• Welcome to the Pipe Organ Forum! This is a part of the open community Magle International Music Forums focused on pipe organs (also known as "church organs"), organists, organ music and related topics.

    This forum is intended to be a friendly place where technically advanced organists and beginners (or even non-organists) can feel comfortable having discussions and asking questions. We learn by reading and asking questions, and it is hoped that the beginners (or non-organists) will feel free to ask even the simplest questions, and that the more advanced organists will patiently answer these questions. On the other hand, we encourage complex, technical discussions of technique, music, organ-building, etc. The opinions and observations of a diverse group of people from around the world should prove to be interesting and stimulating to all of us.

    As pipe organ discussions can sometimes become lively, it should be pointed out that this is an open forum. Statements made here are the opinion of the poster, and not necessarily that of the forum itself, its administrator, or its moderators.

    In order to post a new topic - or reply to existing ones - you may join and become a member by clicking on Register New User. It's completely free and only requires a working email address (in order to confirm your registration - it will never be given away!). We strive to make this a friendly and informative forum for anyone interested in pipe organs and organ music.

    (Note: If you wish to link to and promote your own website please read this thread first.)

    Many kind regards

    Frederik Magle


Registration in Bach's music

Thomas Dressler

New member
Registration in Bach\'s music

In another thread, bonh-101 asked the following question:

"I have one last question though, I am teaching myself Toccata & Fugue in D Minor and I can never get the right registration..."

"It's always off, and the pedals seem to have a really powerful stop on it... I am currently using a 16' Posaune: it has the right power but it just doesn't sound right, even when coupled with the great division. Do you have any suggestions?"

There were a few responses, which can be viewed at
Other Thread

I'm going to add some of my own observations on this subject, as it's been a specialty of mine for many years (too many to think about, like 25!) If Frederik is following this, I'm sure he knows I'll jump in with both feet on this topic! lol

The subject of registration in Bach is one that is hotly debated these days. There are different schools of thought on this subject, and people hold very firmly to their chosen way of thinking. My own thinking on this subject, as in anything concerning the music of Bach or composers of the past, is that it's best to try to understand the old practices as much as possible, and then adapt to the instruments we have at hand, trying to keep to their aesthetic as much as possible.

This are several problems when it comes to Bach, however. The most basic one is that we don't know for sure exactly what his practices were. We know organists of the time found them unusual, but we don't know exactly what he did. We can, however, make some very good guesses based on what we do know about other people of his time, and on the practices of his students and later musicians. Also, since his organ music has been played so much, there are different ways of playing it, very much unlike what Bach would have done, and yet with a kind of historic validity because of how much they were used in the centuries after Bach's death. Then we have the problem that music IS NOT a universal language, and if we heard Bach himself play, his dialect might sound a bit strange unless we had gotten used to REAL historic practices through research and then exposure; and in Bach's case, it's difficult to know for sure if what we think is "authentic" really is.

That being said, I still think it's best to base what you do on a real knowledge of what our imperfect research seems to reveal as real historic performing practices, because all things being equal, they will allow the music to express its intended meaning in the best way possible. All things being equal, a performance based on historic practices will be the most musical of all, in my opinion. (The problem with this is that often the "historically informed" bunch can be very dry in their interpretations. This is NOT the fault of historic practices. I don't think Bach was a boring player, from all reports.)

As far as registration goes, we need to consider very seriously that there are good reasons to believe that in Bach's day, organists played big pieces like Toccatas, Fugues, Preludia, etc on the plenum, that is the full organ, all the way through from beginning to end. Now the problem with this in modern days is that organs are not voiced like they used to be, and full organ can really get on your nerves on a modern instrument--especially the so called "neo-Baroque" organs of the 1970s or so, because they really do not sound very "authentic." A real Baroque organ from Bach's time and place can sound very pleasant played for a long time on full organ. Of course part of this historic approach to registration also calls for a historic approach to touch. It's the various kinds of articulation--NON-LEGATO playing--that make the sound varied and interesting. A non-varying legato approach to playing Bach can make for a very boring sound if the registration does not vary. The old instruments were very sensitive to touch, and just like on the harpsichord, a sensitive, varying touch can bring excitement and variety to a non-varying registration.

Now, how to actually register this plenum for big organ pieces. . .I'm going to take the ideal approach first, as if you're playing on a historic, or historically inspired instrument designed like the old ones were. In this case, on the Great manual you would use the Principals (including quint) and Mixtures, probably with the 16' on, and possibly with the 8' Gedackt on as well. That would yield something like this:

Great: Bourdon or Principal 16' (if you have one)
Principals 8, 4, 2 2/3, 2, Mixture (possibly 2 Mixtures)
Gedackt 8' (maybe--if the 8' Principal does not have enough fundamental by itself)

Depending on the instrument, it is possible in Bach pieces, especially fugues, to use the 8' Trumpet as well, AS LONG AS it's voiced like a German reed--does not overpower but adds additional fundamental. In Bach's fugues, especially, I usually find it sounds very good to use the reed to make the fundamental stronger. However, not all reeds work well this way, and if the reed is bad, I omit it. Also, adding a reed makes it even more important to have good control of touch, because it can sound pretty honky and unclear with unvarying legato technique.

Bach's counterpoint seems to require a stronger emphasis on the fundamental than other music of the time, and this is why I feel a need to emphasize the 8' sound in Bach registrations. For other, earlier music, the simple Principal chorus up to mixture often sounds good. But in Bach's music, the voice leading is exquisitely important. Mixtures have breaks in them--the ranks of pipes in them do not go continuously from low to high from bottom to top of the keyboard. At set places these ranks drop back to a lower pitch and continue up the keyboard. Depending on how a mixture is designed, these breaks can be quite noticeable as you go up the keyboard, and they can cause confusion in the voice leading. I believe Bach's music needs to have the individual voices clearly defined as to which octave they are playing in, and therefore I like to emphasize the 8' pitch as much as possible. But there is a fine balancing act involved--the texture needs to be as clear as possible. Using the 8' Gedackt with the 8' Principal is the ONLY case where I would mix a flute with a Principal at the same pitch.

In the Toccata in D minor, which needs another manual for echoes, I would use the Positive, with a similar registration to the Great. It would not have the 16'.

For the Pedal, it's necessary to find something that balances, and here is where organs vary. If you don't have much upperwork (no Mixture or maybe not even a 4') on the Pedal, then you need to couple from the Great, and use at least the Pedal Principal 16' or Bourdon 16' or both if just one sounds too weak. Otherwise you can omit the coupler and use instead the 4' Principal and Mixture. As to the reed, if the 16 Posaune sounds too loud and honky, try just an 8' Trumpet. It's not always necessary, and even sounds bad sometimes, to use only a 16' reed on the Pedal. If you use only one, sometimes just an 8' sounds best.

Now, how does this transfer to the Toccata in D minor? Here's how I would do it if I had the ideal instrument for this music:

Great Plenum (no reed and maybe no 16' for most Toccatas, but I might use them for this one in particular, at least for the beginning)
Positive Plenum (but no reed)
Pedal either coupled or up to Mixture with only the 8' Trumpet

Great--add the Trumpet 8' and Bourdon or Principal 16'
Positive--maybe add the Krumhorn 8' (maybe not depending on how it balances)
Pedal--add the Posaune 16'

This is the general idea for any of the big pieces--Prelude and Fugue, Toccata and Fugue, etc. I generally add the reed for the fugue.

I know there are a lot of people who argue against this, saying the reed doesn't sound good in the plenum, but my argument is that it's all in your touch and articulation. Listen to the Wedge fugue on my website to hear what I'm talking about. This was on an instrument with a reed that is not particularly good, but it works just fine. (I think it would not have worked very well if the playing had been based on a legato touch.) It IS likely, however, in music written before Bach that the reed would not have been used in the plenum as much. My approach to Bach registration is based partly on the fact that he was knowledgeable about French practices (which used reeds in the Grands jeux) and the fact that the music just seems to want the extra 8' sound.

Now when we're dealing with the organs we have at hand, we often find the ideal registration doesn't work because most modern organs are not really like Baroque organs, even if they say they are. So in this case, you have to listen very carefully. If the reed honks too much and makes it difficult to hear the counterpoint, leave it off. If the organ sounds too bright and screechy, try either adding another 8' stop, leave off the second high Mixture on the Great, or sometimes there's just no choice but to vary your registrations in a piece--take off the Mixture for awhile and put it back on in appropriate places. If the organ sounds too dull and heavy (muddy) then try using only an 8' flute and leave off the 8' Principal and see how it sounds. Certainly leave off the manual 16' stop if it's too muddy. The best thing is to find good recordings of historic German organs and listen to how they sound when played in a historically informed way (on the plenum.) Then try to come as close to that sound as you can.

Bach's music was not conceived for registrations that change color continuously through a piece. That is a later concept. Bach's music needs a straightforward sound that brings out the beauty of the counterpoint and many different kinds of articulation.

This has gotten quite long, but it's the outline, at least, of my approach to registering these kinds of pieces. Keep in mind that these are my opinions on a subject that does not have definitive answers.


Commodore of Water Music
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

I need to look up some of these terms, so then I can try and understand complicated music language particularly organ!!

Thomas Dressler

New member
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Hi Gareth--If there's something you don't understand, just ask and I'll be happy to explain!



New member
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

I see your point.. But I have never played on a real pipe organ, The one I am using is electric, and is not very big...
It is an Allen organ(I think model AP-17i) The stop list is:

• 8 Diapason
• 8 Harmonic Flute
• 8 Flute Celeste II (Sw)
• 4 Octave
• 4 Spitzflöte
• 2 Fifteenth
• Mixture IV
• 8 Krummhorn
• Tremulant
• Chimes
• Swell To Great
• Classic Voicing Gt-Pd

Classic Second
• 16 Subbass
• 16 Prinzipal
• 8 Prinzipal
• 8 Metalgedackt
• 8 Oktav
• 4 Orchestral Flute
• 4 Oktav
• 2 Super Oktav
• 8 French Horn
• 8 Clarinet
• 8 Cor Anglais
• 16 Lieblichgedackt
• 8 Gedackt
• 8 Viola Pomposa
• 8 Viola Celeste
• 4 Octave Geigen
• 4 Traverse Flute
• 2-2/3 Nasard
• 2 Piccolo
• 1-3/5 Tierce
• Fourniture IV
• 16 Waldhorn
• 8 French Trumpet
• 8 Oboe
• Tremulant
• Celesta
• Swell Unison Off
• Solo Organ Voices

• Bass Coupler
• Melody Coupler
• Alternate Tuning
• Tremulants Full
• Console Speakers Off
• External Speakers Off

• 32 Contre Violone
• 16 Diapason
• 16 Bourdon
• 16 Lieblichgedackt (Sw)
• 8 Octave
• 8 Flute (Gt)
• 4 Choralbass (Gt)
• Mixture III
• 16 Posaune
• 8 Tromba
• Great To Pedal
• Swell To Pedal

• MIDI On Pedal
• MIDI On Swell
• MIDI On Great

I don't know if it is the audio systems or if it is just the organ. But it dosen't sound correct.(I can get the fugue of the Toccata and fugue in D Minor It's just the biggining of the song, the Toccata I was asking about.)

Thomas Dressler

New member
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Ah, well an electronic is a completely different matter unless it's a very new, super-duper model. In general they don't behave like pipe organs. . .the only advice I can give is to begin with the ideas I mentioned, but then experiment and don't be afraid to try some really unusual things. If you're having trouble with the pedal 16 Posaune, it's possible it's even the sound system--it might be possible for someone to adjust it so it's not so overpowering. If not, try just about anything, including really weird registrations if they work. And with an electronic, it just might not be possible to play for long periods on the plenum unless you come up with a combination that sounds really good.


Commodore of Water Music
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

What categories are these, great and mixtures and everything like that.


Commodore de Cavaille-Coll
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

The great is a *fixed division* - has it's own clavier on which to play.
The mixture is a compound stop of several ranks that adds color and brilliance to the organ plenum. You can see on my screen avatar the claviers(From the bottom to the top) - Pedal is where the feet are, first clavier: Grand-Choeur(Great Choir), second clavier: Grand-Orgue(Great), third clavier: Positif(Choir), fourth clavier: Recit(Swell), fifth clavier: Solo.



Commodore of Water Music
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Ohh okay, so those layers of keyboards are called claviers then, and what is a manual?



Commodore de Cavaille-Coll
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Hi Gareth,

Clavier and manual are one in the same - The French say clavier - there is also a keyboard instrument called a clavichord - Claves in French means *keys* - Bach wrote Wohltemperiertes (Klavier).

Hope this helps.




Commodore of Water Music
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Yeah, thank you very much, I was always wondering what the differen't layers of keyboards were called, I know about the clavier, where metal hammers hit the strings if I am correct, just before the harpsichord was invented.


Thomas Dressler

New member
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Well, the clavichord is not quite like that. It doesn't have hammers, but blades called tangents. There are two kinds of clavichords, fretted and unfretted. The fretted clavichords are more common and smaller. In this case, one string actually is made to play more than one note, but not at the same time. One string, for instance, might play both C and C-sharp. The two keys have tangents that will touch the string at different points. When you play it, you hit the key and hold it down. The tangent strikes the string and also acts like a guitar fret--you have to keep pressing the key down as if you were fretting the string on a guitar or violin--it serves the same function: to determine the length of the string that vibrates. It's much harder to explain than it is in reality--an extremely simple instrument, but also extremely expressive. Bach is said to have liked it better than the harpsichord, but clavichords are very quiet--even quieter than a guitar--so they don't work very well for public performance.


Commodore of Water Music
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music

Ohhh thats very interesting, thanks for that, now I know how it works.



Thomas Dressler

New member
Re: Registration in Bach\'s music


Actually, clavichords are really nice instruments. If you ever get the chance to try one or hear one, see what you think! They're not exactly easy to play well, however. Be forewarned that the first time you try to play one it will probably sound pretty bad until you get used to it. They used to be considered the best keyboard instruments for practicing, and the best test of a keyboard player's skill.