All Bach’s organ works — in a year

Article printed in The Church Times, 1 January 2016. Article by Tim Wyatt.

TWO organists at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, in New Zealand, have completed an unusual challenge: to play all Bach’s 327 works written for organ in one year.

The Bach Project, as it was named by the organists, Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley, was dreamt up as a way of celebrating the 330th anniversary of the German composer’s birth in 1685.

Between them, the pair played 28 recitals at the cathedral, from January to December, to cover the entire Bach organ catalogue, which amounts to 21 hours of music.

“I do feel a huge amount of relief, but I also feel quite bereft now it’s over,” Mr Apperley, who is assistant director of music at the cathedral, said. “While we only played half of the complete works each, it has still been a monumental undertaking.”

The Bach recitals had drawn more people to the cathedral than normal, he said; audiences ranged from 70 to 300. “We’ve had people travelling an hour or more for each concert, and a small group of people who diligently attended every single concert in the series.”

The hundreds of hours of practice and performance has had an impact on Mr Apperley’s organ technique, especially as he was familiar with only about ten per cent of Bach’s organ works before the project began.

But the biggest impact has been on his faith, he said. Inspired by Bach’s vision of all music as worship of God, Mr Apperley said that the year had helped to remind him not to get swept up in the “pride and adulation” of performing in public.

Bach wrote the letters SDG — Soli Deo gloria, or “Glory to God alone” — at the end of most of his manuscripts. Mr Apperley said that earlier this year he tattooed the same letters, in Bach’s own handwriting, on to his wrist, as a constant reminder of “the real purpose and source of my music ministry”.

The endeavour also hoped to raise money to rebuild the cathedral’s organ. The concerts were free, but the audience was asked to donate $10 (about £4.42) towards the appeal. The organ was first installed in 1877, and, after several rounds of repairs, most recently in 1980, now has 3531 pipes.

Just over £6000 was raised through the concerts, which Mr Stewart, the cathedral’s director of music, said would go towards “future-proofing” the instrument and overhauling the electronic transmission, among other repairs.

The venture had drawn in plenty of people who would not normally be interested in organ recitals, Mr Stewart said. “That’s partly the reason why we are keen to continue with the complete works idea for next year: it really seemed to strike a chord with people.”

For 2016, the pair are planning to embark on performing the complete organ works of both Felix Mendelssohn and Dietrich Buxtehude. Buxtehude influenced Bach’s organ music, and Mendelssohn was influenced by Bach; so the composers “bookend” the Bach Project neatly, Mr Apperley said.

The Dean, the Very Revd Digby Wilkinson, said that the project had been a “lengthy musical adventure enjoyed by many people from among the cathedral congregations, and an equal number of visitors, both local and international”.

He also said that the concerts had been “spiritually refreshing”, and praised Mr Apperley and Mr Stewart for bringing Bach’s own faith to life.