George Ritchie
On Playing J. S. Bach


Originally published in the J. S. Bach 250th Anniversary edition of The Organ, Vol 79, No. 312.

"I appreciate the invitation of the editors of The Organ to discuss my approach to Bach in my ongoing series of recordings on the Raven label. Any single approach to this incredible music is the result of a complicated mixture of elements, so I will focus my remarks here on a few of my basic beliefs and objectives.

"Surviving historical organs are of inestimable value in helping us understand the music written for them; however, several current builders are building Baroque-style instruments that rival the old ones in quality and that deserve to be widely heard. So I have chosen a few of those organs that have been built recently in the United States. With each organ, I have tried to select a group of varied registrations that sound good on the instrument, that help clarify the polyphony, and that fit with the historical evidence, albeit limited, that we have concerning German Baroque registrations. I have printed all my registrations in the notes accompanying each recording.

"We have quite a bit of information indicating important features of Bach's organ playing, much of it coming from Bach himself or his sons, pupils, and acquaintances. It concerns aspects of his fingerings, ornaments, and registrations, and it suggests that he used an articulate legato as his normal touch, subtly grouped consecutive notes of equal rhythmic value into pairs, projected rhythms featuring the regular alternation of strong and weak beats, and related his tempos to his meter signatures. However, even though we have this information, I believe it is not reasonable to use it to try to reproduce Bach's playing. Music-making is too subtle a matter and this information has too many gaps in it to give us a reasonable hope of achieving such a goal. But it does make sense to use this historical evidence to stimulate our creativity as we approach the performance of Bach's music. In particular, I believe it can help a performer to clarify polyphonic textures, to choose appropriate tempos, to create a flow of sound that has the effect of natural breathing, and to make the music dance and sing at the same time.

"In addition, I think it is important to be open to the possibility of influences on our creativity from unexpected places. For me, one such influence has been my experience as a jazz pianist. Playing jazz heightens one's sensitivity to the flow of time and to the placement of notes in that flow. Achieving a sense of "swing" is largely a matter of extremely precise note placement. The origins of jazz rhythms lie in African music, music that is closely connected with dance, and of course the source of the rhythms behind much of Bach's music is also dance music. It is interesting that the subtle articulate touch commonly used by jazz pianists is very much like the normal, or "ordinary", touch described in Baroque treatises about keyboard playing. Of course there are many differences between jazz rhythms and Baroque dance rhythms, but both demand a well-developed sense of note placement in the flow of time.

"Finally, I believe it is vitally important for the player of a Bach organ work to know each individual melodic line in the polyphonic web, just as a choral conductor must know each of the melodies to be sung by the individual voice parts in a choir. This knowledge helps the organist to internalise the essence of the music and to keep the fingers and feet subservient to the musical impulses coming from the mind and the heart."

The Artist