Most musical instruments can be grabbed and taken along in the retreat into self-isolation—from the kazoo in the pocket to the violin slung over the shoulder. Others are more unwieldy. The tuba hardly counts as hand luggage. But none is more unwieldy than the organ.
As no other musician, it is the organist who is dwarfed by his instrument. That is doubtless one reason many are drawn to play it—to have at the tips of the fingers and the soles of the feet control over such sonic potential. The largest pipes of the great instruments of Bach’s day were six times his height. Even mid-sized organs were too much for the player to take in visually from the console. The largest instruments that filled the west end galleries of churches from the 15thcentury on towered over the organist. Often these organs had a division on the gallery rail behind the organist; this “chair” organ is was dubbed in English (Rückpositiv in German—that is, small organ at the organist’s back) was typically designed as a smaller version of the main part of the instrument, and had the effect of enclosing the player so that he could not be seen from down below in the church. Seated at the console, the organist might feel himself protected as in a fortress—the case the battlements, the pipes sonic weapons.
Large organs made it difficult, even impossible, for the player to sense exactly where the boundaries of his instrument lay. What other musical instrument can you not take full measure of as you play it? Almost all of them can be carried, moved, or even destroyed with one decisive blow. Even that ebony battleship that is the modern grand piano can be wheeled across a stage. Not so the King of Instruments. Dismantling it is a job for a small army. The organ is itself a piece of architecture and cannot be carried from the church or concert hall in case of fire. Massive in stature and anchored to their surroundings, too many of the great organs of the European tradition could not be spirited to safety but instead went down in flames when the bombs of World War II fell. In that catastrophe the organ’s size was its greatest enemy.
Putatively invented in the 2nd century BCE in Alexandria by a certain Ctesibius, the organ originally had human dimensions. In surviving images from antiquity the player can peer over his instrument. The Roman mosaics in Zliten, Libya show the organist looking over the pipes and to watch the gladiatorial combat he is not so much accompanying as spurring on. Instruments of similar size continued to be built in the Eastern Roman Empire, and are thought to have been reintroduced into the West in the 8th century when ambassadors from Constantinople presented a transportable organ to the Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short.
By the turn of the first millennium Western Europeans, especially its resourceful monks, had started making ever bigger instruments. The mania for monumentality continued for the next one thousand years, sometimes migrating from the Christian cathedrals to the cathedrals of commerce. One of the world’s biggest organs rambles through the Grand Court atrium at the John Wanamaker store in Philadelphia. Originally boasting 10,000 pipes (as compared to the couple dozen of its Roman ancestors), the Wanamaker instrument was first exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. John Wanamaker bought the instrument in 1909 and it was played publicly in his Philadelphia emporium for first the time in 1911 on the occasion of the coronation of George V. The King of Instruments paid tribute to the King of England. Or was it, at least in Wanamaker’s mind, the other way around? In its current state the organ in Wanamaker Store (now a Macy’s) has nearly 30,000 pipes and six keyboards for the hands, another for the feet.
During the Corona Menace all is still in the Grand Court, the organ silent. Many churches offer Zoom services beamed out into the ether on Sunday morning. But little organ music is being made in the world these days.
Before the advent of electricity one could never play without someone else being present. That someone was the bellows pumper. Nowadays the organist can just flip a switch and make music by herself. In the age of the internet, the organist can be all alone in front of the whole world.
With concert gatherings interdicted across Europe, Rudolf Lutz, musical director of the Bach Foundation based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, is unable to conduct performances of the ensemble he has led through the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach with such precision and panache for two decades. To bring Bach to the world during the Corona crisis, Lutz has to do it all himself.
For the last five years the Bach Foundation has been streaming and archiving its concerts through its website. These presentations begin with a workshop in which theological reflections by a clergyman alternate with Lutz’s musical explications. Standing at his Roland keyboard, he plays and sings passages from the cantatas, while also making wide-ranging musical citations of folk tunes, pop and jazz. These investigations are not just unfailingly illuminating, but also brilliantly entertaining. Collected by the foundation under the rubric Bachipedia, Lutz’s readings of the cantatas are among the most important and accessible (in every way) contributions to the performance and appreciation of Bach’s music made in our time.
Last Friday, Lutz presented Bach’s early cantata the Actus Tragicus (BWV 106), a work always topical because it confronts death. Live before the entire networked world with an audience of just one person in the church (the foundation’s executive director Xoán Castiñeira, who had introduced the program in three languages), Lutz spoke in flawlessly vibrant English, and opened up new and timely perspectives on this beloved, beautiful work. Expert yet easy-going, Lutz explored emotional and existential elements of the piece, while finding resonances with other works by Bach, all at the tip of his fingers.
He played the instrumental parts at his keyboard and skipped vocally from soprano, to bass, to alto, to tenor). With an engaging combination of ease and earnestness, he painted Bach’s musical picture of life being lived in the cantata’s opening chorus cut short by death’s scythe. The unavoidable truth of mortality is laid out in the cantata’s austere fugue (“It is the ancient law, man you must die”). In illustrating the genius of Bach’s setting of these biblical texts and Lutheran chorales, Lutz skipped from one vocal part to another, also weaving in musical references to Brahms, Louis Armstrong, and African-American Spirituals.
Whether in front of his ensemble or solitary before the world, Lutz’s talent and learning remind me of a contemporary description of multi-tasking Bach leading his own cantatas, “singing with one voice and playing his own part but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it—all alone.”
After guiding us through Bach’s youthful masterpiece in forty-five minutes, the one-man symphonist Lutz moved from his Roland keyboard to the baroque style organ placed not in a distant choir loft but only a few feet away at altar level in the church in Stein, Switzerland. Lutz then proceeded to improvise a thirty-five minute concert in a variety of Baroque genres and moods using themes from Bach’s Actus Tragicus. His imaginative elaborations were comforting, colorful, learned, vivacious, profound, fun, searching, and uplifting.
Captivated as I was, I couldn’t help but occasionally glance at the global number of views of Lutz’s live musical offering. The tally ended up somewhere around 300. Today, a week later, that figure is still under six digits.
It is astounding to me that Lutz’s profound, generous, healing confrontation with Bach’s music during the Corona pandemic—delivered solo, yet so embracing of others—is not more contagious in the wider world.
Next week: The Organist at Home (still)