Auto-Interview with the Musical Patriot

Organ by Paul Fritts from 2004 in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Notre Dame

I’ll be back in Indiana, home state of CounterPunch’s Mighty Editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, a month from now to play an organ recital devoted entirely to Handel’s music. The performance will take place on Sunday, March 5th at 4pm in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame. The PR people at the university contacted me yesterday asking me to answer some questions that might entice those interested to come the concert. I fired right back with my answers. Here they are.

Q: What is your biggest challenge as an organist?

A: Not rushing.

Q: What has been your most memorable performance as an organist thus far?

A: Playing a service (one of many I did) in the medieval brick church in Uttum in the northwest corner Germany on its 17th-century organ: just one manual of four octaves and no pedals, but this unique instrument is a sonic universe unto itself. The mostly ancient congregation sang the psalms with startling gusto; so did the ancient organ, but also with unabashed sweetness and sincerity.

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Organ from c. 1660 in the village church of Uttum, Germany

Q: Do any of the pieces in your program have special significance to you? Please elaborate.

A: In this program I reimagine Handel as a German organist rather than an English one, though he lived almost his entire adult life (a long one, by eighteenth-century standards) in London. In Britain the organs had no pedals and Bachians hardly considered them organs at all. My double-pedal setting of Handel’s moving aria, “Lord, to Thee, each night and day” from the late oratorio Theodora is ravishingly lyrical, then fiery, these musical registers to be projected while the organist is busy—and I mean busy—with both hands and both feet.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring artists?

A: Concentrate on craft:  take the time (see my answer to your first question) to make each thing you do good, not Great: embrace the patient enjoyment of doing things right. The main corollary to these obscure and grandiose pronouncements:  slow practice.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career as a professional organist?

A: I still consider myself an amateur, pursuing often eccentric projects, and cushioned from the stark realities of the “musical market” by a plush university job.

Q: How long have you been playing the organ and at what point did you decide to make it your career?

A: I took up the organ at 13, urged to do so by Vladimir Horowitz’s cousin, Jerome. My parents invited Jerome to dinner one evening and I played Bach on the piano for him. He liked what I did and clued me into the fact, utterly unknown to my thirteen-year-old self, that Bach also composed organ music—and lots of it. The world was a different place for me after that. Jerome arranged for me to take lessons with my first organ teacher, Katherine Fowler, a student of the famed early 20th-century Canadian virtuoso, Lynwood Farnham.

Q: Is Handel your biggest inspiration as an artist? If not, who is?

A: Many, perhaps most, would probably agree with me that Bach is/was the greatest player of, and composer for, the organ. He’s certainly the figure to whom I’ve dedicated most of my musical and scholarly efforts in more than five decades of Bach devotions of one sort or another. Handel left almost nothing for solo organ, but that shouldn’t stop us from unashamedly plundering his vast oeuvre for material we can happily play on the organ. 18th-century musicians were masters of adaptation, none more adept, indeed reliant on it, than Handel. There’s a super-abundance of his music that is great fun to play with hands and feet. I use opportunistic attitude to organistically animate Handel’s immediately recognizable poise and panache.

Q: The organs Handel played on did not generally have foot pedals. How have you had to adapt to perform an all-Handel program?

A: Spurred by my Baroque predecessors, I use my imagination.  I try my best to invest the models these models with my own creativity—and therefore personality.  You didn’t then, and don’t now, always do things like your teachers and others you admire do. Nor should you. But in having at it, eighteenth-century style, you can’t let yourself be put off by the looming truth that Handel would have done it all better than you can. Just make as good as you can.

Q: What is the largest pipe organ you’ve played on?

A: I’ll take the Fifth on this one.  Bigger is rarely, if ever, better.  Look where size-mania has gotten us and our planet!  Arnolt Schlick (the blind master who once wrote an organ piece for ten parts: six to be played in the hands, four in the feet—I’ll do some quadruple pedaling myself at the end of this Handel program) made this point with conviction and clarity in his Spiegel der Organisten und Orgelmacher (Mirror of Organists and Organbuilders) of 1511, the first book about the organ ever published, and one still as fresh and vital as it was 500 years ago.

Arnolt Schlick, Spiegel der Organisten und Orgelmacher (1511), frontispiece

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