Edward McCue (EM) What is behind the title “Bach Inspirations” that you’ve given to your concerts at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver and First Congregational Church in Boulder?
Michael Unger (MU) With this program I’m inviting the audience to investigate some of the various ways in which Bach has inspired generations of musicians that came after him, how Bach himself may have been inspired by the music that he himself had heard, and also how we are all still inspired by Bach.
Every organist since Bach has had different ideas on how Bach’s music should be heard and appreciated, and particularly, when we get into the nineteenth century German circle of organists and composers who studied Bach and his music, we can see how those later composers tried to capture in their own language some of the aspects of what they found so beautiful and meaningful in Bach’s compositions.
The B-A-C-H piece by Franz Liszt that closes the program is a massive prelude and fugue based on the letters of Bach’s name in the musical alphabet, according to the German system of nomenclature, with “B” spelling our “b flat” and “H” spelling our “b natural.” The whole composition is based on that rather unusual and diminished motive that Bach himself used in his compositions, and it’s a thoroughly creative work that’s a real homage to Bach.
Liszt dedicated this fantasy and fugue to his Weimar associate, the organist Alexander Winterberger, in appreciation for his introduction to a huge new instrument being installed in the former cathedral at Merseburg by the organ builder Friedrich Ladegast. Liszt was so enthralled by the colors and orchestral capabilities of that instrument that the two spent days registering the piece in preparation for its inauguration by Winterberger, an effort that contributed greatly to its success.
EM Speaking of colors, how are you going to determine which registrations to use with the Kimball and Salmen instruments you’ll be playing in Denver and Boulder? Can you simply look at the name of the stops and immediately know how they will perform in combination and in succession?
MU You do know, to some extent, how things might work together by looking at the organ’s history, its stop list and the disposition of similar instruments, but much experimentation is required before you can really know how things will balance and blend. I’m especially looking forward to discovering the special characteristics of the solo sounds available from these two eclectic instruments, and, as the result of a trial and error process, how each behaves in two very different acoustical environments.
This will be especially important for the pieces by Robert Schumann, working backwards through the program, as they were written by Schumann during a rather dark period in his life when he was struggling with some severe professional, emotional and health issues. It was at the suggestion of his wife, Clara, that Schumann began to apply himself to the disciplined study of Bach’s counterpoint. This study of Bach’s canons and fugues and the many other forms of polyphony led to a number of collections of pieces for pedal piano, an instrument that few of us know that much about today. The Studien are somewhat pianistic in construction, but they are based on counterpoint, and while the collection that I’m playing in these concerts are all canonic in construction, they are all still very much in Schumann’s own personal, lyrical language.
EM Was the pedal piano capable of sustaining tones the way that the organ can, and how do you interpret music orginally written for a piano on an organ?
MU It doesn’t have that much to do with sustaining capabilities of either instrument, although the pedal piano did have a sustain pedal, just like modern pianos do, but because Schumann wrote these pieces for a type of piano, they’re perhaps a little more florid in their writing and are a little more melodically driven than most of Bach’s own works for organ.
EM It was intriguing to learn from Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician that Bach had collected works of André Raison in his personal library. How much impact did that French predecessor have on Bach?
MU There’s some speculation that a tiny little piece by Raison contained a fragment that could have inspired Bach in his composition of the Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582). The Trio in passacaille by Raison, with its repeating bass line, is pretty similar to the opening measures of the bass line that Bach uses in his own Passacaglia. That’s why I wanted to pair them together.
EM As for Frenchmen, why do you think Marcel Dupré transcribed the opening Sinfonia from the cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29)? Was it just to showcase the timbres of a large French Romantic instrument?
MU It’s ever more fascinating than that. Dupré absolutely loved Bach’s music and edited the complete organ works of Bach. He taught and performed Bach all of his life, and in the case of that particular Sinfonia, I think that Dupré’s motivation for including it in his complete Bach edition was so that this cantata movement for organ and orchestra could come close to serving as an organ concerto. You’ll see that it provides a brilliant opening to the entire program.
EM Tell me about the three chorale preludes by Bach that follow the opening Sinfonia.
MU These three different preludes illustrate three different times in Bach’s life and three different styles of writing. The first, Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’ (BWV 662), is like an aria or lyrical song. The second, Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter (BWV 650) is a chamber piece that really dances. Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott (BWV 680) serves as a sort of postlude that is quite fugal and features much more of the full organ sound than the other two pieces.
I think it will be very much an adventure to perform these chorale preludes on the two very interesting instruments in Denver and Boulder. The Kimball in Denver is a great example of an important American historical tradition, especially since the process of its renovation has just been completed. My impression on paper of the Salmen instrument in Boulder is that it should feature plenty of color and depth. I expect that both instruments will display a lot of variety and serve the entire program very well.
This will be my first trip to Colorado, and I’m looking forward to being there. I’m really honored that the Boulder Bach Festival has invited me to be part of such an ambitious series of concerts of Bach’s great music and has offered me the opportunity to perform “Bach Inspirations” on both 24 and 25 February.