To try and answer this question and figure out how Bach might have regarded a modern, digital organ, we need to try to understand the man’s personality and get into his head.
By all accounts Bach:
- Got into at least one knife fight with a bassoonist, after calling said bassoonist an ugly name
- Spent time in prison
- Drank and smoked a good deal
- Had a lot of sex!
- Yelled and threw things at poor pupils
- Almost constantly argued with civic authority and employers, simply disregarding their orders when it suited him
While the above is in part conjecture, we do know that Bach undertook a walk of 280 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck just to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play. This is pretty clear evidence of his thirst for knowledge of organ music and composition style.
Accessibility to play the Pipe Organ a factor?
Bach was a passionate, focussed, and intolerant genius with energy and determination to get from life what he wanted out of it. I am not sure any of that analysis helps answer the question of what Bach would have thought about digital organs, though.
So let’s look at the time and place Bach lived in. Would it have influenced his opinion?
Playing a pipe organ in Bach’s day wasn’t an easy endeavour. Just think of the issues to overcome if he wanted to experiment at the console. Presumably he’d have to drag at least one if not two people out of a nearby tavern, and pay them, to operate the bellows. At night, he would have needed to light numerous candles to see what he was doing. He couldn’t just play the organ when he felt like it. He’d have to plan his practice sessions well in advance. I think we can be sure he would not have reacted well if those plans did not come to pass.
Would Bach welcome the digital organ?
Given the problems Bach would have faced playing the organ back in his time, he might have liked the ease of simply flicking a switch to play his digital organ whenever he wanted to. And he wouldn’t even have to leave the house. The latter would be possible with an electric blower in church, but we think that J.S. Bach would have been rather delighted with the digital option.
Opinionated as he was, though, would he have told us ‘ it’s not the same as the real thing’?
Probably so, but on balance we feel he would have happily traded off the ease of access against the job of finding the blowing manpower. Especially for the larger instruments, where often 4 people were required to generate the air. Of course, we will never know, and as I have found by experience ‘men of true genius’ are often very difficult to predict!
Watch Bach on Regent Classic’s YouTube channel
We won’t ever know for certain what J.S. Bach would have thought about playing a digital organ, but we do hope that you will enjoy the two videos from our YouTube channel below.
The first video from our Regent Classic Organ YouTube channel is J.S. Bach’s “1st Movement E Flat Trio Sonata”. The instrument in the video is currently on hire at the Canterbury Cathedral until summer 2020.
In the second video below Dr Joseph Nolan plays J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in the beautiful Selby Abbey. The instrument is a custom built Skinner Style Organ. The organ console is a near perfect copy of an original Skinner instrument built in 1929 for St Peter’s Episcopal Church Morristown New Jersey and the voicing, using an identical stop list, is also based on this organ.
Let us know in the comments below what you think Bach would have made of our digital organs, and also what you think yourself.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Regent Classic Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.