Friday, April 27, 2012

Orgel, Orgel Über Alles

R.J. Stove reviews two new musical books for Crisis, saying:
Every decade or so the Cone of Silence that normally encloses organists, as once it enclosed Maxwell Smart, is penetrated by a brightly written book which makes organ-playing seem generally, if briefly, attractive. One such book is All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and its American Masters, by New York Times correspondent Craig Whitney.  With the improbably named Bach’s Feet, we shall have, with luck, another.

The author of Bach’s Feet, David Yearsley, is a Cornell professor who originally had sections of his monograph printed in (of all improbable locales) Counterpunch. Several high-quality CDs contain Dr. Yearsley’s solo playing; but even if they did not, every sentence of his prose would still bespeak the accumulated wisdom of a practical recitalist. This performer-centric approach is increasingly common in musicological literature, and most agreeably so, not least for its implied threat to that monstrous regiment of blowhards who spent the late 20th century parlaying their Marxist and feminist rages into pseudo-scholarly careers without possessing enough practical know-how to play Chopsticks. Nowadays such blowhards have largely exhausted even the Ivy League’s patience – how long ago it seems since über-blowhard Susan McClary could extort scholarly kudos by interpreting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in terms of rape! – and by far the most prominent of them in 2012 has neither gained nor sought collegiate employment: England’s Norman Lebrecht, whose recent journalistic output comprises no more than the pursuit of Netanyahuism by ostensibly musical means, and can thus be safely ignored by all Western readers outside the specialist disciplines of abnormal psychology and political policing.

Dr. Yearsley’s title could well seem a puzzler. Why Bach’s feet? Why not Bach’s hands, his fingers, or what Pogo Possum would have called “his own special brain”? And why Bach, rather than some other outstanding figure in the organ’s annals? These questions are best answered simultaneously in point form.
First, Bach remains, 262 years after his death, organ music’s supreme master. The organist who cannot perform Bach is as intrinsically absurd as is the solo pianist who cannot perform Beethoven, or the Lieder singer who cannot perform Schubert.

Second, part of Bach’s supreme mastery lies in the enterprise which he brought to writing for the organ’s pedal-board. In this enterprise he had numerous heirs, but few genuine successors and still fewer precursors. To this hour, certain of Bach’s organ pieces – above all his Trio Sonatas – daunt all interpreters, however hardy, thanks to  their pedal lines’ exuberant independence. They have not been made one whit easier by all the mechanical developments which overtook the instrument between 1800 and 1950. (Read entire article.)


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