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Playing Johann Gottlob Töpfer and Bach's Passacaglia

2018-08-22 - Playing and Pieces

Playing Johann Gottlob Töpfer and Bach's Passacaglia
By Dr. Wolfram Syré

Johann Gottlob Töpfer was born in 1791 at Niederrossla. He was Professor at the Academy for teachers at Weimar and from 1830 until his death Organist of the Stadtkirche at Weimar. He was known as a recital organist and as an organ adviser. He published after a long time of private studies his "Lehrbuch der Orgelbaukunst nach den besten Methoden älterer und neuerer in ihrem Fache ausgezeichneter Orgelbaumeister und begründet auf mathematische und pysikalische Gesetze" in 1855. Famous organbuilders as Schulze (Paulinzella), Haas (Bern), Giesecke (Göttingen), Ladegast (Weissenfels), Markussen (Apenrade), Sauer (Frankfurt a. d. O.), or Peternell (Seligenthal) followed with their work Töpfer's theories. Töpfer died in 1870 at Weimar. Today is the organ music of Töpfer nearly forgotten.

The free organ works
We have not many free organ works of Töpfer. The Concertstück c-Moll is perhaps the earliest. It shows the roots of Töpfer's style of composition: the Classicism. He never forgot this roots even his harmonies developed later to romantic colors. His forms of composition were classical as well as his registrations: One piece - one sound, except changes of the manuals. Töpfer's Concertstück and his Sonate d-Moll für drei Manuale und Pedal were very simular to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, especially to his Clavier-Sonatas. The Sonata has a longer history: Töpfer composed its first movement as a Fantasie which he used to play for examinations of new organs. This piece showes if the action was exact and had a good repetition of the keys and if the bellows had enough wind - the piece includes a four-part pedal-chord in the Tutti. Töpfer augmented later his Fantasie d-Moll to a Sonata with three movements. Töpfer's Improvisation über das Gedicht "Musik" is a smaller piece with three Variations on a romance-melody which was composed by the Duchesse Maria Paulowna. Maria Paulowna was kind of sponsor of Töpfer.

The "Choralstudien"
Töpfer composed a lot of Chorale preludes. He planed to publish them in a large collection. But he could not realize this project because he died before. His pupil Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg, the secretary of Franz Liszt and a brillant organist itself, did this in 1871. He called this score "Choralstudien". It contains preludes and harmonisations of 33 Chorale tunes.
Töpfer had various ideas to performe a Chorale melody: Paraphrases, Chorale preludes and symphonic Fugues. The Paraphrases are small pieces which performe a part of the Chorale melody or which refer only an impression of the Chorale - aphoristic mediations or small Toccatas "Fürs volle Werk". These pieces are brillant little gems. The Chorale preludes ("Choraldurchführung") are pieces on the complete Cantus Firmus for two or three Manuals and Pedal simular to those of Johann Sebastian Bach. Töpfer had a unique skill to compose choral preludes. Even if you play them without the Cantus Firmus you will get a very fine piece; the Cantus Firmus itself is coming and going as an unnessessary complementation. But Töpfer composed also chorale preludes with the complete Cantus Firmus as a kind of Toccatas "Fürs volle Werk". The symphonic Fugues have a themes which are close to the Choral melodies. All of them are pieces on a high artistic pitch. He composed symphonic fugues for 16-, 8- and 4-foot stops and those "Fürs volle Werke"; especially the last have very impressive final sections.
The Chorale preludes of Töpfer are the most beautifull we have as heritage of this genre from the Germay of the 19th century.

Bach's Passacaglia
Töpfer was admired for his permance of Bach's Passacaglia in his recitals.
Variatio delectat! But what means Variatio in Bach's Passacaglia? Variatio means for Töpfer - as an organist of the German romantic school - a variation of the organ sound. He indicated for the complete Passacaglia exact indications of his registration. This arrangement was published in "Repertorium für Orgel, Pedalflügel oder Harmonium" in 1865, edited by Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg and Franz Liszt. The Repertorium contains many major organ compositions of old an new masters and was very popular in its time because the two editers were famous. So became Töpfer's way to play Bach's Passacaglia a kind of standard for the next 150 years. Performing Bach's Passacaglia according to Töpfer's version gives this piece a touch of his deep respect for a mystic antique miraculum called Bach's Passacaglia.
But what means Variatio for the time of Bach? I added to my Töpfer-project also a performance of Bach's Passacaglia according to baroque traditions of performance. All baroque Basso-ostinato-compositions were played completely with one registration, mostly "In Organo Pleno" (Buxtehude, Bach). We find the Variatio in the technique of composition. Also Bach's technique of composition brings a very variated dynamic to his passacaglia even if you play it without stop changes. And so we have all in one:
- fragments of harmonisation (Variations I,  II),
- Fugato (Variations III, XII),
- colorated (Variations V, IX, XIII, XV),
- climax (Variation VI),
- anticlimax (Variation VII),
- climax + anticlimax (Variation VIII),
- Chorale (Variation X),
- two-part structure (Variations XI, XIV),
- Discant-melody (Variations XI, XII),
- Altus-melody (Variation (XIII),
- one-part structure (Variation XV),
- cresendo (Variations VI, XVI),
- decrescendo (Variation VII),
- three-part structure (Variations XIII, XVII),
- Triplets (Variation XVII),
- "legato"-organpoint (Variations XX, XXI),
- no Pedal (Variations XIII, XIV, XV). Also the symbolism of numbers tells us that the whole piece is an unit:
- 21 Variations (3 x 7),
- 12 appearances of the theme in the Fugue (inversion of  21 and 2 x 2 x 3),
- totally 33 appearances (3 x 11) of the theme (without the solo-theme at the beginning) and
- 44 appearances (2 x 2 x 11) of the whole thematic material including the two contrasubjects of the Fugue (without the solo-theme at the beginning).
- 45 appearances (3 x 3 x 5) of the complete thematic material including the solo-theme of the first bars.
Also because of these complex numbers we cannot divide this unit in different colored sections. So the performer has the problem to get the piece still interesting by his rhethoric.


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