Passacaglia and Not Fugue

J. S. Bach wrote the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor more than 300 years ago when he was in his early twenties. The Passacaglia has always been my favorite organ work. I had no more dreamed of playing it than I did of flying, given that I have little musical training. I can’t even read music, except most laboriously. Even if I were proficient on organ, I didn’t have access to one.

But then last year Beverly and I bought a Yamaha AvantGrand NU1X hybrid piano. This beautiful musical instrument sounds like a Yamaha concert grand piano by default. However, the NU1X “voice” can be set to sound like various other kinds of pianos, as well as a harpsichord, a celesta, and, yes, an organ. Well, really just an organ with a fixed set of stops.

But what a great organ voice it is! Even in Vincitore’s showroom, I was mesmerized by the sound. I could immediately play the first eight measures of the Passacaglia by ear, since these first measures are just one slow note at a time, and I knew the piece well. Of course the NU1X, being just a piano, has no pedal keyboard, so I played these measures with my left hand instead of with my feet.

I wondered whether it might be possible for me to use the NU1X to play beyond the first eight measures where the fun begins, but I couldn’t divine the notes by ear. So I downloaded the 13-page score and printed out the first page, which contains the initial 8-bar base-ostinato and the next three 8-bar variations. I studied this page for months, attempting to play at least a part of the first variation. Eventually, I was able to stumble through playing the first two variations.

I made a few adaptations to the score, necessary because my right hand had to play both the right and left hands of the score, with my left hand playing the ostinato. But no reasonable adaptation seemed possible for the third variation — and it was getting way beyond my ability anyhow — so I contrived an ending after the second variation. Since I couldn’t get past even the second variation of the Passacaglia, I got nowhere near the fugue. Still, it has been a joy to play the little that I have:

You can hear the entire 14 minutes, performed by any number of world class organists, by searching for Passacaglia and Fugue. A nice performance is by Ton Koopman. A video by Stephen Malinowski has sopisticated graphics visually depicting the detailed structure of the piece.

César Franck, Chorale No. 2

César Franck is often considered the greatest composer of organ music after Bach. His Chorale No. 2 is one of three chorales he wrote that are cornerstones of the organ repertoire. Composed in 1890, nearly two centuries after Bach’s passacaglia, and a few months before Franck died, Choral No. 2 is also in passacaglia form, at least through the first third of the piece.

I’ve loved this piece ever since first hearing it on Syracuse University’s famous Holtcamp organ while another student was practicing it. So naturally, after mastering the Bach passacaglia — meaning that I could pretty much play the notes of the first two variations — I had to try doing the same for Franck’s Chorale No. 2.

As with the Bach, I was only willing to spend a few months of brief daily effort devoted to the project. Also as with the Bach, I made a few adaptations of the score, and I contrived an ending after the second variation. Because Franck is late-romantic instead of late Baroque, I used the NU1X’s organ principal voice rather than the organ tutti voice I’d used for the Bach. For the Franck, my left hand was just about able to span the ninth needed at the end of the first variation, and even the tenth in the second variation. (Franck himself was said to be able to span a twelfth.) For me, being able to touch and savor a small part of this great work in a new way has been a great joy:

Once again, provides numerous performances of varying quality of the entire 15-minute work. Petra Veenswijk provides a dramatic interpretation.