The only known portrait of Dietrich Buxtehude

On Sunday, I’m going to play it on the organ, with a rather more dramatic effect. But don’t you think this clean counterpoint works well as I play it here at home?

Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707) Canzona in G (BuxWV 170)


That screen that divides the Abbey just beyond the choir stalls has the organ console on top of it.

One of the organists who played at yesterday’s wedding tells us what his life is like.

It’s such a commonplace that we may not much think of it. In music performance we count on making things seem evident that simply aren’t objectively true. Some of them are so present that we hardly notice them: the piano, with its fast-dying-away tones is physically incapable of legato. But thanks to the artistry of good players, we have the impression of smooth, connected, cantabile piano-playing. Piccolo players, playing high arpeggios, sometime seem to place shimmering high chords above an orchestral texture, when those evident chords are really individual, sequential notes.

Last night, after a relaxed dinner with an old friend that I had not seen in some months, I played a couple of harpsichord pieces for him. He’s an educated musician who, however, knew nothing about how a harpsichord works. In answer to his queries, I removed the jack-rail and showed him how a jack functions: plucking the string as the key causes it to rise, damping the string as the key is released and the jack falls. “How then,” he asked, “are you making some notes louder than others?” That’s one of the greatest compliments a harpsichordist (or organist) can get — playing, as we do, an instrument on which there is no direct control over the intensity of the individual note. Having a listener confirm that the illusion of varied volume is getting through is a real affirmation.

I then gave my friend a little demonstration of how the illusion of comparative dynamics is created, but all the time I was glorying in that question he had asked.

It was ever thus. Illusion is everything in art.

Leonhardt in Autumn

July 15, 2009

Leonhardt-Gustav-46 Many today spend their careers trying to figure out, with the help of what documents survive, how music of the past was performed. When this is done for musical reasons and produces artistic results, it is an unmixed blessing. I’ve just come upon an interesting interview with Gustav Leonhardt in which he sounds a striking warning:

And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.

The interview goes on to make provocative points about the rehearsal of chamber music (your ensemble is no good if it requires a lot of talk and rehearsal) and conducting (it’s the easiest thing in music performance, if the highest-paid).