I feel pretty much the same as ACC about this. However, I'll moderate it somewhat by saying that it depends on the instrument. I'd say that the possible grating of the plenum can come from two things (one or the other or both): an instrument not designed for this kind of playing (late 19th or early to mid 20th century) and/or playing that is constantly legato with no variation in touch. While I usually play it on a plenum with a few changes along the way, I have performed it on instruments where I started very quietly and built the registration as I went. However, I do that only when the instrument just won't play it the other way.

    We don't know how Bach played it, but we do know that MENDELSSOHN played it throughout on the plenum!

    It is good to keep in mind the other keyboard instruments in use at the time. Even the harpsichord allowed only minimal changes of sound. There is evidence that the Passacaglia was played on a pedal harpsichord. In this case, there would be little change possible. The interest comes, as ACC said, in the writing itself and the flexibility of touch and articulation of the performer. When performed this way, there is little need for many registration changes. However, instruments voiced in later styles do fatigue the listener when the plenum is used for long periods. I have RARELY performed this piece on that kind of instrument, though I have done it for fun, though I enjoy it better without the registration changes all the time.

  10. #10
    Seaman, Mezzoforte
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    I feel that it should still use a "romantic" registration, as it seems to be to naturally grow in volume throughout the piece.
    Since it starts with only the pedal solo, then adds manuals in harmony, then manuals in polyphony, until and ends with the the manuals playing 4 melodic lines alone, i feel that it should crescendo throughout the piece, besides the short arpeggiated section (Var 14-15), where i pull it back to two flute stops, also to make a greater contrast to allow the organ to go back to full for the remainder of the passacaglia..

    then again, i havent started on the fugue, only focusing on the passacaglia for now

  11. #11
    Lieutenant, Associate Concertmaster
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    One wonders what sort of instrument Bach had in mind when he composed the passacaglia(the Gabler organ at Weingarten or something similar).To the best of my knowledge,32' pipes in Bach's era operated at lower pressures than the 32's found in romantic era organs.It would be interesting to hear an original Kittel/Rinck edition of the passacaglia and then listen to one of Widor's later editions for comparison.
    Last edited by Caddis; Aug-04-2007 at 22:52.

  12. #12
    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Difficult to know for sure, as there has even been debate as to whether it may have been intended for pedal harpsichord, or pedal clavichord.

    Regarding the registration, there is some evidence in favor of the full organ approach, as an early copy, which may have been taken from Bach's own manuscript, is entitled "Passacaglio [sic] con Pedale pro Organo Pleno." Even if this was not in Bach's autograph, and it might have been, it does show that at a very early time it was being played on full organ.
    Last edited by Thomas Dressler; Aug-05-2007 at 11:05.

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