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Volume 4, no. 1:

The Registration of Baroque Organ Music. By Barbara Owen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. [ix, 284 pp. ISBN 0–253–33240–0. $39.95.]

Reviewed by Lawrence Archbold*

1. Scope and Style

2. Controversial Topics

3. Corrections and Conclusion


1. Scope and Style

1.1 No better summary of this book could be imagined than that provided by the author in her Introduction: “It is not the purpose of this book to chronicle in detail the history of the organ or its music, but rather to relate that history to the registration of the increasingly diverse regional styles of organ composition and tonal design as they evolved from the period following the Reformation through the Baroque to the beginning of the Classical era.” To be sure, how to devise a registration (how to decide which stops to use) has almost always been a more lively topic for organists—including, even especially, students—than the half-millennium history of the instrument itself or its music for which an organist bears at least some responsibility. Often done quickly (quintessentially, Saturday afternoon before a Sunday morning service) on a unique (that is, idiosyncratic) instrument that the performer may know very well to hardly at all, it is no wonder that organists have often sought help in this regard from authorities. And there has been, over the years, no shortage of such sages. All this makes it especially remarkable that, while there have been many histories of the organ’s repertory, it remained possible to claim on the dust jacket of this book that “Here, for the first time in a single volume, is a comprehensive study of registrational practices from circa 1550 to 1800.”

1.2 As every aspect save the title suggests, the scope of this book is considerably broader than the “Baroque” as it is usually understood. Owen shows very effectively how Renaissance registrational practices help significantly to illuminate those of the Baroque, and how deeply beholden the later eighteenth century (and even the early nineteenth) is in this regard to its inheritance from earlier in that century. Indeed, a title such as “The Registration of Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical Organ Music” would have been closer to the truth of the project; yet in its defense, in the popular imagination “Baroque” often operates as a synonym for “early,” even “pre-Romantic”—at least regarding the organ and its repertoire—and in that more informal sense fits Owen’s scope exactly.

1.3 The book is divided into four parts: Prologue: Renaissance & Reformation; Late Renaissance to Early Baroque; High Baroque; Summation: Late Baroque to Classical. The antiquated idea of a “high” Baroque hints at a critical style that, happily, does not materialize. Owen maintains an admirably evenhanded approach, carefully avoiding an old-fashioned “progress narrative” while working with material that, admittedly, at times seems almost to beg for it. Each of these four sections begins with a very brief introduction to the historical and social issues of the period; Owen presents just enough to help the reader make sense of the organ and its repertoire, and—through little more than a few broad generalities—helpfully sets the scene. Within the four parts, chapters are devoted to individual regions—England, France and the Lower Netherlands, Italy, etc.—which are grouped as needed in each part; Mesoamerica and the Coastal United States also make appearances. Lists of composers for each chapter are provided, which is especially helpful: it is always clear what music is under discussion in what chapter. (Since the book’s fundamental organization is chronological rather than national, most regions are discussed in four widely separated chapters.) Characteristic—and widely contrasting—stop lists are provided in each chapter as well. In other words, when the actual discussion of registrational practices begins for a given time and place, even a novice is ready; at the same time, these resources, especially the organ specifications, are helpful to the expert. This elaborate organization is managed adroitly and, once underway, quickly becomes predictable.

1.4 The prose is generally very clear and ideally suited to the fundamentally “positivistic” nature of the project; indeed, a work like this reaffirms how valuable such work remains, despite the occasional protestations against it heard in today’s musicology. The citation style, too, is especially appropriate: bibliographic items are numbered, allowing for easy reference in the text to the more than 340 items included. This is particularly helpful during the presentation of the more than 100 stop lists. The bibliography also illustrates, of course, that the main sources of information for a history of registrational practices are treatises and related materials. Yet to her credit, Owen is not afraid to draw inferences about these practices from compositional style in addition to, or in the absence of, more traditional sources. Perhaps even more interestingly, such inferences are also drawn from music’s social function: for example, compositions associated with chapels instead of churches might be thought of as appropriate for smaller organs (such as positives) and thus require fewer stops (and even 4' in place of 8' pitch). Owen also has provocative ideas about the interplay of musical style and organ design (and thus registrations): in some contexts (such as seventeenth-century North Germany) she sees organ design dictating musical style, while in others (such as seventeenth-century South Germany and Austria) exactly the reverse.

2. Controversial Topics

2.1 How Owen handles several controversial topics in the field deserves special mention. Her insistence that the “orchestral organ” is “by no means a twentieth-century concept”—a claim she more than adequately documents by the end of the book—takes the history of the organ (and thereby organ registration) in a significantly different direction than was typical of histories of the instrument from earlier in the century. The “orchestral organ” used to signify merely undesirable Romantic excess; here, organ stops which imitate other instruments—a basic idea in the history of the organ since virtually the beginning—form not only a significantly broader category, but are also treated without bias. Owen carefully negotiates a discussion of the registrational practices promulgated by Harald Vogel (director of the North German Organ Academy) for seventeenth-century north German organ music, especially such works as the praeludia of Buxtehude and his contemporaries. (Vogel’s ideas—at once so striking and, like many other ideas about how to register this repertory, so strikingly lacking in documentary support—have virtually revolutionized how these important works might be registered.) Equally noteworthy is the view of J. S. Bach and his organ music now emerging as the organs of the former East Germany become better known. Owen captures the excitement in the field: as central Germany is increasingly viewed as a leading center of innovative organ design in the early and middle eighteenth century, the idea of “Bach the Culminator”—a staple of music history for generations and never more powerful than in reference to the organ works—is fading as a new image, that of a progressive composer riding the crest of European organ innovation, is revealed. Thus, the idea of a “Bach organ” is today in flux, and Owen provides a model summary of where the field now stands.

2.2 Experienced organists may be surprised by Owen’s fearlessness, even flair, for imaginatively describing organ timbres: “throaty, articulate, and surprisingly strong,” “opaque and gritty,” and so on. Such adjectives prove far from gratuitous, however, for an ancillary yet most interesting aspect of Owen’s project is her attempt to offer advice for registering the repertoire under discussion on the organs her readers are most likely to have at hand. These instruments, whether in North America or Europe, often pose significant, even discouragingly recalcitrant problems even when—indeed, often especially when—they exemplify the “neo-Baroque” style. It is not hard to see in some of Owen’s suggestions the struggles of many years of practical compromise, and some measure of frustration must surely lie behind her statement that, regarding music of the northern Netherlands in the time of Sweelinck, “if no appropriately light and colorful sounds can be found on the organ available, much of this music also sounds very well on the harpsichord.” Owen is not, however, usually this pessimistic, and in spite of her repeated criticisms of neo-Baroque organs (“They look all right on paper, but lack the substance to deliver musically”), her advice is upbeat, insightful, and rarely doctrinaire. These comments will surely be helpful to students and likely draw out the sympathy of experienced players.

2.3 A related recurring theme is the author’s condemnation of editorial meddling in organ scores that recommends registrational practices appropriate to significantly later periods. Certainly students need to know the difference between an edition that follows period style (to the extent registrational suggestions are made) and one that brings the style of Romantic or modern (that is, Neoclassical) practices to early music. Not to mention the possibility that an early registrational style might be overlaid on the wrong early music (Owen cites a particularly infamous edition of Pachelbel registered in the style of Praetorius). Her many suggestions for the adaptation of early organ music to modern organs would at first seem to fly in the face of her aversion to anachronistic registrations. Yet in a case such as this, the proof is in the pudding, and her advice is best judged by its results.

3. Corrections and Conclusion

3.1 The text is relatively free of errors, yet some questions do emerge: Pierre Attaingnant is generally regarded as the editor, not composer, of organ pieces usually dated 1531, not 1530; the enigmatic Antoine Calvi?re is even more so when rendered as Calviére; Grand Orgue (just once) appears as Grande Orgue; Bellini did indeed write an organ piece. One curious mannerism could also be rectified in subsequent editions: terms are often not defined when first encountered but rather on a subsequent use. For example, the idea of a “recusant” Catholic is first introduced without comment, but at a reappearance receives a parenthetical definition. The same also happens with “gapped registrations,” “Mistura,” and finally becomes a pattern whose rationale is obscure. On the other hand, that we learn twice how to do a drum effect by first “treading rhythmically”—and 100 pages later, “rhythmic tramping”—on the pedals can be written off to enthusiasm.

3.2 Owen can hardly fail to win the reader over with her approach: it would be hard to read this book and not experience a renewed interest in the organ and its music. The reader is also likely to be charmed and instructed by the author’s attentiveness to organ timbre and inspired to address anew the vicissitudes of working with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century repertoire on twentieth-century organs. Perhaps this book will also encourage a scholar of equal skill to do something similar for the Romantic organ and its music.

 


*Lawrence Archbold is Professor of Music and Enid and Henry Woodward College Organist at Carleton College.  His writings center on Baroque and Romantic organ music. His most recent essay, "Widor's Symphonie romane: A New Edition of a Legendary Masterpiece," appeared in the March, 1998, issue of The American Organist.
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