Catholics versus Protestants: How liturgy affected the development of the organ

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This lecture explores the history of the organ, from its origins to the eighteenth century, and how, in the Western world, it was shaped by Christian denominational practices.

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Catholics versus Protestants: How liturgy affected the development of the organ  

Richard Townend


[Music plays]

Welcome to St Margaret, Lothbury, the most exciting church in the City of London and, as just demonstrated, the most magnificent organ in the City of London.  This organ was built in 1800 by George Pike England, one of the great 18th Century organ builders of this country.  It was opened on Easter Day 1801, and thus it is an 18th Century organ, and the real link is the fact that, in 1837, a man called Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy came here and played this organ.

It is my remit this evening to lead from nowhere up to Mendelssohn and I am not allowed to go past it. I have assumed that none of the audience knows anything about the organ and therefore I want to begin by explaining what an organ is, because, in a sense, an organ does not exist.

Every organ is unique and made for the building in which it is.  One of the reasons why this organ here sounds so magnificent is the building.  This building, like the Musikverein in Vienna, has a shoe-box shape and a flat roof. When people look up, they think "What a roof!" but it is not actually a roof at all; it is completely fake.  It is actually canvas with plaster on it, and it is supported by the roof above. It is hanging, just like a modern office block building does; it is hanging from the real roof.  This is the secret of the sound of this church, because when the organ plays, the roof vibrates like the top of a drum, and that adds, as it were, an extra dimension to the sound.  The other thing is that this church is full of wood and therefore all the wood in here resonates with the organ, because music is a vibration, and when an organ works, it actually makes vibrations, and the vibrations vibrate everything. The lower pipes will make the windows rattle a tiny little bit, the wood vibrates and everything makes a sound.  So the sound of this organ is the building, and that is why every organ is a work of art. Every organ is made and finished by one organ builder, and it is the ear of that organ builder, who has now lived 200-and-something years, that will be heard tonight.

The organ goes back in time to Ancient China. In the Museum of the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, there are actually some things called the shengs, which are the original organs.  They are balls, out of which come reed pipes, and they are played by blowing in and putting fingers through them but that is not a real church organ.

However, in Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece, there were things called Hydraulis, and they were organs.

The first organ of which we have a record in England was in Winchester Cathedral, and apparently it was a fearsome sound, a dreadful din, because everything worked at once.

The real organs that are important are the organs which began in medieval times. One morning, a monk, totally anonymous, must have woken up with this brand new idea.  The main trouble with church choirs is that they fail to sing in tune.  Church choirs are unique for singing out of tune, and they need help, and it must have been that this monk had a nightmare that night, and he thought to himself that the monks' singing in the morning was dreadful.  The first service was very early in the morning and very cold in the winter, so, in the winter, they sang sharp, and in the summer, when it was nice and warm, they sang flat, and he thought to himself that there had to be something he could do to help these singers!  Somehow, he suddenly thought, 'Well, why don't we take a box of wood and fill it with wind, under pressure - get somebody to pump it - and put some pipes on top, and then I could play the tune and they could sing in tune?'  That is how the organ began - a big box of wind with pipes just standing on top of them.

Martin Board will now be kind enough to play a little bit on the face-pipes, which can be seen there, which are exactly as they were in 1800 and that medieval monk's thought of in the middle of the night will be heard.

[Music plays]

That is the sound that was heard here on Easter Day 1801. It has been untouched since then.  Buying an organ is a very good way of using money.

All organists are the same.  It was Dean Inge, who was Dean of the big church up the road, St Paul's Cathedral, he used to say: 'You organists are like cab-horses - you always want another stop!' 

He must have thought to himself that one rank of pipes was very nice.  He then experimented by putting in another lot of pipes in half as long. 

So, here is one of those big eight foot pipes, initially with just a single note.

[Sound plays]

Now, if the pipe is cut in half, it goes up an octave.

[Sound plays]

He thought that this was a jolly good idea and that if he cut that in half it would go up another octave.

[Sound plays]

Organists are very clever, - one finger, three notes!  It is like Tesco's.

He then had a sudden thought that perhaps, instead of cutting by half, if he halved the half then suddenly he would get something even more interesting.

[Sound plays]

This is playing with people's ears really because this is now using harmonics.  When there is a sound, any single sound, there is not a single sound.  A single sound is made up a whole lot of harmonics: the octave, the next octave, the next octave, and it goes all the way up until, eventually, there is a very flattened seventh at the very top.  Now, organ builders though 'I can cheat people's ears with this.'  So, some bright spark thought, 'How would it be if, instead of having one pipe for every note, I had three pipes for every note, and we'll call it a mixture, so three pipes for every note?'

[Sound plays]

One finger is now playing seven pipes, but they are not heard as seven pipes, they are heard as one sound, and that is the trick of the organ.  The organ is made up of acoustical tricks, the entire time.

Then of course the organist thought to himself, 'Well, you know, I am only playing the plain song to help out the singers and keep them in tune and that is all I am doing!  I think I would like to be doing something on my own!  I would like to decorate the tune a little tiny bit!'  Organists are terrible people like this!  Thus, the organist suddenly became somebody who freaked out, in a way.  Now, all he was doing at this time was playing the mass because everybody at that time was Roman Catholic, and so he was thinking to himself, 'You know, they are singing this tune, they only have seven notes - oh dear, we must make it more interesting!  How could we do that?  If I play something with them, that rather negates it because they are all going to go wrong, so how would it be if I got the choir to stop and I played on my own?!  That is a very good idea!'  They then thought, 'How do you do that in a service without the priest telling you off?' because, at that time, there was not any organ music as such.  So, they suddenly thought to themselves, 'Well, we could do it alternately: we could actually have the choir sing the first kyrie, and then I, the organist, will play the second on my own kyrie, and then they can sing the third kyrie; and then, they can sing the first kriste, and I will play the second one?' and the organist suddenly had half the music for the service in his pocket - wonderful!

So, here goes!  This is the earliest piece of organ music which we still have, which we really can say is there.  So here is the monk singing [sings]-and here is the organist.

[Music plays]

This is how organ music really began - it was the organist freaking out.  This actually started a tradition which was never going to stops. This is the beginning of time, and this comes from a thing called Codex [Vianna].  This is the earliest piece of keyboard music, before the Robertsbridge Codex even. Of course, about 10 years later, the organist suddenly thought to himself, 'It's all very well, you know, playing with your fingers-how about playing with my feet?!  That would be nice?'

About 1325, we have the record of the first time there were organ pedals, and it is a very curious thing that it was about 1825 when people in England got organ pedals.  We are very backward compared with other people.  However, be that as it may, this tradition goes on, so there was this tradition of doing alternatim and this goes all the way through the Catholic Church and the liturgy at that time.

We then jump forward a couple of hundred years to St Peter's at Rome, which is apposite today, because of course His Holiness the Pope is in the country today.  His predecessors had a very, very famous organist called Girolamo Frescobaldi.  He was one of the first real organ composers and one of the first real organ teachers too.  He attracted people from the whole of the southern part of Europe to come to study with him in Rome. 

At the same time, there was a man called Sweelinck up in Amsterdam, a Protestant, and he attracted people from the North, and suddenly there was this division of the character of music and the way in which it was taught.

Frescobaldi did exactly the same thing as that 13th Century composer: he wrote a whole series of masses for the organ, and they were to be sung alternatim.  He even wrote one wonderful piece, Sancta Maria Marta, which actually the organist has to sing at the same time as he is playing, but that is a bit difficult for us tonight, so here is a bit from Fiori Musicali. This is the Elevation Toccata, and this gives a different sort of idea of how music had moved on. In that first piece heard, the organist was experimenting with diminution.  There was the Kyrie, the left-hand part, in very long notes, and over the top, there are notes which are 16 or even 32 times faster going around, and the rhythms jig about a bit. Now Frescobaldi arrives, and this is a real sort of idea of how the organ can actually work in a big building such as St Peter's Rome. In a very big building, harmony has to move very slowly, otherwise it becomes a muddle. That is the secret of writing for a big building.  Sometimes, a piece can be written for a building and it does not work anywhere else. There are some pieces, for example, written for St Paul's Cathedral which, there, sound magnificent, but if taken to a small parish church they sound very odd, and it is because the building has changed. A good composer composes for the building, and that is what Frescobaldi did. He had a huge building, and he knew that, in a huge building, if the harmonies are moved very slowly, there is a wonderful sound system, as it were, and the point of the Elevation Toccata was that it had to be a very calm moment. 

Imagine some Italians in the 16th Century. They do not wash very frequently, there are no chairs to sit down in the church, everybody has to stand, the services are very long, there is no heating, and so, like all Italians, they start talking. As soon as this happens, the noise goes up, so something is needed in the Elevation to calm the people down, and this, from Fiori Musicali, 1635, is Frescobaldi's intention of calming them down.

[Music plays]

This is wonderful music. It is clear how slowly the harmonies move, and it can be imagined, in a huge church, how that floats through the air and has an impact. Those who are very clever will have realised that the tune which is behind all that is exactly the same tune as you heard in the first piece, because everything in those days was founded on the plain song. 

In this wonderful atmosphere of all these pieces, many would think these were all improvised.  Frescobaldi wrote, in the preface of Fiori Musicali, that every piece should sound as it was freely composed by the person playing it.  These, in a sense, were just ideas he was throwing out.  Johann Sebastian Bach actually wrote out Fiori Musicali and that gives an indication of how important Frescobaldi was in the essence of the development of organ music.

The whole idea of this improvisatory notion was the fact that, in those days, organists always played for themselves, and most music was improvised, because all this music had to fit what was going on at the other end of the church, by the altar.  The whole thing was like film music really.  It had to fit what was happening as the action of the mass.

The phrase 'The weakest go to the wall' comes from those days described in 16th century Italy. No churches had seats.  Services were long and people had to stand.  It was used in many different ways, a church at that time.  One of the features of the organ was to highlight what was happening at the altar, which could be a very long way away.  Imagine people in the back row of St Peter's not knowing what was going on in the front.  They would be able to tell from the organ music, because the organ music fulfilled that purpose.  It was not organ music for concerts that was being written although Frescobaldi did give concerts.  On one occasion, he had the biggest audience anybody has ever had.  It is said that over 30,000 people went to one of his recitals.  I am not sure that figure is accurate but it is possible that it was a huge crowd.  However, the music was not written to be anything other than the accompaniment to the liturgy, and that is true of everything which will be played this evening. All organ music stems from the liturgy.  It is very recently that organ music has become concert music and devoid of the liturgy, and it was the requirement of the liturgy which made the music sound the way it did.

Return to that mythical organist, with his organ.  So far, we have heard pipes all of which look like the ones which can be seen, and even those just heard. This wonderful warm sound heard in the Frescobaldi, it is the open pipes, and there are very few things that can be done with a pipe.  The scale can be changed, the diameter can be changed and by doing that, it can be made softer or louder, more reedy.  If the pipe has a little bit more of this, that or the other, it can have a different harmonic sound-out.  It can be squashed in at the top, so it is not straight up.  If it is squashed, there is another sort of sound, and it can also be squashed out, which makes another noise. All sorts of things like that can be done, but there is a limit to how it will go, so the monk must have had an idea one day, and he thought there had to be another way of doing it.  He thought, 'You know, what about making pipes of wood'  If we make the pipes of wood, they should sound different.'  So here is an open wooden flute.


This demonstrates the quality of the acoustic of the Church.  It sounds really good.  If a little change is made here then this is the result.


He had another idea in that case; stopping it altogether.


It makes it easier to tune it just by moving that.


There is the choir singing out of tune again!  Push it back a bit.


Make them work for their money this weekend.


Wait for the tenors!


Pretty good! So it is clear that wooden pipes bring a change. There are now metal pipes and wooden pipes which is really good.  All pipes work in the same way.  They have feet.  Because they must stand in a rack, to prevent them from falling over, they are standing on top of the air.  Now, if there is only air, they would all speak together, so they had to invent something. They put a little wire to a palette underneath, and what happens is, the pipes are standing there, and the palette opens. As it opens, the sound can be made, and this is why all organs should be like this one here, mechanical, because then the air flow into the pipe can be adjusted. If the air goes in fast, and full, there is one sort of sound from the same pipe. That sound can be adjusted by making it go slow, and by touching it, it can be made to sound quite different, just like a flute player does with their tongue. The tongue becomes the finger and the palette.

That is all very well and good, but that means that all the pipes have got to sit on the same long palette, and they are all going to speak together.  Now, that is not very clever.

There is a wonderful system in New York.  An organ builder actually designed New York, because the streets go vertically and horizontally. Designed by an organ builder because there are palettes going that way, and now, if the pipes need to speak in turn, if there was something going that way, it would stop them, and that is why there are organ stops.  The organ stops which are pulled out actually control which pipes get the wind.  The palette opens for the whole lot, but they are blocked off by the stop slide going the other way, and that was invented 700 years ago, so there has not been great progress!  That organist, he wants more pipes and stops and things and he is not happy at all - an organist is never happy really!  He has metal pipes, different diameters, different sounds; wooden pipes, different diameters, different sounds; he has open ones; he has stopped ones; so, he has to think of something else to entertain himself, especially on the long winter nights when the sermons are long!

They decided to have a combination. They even thought about having one of these funny metal pipes.  Somebody thought this up in their bath, I expect.  It has its foot - that is alright - and then it has a funny thing on the top here, and it has a sort of spring sticking out here.  It looks like an [emit] thing really. This could have come out from a Punch cartoon or something or other.  So, if we put wind in this thing then this happens.


Well, he thought that up on a train, obviously!


So here is the next family - this is the reed family.  The secret lies inside here.  If someone had invented this and patented it they would be making money.

That is the foot which has no purpose.  All feet have no purpose except putting the air into the thing.  However, this is the clever bit.  In here, there is a little tiny reed, but it is actually a little spring, and it is a very thin bit of metal, and it goes against another bit of metal, the shallot. This has a little space in it, behind here, and this thing tunes it, and, because that vibrates, there, it makes the air in here vibrate, and it pops along here and gets up the top, and that is why it makes its sound, and that is what we call a reed.  There are trumpets coming into the organ now, and cromornes, and voce humanas, and oboes, and in the next lecture, but not this one, clarinets, and in this one, cremonas, and in the next lecture, but not this one, tubas! 


It is very good for getting taxis.

So that is the beginning of something new. The French have a different way of looking at an organ so to understand French organs the culture of France must be understood.  The French love colours.  In that Frescobaldi, incense can be smelt in that music.  With French music, one can smell Chanel 5, croissants, camembert and that wonderful coffee!  Their music makes people think about what it is that makes France great.  It is obviously the women, and it is the way they look, and the decoration, because French women are all decoration. Think of all those wonderful clothes and hats and scarves and handbags and everything. Similarly, French music is all decoration.  This is the one big difference.  The music of Frescobaldi has an attraction because of the way the harmonies evolve - that must be what attracted Bach to that music.  It must have been that way because Bach evolved from that.  However, Bach also had copies of French music.  He was very taken with French music with its decoration.  It is full of very simple harmonies and simple melodies which are decorated to such a degree that they become absolutely ravishing. The French organists loved colour, so their organs were huge ad magnificent, but they were full of colourful stops.  They were full of these cromornes.  They were full of trumpets and they also had enormous trickery in them for the ear.  They loved things like the nasard and the cornet, and these are things where harmonics are used to trick people's ears.  It can be done repeatedly. This used to happen in the course of the mass. 

The great thing about French churches is that they have traditions of organists. The great church of St Gervais in Paris had the same family as organists for 250 years - the family of Couperin. The greatest was Francois Couperin, who was called Francois Couperin le Grand. He was the organist in the 1660s of St Gervais.  It must have been a wonderful experience to go on a Sunday and hear this man play, because of course, every time, it was improvised music, as it is to this very day.  In any of the big churches in Paris now - Saint-Eustache, St-Sulpice, Notre Dame - the organist does not take any music, because he improvises, and in every one of these churches, there will be somebody who is a world-renowned organist playing for Sunday, and they improvise, and these improvisations make the place come alive, and that is what Couperin did. 

Luckily, as a young man, he wrote down two of the organ masses which were published, and so to give a sense of the organ in France is the movement for the Benedictus.  The Benedictus, of course, has to be a calm movement.  It has to be, in a sense, a decorated movement.  He wrote it as a cromhorne en taille - en taille means it is in the tenor register.  So, there is on the fonds d'orgue, which is the eight-foot of the organ, the right hand in two parts and, because he was French and therefore very clever, he could play with his feet as well, so he has the bass on an eight-foot with his feet and in between these two comes the tune.  It comes on this wonderful thing, which is the French cromornes.  It is a very short resonator reed, but it has a wonderful rich sound, and, in this piece, the harmonies move so slowly. However, it is different to Frescobaldi because the tune becomes so important, and it is the decoration which is heard in the tune.  It is exactly the same mass as has already been played. That medieval one was exactly the same - [sings] that is what this one here is, but listen to what he does to it.

[Music plays]

The difference can be smelled! It evokes a completely different style, but it is a wonderful picture, and there are wonderful tunes coming in. In Paris, to this very day, there are organists doing exactly the same thing.  The astonishing thing through all this is the fact that the congregation has not done anything.  They have attended the service, they have participated in the service, but they have not done anything - not sung a single note.  The organist has played, and the singing of the Gregorian has been done by the priest or by the schola, but the congregation do nothing, and that is what Luther did not like. This is the big difference, and this is why I have titled this lecture 'Catholics versus Protestants'.

1517 was when Luther put up his articles on the church door, and he had this extraordinary idea that the congregation should be involved by singing in the service - absolutely novel idea.  Sometimes, I wish he had not thought of that!

They had nothing to sing, except the plain song, and he did not want them to sing plain song, so this extraordinary man actually went around and pinched pop songs. When people come at Passiontide and sing the wonderful Passion Chorale, they are actually singing a very rude song which was sung at the Battle of Pavia by the soldiers.  The text is dreadfully rude, and everybody who heard the tune knew it was rude, and so Luther wrote 'O Sacred head, surrounded' and put a text which was not to those tunes.  All the tunes which he took were tunes which were popular tunes of the day, and he took that because he wanted the people who whistled them in the street to be able to sing them in church, and this was a novelty. The Catholics did not want this at all, but the Protestants were enthusiastic because now the service was going to change, because it was not going to be so structured in the liturgy of the mass.  It was going to be more structured on the reading of the bible and on the sermon, which was going to be the principal part of the undertaking for the Sunday. In between, the people were going to sing, and sing tunes they knew. Crucially, at this point, none of the congregation was able to read, because they were all poor people. The only people, who could read, in those days, were the clergy, the educated people, or perhaps some very rich people who became scholars. All the uneducated people had to learn everything by heart. 

Luther wanted to have long hymns - four to six verses - which would have been a lot for people to learn. Therefore, he produced hymn books, which went go for the seasons of the church's year.  Therefore, at a particular season, at every service, the same hymn would be sung. For example, on the first Sunday in Advent, Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, Now Comes the Saviour of our Race, would have been sung, and that would have been the first hymn for all four Sundays of Advent.  Because everyone learnt it by heart, they could all sing it, and everybody sang in harmony - in unison.  The harmony was provided by the organ. 

However, the organists became bored of just accompanying people who were singing so they started saying 'No, no, no, not having that, Mr Luther, no, not just going to stay and play tunes for the congregation to sing, no.  No, I want to do something special about it.'   Luther had this great idea that music was so important in the service that it should actually be listened to, not heard.  Very often these days, at a wedding here, when the organist is playing before, everybody talks as loudly as they can to sort of drown him out. Luther had this great idea, which they still have in those Protestant churches, that the organ should be listened to, so, before the service, there was no music. The great thing was an organ prelude for the service to begin, and the priest would come in and sit down and listen to the organ, and when the organ finished, then he would stand up and begin the service.

There was another point to this of course. The piece had to be loud because all the people coming into the church - in those days, churches were always full - would start talking to each other.  The church was a meeting place, and so they would be talking and walking around, and therefore it was essential that the organ played so that people knew something was going to happen and then they should keep quiet.  The piece which was played at the beginning today was designed in the same way.  That was Bach, the Fantasia in G Major, and its intention was that it would be played at the beginning of the service, the preludium - they were not called preludes and fugues, they were called preludiums, and that preludium actually stopped people in their tracks, and telling them that the service was beginning!

In Switzerland, to this very day, the same thing happens.  The service has not changed.  It is exactly the same: there is a loud piece; the clergyman comes in; sits down under the pulpit; listens to the music; and then it begins. 

So it is like an overture, and it therefore has to be an overture which fits the season of the church's year.

The next development was that of the chorale. The organists thought that there was no need just to play over the tune because the congregation knew the tune. They decided to play an interesting piece and from here developed the chorale prelude. The finest choral preludes are by Buxtehude and Bach - there is no argument about that. 

In a modern Anglican Church, the organist often plays the tune and the harmonies which the congregation is about to sing, and people always think that it is just one extra verse on the hymn  and thus completely pointless. However, it sets the tempo, the pitch, and it tells the congregation the tune so hopefully they will sing it.

However, in Bach's time the organists did not need to do that, because the congregation knew what was going to be sung before they came in. People knew the words of Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland so they wanted something else. The important thing, going back to Luther, was the words and especially their meaning. All these chorale preludes have to interpret the meaning of the text and Bach did this better than anybody else and that is why some of his pieces are so difficult to play. The whole idea was that, when people heard these chorale preludes, they were thinking about the words of the chorale, not just the tune, and therefore the chorale prelude had to be, as it were, a picture postcard of whatever that chorale is about, and then that chorale, which was often a very simple tune, had to be ornamented.

This is a very simple tune - [sings].  Wir nur liebrn dem Gott des Land.  Bach made it become this wonderful prelude, and it is a picture of the words of this piece. The people sitting, or standing, in the church would have thought about the words of the first verse as they heard this, and then they could sing it afterwards with meaning.  They had the pitch, the speed and the meaning, and that was the purpose of the chorale prelude.

[Music plays]

'If thou but suffer God to guide thee, he'll give thee strength whatever' are the words of this, and there is this sensation of this piece telling the congregation an interpretation of the text, and that is the important difference.  People now hear something completely different to the music they heard before.  In a sense, this music is not there to entertain; it is there to instruct.  That is one of the big differences.  Italian music and French music, in a sense, is music to entertain and to tickle one's ear a little tiny bit.  German music, Protestant music in the Lutheran tradition and in the Calvinistic tradition too, exists to educate.  In a sense, it is part and parcel, as Luther said it had to be, of the experience of going to the service on a Sunday, to the Gottesdienst.  The idea was that the reading from the Bible should be the inspiration for the chorales which were sung, and should be the inspiration for the sermon which was preached.  Thus the cantatas, which eventually came in the bigger churches, from Bach, were the cantatas for the particular Sundays too. They have the chorales within them for the people to sing, and the same was for the holy week - the passions.  The intention was that the structure of the passion should be the chorales, and that the entire congregation should sing the chorales. 

So I hope, the next time you are sitting in the Festival Hall, when it comes to the chorale, you will all stand up and join in, because then it would be an authentic performance!  Most of the time, people go to an authentic performance which was not authentic because they did not take part. If it is an authentic performance, with authentic instruments and all the fingering and this, that and the other, people should be singing out of tune during the chorales at the same time, and then it would become an authentic performance!  Authentic performances are only authentic if they actually take all the parts of the original.  It was never intended, in the St Matthew Passion, for example, that the people should sit silent and respectful for three hours listening to the music performed by somebody else.  The idea of the piece was that they were part of it. 

We had a wonderful reincarnation of this in one of my other churches, when Jonathan Miller actually did a dramatic recreation of the St John Passion in our church, and everybody had to take part in it, and it was a revelation as to how an authentic piece of Bach should actually work. These were inclusive pieces, and that is another big difference.  In the Catholic music, it was exclusive.  The people who did the music were the musicians.  The idea of Luther was that, in the Protestant church, it should be inclusive, thus everybody, regardless of their talent, would be part of the undertaking.  So, on the Sunday, people would be singing their chorales, full-throated, and Bach would be introducing them to you.

Here is a very different one, because this one, Es ist das Heil, is a joyous and wonderful piece, and therefore the music has to be joyous because it suddenly has to tell people that this one is one which they are going to sing with joy in their hearts, and the words are foreshadowed by the rushing of the semi-quavers.  Always in Bach, there are pictures in the music. The great thing about Bach is that he had the technique, which other people did not to make things musically happen that actually all worked the whole way through. It is quite easy, when writing a piece of music, to start a piece.  It gets difficult after the 16th bar, it gets very difficult after the 32nd bar and after the 64th bar, and it is really tough going!  Some of the pieces that Bach wrote actually lasted for 12 or 15 minutes. All the other music written at that time and before him is short with short sections, stuck together like Lego blocks.  Bach was the first person to write long music.

I had a great friend who once said Bach was the first person to write boring music, and what he meant was, it went on so long; that people actually had to pay attention.  The attention span of people nowadays is three minutes - I am sorry, I have spoken for longer! On the Today programme, there is a rule that only the Prime Minister can speak for more than three minutes, and everybody else gets cut off.  Even before the interviewee has started, the interviewer says 'We are short of time.' Bach had lots of people sitting there hearing pieces of that length for the first time. The reason he could succeed is because he knew how to structure music and how to actually make melodies develop.  He knew how to make harmonies lead into interesting places, and even this little tiny piece here, only 32 bars, even in this piece, it is clear the way in which he used harmony to keep the piece going.  In the middle, there are no cadences on which people can stop.  The music always has to keep going forward, and that is something which he discovered.  All music, very often, just stops, but he actually made ways in which the music could move forward continuously.  In this one, Es ist das Heil, there is the joy of this chorale in all the bits underneath.  The tune itself is terribly dull with lots of repeated notes, [sings]. However, he makes it joyous!

[Music plays]

'Now is salvation is come to us' are the words. It is clear how music has changed, and how it has changed between the two religions due to the diverging needs. All the music was written for these great services.  There were the Catholics, with their mass taking place at the far end of the church; but there was Luther, who purposely put the pulpit in the middle of the nave so that it would be surrounded by the people, and how they are involved in the music.

I have to say that the person who has been playing all that music this evening is not Birger Marmik.  Birger was taken ill on Sunday and so I am more than grateful, at the very last minute that my great old friend Martin Board has played this evening.


Here is the link to the next lecture. This wonderful music of Bach was thought, by the end of his life, 1750, to be old-fashioned, not interesting, dull and boring. That was his sons' opinion!  If you have sons, you may know this scenario!  Fashions had changed totally.  His music was out-of-date, and it lay in the library at the [?], for the most part, undisturbed, until the 1820s. Then, a young man, who was the son of a wealthy, rich banker, living in Leipzig, who was not doing very much, was messing around one day in the library when he came upon the St Matthew Passion.

When musicians open a book they can hear it when they see it and he was blown away by what he could hear in his ears!  He delved further, and he found organ music by Bach, untouched since 1750, with 60 years' dust on top of it, and he found this wonderful music, and he thought to himself that he should play it.  I can imagine this young man, taking this book of a Bach preludium home, trying to play it and thinking god, this is difficult!  This was more difficult than the music they normally played. The great thing about Bach is that it is always difficult to play. An organist can play a piece of Bach for 50 years and he still finds it difficult to play.  It is not possible to learn a piece of Bach.  There is always something in the corner which makes it new every time you play it.  There is always something which recreates it and that is the greatness of Bach. There is always something there, and you can imagine Mendelssohn sitting there, going through this music, and thinking this is wonderful, trying to play it and succeeding. 

He went out and he gave the first performance of St Matthew Passion since Bach's day in Leipzig. He gave performances, and then, by good fortune, Queen Victoria married a foreigner who was a friend of Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn came over here to teach Prince Albert the organ and also to play the piano for Queen Victoria, who was a good singer. He brought Bach with him and he played, you know, the prelude [?] [sings]. When he went with Wesley to St Paul's Cathedral halfway through, the organ blowers gave up!  They had never blown for such a long piece of music before, and they were not going to, and the vergers shoed everybody out of the church too because they had never heard such a long piece!  So Mendelssohn brought Bach to England, and that wonderful renaissance of music was then carried on through Samuel Wesley and a man called Sterndale Bennett, and of course it was Samuel Wesley who brought Mendelssohn to play this organ.  So, it should be that we end today with a piece of Mendelssohn - maybe he played it on this organ, using these stops.  If, when you come in two weeks' time for the next lecture, please remember that you first heard Mendelssohn here!

[Music plays]

©Richard Townend, Gresham College 2010

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This event was on Thu, 16 Sep 2010


Richard Townend

Richard is the resident recitalist at St Margaret's Lothbury where he has presented over 1000 programmes on the renowned 1801 George Pike England organ, once...

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