WALTHER: Organ Works, Vol. 1
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Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748)
Organ Works, Vol. 1
Johann Gottfried Walther occupied an important position in Thuringian musical life in the first half of the eighteenth century. Many facts about Walther are well-known, especially that he was a distant relative of J.S. Bach; he occupied the post of organist at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Weimar, from 1707 until his death, that he was employed to teach composition to Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, the newphew of Bach's employer, and that Walther was best-known as the author of the first comprehensive dictionary of music in the German language.
Walther was born in Erfurt where he received early musical training from Johann Bernhard Bach, organist of the Kaufmannskirche. In 1702 Walther obtained his first organist post at the church of St. Thomas in his home city. In the autumn of 1703 he travelled to Frankfurt am Main and Darmstadt. The next year he went to Magdeburg and to Halberstadt, where he met Andreas Werckmeister. It was perhaps Werckmeister who encouraged Walther in his life-long pursuit of reading and collecting theoretical treatises. He briefly studies philosophy and law at the University of Erfurt before he decided to devote all of his energies to music, and continued his musical studies with Buttstett and Wilhelm Hieronymus Pachelbel.
Despite standing in Bach's shadow as a composer, no less a figure than Johann Mattheson placed Walther among the greatest organists of his time. After giving pride of place to Handel and Bach, Mattheson named as the great organists of his time 'Böhm in Lüneburg, Callenberg in Riga, Clérambault in Paris, Green in London, Hoffmann in Breslau, Küntze in Lübeck, Lübeck in Hamburg, Lüders in Flensburg, Rameau formerly in Clermont, Raupach in Stralsund, Rosenbusch in Itzehoe, Pezold in Dresden, Stapel in Rostock, Vogler and Walther in Weimar, etc. etc. etc.'
Walther was a typical Thuringian church organist of his time, one who composed his repertoire as well as collected the manuscripts of works by other composers. If Walther had accomplished nothing else in his life, we would remember him as a copyist of organ works by J.S. Bach and Buxtehude. Walther stated in a letter of August 6th, 1729 that he had obtained a collection of Buxtehude's works 'from Werckmeister and from Buxtehude's own autographs in German tablature.' Great numbers of pieces are magnificently preserved in Walther's hand in several large manuscripts. Even seen within a tradition of such collections, these are amazing and comprehensive manuscripts that include works by Böhm, Bruhns, Bustyn, Kauffmann, Johann Ludwig Krebs, Johann Tobias Krebs, Leyding, Lübeck, Johann Pachelbel, Reincken, Telemann, Weckmann, and an important group of French composers including Dandrieu, d'Anglebert, Clérambault, Dieupart, Lebègue, Laroux, Marchand, and Nivers.
Walther's freely composed works demonstrate a wide knowledge of organ literature from outside his Thuringian homeland. The Preludio con fuga in D minor imitates a North German Praeludium replete with repeated-note fugue subject, obbligato pedal writing, and stylus phantasticus elements. The rhetorical shape of the typical North-German praeludium is evident here, although Walther's conception is somewhat restrained by comparison. The spirited Fuga in F major perhaps descends from a type of fugue often identified with composers of the South German school and is especially reminiscent of Pachelbel's handling of such material. It would be interesting to speculate on how J.S. Bach and Walther shared their musical libraries with each other, the more so since J.S. Bach also composed in the same styles.
Much of Walthers uvre is based on chorales, as one would expect of an eighteenth-century Lutheran organist working in Thuringia. In one of his letters, Walther explained that he did not compose cantatas because it was not his job: "I have much more reason, as organist, to apply myself to preludes on the chorales." Indeed, his output of chorale preludes is prodigious, running to some 222 movements. Chorale partitas also number among Walthers chorale-based works; in his Musicalisches Lexicon (1732), he described the great popularity of this genre as a raging infection.
The arrangements of concertos by other composers were perhaps commissioned by Walther's famous pupil, Prince Johann Ernst, who brought back such music of Vivaldi and other Italian composers following studies at the University of Utrecht. These concertos belong to a group of thirteen that Walther transcribed for the organ and reflect the considerable fascination with the Italian concerto literature in Germany at the time. During the time that Bach working in Weimar (1708-1717), he also wrote a series of concerto arrangements for keyboard instruments. Perhaps the two young composers made an exercise of such transcriptions, re-working materials, transposing and re-writing as necessary in order to convey something of the string idiom of the originals. In any case, Walther handled the material very freely, often changing the number of voices, adding some things while excising others, and re-writing figuration in such a way that music for stringed instruments became idiomatic for the keyboard.