Sakura Salon 5/4/14 – Heavy Organ, Virgil Fox plays Bach

As many of you know, I often like performances with period instruments,without the Romantic period ‘bloat’ so often found in some interpretations.   Therefore it may seem odd that we will be listening to Bach played by Virgil Fox, chastised by the ‘establishment’ of the time for playing Bach with romantic feeling and organ registrations. The easy answer is that I like it, just like I like listening to Handel’s Messiah with period interpretations.

I also believe that introducing people to classical music on their terms is a good thing. The fact is, Fox didn’t change the music; he simply interpreted with a popular flair. (Of course, he also added psychedelic light shows and played it in rock venues!)   It also helps that his talent was truly prodigious.

The New York Times said of him, 20 years after his death:

“Fox could play the pipe organ like nobody’s business, but that is not all that made him unforgettable to so many people across the country. He made classical organ music appeal even to audiences that normally wouldn’t be expected to sit still for it.”

From 1971 until 1980, Fox performed his famous “Heavy Organ” concerts in auditoriums, popular music concert halls, and other nontraditional organ music venues, touring around the United States with an electronic Rodgers Touring Organ and, later, a custom-designed Allen Organ  The first concert was at the Mecca of rock music, New York’s Fillmore East, where, in 1970, he gave an all-Bach program combined with a light show on the Rodgers Touring Organ. He expanded upon a practice he had begun years earlier of speaking to the audience from the stage, discussing the music and bringing a new dimension to his concerts. For nine years, “Heavy Organ” toured across the country to various cities, colleges, and festivals. Virgil Fox is credited with bringing the music of Bach to young people with an innovative and exciting style, although he often drew adverse criticism from some of his colleagues in the organ world and from those music critics who found his approach too flamboyant.

Always Fox stressed pushing the limits of the instruments available to him, rather than requiring that they, or his playing, be authentic to the era of the music. His style (particularly his taste for fast tempos, flashy registrations, and a willingness to indulge in sentimentality) was in contrast to that of his contemporaries, such as E. Power Biggs.

Fox was also famous for his musical memory, and could instantly recall over 250 concert works, playing at double speed or faster in rehearsals (which usually went late into the night). He did not read from written scores at his organ concerts, even when playing alongside an orchestra.

Many organists, however, have strongly criticized Fox for his unconventional interpretations of classical organ music. On his album Heavy Organ: Bach Live at Winterland, Fox defended his approach to Bach and organ music in general, in the introduction to the ubiquitous Tocatta and Fugue in d minor BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach:

”There is current in our land (and several European countries) at this moment a kind of nitpicking worship of historic impotence. They say that Bach must not be interpreted and that he must have no emotion, that his notes speak for themselves. You want to know what that is? Pure unadulterated rot! Bach has the red blood. He has the communion with the people. He has all of this amazing spirit. And imagine that you could put all the music on one side of the agenda with his great interpretation and great feeling and put the greatest man of all right up on top of a dusty shelf underneath some glass case in a museum and say that he must not be interpreted! They’re full of you-know-what and they’re so untalented that they have to hide behind this thing because they couldn’t get in the house of music any other way!”

Tonight’s program:

  1. Virgil Fox – Spoken Introduction By Virgil Fox
  2. Virgil Fox – We All Believe in One God, BWV680
  3. Virgil Fox – Introduction to Rejoice Beloved Christians, BWV734
  4. Virgil Fox – Rejoice Beloved Christians, BWV734
  5. Virgil Fox – Introduction to Finale from St. Matthew Passion
  6. Virgil Fox – Finale from St. Matthew Passion
  7. Virgil Fox – Introduction to Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 ”Wedge”
  8. Virgil Fox – Prelude in E Minor, BWV 548 ”Wedge”
  9. Virgil Fox – Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 ”Wedge”
  10. Virgil Fox – Toccata in D Minor, BWV 565
  11. Virgil Fox – Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565
  12. Virgil Fox – Introduction to Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
  13. Virgil Fox – Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582
  14. Virgil Fox – Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
  15. Virgil Fox – Introduction to Fugue in G Minor, BWV577 ”Gigue”
  16. Virgil Fox – Fugue in G Minor, BWV577 ”Gigue”
  17. Virgil Fox – Come, Sweet Death

This last does not come from the live performance, but is a Fox signature piece, performed on the organ her arranged it for, the Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia; the largest operational pipe organ in the world.


We are also featuring some of the typical forms you will find in Bach, or any Baroque composer’s, keyboard music:

  • The passacaglia is a musical form that originated in early seventeenth-century Spain and is still used today by composers. It is usually of a serious character and is often, but not always, based on a bass-ostinato and written in triple meter.
  •  Toccata (from Italian toccare, “to touch”) is a virtuoso piece of music typically for a keyboard or plucked-string instrument featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, with or without imitative or fugal interludes, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer’s fingers. Less frequently, the name is applied to works for multiple instruments.
  •  A fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.

o   Like the sonata form, a fugue usually has three sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation containing the return of the subject in the fugue’s tonic key, though not all fugues have a recapitulation. In the Middle Ages the term was widely used to denote any works in canonic style; by the Renaissance, it had come to denote specifically imitative works. Since the 17th century,the term fugue has described what is commonly regarded as the most fully developed procedure of imitative counterpoint.

o   Most fugues open with a short main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice (after the first voice is finished stating the subject, a second voice repeats the subject at a different pitch, and other voices repeat in the same way); when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete. This is often followed by a connecting passage, or episode, developed from previously heard material; further “entries” of the subject then are heard in related keys. Episodes (if applicable) and entries are usually alternated until the “final entry” of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, or tonic, which is often followed by closing material, the coda.  In this sense, a fugue is a style of composition, rather than a fixed structure.


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