Bach & Pedagogy

Organ Trio Sonata in Cm (1st mvmt.)         J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

“How Firm a Foundation”

Voluntary       F. Gamba  (1705-1740)

It was pointed out to me on Reformation Sunday that “you know, the organ can be played quietly too,” to which I replied “Not on Reformation Sunday!” Meanwhile, I thought I’d play an organ piece on the soft end of the musical loudness spectrum. (Neener neener!)

A major portion of Bach’s musical output was devoted to pedagogy. This included music for beginners (much of which is still firmly ensconced in modern day piano primers) through music for advanced students of both playing and composition. His Well Tempered Clavier, for example (about four hours of music) is a virtual encyclopedia of the musical styles and approaches known in his day, and this ‘encyclopedia’ played a significant role in the musical educations of Mozart and Beethoven to name only two.

Not surprisingly Bach also turned his attention to organ pedagogy — in particular with his Six Trio Sonatas for organ. Actually he specifies them more generically for “two keyboards and pedal”. But practicing organ in his day was problematic as you needed assistants to pump the organ (no electricity) so organists generally had a harpsichord or clavichord with two keyboards and pedals at home for practicing — no assistants needed! And the clavichord in particular has the virtue of being so quiet that hardly anyone besides the player can hear it (there were no headphones yet either) — a splendid feature for a practice instrument.

Bach initially wrote these for his teenage son Wilhelm — who went on to become a noteworthy organist and composer in his own right.

Trio sonatas have three independent lines (hence the name ‘trio’) — invariably two high and one low, and that’s what we find in the Organ Trio Sonatas. One high line is assigned to the right hand, the other high line to the left, and the bass to the pedals/feet. The way the pipes for our organ are laid out, one hand/melodic line will be on sanctuary left, the other hand/melodic line will be on sanctuary right, and the feet/bass line in the middle.

These pieces are pedagogically useful for a couple reasons: one is that your usual Big Bach™ organ work has so much going on that even experts can have a hard time spotting finger flubs. Not so with these Trio Sonatas — they’re too darn transparent. And each of the three lines is as if it’s its own instrument, so they have to be phrased independently. (Arg!)

They’re a pain to learn (which may be why you don’t hear them performed very often), but so much fun when you do. And the music itself is simply charming.