Bach & Dixieland

Prelude in C, BWV 547, “9/8” J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Solemn Procession H. Cranmer (1705-1757)

In Bach’s day, the pipe organ was the most complex ‘machine’ humanity was building. (True up to the late 19th century), involving precision woodworking, metallurgy and metalworking, and pneumatic, mechanical and structural engineering. It was somewhat like the ‘space shuttle’ of its day.

Bach looms large in the world of pipe organs. He wrote a lot of music for it: 22 CDs worth have survived. He also advanced its playing technique: he advocated using the thumbs to play keyboards in general (a new idea at the time) and gave parts to the feet that were equal to the parts in the hands (also a new idea at the time).

And Bach was an expert in their construction. Churches throughout Germany would hire him as a consultant in their design, and also to sign off on their completion. He had the reputation of being very fair: he certainly pointed out deficiencies that needed to be corrected, but in other cases he would explain to the church council that the organ builder exceeded the contract and ought to be paid more—and they’d do it! Frequently Bach would play the inaugural concert.

For all this, Bach never had a large first-class organ at his disposal.

(Note: the texture of most music is that one person/group has ‘the melody’ at a time, and everyone else is ‘the accompaniment’. Dixieland Jazz would be a type of music where this is not true: everyone plays an equally important melodic line, all simultaneously. Same with Bach. Don’t listen for ‘the melody’—it’s ALL melody. Just let the river of melody wash over you, different parts catching your attention as they will. It’s not possible to take it all in at once!)