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Helmuth Walcha


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- St. Jacobi, Lübeck & St. Peter und Paul Kirche, Cappel (1947-1952)

- The Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, May 8th, 1953 (live)

Helmut Walcha (October 27, 1907 in Leipzig, Germany – August 11, 1991 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany) was a blind German organist who specialized in the works of the Dutch and German baroque masters and is known for his recordings of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. And who, despite being blinded at 19 by smallpox, is considered one of the great teachers and performers of the organ during the 20th century.

Born in Leipzig, Walcha was blinded at age 19 after getting vaccinated for smallpox. Despite his disability, he entered the Leipzig Conservatory and became an assistant at the Thomaskirche to Günther Ramin, who was a professor of organ at the conservatory and cantor at St. Thomas'. In 1929, Walcha accepted a position in Frankfurt am Main at the Friedenskirche and remained in Frankfurt for the rest of his life. From 1933 to 1938 he taught at the Hoch Conservatory. In 1938 he was appointed professor of organ at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt and organist of the Dreikönigskirche in 1946. He retired from public performance in 1981.

He recorded the complete works by J. S. Bach twice, from 1947-1952 in mono on the Schnitger organ in Cappel and in St. Jakobi in Lübeck and 1956-1971 on the famous organ in Alkmaar.

He lectured on organ music and composition (illustrated by his own playing) at the Hoch Conservatory and the Frankfurt Musikhochschule. One other contribution to music scholarship is his attempted completion of the final (unfinished) fugue of The Art of Fugue.
(Partly from Wikipedia)

Even though Helmut Walcha’s style is distinctly modern - e.g. he plays what is written and in a steady beat without extensive use of rubato - you can still hear a connection to a pre-WWI performance aesthetic especially in his melodic lines and choice of tempi. Compared to our modern style, he tends towards slow tempi and a listener today might find his playing a bit dull, but I think Helmut Walcha’s organ playing is always profoundly musical and his melodic lines are very beautifully shaped.

Walcha’s style and temperament is not explosive and one could argue that some of the more energetic preludes and fugues (e.g. the G major) are in his hand a bit slow and passive.

One interesting anecdote says that, due to his blindness, he learned organ pieces by having the right hand, left hand and pedal part played separately twice while listening and then he was able to play it all together!

It would seem a bit odd, why Walcha chose to record the complete J. S. Bach two times within such a small period, but I think it was due to the introduction of the Long Playing record and through that the stereo recording into the general public during the 1950s. The record company simply wanted a new and more technically superior recording of the same works with the same performer. 

This tendency was also prevalent during the years surrounding 1925 which marked the introduction of the electrical recording process with the microphone. Here many musicians made new recordings of the same works in the years following 1925 despite that they often had recorded the works a few years prior to 1925.

One of the most illustrious examples of this are the two recordings with Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own piano concerto no. 2. He was engaged to record the concerto just around new year 1924 with the old acoustical recording process in front of a big recording horn even though RCA-Victor did in fact know that they were to introduce the electrical recording process soon. Due to some technical complications the recording was first published in the spring of 1925 and was de facto obsolete even before it was released. So Rachmaninoff recorded the concerto again just four years later in 1929 not on musical grounds, but simply on technical grounds.

A note on the recordings:

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1947-1952 on the Schnitger organ in Cappel and in St. Jakobi in Lübeck.

Some of the earliest organ recordings from 1925-26 contained music by J. S. Bach, and his music quickly became an integral part of what an established organist should record. In many respects an organist’s ability and style was founded upon how she or he played J. S. Bach.

So even though there were a plethora of recordings with the organ music of J. S. Bach, Helmut Walcha’s first complete J. S. Bach cycles from 1947-52 marked the first attempt to showcase an overview of his oeuvre in its entirety from a more scholarly perspective. The recordings were published on a subdivision of Deutsche Grammophon with the opulent title: “Archiv Produktion des musikhistorischen Studios der Deutschen Grammophon-Gesellschaft”. This subdivision was established in 1949 and its main goal was, as the title might imply, a record label to promote early music combined with a scholarly and scientific approach. In connection with organ music the focus was on well researched urtext versions of the scores and a suitable organ with enough historical resonance. The accompanying booklets contain not only the recording dates and the usual technical data surrounding the specific recording. It even goes to the extent to comment on which kind of source material is available for the piece (e.g. manuscript or various copies) and also specifies the exact modern edition (primarily Edition C. F. Peters) of the score used in the recording even pointing out the editor/scholar of the edition. Furthermore the booklet also comments on where the music was composed and other small historical tidbits.

Helmut Walcha was an excellent choice for this endeavor, and the choice fell mainly upon the Schnitger organ from 1680 in the church of St. Peter und Paul in the small town of Cappel in Niedersachen and the Stellwagen organ from 1636-37 in St. Jacobi Kirche in Lübeck. Besides being two of the most intact and well preserved organs from the two time periods they also served instrumental in the establishment of The Organ Reform Movement (Die Orgelbewegung) in the beginning of the 20th Century, and through this connection these two instruments were (and are still today) two of the most important instruments in the world.


Johann Sebastian Bach in Copenhagen, live 1953

Helmut Walcha’s primary legacy beside the imprints he left on his countless students and all the written anecdotes and stories surrounding him was, as mentioned, his two complete J. S. Bach recordings, and these are fortunately still available in numerous re-publications on digital platforms and media. We have through these recordings a comprehensive picture of the kind of musician he was, when he sat in front of a microphone. Many critics and historians (including myself) thus have observed a controlled and elegant musician sometimes lacking the freshness and energy always emanating from a live concert. He of course played concerts his entire professional life, but unfortunately concert recordings with him are scarce, if not completely void, in his overall discography. I have not been able to find one single concert recording available.

That is why, I’m very pleased to be able to present a concert recording with Helmut Walcha. This single recording was part of a concert he played in The Danish Radio Concert Hall on May 8th in 1953 on one of the signature organs by the renowned Danish organ builder Marcussen & Søn. This might be one of the most important contributions to the overall Helmut Walcha discography and the recording shows a vitalism not usually found in his normal “studio” recordings.

The concert, or parts of the concert, was broadcasted in the Danish radio, and was luckily privately recorded and afterwards presented as a gift to the head of Marcussen & Søn, Sybrand Zachariassen (1900-1960) by Helmut Walcha himself. About 10 years ago I was generously given the recording from Claudia Zachariassen, the granddaughter of Sybrand Zachariassen, and current head of Marcussen & Søn with permission to publish the recording as part of IHORC. So a big thanks goes to her for keeping this precious gem for all those years! The records were expertly restored by Claus Byrith.

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