AN 2 9970

J. S. Bach: Famous Works on Pedal Harpsichord

Release date March 01, 2011
Album code AN 2 9970
Periods Baroque

Album information

Famous Works on Pedal Harpsichord

Although the pedal harpsichord never had its hour of glory, it was definitely used by a number of organists, particularly in the 18th century. J.C. Vogler, a student and admirer of J. S. Bach and organist at the court of Weimar, owned one of exceptional quality that was praised both in a contemporary advertisement and in Anleitung zur musicalischen Gelahrteit, a book on musical instruction by Jackob Adlung dating from 1758: “Pedals are sometimes added to these instruments (harpsichords), or better still, a separate pedal box is made, which is affixed to the harpsichord. However, this must be built with great care so that the tension of the strings does not deform the case and that these instruments hold their tuning well. The most beautiful harpsichord and, at the same time, the most beautiful pedal harpsichord that I have seen are those that Mr. Vogler, burgomaster in Weimar, allowed me to see and hear, and who had himself given the instructions for their construction.” He also noted that “the pedal box had two choirs of unwound 8-foot strings and one choir of wound 16-foot strings. The lid had a door that could be opened to increase the volume. The cases were both artistically covered with veneer.” In his posthumously published work Musica mecanica organoedi, Adlung added that “the case can be built like that of a clavichord or like that of a harpsichord. In the second case, the strings are plucked by quills and one will have a harpsichord with pedals. As the harpsichord is characterized by its beautiful sonority, pedals of this kind will produce a most happy effect. This instrument does not demand a particular description. It is built like an ordinary harpsichord, but with a range of only two octaves. The jacks are similar, but they are spaced farther apart, since the two octaves take as much space as four in an ordinary harpsichord.”

Makers of the period favoured two approaches. The first was to simply outfit an ordinary harpsichord with a pedalboard, which was attached to the lowest notes of the instrument with cords or a mechanism. The second combined two independent harpsichords, the lower one played with a pedalboard and having its own strings and register, complementing the upper one in timbre. In designing the instrument played by Luc Beauséjour on this recording, maker Yves Beaupré was inspired by the latter configuration. “The pedal harpsichord remains a formative instrument,” explains Beauséjour. “It allows one to hear everything; polyphony comes through with great clarity, and everything is recreated with remarkable precision.”

Anyone who plays a pedal harpsichord for the first time is inevitably fascinated by its possibilities. We know that Bach himself preferred a rich, resonant sound. In 1708, while working on an organ restoration project at the Church of Saint Blaise in Mülhausen, he wanted to equip the instrument with new bellows, a 16-foot bassoon stop, a viola da gamba stop, and a 32-foot soubasse “that would give its depth to the entire instrument.” While the organ requires a very special sense of space, one that is often somewhat washed out in recordings, the pedal harpsichord offers both the sought after depth and musical precision.

Few performers possessed such an instrument at the time, composers not feeling it necessary to indicate its use for specific works. Early 20th-century musicologists such as Philipp Spitta and Albert Schweitzer tried to prove that the trio sonatas BWV 525–530 or the Passacaglia in C minor were composed for pedal harpsichord, but there are no reliable sources to back up this hypothesis. The controversy is of little import, however, since the organ works of the cantor of Leipzig in fact lend themselves remarkably well to this instrument, which has today almost completely disappeared. To highlight the pedal harpsichord’s particular features and give music lovers a point of comparison, Beauséjour wanted to present a number of well-known works, including the Toccata in D minor BWV 565. But above all, he wished to present some of his favourite pieces that lend themselves well to comparison and contrast.

The Toccata begins with a dramatic gesture in the upper register, doubled at the octave, which revolves around a diminished seventh chord that resolves to D minor. Three successive short passages, also doubled, bring about a return to the main key.

Composed when Bach was the organist at the court of Weimar, the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) was initially conceived of as a collection of 164 chorale preludes for church services spanning the entire liturgical year; he only completed 45, however. The work stands as a treatise on composition, a teaching manual and profession of faith. To make it more easily recognizable, the chorale melody is confined to one voice, usually the soprano. Among those presented here, Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich is associated with Christmas, while Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, for the sixth Sunday after Trinity, is based on a 15th-century catechism hymn.

For many, the concept of the prelude and fugue represents the apex of Baroque writing. Before achieving perfection in the Well-tempered Clavier, however, the form did evolve somewhat. Initially the outer movements of a concerto (Allegro – Adagio – Fugue), the prelude and fugue progressively took on a bipartite form. The “Largo” of the Trio Sonata BWV 529 is here inserted between the Prelude and Fugue BWV 545, which was a common practice during Bach’s time. The imposing fugue, “alla breve” is based on an ascending tetrachord, often treated in syncopation.

Prelude and Fugue BWV 541 contains numerous repeated notes—typical of Bach’s “Weimar style” (the work likely dates from 1712)—in both fugue and prelude; indeed, the repetition of entire chords plays an essential role in the prelude. A flowing line acts as an interlude between the more massive passages of this dense work, an example of Bach’s meticulousness as a composer. By contrast, BWV 535—which Bach reworked extensively and which also makes some use of repeated notes in the fugue theme—burgeons with dense but almost improvisational arpeggiated figures, punctuated by brilliant scale runs and thick polyphonic passages.

The Passacaglia in C minor would have a marked influence on a number of works of the 19th and 20th centuries. Robert Schumann himself described the variations as being “so ingeniously interwoven that they never cease to amaze.” The eight-measure ostinato, initially played on the pedalboard, undergoes 20 transformations. Organist Marie-Claire Alain suggests that the 21 statements of the theme can be divided into seven sets of three variations, each citing a line of a Lutheran chorale, in a treatment similar to the one Bach used in the Orgelbüchlein. The theory merits consideration, knowing that for Bach, all music was ultimately written for the All Mighty.

Harpsichord: Yves Beaupré, 1998, after Hemsch and Blanchet
Pedalboard: Yves Beaupré, 2009, made by Yves Beaupré

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 9970

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