Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/26/2010

A Holy Mystery that Ought to Remain Such

Often I wonder what it would be like to be a real scholar, to have a disciplined mind, to be really, really, really intelligent. And, at the same time, to have an abundance of musical talent. 

Oh well. 

In the past, what? fifty? years, the scholarship around “proper” or “authentic” musical performance practice has produced a staggeringly enormous body of literature. I have no idea how one keeps up with all that verbiage. Books on what stops to use when playing Bach’s organ music, thousands of scholarly articles on which notes to detach from adjacent notes in order to play the music of, say, Buxtehude “authentically.” Articles (books—seminars—colloquia) on how many singers Bach had in his choirs and whether or not we should attempt to use the exact number of singers he used for any given work. 

When I was studying organ with Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, “Pratt,” his friends called him, at the University of Redlands (1963-65), he—with the characteristic twinkle of his eye and the smile that most people, I think, missed when he was having great fun at the world’s expense—told me that when he studied organ briefly with Lynwood Farnam, the great organist would push a piston on the organ and say, “That’s the Bach registration.” Apparently, at least at lessons, one could choose any number of stops with which to play Bach as long as they were the stops Farnam had set. 

That was the scholarly-historical practice of the 1920s.

Dr. Spelman (1903-2000) also studied with Joseph Bonnet in Paris. One of my most prized possessions is Dr. Spelman’s copy that he gave me of the Orlando Gibbons volume of Tudor Church Music with his signature, “Paris, 1927,” on the flyleaf. I also have the copy (most of the copy) of Frescobaldi’s Fiori Musicali (1635) that I studied from with Dr. Spelman, Joseph Bonnet’s edition of the Frescobaldi with pedal parts added and performance suggestions following the scholarship of the first half of the 20th century. Not acceptable as a scholarly source these days! 

So my understanding of musical “performance practice” is a bit strange. I also, of course, studied performance with Raymond Boese and Delbert Disselhorst, both students of Helmut Walcha, one of the early proponents of “authentic” performance of Bach. And I’ve heard plenty of concerts by such luminaries in the field as Harald Vogel and even read some of his articles. 

Basically the way I play organ music of which we have no contemporaneous recordings is the way I play that music. 

I’m not quite sure why I’m writing about this today, but I am in process of preparing a program that I will play four times in a two-week period at the end of February and the beginning of March. It will include Frescobaldi and Bach. I guess this is my public statement, my disclaimer, to any of the four people who might hear me play, that my performance practice is my idiosyncratic version of the training I’ve had, the concerts I’ve heard, and my understanding of the music. 

Perhaps I’m the Florence Foster Jenkins of the organ world (Google her). 

What all of this has to do with hypergraphia, Bipolar disorder, or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy—to say nothing of Health Care Reform or Mitch McConnell’s hypocritical idiocies or Pat Robertson’s cavorting with evil or “Jesus Rifles,” or Nostradamus, I’m not sure. 

This business of playing a recital after a self-imposed hiatus of nearly twenty years (with one minor exception in Fresno, CA) is foolhardy.  I guess I’m just trying to figure out in writing what’s going on. Can I even do it? Should I hope that no one who has kept up with “performance practice” shows up? 

After all, what does music mean? What happens when one tries his hand at (or, better, succeeds at) the performance of a program that an audience enjoys? I don’t have a clue. 

I recently stumbled across this passage in a scholarly article: 

The edge of the stage is a place of mystery and magic, where performers and audiences meet to exchange meaning and satisfaction. Yet the specific incidents of live performance at junctures of time and place constitute only single episodes in a system of relations joining artists and audiences. At the moments when live performances occur, the strength of the connection between these protagonists who are present can mask the roles of participants who are not present. (1) 

I hardly consider myself an “artist.” A moderately proficient musician, perhaps. All of this writing about Dr. Spelman and Lynwood Farnam and Joseph Bonnet and even Florence Foster Jenkins is about the “protagonists who are not present.” Including the builders of the organs I play, Steuart Goodwin at the top of that list. The protagonist list, I think, should include hundreds more people. Everyone I’ve ever known. That’s who’s present when I play. 

And what matters is that my friends and I “meet to exchange meaning and satisfaction.” All of the correct performance practice and perfect playing and impressive sounds mean nothing if that’s not what happens. 

The musicologist John Butt wrote, “Only in the late 20th century has it been regularly assumed that historical fidelity of sound somehow carries with it the fidelity of historical experience; this position is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold.” (2) The fidelity of historical experience happens, after all, only when we “meet to exchange meaning and satisfaction.” The music we play would not have survived unless it somehow created that exchange.  And that can happen with performances informed by Lynwood Farnam or Harald Vogel. Or it might not happen with exactly the same information. 

As my friend Sister Mary Charles used to say, “It’s a Holy Mystery and ought to remain such.”
(1)   Kushner, Roland J. “Understanding the links between performing artists and audiences.” Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society 33.2 (2003): 114+.
(2)   Butt, John. “Bach’s vocal scoring: what can it mean?” Early Music 26.1 (1998): 99+.


  1. Somewhat appropos of what you write(but not much) have you heard of low latency inhibition?
    It came up in conversation a day or two ago and it has felt like a light coming on in my mind about how I am.
    Google it and see what you find.


  2. Interesting. This may be another explanation why flourescent lighting (TOO MUCH light) drives me crazy. But, for the most part, m poor brain seems to take in too little information rather than an abundance.



%d bloggers like this: