Helmut Walcha: Artist-Teacher

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Helmut Walcha, the great German organist, may have the distinction of knowing more music of Bach by heart than any other individual in history, including quite likely the composer himself. For Walcha, who was born in Leipzig in 1907 and has been blind since the age of 17, can boast as his innermost possession not only the entire organ work of Bach, but also his complete output for the harpsichord, including the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations, to which is added the entire Art of the Fugue, which Walcha may be the only person to have performed and recorded from memory. The Frankfurt organist's international fame was based initially on his first recording of the complete Bach works, which was undertaken on historical instruments during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and issued under the Archive label of Deutsche Grammophon. Walcha became the teacher of some 200 organists; a fourth of them were Americans, many of whom now occupy important teaching positions in this country. He himself retired from teaching a decade ago, but continued to perform until the late spring of 1981, when he chose to bid farewell—still at the height of his powers—to concert life and his position as organist at the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt. Walcha's most recent, and final, recording—a double album of pre-Bach German Baroque compositions—received the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis.

The essential principle which students could learn from Walcha, by observing his life and artistic expression and by absorbing his articulated methods, attitudes and conclusions, is that of balance. He is not an extremist but a reconciler and integrator. With sufficient exposure and receptivity, students could learn from him that he—like most serious organists—subsists and acts within some 15 dialectical fields, in relation to which he has invariably come to choose the middle path, the one which bears the possibility of comprehensiveness through mediation and synthesis. As with all creative individuals, the overarching dialectic is that between openness—a kind of receptivity which of itself would strive to be infinite—and its counterpole, a narrowed focus, concentration, and self-discipline. The following is an attempt—based on Walcha's artistic accomplishments and concepts and in particular on his pedagogical activities—to summarize the more specific perspectives which sustain his work and within which his orientation may be defined.

The fundamental impulse of organ music is vocal in nature. The keyboard notwithstanding, we are dealing with a wind instrument, i.e. with singing, one step removed. Hence the process of breathing and its palpable projection in the interpretation, though not mechanically required, is musically of the essence, and all the more so in view of the static nature of the organ's sound. While this latter quality moves the organist's music-making still further away from the flexibility of the more natural (or "primary") musical transactions of singers and wind and string instrument players (and even of pianists), it also provides the basis for many of the specific glories of the medium, e.g. the organ's capacity for objectivity and for religious transcendence, as well as for both sharply etched realization of complex polyphony in detail and compelling projection of formal architecture on the grand scale. Although the term dialectic is more frequently employed in the service of Marxist and Hegelian ideologies than in the lessons of Helmut Walcha, it is implicit in all his work that the organist must act within certain Spannungsfelder or dialectical fields of tension. The first of these is defined by the poles of subjective expressivity and formal objectivity. Projection of subjective expressivity presupposes the individual musician's spontaneous inner experience of what might be called the primary communicative impulse of an emotionally responsive poet-singer, and the capacity to transmit that impulse via tone production by breath or—in the special case of the organ—wind. Effective realization of the calculated objectivity of "abstract" formal and contrapuntal procedures, on the other hand, presupposes—in the performer's interpretive recreation no less than in the process of composition—an artisanship of conscious manipulation and fusion of given musical materials, as discrete building blocks, into artistic "edifices." The organist's movement between these fundamentally different experiences and procedures is inescapably dialectical. He mediates and reconciles, he observes or initiates, he influences and presides over their unceasing cycles of interaction, interpenetration and redifferentiation.

At another level there is a synthesis between what we have just described as the vocal and the formal counter-poles; the early genres of organ composition such as ricercar, canzona, and to a considerable extent fugue were derived from models of vocal polyphony and may thus be said to represent—within the corpus of organ music—a trend toward formal embodiment of the vocal impulse. To this tendency the counterpart or antithesis, arising from the instrument itself, is the human Spieltrieb—an "itchy" playfulness of the hands, stimulated in a special manner by the specific freedom which the mechanized objectivity inherent in all instruments, especially the keyboard instruments, affords. The possibility of going beyond the voice, especially in terms of velocity and the combination of velocity with subtleties of touch, nonvocal intervallic leaps, or complexity of texture, once recognized, is inevitably explored, relished and cultivated, and ultimately formalized in the toccata and many of the fantasies and instrumentally-inspired fugues. In Walcha's teaching, pieces, sections of pieces, individual voices, even or especially the basic motivic building blocks themselves, are all examined and analyzed with respect to this differentiation, and interpreted accordingly.

Returning to the more primary level, that of the original vocal impulse and the corresponding requirement that the music breathe—that is to say, that the continuity of the individual line be periodically interrupted—it becomes evident that, given both the complexity of structure of much organ music and the special exigencies of the instrument's static sound, the breathing itself cannot be left to chance or to the vagaries of intuition. Rather the performer's musical instinct must be supplemented, indeed itself illumined, by the exertion of conscious criteria and intellectual responsibility in arriving at the crucial decisions regarding articulation. Not surprisingly the four main criteria fall into two pairs—each of which again defines a dialectical field. In the first field the question of articulation must be examined in terms of the individual line or voice, abstracted from its contrapuntal-harmonic environment. The criteria which then define the spectrum of possible decisions are (1) the intrinsic shape of the line, that is its unique motivic components as well as larger scale shifts of direction, expressive emphases and so on, as against (2) the requirements of underlying, not necessarily immanent rhythmic structure, that is the placement of the linear components in relation to the metric pulse and especially the possible use of such components to define not only the values of the line but also those of the meter and its subdivisions. Whereas in rendering Renaissance music such decisions, except in the case of dance rhythms, would be made largely on the basis of intrinsic linear shape, in music of the Baroque period the dance rhythms and the meter exert more universal claims of their own, so that there may often be an interpretive tension between these and the more purely linear forces. In the second field the more shape-oriented and the more metric types of articulation are seen as one inasmuch as they both relate only to the individual lines. At this new level of consideration the previous tentative decisions, which often already embodied a creative compromise, must undergo further balancing through considerations intrinsic to the vertical dimension. (3) A considerable density of texture may prompt an attempt at clarification via still more liberal articulation. Or in contrast in some instances (4) the intensity of certain kinds of harmonic pulls, such as those surrounding a suspension and its resolution, might preclude execution of a motivically justifiable caesura in the tension-bearing line or lines.

If articulation thus has the double function of enhancing the organ's vocal-expressive qualities while at the same time providing for formal, motivic and textural clarity, the mastery of registration—an equally crucial element of Walcha's pedagogy—requires a comparable simultaneous exertion in different directions or in some instances an intermediate balancing of the two. Registration is among the organist's most intimate modes of emotional expression and communication, comparable in one sense to the pianist's personal touch and thus an indispensable vehicle for such warmth and sensuality as can be brought to the art. As in the case of articulation, however, criteria of objective integrity and aptness need also to be applied to registration in order to fulfill the organist's obligation to the musical text and illumine for the listener the structure and form of the work at hand. The formal structural criteria in the choice of registration center around two basic considerations: transparency of simultaneous vertical occurrences, and chronological-spatial coherence or appropriate differentiation of the successive formal subdivisions.

Both tempo and "Tempogefühl" (the latter referring to the feeling or projection of tempo) are experienced as one of two spectra which themselves closely resemble bordering spheres more than contrasting poles. The individual interpreter's orientation within this double spectrum is one of the most delicate and imponderable phenomena in music. From left to right the sense-and-effect of tempo ranges from monumentality, through deliberate restraint to poised serenity and—on the other side of the border—from a relaxed swing through a more facile flow to a dynamic forward surge. Reversing direction the dialectic is akin to that between the virtuosity of abandon and the virtuosity of control, or for the listener, between being overwhelmed and illuminated. Musicological research as well as Walcha's example strongly suggest that a high proportion of Bach's music revolves around the spectrum's midline, though such an insight does not remove a considerable remaining leeway for differences in individual pulses, interpretation, or concept of variety. Throughout Walcha's work and teaching that inexorable dialectic between tempo and acoustics remains an ever present if at times exasperating consideration. A most crucial dialectic in the sphere of rhythm and tempo is experienced in the tension between metronomic pulse and those personal nuances of interpretive agogic freedom which rank among the primary expressive tools of all performers.

No student who attended Saturday vespers at the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt could fail to be impressed and influenced by Walcha's chorale-related, free improvisations. They were of a quality comparable to that offered by renowned practitioners of the art. Thus in Walcha's, and in many of his student's lives, there is a three-fold dialectic (Wechselwirkung) between prestructured and improvised music, within the traditional repertoire (in analysis and corresponding rendition of the contrasting elements contained therein), in one's own varied utilitarian or functional church music (and in most cases concert activities) and in original composition.

In the critical sphere of organ building and its characteristic influence on the art of organ playing, there had been in Walcha's career a certain interpenetration of and moderation between northern and southern influence. The extremes here could be defined as represented by such instruments as the Clicquot in Poitiers or some of the Silbermann organs in southern Germany on the one hand and achievements by modern Scandinavian organ builders in Denmark and Sweden on the other. There is yet another polar interaction in the field of organ building which has permeated and defined Walcha's work and teaching: that between the artistic essentials of historic organ building—mechanical playing action, classic specifications, scaling and voicing, casework and slider chests, and so forth—and modern accretions and technical conveniences, such as swell mechanism, electric stop-action, combinations, and the like.

Throughout J.S. Bach's keyboard works, which form the center of Helmut Walcha's life and work, the composer sustained a unique balance between the energies of the vertical and horizontal dimensions, between the appreciable and conceivable requirements of long range and short range harmonic coherence on the one hand and those of melodic and contrapuntal integrity on the other. The implications and ramifications of this achievement, not to mention its inexhaustible fascination, pervade like no other single factor Helmut Walcha's career, his teaching, his concept of the art of music, indeed, his view of the world.

This gives rise to another dialectic, by which none of his students could long remain unaffected, one that is comprised of criteria or creative tensions that become operative in the inevitable attempt to apply what is learned or absorbed from the Bachian dialectic, or from its specific type of "ecological balance," to the understanding and interpretation of music which may embody it in less judicious proportions, or in which it appears to be "counter-balanced" by other forces.

Of often underestimated significance—yet of at least comparable importance to any individual factor such as registration—is an overall philosophical approach which views the exigencies of musicological correctness, i.e. of "purism" and "historicism," and the equally compelling need to communicate with the living audience under greatly altered historical circumstances, as two poles of a spectrum which—rather than allowing either to lay absolute claim to the interpreter—are understood to require mediation and reconciliation precisely through the performer's agency. Without question there will always be room for dispute over the nature and latitude of the necessary or permissible compromises, but recognition of the premise as such is a minimal safeguard against both fanaticism or dogmatism at one end of the spectrum and untamed artistic libertinism at the other.

While the context of this summary precludes an attempt to present the next two points in detail, it is clear that in addition to the overarching artistic dialectic of openness and discipline, there are other contexts and relationships of a high order which play a role in the life and productivity of any individual—such as the unending dialogue between the postulates of one's creed, theology or religion, and one's daily experience of life. All of Helmut Walcha's students are aware that in his case the context is a deeply felt Lutheran Christianity. The particular congruence of this factor with the beliefs held by Bach himself cannot fail to engender speculation about its implications for Walcha's artistry and his Bach interpretation. The type and extent of influence exerted by such a vivid example of unity and continuity between presupposition and execution will vary from person to person and be filtered through each student's individual creed and background.

Similarly, it is evident that there is in Walcha's life, as in Bach's, a constant interaction between musical experience and activity, and theology. This lends special force to his detailed elucidation of a related interpretive dialectic: that which obtains, in certain instrumental works, between implied verbal text and musical substance. This relationship is found to be especially crucial to the realization of Bach's chorale-related works, some of which remain relatively impenetrable, musically speaking, until their verbal or pictorial symbolism has been illuminated.

In yet another respect Walcha's life and influence have been characterized by an extraordinary balance of forces: that between artistic creativity—which has included the composition of four volumes of lucid and colorful chorale-préludes for organ—and pedagogical mission. The pedagogy was not limited to lessons, but expanded to include the marvelous lectures on the Well-Tempered Clavier at the Hochschule in Frankfurt and beyond those to the renowned Bach-Stunden at the Frankfurt University in the years immediately following World War II, not to mention innumerable program notes or introductory remarks at selected concerts throughout the ensuing years, or the publication and widespread use of Walcha's practical performing editions for organ of Bach's Art of the Fugue and the six part ricercar from The Musical Offering. In addition the individual pedagogy has been a two way street. Unlike some artists of comparable distinction, Helmut Walcha was not known to miss lessons or to become bored by studio instruction, in part no doubt because he found ever new ways to channel insights derived in the teaching process back into his personal interpretive and creative work.

To focus on Walcha's performance activities as concert and recording artist is to note the dialogue sustained there between the demands and repertoires of organ and harpsichord. Among his students this duality tends to be reflected, if not always in the identical form, in dialogue and cross fertilization between organ and piano, or organ and composition, or most frequently between organ and conducting.

Like all lives, Walcha's stands under the mysterious interaction of that which can readily be expressed, articulated, and imparted, and that which seems prohibitively difficult to communicate (with regard to which the philosopher Wittgenstein once went so far as to propose a permanent silence). In a moment both rare and characteristic—opening for a revealing moment the door into that realm—Walcha answered a student's query, at a semester's-end party of the church music division of the Hochschule, as to the ultimate criterion for a musician's calling: "What makes you know that you must be a musician are those secret and indescribable moments of transcendent joy which come upon you from time to time—at the keyboard—in the deep absorption of long and lonely hours of practice."

This article has been adapted from a contribution to Bach-Stunden, a Festschrift for Helmut Walcha on the occasion of his 70th birthday, published by Evangelischer Presseverband in Hessen und Nassau, Frankfurt, West Germany, and adapted for SYMPOSIUM with permission.

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

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