Sunday, March 4, 2007

Helmut Walcha

One of my enthusiasms, as an organist, is collecting organ music based on Lutheran chorales (i.e., mostly German hymn tunes). My idea of a playground is an organ like the one I get to play every week, with a shelf containing enough chorale-based organ music to ensure that I have a prelude, postlude, or voluntary to go with virtually any tune in the hymnal. But of course my interest goes beyond what's in the hymnal; I am just plain interested in the literature of Lutheran hymns, texts and tunes. I wish I could include in this blog some of the tunes I have discovered in my research!

Today I got to play with a new toy for the first time. On Friday I received a long-awaited addition to my collection, Vol. 3 of the 4-volume chorale preludes of Helmut Walcha (pictured). This completes my set, and it also furnishes me with challenging, exciting, and beautiful settings of several important hymns for all different times of the church year. It being Lent, I couldn't resist opening the service with two of the Lenten preludes from the book: O Christe, du Lamm Gottes and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig ("O Christ, Thou Lamb of God" and "Lamb of God pure and sinless"). I can't tell you how delicious they were. The first one has a decorated version of the hymn tune on a solo reed, over a very touching ostinato (repeated note pattern) in pedal and left-hand. The second is a tricky little number with the melody in the pedal and each hand on a different manual playing imitative material in which the right hand is often lower than the left, covering a wide range of notes. They were lots of fun.

You organists out there, if you aren't already aware of Walcha's music (which would be weird), look it up. It's worth a shot. It's written in a very modern musical idiom, sometimes stretching the limits of tonality and sometimes sharply dissonant, but often beautiful, full of interesting splashes of musical light and shadow, unexpected colors, and heartfelt expression.

Walcha is mainly known as a great interpreter of the organ works of J. S. Bach. His recordings are celebrated. His registration and articulation are legendary for bringing clarity of line to works that, up to that time, many organists had played for the effect of massive smears of sound. Walcha, who became blind as a teenager, relied on perfect pitch and a practically phonographic memory to learn Bach's music rapidly, by heart. It is clear from his compositions that he also had a very powerful musical imagination.

In Vol. 1, his prelude on the rhythmic version of "Ein feste Burg" (A mighty fortress) is brilliant, bold, and powerful. He uses ostinatos to memorable effect in settings of "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (Savior of the nations, come) and "Herzliebster Jesu" (O dearest Jesus). His setting of "Quem pastores" (He whom shephereds once came praising), registered for 4' flutes, is a cheerful little pastorale that elicited a gasp of admiration from another organist when I played it on Christmas Eve. There are also a shiny "Macht hoch die Tuer" (Lift up your heads), a touching "Froehlich soll mein Herze" (All my heart this night rejoices), and a solo-and-accompaniment setting of "Mitten wir im Leben sind" (In the very midst of life) that hovers ominously over a low pedal point, all in Vol. 1. At least 10 of the pieces in this volume are essential parts of my repertoire.

I got by for years with just this one volume, but when I recently decided to build up my collection with the other three volumes, I wasn't disappointed.

Vol. 2 offers a manuals-only duets on "Vom Himmel hoch" (From heaven above) and "O Jesu Christe, wahres Licht" (O Christ, our true and only light), ostinato variations on "Gottes Sohn ist kommen" (Once He came in blessing) and "O Mensch, bewein" (O man, bewail thy sins so great), and a big, triumphant version of "Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden" (Sing praise to God, who reigns above). Those are just the ones that come to me off the top of my head; there is a great deal more in this book that I have used.

I haven't had vol. 3 and 4 long enough to assess all that they contain, but each one has already furnished me with some exciting new pieces to try out on that Reuter '72. All 4 volumes are published by C. F. Peters.

No comments: