October 18, 2020


Using Historical Sources in Organ Performance

October 18, 2020


Using Historical Sources in Organ Performance


Paolo Crivellaro, Organ Professor at the University of the Arts Berlin, discusses his writings on performance practice in the North German and French Classical Organ Schools based on historical sources in this interview with Vox Humana Associate Editor Guy Whatley.


Paolo, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. How did you come to the organ and what are your main interests in this field?

Like most organists, I first began studying piano and fell in love with Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy and the usual piano repertoire. Later I studied piano and organ, both as main subjects. When I rediscovered the organ, I first played mostly late romantic repertoire. At the time, Reger and Dupré were my "heroes." It wasn't until some years later that I became seriously involved with early music, when I discovered the beauty and depth of pre-Bach music, a fascination with old organs, the euphony of meantone tuning, and the incredible variety and richness of the sixteenth and seventeenth century organ repertoire. From that moment I began to approach this repertoire with greater respect, curious to discover all the secrets of early music. While I still very much love Franck, Vierne, Reubke and Reger, if I had to make a "hard choice" today, I would probably opt for sixteenth and seventeenth century music.

When I was 20, my main aim was to play as many concerts as possible. I wanted to travel the world as a performer and play the very many beautiful historical organs in Europe, from Antegnati and Schnitger to Cavaillé-Coll and Sauer. At 40, I had the great privilege to become professor at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, the largest and one of the most renowned University of the Arts in Europe. In Berlin the level of the students was (and still is) extremely high. That greatly boosted my interest in teaching. At the same time, seeing how demanding students at the UdK were, I was led toward the next phase: academic research. In the last 20 years I have become more and more interested in exploring the different and very fascinating organ schools and organ traditions by reading old treatises and delving into all matters related to historical interpretation, regardless of whether it concerns Andrea Gabrieli or Max Reger.

You are the author of the widely-acclaimed book Die Norddeutsche Orgelschule, available here. How did this come about?

Some ten years ago we organized an organ excursion with the UdK students to North Germany. For this occasion I wrote a short essay about North German organ registration. Once back home, I thought I would use that as a basis for an article, and so I began collecting more and more material. The original idea of writing an article on registrations expanded into a general interpretation of North German music, and little by little this transformed into a book. I was very fortunate to have the help and support of some of the great specialists in this repertoire like Pieter van Dijk, Harald Vogel, and Wolfgang Zerer, who followed the development of the project, from the manuscript phase to print.

And recently you published your second book — Organ and Intrepretation: The French école classique — available in German and English.

My goal was to synthesize the huge amount of historical information that can be found in the French livres d'orgue and old treatises, so that an organist has all the "know how" in one single book. Also in this case I had the great privilege of support from leading French organists like Michel Bouvard, Aude Heurtematte, Olivier Latry, and Christophe Mantoux, who, with their long-standing experience, helped me greatly.

How has the interpretation of French classical music changed over the last few decades?

50 years ago the tendency was to treat all composers belonging to an organ school in a similar way: e.g. Cavazzoni in the same way as Scarlatti, Praetorius in the same way as Bruhns, Cabezón in the same way as Cabanilles, despite the fact that there is a gap between some of them of 100 to 150 years. Today we tend to focus much more on the precise historic moment in which a composer lived. Concerning France, even if between the generation of Louis Couperin or Lebègue and that of Du Mage or Clérambault there aren't so many years, some aspects of interpretation are quite different. For instance, the way to play ornaments: Nivers and Raison prefer a pre-beat execution of the Port de voix, whereas Boyvin and Corrette play it on the beat. Another example: the registrations used by François Couperin are quite different from those used by Titelouze. In my book I underline how to approach the different generations of composers and, accordingly, how to differentiate our way of playing.

One of the most striking things reading your books is how little of you is in them; you present a huge amount of historical source material in a very organized and accessible way. Is it intentional that you allow the sources to speak for themselves, rather than inserting yourself into the text?

The "history of interpretation" of the last 100 years has taught us how much the musical ideas of the moment can influence the interpretation of a precise historical period. Marcel Dupré and Karl Straube loved and played the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but they did it according to their concept of interpretation, which was very strongly influenced by late romanticism (legato, phrasing à la Hugo Riemann, romantic registrations, crescendos using the swell box, etc.). Most interpreters of Bach in the 1950s and 1960s reacted to this by playing in a way that was diametrically opposed to it, but not (necessarily) based on historical evidence, and today we label this as neo-baroque and old-fashioned. Like it or not, the musical taste of the moment in which one lives always tends to come out in the way one plays. If I wrote in my books what I personally think about a specific interpretative question, sure enough in 20–30 years' time it would be considered passée, old-fashioned, and questionable. For this reason, I prefer to present objective historical notions: they — paradoxically — do not age.

Is there a relation between your books and your philosophy of teaching?

Definitely. When I teach in Berlin at the UdK or in a masterclass, I try to be as objective as possible and avoid giving students my own ready-made solutions. I encourage them to find their own solutions and their own way of playing. For these reasons I try — within the circumstances and according to the situation — to avoid simply saying things like "here a bit slower, there a bit more articulated," i.e. instruct them to play the way I like. Rather I say, for example: "The question of tempo in Reger, according to Straube, is such and such," or "The non legato according to Marpurg or Wiedeburg is such and such." I believe that the idea of collecting as many historical notions as possible concerning a given organ school in a single book can be a great help to organ students and organ players. On this point I would like to emphasize that my books are for performers, not for musicologists. As stated in the prefaces: "The purpose… is to provide as much information as possible from the texts of the time, leaving them as objective stimuli and thus not offering ready-made interpretative solutions, particularly in cases of contradictions or ambiguities within the sources themselves. It is in these circumstances that the performer is invited to evaluate the different interpretative possibilities and to make his/her own choices." I firmly believe this.

In the last decades vast amounts of historical source material and editions have become widely available due to the internet. How has this changed organ education in your experience?

Having access today to basically any source conserved in almost any library in the world makes research work much easier. I remember the first masterclasses I attended some 40 years ago; whenever a teacher proudly announced something like he had found the fingering of an organ piece in some unknown archive, we felt honored that he was sharing with us such a secret, and we felt privileged that we could make a copy of such "treasures." Today most of these "treasures" are just a click away on your computer.

How has the internet changed organ playing?

In both a positive and negative way. In a positive way because resources like YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, and many others offer access to good and interesting performances as well as to repertoires which are "off the beaten track." And this for little or no money at all. The negative consequence of this, however, is globalization. I remember, when taking part as young student in organ competitions, how huge the differences were between competitors coming from Germany, France, Russia, or another country. Today, when I sit in a judges' panel of a competition I instead hear interpretations "à la Ton Koopman", "à la Harald Vogel", "à la Jean Guillou" etc. These are all great interpreters for students to take as models, no question about that, but here is where the negative side of globalization emerges: many students today tend simply to imitate a performance they have heard in YouTube. I consider this an impoverishment.

Can you give some examples of where performances and understanding of repertoire can be changed due to exposure to historical source material?

There are plenty of examples. When we speak today of "gap registrations" (e.g. 8' and 1' or similar), organists tend to classify them as "neo-baroque", suitable for the organ repertoire written around about 1950, but not for early music. Reading the old treatises we discover that the anonymous writer of the "Tabella di Valvasone" (Italy, c.1558) calls for "Tenori, vigesimaseconda, vigesimanona" (i.e. 8', 1', ½'); or Michael Praetorius (Syntagma Musicum, 1619) calls for "Sorduen 16 und Supegedäctlein 2"; or Marin Mersenne (Harmonie Universelle, 1636) calls for "Bourdon 8 + Flageollet 1". In the sixteenth and seventeenth century sources, there are plenty of gap registrations.

In the USA, Fenner Douglass's book The Language of the Classical French Organ has become the standard reference work for organ music of the French baroque period. How does your book differ?

Douglass's book is a great pioneering reference text! The first edition of that book goes back to 1969. In the last 50 years much new evidence and information has come to light, as well as previously unavailable music like, for instance, the very important collection of Pièces d'Orgue of Louis Couperin. On top of that, Douglass's book focuses mostly on registrations, with an excursus to the French organ and French ornamentation. In my book, in addition to dealing with these topics (duly updated), I have extended the research to cover other fields such as an update on the sources (printed and manuscript), the elaboration of cantus firmi and their practical function in the alternatim practice, an overview of the French temperaments in relation to the difficulties of performing some of the works (because of their tonalities) on historical instruments. I also devoted specific chapters to the questions of tempo, fingerings, jeu inégal, a critical approach to the sources, etc.

I was particularly interested in the chapter "A critical reading of the sources: the 'case' of de Grigny."

De Grigny's Livre d'Orgue, published in 1699, represents the apogee of the French organ school of the Baroque period. Paradoxically, this Livre d'Orgue has been transmitted to us in a volume that is of very poor print quality and shows clumsy work by the engraver, who left numerous inaccuracies and errors in preparation of the typographic plate. There are many errors in the original print. In some cases the error is evident, in others the error is probable or likely, in other cases a given passage leaves room for doubt. I try to guide the reader to detect these errors and suggest what the possible alternative solutions may be.

You have devoted a lot of space to the practice of alternatim. Why is this topic so important for you?

The vast majority of this repertoire was performed within a liturgical context, in particular during a Mass or Vespers. None of the organists in those days would have played their couplets (versets) one after the other, as we do today in concerts. These couplets were to be understood as part of much larger liturgical cycles that make up the Ordinarium Missae, the Magnificat and the hymns. They were performed in alternatim with the singing. A Kyrie, for instance, consists of nine versets, five of which are entrusted to the organ and four are sung. Only if we perform these versets alternatim with the choir (or with a singer) can we understand the great dimension of the cycles and, generally speaking, of this repertoire. Otherwise we have an infinity of short versets which, compared to the large works of Buxtehude and Bach, seem to be of little importance. But they are not.

Many players of French music have questions about notes inégales, not knowing where to apply it, how strong the inequality should be, how "regular" the inequality should be. In light of your extensive research, what do you recommend?

The question concerning notes inégales can't be answered in a few lines. There are the different degrees of inégalité; there is the "irrational" inégalité of Nivers (dotted eighth note followed by an eighth note), there are compositions in Italian style which presuppose no inégalité, there are the exceptions described by Marin Marais (dots placed above untied notes), etc. We have plenty of information on the matter from Loys Bourgeois (1550) until Joseph Engramell (1775), which I collected in the relevant chapter in the book.

Many of us do not have access to a historical French organ. For example, in the United States there are many superb historic organs, but the majority are built in the North German style. What advice would you give players who want to bring French baroque music to life on these instruments?

It doesn't make any sense to "blindly" pull out the stops as requested by Nivers, Antegnati, Silbermann, Franck, or Mendelssohn on a modern, "tutti-frutti" organ built in the twentieth century. A Principal 8' by Antegnati, or Schnitger, or Clicquot, or Cavaillé-Call sounds totally different, despite being "the same" stop. We know how important the right sound is for the French Classical repertoire. One has to experiment with the modern stops to try and find the nearest equivalent. Ideally one should go to France and listen to some of these instruments, memorize the sound and try to imitate it with the organ at one's disposal. Of course, one can't always obtain exactly the same sound, but sometimes the results are better than expected. On this aspect, Nivers seem to "wink his eye" at us: "…nonetheless all be changed and played with other stops at the player’s discretion and according to the organ specification."

What are you working on at the moment, and what new projects do you have?

At the moment I am writing a completely new edition of my book on North German music. New evidence has come to light in the last few years, as well as various important new articles, editions, and essays. I am in the process of integrating them in a new version of the book. The Italian version will probably be ready at the end of this year and, hopefully, the English translation sometime next year. And in the future, maybe, a book on early Italian music...


Editor's Note

Paolo Crivellaro's new book Organ and Intrepretation: The French école classique is now available in English, German, and Italian here.


Paolo Crivellaro completed his studies in organ and piano in Milan and Basel, and began a career as a concert organist, which has led him to play at renowned concert venues including the Philharmonie in Berlin, Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, the Palace of Arts in Budapest, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, the Torch Center in Seoul, the Meistersingerhalle in Nürnberg, the Istanbul International Music Festival and in major Cathedrals (Vienna, Madrid, Berlin, Stockholm, Lisbon, Tokyo, Brussels, Kraków, Dresden, Roskilde and Haarlem).

Since 1990 he has been actively engaged in teaching at various academies and summer courses throughout Europe. As a guest professor he is regularly invited by distinguished universities and higher music institutions to conduct master-classes (Paris, Prague, Helsinki, Tokyo, Lyon, Göteborg, Seoul, Toulouse, Amsterdam and Groningen). Since 2001 he has been Professor of Organ at the Universität der Künste in Berlin.

Honorary Inspector for the Italian Ministry of Culture; between 1978 and 1992 he was responsible for the catalogueing of over two hundred historic organs for the National Trust for Artistic and Historical Treasures. His experience in the field of organ history and organ-building includes research and lectures, and he is the author of a number of articles on the subject, some of them translated into various languages for specialised organ magazines. In 2014 he published the book Die Norddeutsche Orgelschule – Aufführungspraxis nach historischen Zitaten (Carus Verlag).

He has also appeared on the jury panel of numerous organ competitions including the Odense International Organ Competition, the Toulouse-les-Orgues, the Prague Spring Music Festival, Innsbruck (Paul Hofheimer), Alkmaar (the Internationaal Schnitger Orgelconcours), Freiberg (the Silbermann Orgelwettbewerb), Linz (the Anton Bruckner Festival), Magadino (the Festival Organistico Internazionale), Groningen (the International Martini Organ Competition), Milan (Duomo), Kotka, Füssen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.