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8.554317 - WALTHER: Organ Works, Vol. 2

Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748)
Organ Works, Vol. 2

Johann Gottfried Walther occupied an important position in Thuringian musical life in the first half of the eighteenth century. Many facts about Walther are well-­known: he was a distant relative of J.S. Bach; he occupied the post of organist at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Weimar, from 1707 until his death, during the time that Bach himself worked in the same town; Walther was employed to teach composition to Bach's employer, Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar; and Walther was best-known as the author of the first comprehensive dictionary of music in the German language.

Walther was born in Erfurt where he received early musical training from Johann Bernhard Bach, organist of the Kaufmannskirche. In 1702 Walther obtained his first organist post at the church of St. Thomas in his home city. Walther travelled to meet important musicians and to learn more about music, going first to Frankfurt am Main and Darmstadt in the autumn of 1703. The following autumn he went to Magdeburg and made a particularly significant visit to Halberstadt, where he met Andreas Werckmeister, one of the most distinguished names in German music at that time, an organist and a noted writer of major works on music theory. Werckmeister was very sympathetic to the young Walther, presented him with a gift, and subsequently corresponded regularly and sent him music including the keyboard works of Buxtehude. In Halberstadt Walther also visited his friend Johann Graff, an organist who had been a student of Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt. In 1706 he went to Nuremberg to study with Pachelbel's son, Wilhelm Hieronymus, whom he had known during their childhood together in Erfurt.

Walther briefly studied philosophy and law at the University of Erfurt before he decided to devote all of his energies to music, and he continued his musical training briefly with Johann Heinrich Buttstett, organist of the Predigerkirche in Erfurt, a post previously held by Johann Pachelbel.

In 1721 Walther was asked to join the court orchestra of Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar as Hof-­musicus. Much of Walther's career centered on his duties as organist and his instruction of many private students. As a composer he wrote sacred vocal music, numerous chorale preludes and other organ music. Particularly significant for his continuing impact on music history was his energetic pursuit of musical knowledge and his collecting of a remarkable library of music and books on music.

Despite standing in Bach's shadow as a composer, no less a figure than Johann Mattheson placed Walther among the greatest organists of his time. After giving pride of place to Handel and Bach, Mattheson named as the great organists of his time 'Böhm in Lüneburg, Callenberg in Riga, Clérambault in Paris, Green in London, Hoffmann in Breslau, Küntze in Lübeck, Lübeck in Hamburg, Lüders in Flensburg, Rameau formerly in Clermont, Raupach in Stralsund, Rosenbusch in Itzehoe, Pezold in Dresden, Stapel in Rostock, Vogler and Walther in Weimar, etc. etc. etc.'

Walther was a typical Thuringian church organist of his time, one who composed his repertoire as well as collected the manuscripts of works by other composers. If Walther had accomplished nothing else in his life, we would remember him as a copyist of organ works by J.S. Bach and Buxtehude. Walther stated in a letter of August 6th, 1729 that he had obtained a collection of Buxtehude's works 'from Werckmeister and from Buxtehude's own autographs in German tablature.'

Great numbers of pieces are magnificently preserved in Walther's hand in several large manuscripts. Even seen within a tradition of such collections, these are amazing and comprehensive manuscripts that include works by Böhm, Bruhns, Bustyn, Kauffmann, Johann Ludwig Krebs, Johann Tobias Krebs, Leyding, Lübeck, Johann Pachelbel, Reincken, Telemann, Weckmann, and an important group of French composers including Dandrieu, d'Anglebert, Clérambault, Dieupart, Lebègue, Laroux, Marchand, and Nivers.

Much of the work composed by Walther is based on chorales, as one would expect of an organist working in Thuringia in the eighteenth century. In one of his letters, Walther explained that he did not compose cantatas because it was not his job. However, he said, "I have much more reason, as organist, to apply myself to preludes on the chorales." About chorale variation sets, Walther described (in the Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) the chorale partitas of Pachelbel as having been written "at a time when there was a raging infection" of such works. Indeed, his output of chorale preludes is prodigious, running to some 222 movements.

The arrangements of concerti by other composers, especially Italian, were perhaps commissioned by Walther's famous pupil, Prince Johann Ernst who brought back such music following his studies at the University of Utrecht. There apparently was in Germany at this time considerable fascination with the Italian concerto literature. These concerti belong to a group of thirteen concerti which Walther transcribed for the organ J.S. Bach also transcribed concerti during his time in Weimar, and perhaps the two composers made an exercise of such transcriptions, re-working material, transposing, and re-writing as necessary in order to convey something of the string idiom of the originals.

Craig Cramer

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