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Hommage à Bach

2017-07-11 - Playing and Pieces

Hommage à Bach

by Wolfram Syré

The romantic French organ masters were deeply impressed by the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the first approach to Bach's organ composition in France was not very successful. Alexandre-Pierre-Francois Boely performed Bach and composed in the style of Bach. He initiated the enlargement of his organ by a large pedal division. But the priest of his church St-Germain-l’Auxerrois fired Boely because he didn't like his kind of playing the organ. Later the famous organ recitals by Adolph Hesse and Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens presented organ pieces of Bach in Paris. Soon afterwards Félix-Alexandre Guilmant, Charles-Marie Widor (both pupils of Lemmens) and Marcel Dupré created the myth of an authentic French Bach-tradition following the performances of Hesse and his pupil Lemmens. But that was totaly wrong. In 1844 Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl and Ferdinand August Roitzsch presented in the foreword to the first volume of their edition with Bach's organ music a way playing the organ unaccording to the Bach-tradition. They mentioned a famous German organist who played e. g. Beethoven's Funeral March in his organ recitals. They didn't say who did so, but in fact it was Adolf Hesse.


Still the French organists were not able to avoid Bach's organ music because of its importance and the high quality level. It was a challange for the French romantic organ composers to respect Bach by finding a relationship to him and transforming the features of his music to their national romantic organ style. So some of them started a serie of their own "Pièces pour Orgue" with a "Hommage à Bach" or composed single works in the same intention. But they didn't copy Bach's style. So we can find many very individual solutions. Additionally Félix-Alexandre Guilmant composed some pieces "in the Style of Sebastian Bach". Studying Bach's Choral Preludes he suggested doing the same with our Gregorian Hymns. Let me present some interesting examples of these pieces even if it is impossible to discuss all of them.


Let us start with Leon Boellmann. The first two titles of his "Douze Pièces pour Orgue" Op. 16 are "Prélude et Fugue". The Prelude is a quiet piece in the tradition of Bach's "Das Wohltemperierte Clavier". The Fugue is a polyphonic piece "a tre Voci". with a very special structure. It is a Trio "a 2 Clav. e Pedale": A dialogue for "Flûte de 8 P." (Grand Orgue), "Hautbois de 8 P." (Récit) and "Basse de 8 P." (Pédale). And this Fugue is not a copy of a movement from a Trio-Sonata, because Flûte or Hautbois are played sometimes by the right and sometimes by the left hand.
Théodore Dubois startet his "Douze Pièces pour Orgue" with a not so very important "Prélude". But he refined his idea to follow the Bach-tradition with "Prélude et Fugue" in his "Douze Pièces Nouvelles pour Orgue". The Prelude is a Grand-Choeur-piece with Toccata-elements, and the Fugue is a symphonic Double-Fugue.


Bach's Fantasia et Fuga in g BWV 542 is full of dramatic and virtuosity. The experience with this piece was obviously most impressive for romantic organ composers. In fact it was the inspiration for two very spectacular French romantic organ compositions. Félix-Alexandre Guilmant composed the first movement of his third Organ Sonata Op. 56 as an answer to Bach's Fantasia in g. It is very interesting that he uses here the Grand Choeur for the main passages in a extremly dramatic style and the Récit for episodes according to Bach's four-part polyphonic episodes. It suggests that Guilmant would have played Bach's Fantasie on two manuals.


The "Six Pièces d'Orgue" of Eugène Gigout show us that the early Gigout starts as a Neo-Classicist. The first title "Introduction et Thème Fugué" says that we will not find here not a Bach-copy: Not a Fantaisie and and instead of a Fugue a Thème Fugué. But Gigout's story behind his music is a clear "Hommage a Bach". The extremly dramatic profile of the Introduction is unique. It is the debut of a first class symphonic organ composer. The Thème Fugué is a kind of Fanfare which is performed both in a polyphonic and symphonic way. We have common pattern between Guilmant's Third Sonata and this piece of Gigout: The final of both Fugues is a short repetition of the opening movements.


The first number of Gigout's "Dix Pieces pour Orgue" is called "Prélude, Choral et Allegro". Reading this title you won´t expect a Bach-like piece. But it is. The opening or Prelude is a large Pedal-Solo which is a romantic version of a movement from Bach's Suites for Violoncello. The main motiv from this Pedal-Solo is afterwards performed in a symphonic movement. The next element is a free invented Choral in the Bach-style which later becomes a subject of a large symphonic apotheosis. The whole piece is a perfect transformation of Bach-ideas to a mystic romantic organ piece. The idea of using a chorale in a "free" organ composition goes back to Mendelssohn. But not only Gigout has followed this tradition. Also the fifth movement of Guilmant's Organ Sonata Nr. 5 Op. 80 follows this tradition: Guilmant starts his Fugue with a free invented Chorale which is brought to a glorious apotheosis at least.


Félix-Alexandre Guilmant created two Bach-copies in his "L'Organiste Liturgiste" Op. 65. "Sortie dans le Style de Bach sur l'Antienne CANTANTIBUS ORGANIS" is a Bach-like Fugato. "Élévation ou Communion dans le Style de J. S. Bach. Adoro te devote" is an example of Guilmant's reception of Bach's Choral Prelude "O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde groß"; we recognize here a shorter romantic version of this famous piece.


Last not least let me add some words about a remarkable Fughetta of the Widor-pupil Edouard Commette. It is difficult to describe the features of this piece.. The technique of composition is not so very important. The subject is a Fanfare. But suddenly Commette leaves the polyphonic structure and continues in the way of a Bach-Harpsichord-Prelude, and this episode is unique for a Fughetta - a splendid idea.

You can listen to the mentioned pieces on CCH.


Comments

gooseholla (2017-09-18) Edited Log in to Reply
I have mixed feelings about Bach and the French. No doubt Boely's compositions in his style are far better than his romantic pieces. Widor's verison of St Matthew's final is great -- and his addition to the end makes it better than Bach in my opinion --but I can't stand his Wachet Auf from the same work.

Lesser known people, such as Louis Raffy, also get in on the act and re-imagine a Bach piece. I guess everyone is entitled to 'cover' a piece however they like. But most of the time, these romantic hommages are less than impressive.

But, as a whole, Bach's influence greatly improved the French organ scene, whether or not there truly is an uninterrupted, authentic line to Bach or not!
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