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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

[Helmut Walcha]

Helmut Walcha (1907-1991)
- Remembrances

October 2007

Student Remembrances

David Boe’s recollections…

Helmut Walcha had a formidable memory. His ability to retain the complete keyboard works of Bach (plus a number of other works from the early North German repertoire) was nothing short of phenomenal. He credited this ability in part to his blindness and felt that being deprived of sight focused his hearing and concentration. One could bring any Bach work to a lesson and find him able to perform it, virtually note perfect, and with a spontaneity and freshness not always apparent in his Bach recordings.

Helmut and Ursula Walcha occasionally entertained his students at their home. One of these occasions was during the Christmas season of 1960. Walcha offered to play Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch on his house organ. Midway through the canon in augmentation he experienced a minor memory slip from which he recovered without missing a beat. Following the performance he apologized for the slip and said that it just occurred to him that he had not performed the piece the previous Christmas.

On another occasion he performed Kunst der Fuge at an out-of-town venue. The entire studio made the 50 or 60 kilometer trip by train to hear him perform the 90 minute work on a rather mediocre instrument. The organ had a keydesk recessed into the base of the organ, making it difficult for the performer to hear, which was the probable cause of several memory lapses. All of these were so skillfully covered up with his remarkable improvisatory ability that probably only listeners with a score in hand were aware of the problem. The most dramatic of these lapses occurred in the final fugue where he sailed right past the entrance of the fourth voice without bringing it in. He adroitly improvised his way (all with thematic material) back to a two-voice texture, again bringing in the third voice followed by the fourth. All of us were amazed at how skillfully he had handled all of this, but he was clearly upset with himself. Every student received an apology the following week. Walcha hoped that it was not a waste of our time to travel that distance just to hear him forget. He then suggested that perhaps there are limits to any person’s ability to perfectly remember everything.


Delbert Disselhorst’s recollections…

Helmut Walcha was born and educated in Leipzig. His father was a postal official and his mother a homemaker. As a result of a faulty toxin or overdose with a smallpox vaccination as a very young boy, he suffered a severe vision reaction and with each passing year the vision deteriorated until the late teens when it was completely gone. Walcha’s parents rented a room to a bassist from the Gewandhaus orchestra. He heard the young boy playing piano and asked his parents who was teaching him. They replied that he had no piano teacher; he had simply learned to play on his own and by listening to his elder sister. The bassist was astonished and asked if he might take Helmut to meet the famed Gewandhaus orchestra conductor Nikisch. He did go to meet him and was asked to improvise something which he did to the astonishment of Nikisch and again the bassist. He gave the young boy a coin and said he should certainly study piano and return in a year. Helmut laughed about this encounter and said his mother probably was more impressed by the fact that he had been given a coin by this famous conductor than by the impression her son had given as an improviser.

Helmut discovered in the piano book his sister had a work of Bach and because his eyesight was so poor he could only read one staff at a time. He learned the “melody” of the upper staff and then decided to learn the “accompaniment.” “Imagine my surprise,” he said, “the accompaniment was the same as the melody, but was following it a bar later.” This was the F Major two-part invention. It was his discovery of counterpoint!

He progressed rapidly with instruction and was admitted to the Leipzig Conservatory where, given his fascination with the organ, he came to the class of the young virtuoso Gunther Ramin. Walcha was one of the first students of Ramin and certainly the youngest. He made his first public appearance at the age of 16 ½, playing the F Major Toccata and Fugue The following year he gave a recital in Leipzig and included chamber music and vocal works of Bach. He was incensed to read in the paper that mention had been made of his blindness. Throughout his life he resented any mention of blindness as some kind of liability to overcome. He did not rely on Braille, nor did he use a white cane. Family, friends, students read to him and assisted him in many ways including his learning of repertoire. He learned contrapuntal works by having single lines played to him—he combined them! This proved to be the basis of his subsequent teaching.

He went to Frankfurt in 1929 and was organist at the Friedenskirche. He remained in Frankfurt for the remainder of his life. In 1945 (the Friedenskirche had been bombed during the war) he became organist at the Church of The Three Kings. He remained titular organist there until his retirement in 1983. When Walcha came to Frankfurt he soon realized that there was very little Bach performed in any context and he immediately gave thought to remedying that situation. In 1939 he began a series of FREE concerts in which the complete Bach works were performed at least 5 times in addition to countless other writings including the 12 Handel organ concertos. He evidently gave rather brief oral program notes at the beginning, but the audience was so interested in what he had to say theoretically, formally, theologically, musically, that these concerts became real lecture recitals. They continued for 20 years. There were at least 150 concerts. As a result of his generosity in enhancing the cultural life of the city in such a profound way over such a long period of time the city of Frankfurt in gratitude later gave a new organ to the Church of the Three Kings.

The performer…

He made his first recordings on the small organ of Jakobi in Lübeck in 1947 for the Archiv production. This was followed by recordings in Cappel and Alkmaar. The monophonic recordings of the Bach works were followed by stereo recordings at Alkmaar (1956-63) and St.Pierre le Jeune in Strasbourg that were finished in the early 1970s. Walcha’s repertoire was immense with 330 works, any available and ready to play at any time. In addition to the complete Bach keyboard works and transcriptions, he played the complete Bach works for violin/harpsichord, flute/harpsichord, cello/harpsichord. He also enjoyed playing the 6 sonatas for solo violin, cello, and the solo flute sonata on the keyboard. Works of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Buxtehude, Scheidt, Sweelinck, Bruhns, Lübeck, Hindemith, and others were in his memory. He played and edited the 12 Handel Organ concertos.

He concertized extensively in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Denmark Sweden, and England.

I heard him perform well over 100 times at church, Vespers, and in concert, and I can only remember hearing one error in the opening of Bach D Major P&F at a Vesper In his church. The following week he played that work again to assure HIMSELF and Us that he COULD play it well!

The composer…

He composed four volumes of chorale preludes that were issued in 1954, 63, 66, and 75. The first volume he completed during a period of time in Bad Homburg during the war when it was unsafe to be in the city. I recall asking him at one point in 1963 if he planned to compose additional chorale preludes; he said that another volume WAS completed and when on vacation with his wife in the Black Forest he would dictate them to her! C.F.Peters published an arrangement of the Ricercar a 6 from the Musical Offering and also his edition of Art of Fugue with a completion of the final fugue.

The teacher…

Walcha was a phenomenal pedagogue. The intensity with which he approached each work was notable and even the shortest chorale prelude came to be a work of monumental significance when he discussed and played it. Line by line in careful analysis the work was examined. And because he had had to learn counterpoint in that fashion he expected all students to pursue the same route. Contrapuntal lines one by one had to be sung while being played or not played. Often he would say “You play the soprano and tenor, sing the alto, and I’ll sing the bass.” And because all students played Bach from the Peters edition, he knew these scores intimately and it was common for him to turn pages and to point to specific measures on the page. (These were scores he had seen over 40 years before BUT also had remembered) He could always play any line of any Bach work at any time!

He had scores carefully marked with red articulation and these scores were to be copied and studied prior to all lessons. It was not doctrinaire to the point that articulations could not be changed, but there was an expectation that changes had to be justified and not whimsically derived.

He expected a great deal in lessons. Repertoire such as a major Bach Prelude and Fugue was normally not played more than twice or three times. Everyone began with the Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes and after he was certain that these were being studied carefully, free works were added. I suspect that all of his students played the complete OB during their student period with him because of the intensity with which these works were discussed and studied.

He was intensely religious and interpreting chorale-based works always brought a detailed theological/musical exposé of text and music to the fore. He knew text and tunes of the Gesangbuch and harmonization of successive verses frequently brought forth a musical recreation of a word or thought from the text. The postlude to the weekly Saturday Vesper services at his church normally concluded with a free improvisation on one of the chorales that had sung in the service. They were extraordinary performances, but he wanted none recorded. He did not improvise in concert. Improvisation was for him something that came out of the worship experience was never something to “show off.”

He had a phenomenal sense of color and organ registration was carefully and never routinely made. Every work had its own special quality. I remember very well Working with him in preparation for a master class in the summer of 1963 in Frankfurt when in a 3-week period he played and discussed 100 works. Checking registrations he sat in the hall while I played portions of works. He called out stops he wanted and if I drew anything that was not called for he immediately reacted. “No, in that Plenum you mistakenly have drawn a 2 2/3. That can’t be there.” Or, “draw this or that stop—it clarifies the tenor in a wonderful way.” Just as with notes, he remembered complicated registrations without fail.

From the late 1950s he began taking all Fulbright students without audition. In addition to many Americans over the years he had students from South Africa, Switzerland, and elsewhere, often having more foreign students in the studio than German. Because the foreign students could practice much more than the German students who had courses To prepare it was not always easy for them (the Germans) to accomplish everything he assumed one should accomplish from lesson to lesson!

The person…

Walcha was a warm person with a radiant expression of happiness and complete fulfillment. He loved people and was a stimulating conversationalist. He was well informed on a wide variety of subjects. The mind and spirit were forever active and creative. He had wonderful sense of humor, a disarming smile, and laugh I’ll always remember.


Professor Barbara Harbach (University of Missouri-Saint Louis), offered these brief vignettes regarding Herr Walcha:

Russell Saunders was Herr Walcha’s first American student and I [Harbach] was the last, I believe.

Herr Walcha was a distinguished looking man, immaculately dressed and always wore an expensive cologne. It was amazing how he could navigate around the Dreikonigskirche and the organ loft. He always started my lessons by counting to ten in English and then heartily laughing when he had finished.

When I played a piece of music other than German/Austrian such as Widor, he would say that the piece was written for different people at a different time. (And of course, would not listen to a piece written by an American.)

We, his students, always went to Evensong when Herr Walcha played at Dreikonigskirche, and we were usually the only ones there. But when he gave a concert and charged a rather hefty ticket fee, the place was packed.