The Pipe Organ

Ah … the Pipe Organ; the King of Instruments, so called by Mozart.

Indeed, the Pipe Organ is not only a large physical instrument–sometimes weighing several dozens of tons — but they also produce an equally large sound; and according to my taste, they produce quite powerful, beautiful, and dignified sounds.

But the Pipe Organ wasn’t always a colossus.  The instrument has an origin in antiquity, specifically Greece, where it was no larger than a dresser, one manual, and powered by water and gravity.  Water would sit in a chamber, and when a key was pressed, the water would fall by gravity down a pipe mechanism, forcing air through a reed, producing a sound.

Modern organs are powered by the same principle, except in Bach’s day, the air was collected in a wind chest, and supplied by foot billows, which had to be pumped by an assistant; and with today’s organs, an electric fan or some electric arrangement supplies air to the wind chest.

An organ stop is a device which engages certain pipes, which produce certain sounds.  Some large organs have dozens of stops, and therefore sounds; like the Principle stops, woodwind stops, horn stops, and so on.

In terms of sound variety, and dynamism — loud or soft — the organ is an entire orchestra in one instrument.

One of the unique features of an organ is the foot manual — the foot pedals.  A talented organist can play three, four, and even five lines of counterpoint at a time, by dividing the lines between the hands and feet.  Bach was such a master at the foot manual that he could play a complicated sequence with his feet what others could not play with their hands.

There is so much more on this topic to discuss, but I have to limit myself.

Here is a recommendation for entry listening:

Try Bach’s Fugue in G major, BWV 577.

While listening, follow the subject as it travels from tenor to alto, then to soprano, and concluding — gloriously — in bass; this section being played by the feet.

Or, try Mozart’s Organ Fantasie in F minor.

This is the Grand Organ of St. Jacob’s Cathedral in Austria, for example.



The Harpsichord

During the Baroque period, harpsichords were used as solo instruments, for suites or fantasies, for example, or as supporting instruments for chamber ensemble; in which they supplied the bass along with viol de gamba (ancestor to cello) or bassoon, and supplied supporting harmonies.

Bach was the first to use the harpsichord as a solo instrument in the concerto form; a novelty to which we owe the piano concertos of the Classical period.

The harpsichord remained the professional keyboard instrument for composers and musicians until the piano forte replaced it in the early 19th Century.  Pianos still existed in Bach’s time, but design defects made them an impractical choice.


Bach’s Ambition

In 1703, Bach wrote a letter of resignation to the council of Muhlhausen in which he–at the very young age of 23–wrote that his life’s design was to compose a well regulated church music.  And it turned out to be one of those famous moments which transcend time, and which extend beyond the immediate circumstance in which it was born; like that letter from Newton to Hooke in which Newton declared that he was standing on the shoulders of giants; or like that letter from Voltaire to Rousseau in which Voltaire wrote sarcastically that Rousseau’s prize winning thesis had almost inspired him to grow beastly and revert to all fours.  Anyways…

Why did Bach write the letter?

He felt that the ecclesiastical counsel did not provide him with a sufficient livelihood due to a cantor and organist; he had a somewhat lame organ with which to work, that I believe he was forced to repair; and he did not have permission to expand on the repertoire, but simply to play the old hymns preferred by conservative members of counsel and congregation. Thus, he intended to satisfy his ambition by finding new employment.

But what does he mean by a well regulated church music?

I would like to try to give an interpretation of this phrase — of which I have found none, surprisingly — so that someone new to Bach might understand his meaning, and thus grow to appreciate a preponderance which is so unusual in young age, and so peculiar to Bach’s character in general.

Simply put: by a well regulated church music, I think Bach meant to say that his life’s work was to compose a church music which is consistent along technical lines and aesthetic lines.

In other words, Bach intended to write music which is uniformly built according to the principals of musical craftsmanship — more or less in the Italian or French way — the laws of the ear.



Baroque to Classical

The Shift from Baroque to Classical Music

The element of religion in Baroque music likely contributed to a shift in Classical music when the social and political role of religion began to shift as well: by the late 18th Century, elements of the Enlightenment — like the institutionalization of Reason, the rise of skepticism, and therefore shifting aesthetic tastes, the supersession and development of Capitalism over State and Church sponsored commercialism, which created a merchant class and inspired new demands based on consumerism, drove a wedge between the Church and Art, between the Sacred and Secular modes, and their prominence in relation to each other.

With a religious aesthetic and form rooted deeply in Baroque music, consisting of cantatas, organ preludes, oratorios, and masses, such things would not likely carry over. And so by the second or third generation after Johann Sebastian Bach, the sonata, the opera, the divertissement or symphony, the song, and the quartet replaced the old forms in popularity, usage, and professional esteem.


Music History

I’m providing context for readers who are not too familiar with the Baroque period, by creating a simple — if a little inexact — sketch with which to think about its place in History.

This is not a scholarly construction, it’s only intended to supply a basic idea.

So, here it is:

Post-Modern – 21st Century

Modern – 20th and 21st Century

Romantic – 19th and 20th Century

Classical – 18th and 19th Century

Baroque – 17th and 18th Century

Renaissance – 16th and 17th Century

Middle age and Renaissance composers developed a style of music writing consisting of many independent musical voices called polyphony — the first examples of polyphony are derived from the Gregorian Chant, and originate in Medieval Paris, where the art was taken up by French and Italian theorists and composers. The formal technique of polyphony is called counterpoint. The Baroque period inherited this technique and gave it its most extravagant and systematic expression. In turn, the counterpoint of the Baroque gave over to the homophony of the Classical period — a style in which one voice is supported by harmonic constructions.

I do not mean to suggest that counterpoint was abandoned by composers of the Classical period.  Indeed, Mozart gave us very good examples of it in his Great Mass in C minor, for example, or Haydn in his Creation, or Beethoven in his Mass in D Major; but it was no longer the defining or prominent feature of that style.

Now, counterpoint is just one of many compositional techniques.

Bach: His Style and Time

I find it interesting scholars conflate the end of the Baroque Age with the death of it’s most enigmatic composer, Johann Sebastian Bach; a man who by accounts (such as those of Goethe and Nietzsche), had more in common with the preceding Age (Medieval) than with his own (Flindell 4).

We all know a connection exists between Bach and Vivaldi’s courtly and gallant style, the style of the late Baroque. Indeed, Bach’s concertos (not the Brandenburg Concertos so much) are compared in subsequent relation to the technical formulas of Vivaldi. But for all of Bach’s music which feels Baroque, there is that much more which does not.  These probably include the organ and vocal works; the passacaglia, fugues, canons, motets, and so on.

Is there truly a connection between Bach and Medievalism?

Does it consist of Philosophical and Theological parallel, i.e. textual or lyrical parallel between Bach and the Medieval style? Or does it consist of technical parallel, i.e. techniques of writing like counterpoint and/or instrumentation between Bach and the Medieval style?

And if such a connection exists, would it alter the classification of Bach as an eminent Baroque composer? Would it even change the nature and scope of the classification itself, since the two (Bach’s death and the end of the Baroque) are so intimately connected?


Flindell, Frederick. “Bach and the Middle Ages.” Bach, vol. 36, no. 2, 2005, pp. 1-119.


Brandenburg Concerto 3

The Brandenburg Concertos by Bach appear to be an enigma to musicologists on several grounds; from the question of chronology (Marissen), from the question of status as a coherent set (Marissen), and from the question of performance (Cable).

The last question is particularly relevant to the Brandenburg Concerto 3.

The score of the Brandenburg Concerto 3 does not include a second movement.  Subsequently, musicians either substitute some other movement of Bach’s in its place, or more rarely, an improvised harpsichord solo (Cable 864).

But which remedy is more appropriate?

Given the improvisatory sensibilities of the Baroque Age, together with Bach’s own skill as an extemporaneous performer, I would assume he wrote with a solo in mind; though, interestingly, there is no evidence he improvised himself outside the organ loft or a home/informal setting.


Cable, James. “Brandenburg 3.” The Musical Times, vol. 106, no. 1473, 1965, pp. 864.