About this Recording
8.572914 - HOLST, G.: Symphony, "The Cotswolds" / Walt Whitman, Overture / Indra / Japanese Suite / A Winter Idyll (Ulster Orchestra, Falletta)

Helmut Walcha (1907–1991)
Chorale Preludes


Helmut Walcha was one of the most influential organists of the twentieth century. A native of Leipzig, Germany, son of a postal worker, he grew up in a musical environment where he heard the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach performed weekly at the Thomaskirche, conducted by Thomas Kantor Karl Straube. Walcha’s musical talent was evident early, and he studied the organ with Günther Ramin, music theory with Sigfrid Karg-Elert, and learned the great organ chorale fantasias of Max Reger, only to turn away from the late-Romantic style midway through his career in order to advocate the music of the Baroque era, immersing himself in the organ and harpsichord music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He was one of the first to play all-Bach organ recitals.

Soon after World War II Walcha was invited by Deutsche Grmamophon to record Bach’s organ music on surviving historic organs in Germany, France, and the Netherlands on the Archive label. He taught at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt am Main, where he also began his long tenure as organist of the Dreikönigskirche. He attracted over two hundred organ students, about a quarter of them from the United States. At his church he played for Sunday services and Saturday Vespers, mostly improvising on congregational chorales before they were sung. It was this humble service in Lutheran liturgy that led to the eventual publication of four volumes of chorale preludes.

During the war Walcha lived in the countryside near Frankfurt, and first began to compose chorale preludes. The first volume of 25 Chorale Preludes was published by CF Peters in 1954, and became popular teaching pieces for young organists, especially the simpler ostinato and pedal-point preludes. The more complex preludes incorporated the vocal, contrapuntal, motivic and melodic style that he found in the earlier masters, to be played on the rediscovered historic organs and new instruments, championing their characteristics, with their clear, colourful, and singing qualities. His habit of learning music by ear, since he became blind at the age of seventeen, aided by his devoted wife Ursula, contributed to the clarity of his organ textures, since he would sing many of the parts in Bach’s music in his own clear voice, internalizing a horizontal contrapuntal approach to performance and composition. Many of his students, including Delbert Disselhorst and Wolfgang Rübsam, attended Vespers at the Dreikönigskirche, and attest to the magical spontaneity and variety of his improvisations, played on the 1961 Karl Schuke organ built according to his specifications, incorporating the tonal qualities he had experienced in playing the Gottfried Silbermann organs in Rötha, near Leipzig (and which had inspired Felix Mendelssohn over a century earlier.)

The 25 Chorale Preludes of 1954 were followed by Volume II (1963), Volume III (1966), and, responding to encouragement by American students, Volume IV (1979), all printed in their familiar pink covers. In an appendix to Volume II he gives a tonal specification and photograph of his Schuke organ, and elaborates on the desire for achieving clear and lively playing of his music. Discussing five basic articulation markings to achieve contrapuntal clarity, whether in slender or elaborately complex musical textures, Walcha uses the small comma to indicate a natural breath, the tie to bind several notes together, the vertical wedge for melodic accent, the staccato dot for very short notes, and the horizontal tenuto to lengthen a note slightly. All these, as well as tempo recommendations given in metronome markings, are to be accommodated to the organ in its acoustical environment, tending towards quicker in dry acoustics and broader in more reverberant churches. The Dreikönigskirche, seating about a thousand people, has a reverberation time of four seconds when empty. Walcha developed these articulation and tempo suggestions to achieve expressive clarity using degrees of legato, leggiero, and portato touch, as also recommended in his organ edition of Bach’s Art of Fugue (with Walcha’s own completion of the final fugue). Not to be dogmatically applied, Walcha’s students attest to the flexibility and spontaneous quality of his own performances in recital or church service, and in his pedagogy, rather encouraging a great range of artistic variety of touch from overlapping legato to sharply articulated staccato (according to his American student and biographer Paul Jordan).

Similarly, Walcha’s chorale preludes reveal a great variety of compositional strategies and forms: simple pedal points and reiterated ostinatos, motivic melodic organization and fugal imitation in the manner of Pachelbel, Buxtehude, and Bach, together with numerous varieties of canon at many intervals, no doubt inspired by the nine canonic chorale preludes in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. This horizontal, contrapuntal approach often creates a high level of strong dissonance as well as sweet harmony. Some of the pieces can seem like calculated, intricate desk music, rather than more freely improvisational.

Altogether Walcha invented a personal style, less thick than the Romantic organ music of his youth, revealed when he quoted Goethe to his students: ‘In its limitations the master shows himself.’ His musical approach can be compared to his friend Paul Hindemith, to whose music Walcha returned late in his career.

Walcha specified registrations, often suggesting highly individual colours rich in added overtones that aim towards clarity, leaving behind the symphonic, orchestral inspired sonorities of Romanticism. Strong principal choruses including mixtures, broad and colourful flutes, and incisive trumpets rich in overtones, are typical of his sound requirements. In these recordings, sometimes Walcha’s registrations are closely followed, sometimes only taken as suggestions to be reinterpreted on a modern recreation of the classic North-European pipe organ, and in keeping with the affect of the music usually suggested by the chorale title and text.

Walcha’s chorale preludes reveal his transformational influence in twentieth-century organ music and its performance practice. His ideas on contrapuntal transparency and the vocal quality of earlier organs brought Baroque music to new life and artistic expression, now current in today’s musical world. His creative spark and musical personality are reflected in his own contemporary style, expanding and enriching the tradition of the Lutheran chorale prelude with spiritual music in today’s culture, in music of fresh expression for the Christian liturgy, built on the historic inheritance of the classic Baroque masters. Walcha was a man of wide erudition and learning, as well as religious sincerity in his knowledge of Lutheran belief, allowing him to pursue musical originality and achieve creative mastery in the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose motto was also Soli Deo Gloria.

Rudolf Zuiderveld, 2012

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