Bach’s God, Playing Among the People

An organ is an orchestra unto itself. Not only does the King of Instruments often condescend to imitate many of his orchestral subjects—trumpets, flutes, oboes, violins, even sometimes, timpani— but he can also overpower an entire symphony when moved to do so. The massive C-major chord at the start of the penultimate sectionof the Saint-Saëns organ symphony is like the voice of God omnipotent. The orchestra can do nothing against this entity—unstoppable force and, when it wants to be, immovable object.  Saint-Saëns was a renowned organist, and in his symphony he repeatedly encourages individual groups of instruments try to break free and do their own thing, but these rebellious attempts at expression are repeatedly silenced by the outsized despot at the back of the concert hall stage.  Eventually the famous theme emerges in full, but it is the organ that has it, the full orchestra reduced to staccato nods of deference. It is always clear who retains absolute power. Saint-Saëns marked the section maestoso (majestic): the very definition in most people’s minds, before and since, of the organ.

Seen and heard in this light, Saint-Saëns organ symphony is a symphony for two orchestras, one towering, literally and sonically over the other.

It might therefore seem a redundant idea to write a concerto for the organ, since the contest between soloist and orchestra would appear so one-sided.  For the superpower of the pipes (like missiles turned upside down) the nuclear option is always available: the threat of launching an annihilating strike is inherent even in the most demure of themes whispered on the quietest of registers.

But the organist doesn’t always have to crank things up to 11, or even get really loud at all in the course of a cooperative effort with colleagues at their much smaller instruments. Yes, the organ likes to be stentorian, but can also indulge in lithe banter with a paired down orchestral contingent.  The greatest organists of the eighteenth century—Handel and Bach— recognized this capability and used it to their advantage—and to our enduring delight.

When Handel showed up in Rome in early 1707 just shy of his twenty-first birthday he promptly displayed his chops at St. John Lateran on the city’s biggest organ “to the amazement of all.”  In that cavernous, bejeweled basilica the young man must have let the big guy rip. Soon he was the musical toast of the town, and in his break-out oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (TheTriumph of Time and Truth) put on soon after, Handel carved out space for an organ show piece with instrumental accompaniment. He called it a “sonata,” but the piece has gone down in keyboard history as the first organ concerto.  The instrument he used on that occasion was a chamber organ much smaller than the behemoth he had played on way up in the balcony in the pope’s church some weeks before.  For the oratorio performance in a cardinal’s palace, with the princes of the church and city’s musical virtuosos in attendance, the glamorous German could be heard andseen. The work’s libretto written by Handel’s hosting cardinal even praised the new star’s musical talent and his fetching looks.

Like Leibniz and Newton inventing calculus at the same time, Bach was pursuing the same line of thought and performance as Handel, but in the region of central Germany where both men had been born in 1685. (Handel followed a cosmopolitan career path, Bach stayed home.) A young show-off, Bach wrote an independent organ part into one of the arias of his first major public cantata for the inauguration of the city council that employed him in 1708. These German grandees may not have been as grand as those in Rome, but Bach still stole the chance to strut his stuff, even if he was pretty much out of sight way up in the organ loft.

Later in their careers, both Handel and Bach returned to the organ concerto as platforms for their art and celebrity. Handel used his essays in the genre as a bonus attraction at performances of his oratorios, with the composer himself on stage on a special chamber organ.   He published two grand sets of organ concertos (op. 4 and op. 7) that have never gone out of musical fashion.

Bach, too, apparently performed his own full-blown organ concertos, as opposed to merely cantata movements, in Dresden in 1725, as a contemporary newspaper report informs us. During Bach’s career he never commanded a large and beautiful organ, especially not in Leipzig where he spent nearly half of his life. Nearby Dresden, the political and musical capital of Saxony and one of the greatest of European cultural centers, was rich with resplendent organs. Bach visited the city often to demonstrate his wares and boost his status at court and amongst the famed international musicians, some of whom accompanied his organ concertos.

Sadly, these Bach organ concertos are lost. To retrieve some sense of them requires a daring act of historical and musical imagination. As we approach the three-hundredth anniversary of Bach’s Dresden concertos, that act has now been at last performed by Matthew Dirst, a leading American organist and founding director of the Grammy-nominated ensemble, Ars Lyrica Houston.  The group’s most recent recording, The First Organ Concertos: Reconstructions of Works by G. F. Handel & J. S. Bach (Loft Recordings), gives us that first Handel Roman sonata (expanded to three movements with Dirst’s adaptations drawn from elsewhere in the oratorio) and artfully plunders Bach’s solo harpsichord concertos for performance on the organ. The result is a stunning reanimation of the great organists not alone and all-powerful in their balcony, but amongst colleagues in thrilling collaboration: chamber music in the church.

The instrument used here is a large baroque-style organ in St. Philip’s Presbyterian Church in Houston made by celebrated American builder Paul Fritts. At full tilt the instrument can sustain congregational hymns, deliver thunderous renditions of Bach’s preludes and fugues, and even toss off showboating French organ fireworks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet for these concertos by Bach and Handel the St. Philip’s organ is on a mission in search of the colorful and the clear. It must remain lean, responsive and lovely, its individual stops and combinations working in concert—as the genre of concerto should demand—with the lively, expressive and precise playing of the Ars lyrica orchestra whose members are surely a match for their Roman and Dresden forbears.

The Handel three-movement jaunt that opens the disc is light and nimble: nothing too searching or involved, fast figures on either side of a minute-long stretch of youthful repose. The strings and oboes have cameos, but mostly cede the limelight to the soloist.

The Handel is a palette cleanser before the more erudite but no less rousing stuff of the mature Bach. The three harpsichord concertos repurposed here (those in D Minor, BWV 1052; G Minor, BWV 1058; and E Major, BWV 1053, transposed down a step to D for this recording) take their time to develop their thrilling, erudite musical arguments. There is plenty of room for virtuosic display on either side of searching central movements.

Bach performed these works on harpsichord when he was leader of a collegium musicum in Leipzig in the 1730s; that group played in Zimmerman’s coffee house and its summer garden. Those venues were much smaller than the churches of Dresden—or Houston. But in spite of the vastly different acoustic environments, there was and is no trouble in hearing the organ: it sparkles in the fast movements, seduces in the slow ones. For all its charms, the harpsichord is often more percussive than full in its sonority, especially when it is vying with other instruments. By contrast, you can always hear what the organist is doing, especially on this wonderfully produced recording. Every ornament, unexpected filigree, harmonic surprise sparkles, the organ sound’s attack and release audible even when in the midst of the orchestral action.

Right from the electrifying run that announces the entry of the soloist in the first movement of Bach’s D-minor concerto, all is clear, exuberant, compelling. The spectacular repeated notes that ensue, and around which swirl fantastical arabesques, build in intensity rather than in obscurity, as can happen on the harpsichord. The rollicking reed stop pulled for the final movement of the Concerto in D major that closes the album is like a gruff but graceful monarch letting his will be known. The King of Instruments does not mince words. He will be heard.

With a full orchestra at the tip of Dirst’s fingers we are treated to a succession of stops, alone and together: a principal (the organ’s own sound, not imitating other instruments, but perhaps the human voice) sings Dirst’s captivating ornaments in the eloquent Adagio of the D minor; an edgy cornet intrudes in the racing movement that follows; the flute undulates in the yearning pastoral of the G minor’s Andante; the swaying rapture Siciliano of the D Major is made all the more poignant when its message is conveyed by the quintadena, a stop that emphasizes the third overtone a twelfth above the fundamental.

This incarnation of the Ars lyrica orchestra is made up of just four string parts but includes vital contributions from Michael Leopold on the orbo and baroque guitar and, only for the Handel, two brisk oboes. The organ’s much larger tonal resources are deployed with unfailing taste and verve by Dirst. Thanks to him and his band, we can again be thrilled by Bach the concerto soloist: the organist, not playing God from above, but playing among his people.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at