Magazine article The Tracker

Stokowski's Aeolian Passacaglia

Magazine article The Tracker

Stokowski's Aeolian Passacaglia

Article excerpt

Bach's Passacaglia is in music what a great Gothic cathedral is in architecture- the same vast conception-the same soaring mysticism given eternal form. . . . The Passacaglia is one of those works whose content is so full and significant that its medium of expression is of relative unimportance: whether played on the organ, or on the greatest of all instruments-the orchestra-it is one of the most divinely inspired contrapuntal works ever conceived.1


THOSE WHO ATTEND the OHS convention in Philadelphia this summer will experience a musical miracle: the performance via a perforated player organ roll made in 1925 of Bach's Passacaglia. Not quite as Bach composed it, and not "transcribed," because it was played on the instrument for which it was composed, but "arranged" by one of the great names in 20th-century music: Leopold Stokowski, then conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Unlike other Aeolian rolls, the Passacaglia was never made available to the public; only one roll was ever made.

As would be expected with a medium created for the entertainment of laymen, there were few original Bach organ works available in the Aeolian Company's library of organ rolls. The contents of the catalogue included the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor (played by Joseph Bonnet) and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Pietro Yon); three fugues: the "Saint Anne" in E-flat and the Fugue à la gigue (Edwin H. Lemare), and the Fugue from the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C (Marcel Dupré).2 There was, in fact, no other recording in any medium of the Passacaglia until Dupre's on the organ of Queen's Hall, London, recorded on June 17, 1929. Coincidentally, Stokowski's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra of his transcription was made a month later, in July 1929. The piece was in the air in Philadelphia because Stokowski's transcription had been first heard on February 10, 1922,3 and performed eight times before December 1925.

The organ roll came about because of the interest in the Passacaglia by Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who had become editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, published by Cyrus H.K. Curtis. Bok married Curtis's daughter and, from 1913, he was a member of the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra and its most generous contributor.4 The Curtis-Bok family was also great patrons of the Aeolian Company: In 1895, Cyrus Curtis bought the third player organ that Aeolian installed in a residence and it was enlarged to 104 ranks in 1917; in 1916, his daughter, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, gave a 15-rank Aeolian to the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia; and in May 1924, a new $21,650, 19-rank, Aeolian organ was installed in the Boks' vacation home in Mountain Lake Park, Florida.5 The Boks must have expressed disappointment in not having a recording of the Passacaglia to play on their new organ, and Frank Taft, the Aeolian Company's "artist and repertoire" executive, must have suggested a collaboration between Stokowski, nicknamed "Prince" by Bok, and one of Aeolian's experienced roll arrangers, the famous organist and composer, Harry Rowe Shelley, to prepare a Duo-Art roll. A velvet-lined polished rosewood box was fashioned for the only copy ever made.

In the early 1990s, when researching a book on Leopold Stokowski, the author was told by Ray Biswanger, founder of the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, about the existence of an organ roll of the Bach Passacaglia in the Leopold Stokowski Collection at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He arranged for my introduction to the curator, Dr. Edwin H. Heilakka, and accompanied me on my first visit to the collection. Dr. Heilakka gave me the roll and, during the next several months, I transcribed it into musical notation, as I had several other Aeolian, Welte, and Skinner rolls. I later borrowed the manuscript of Stokowski's own orchestral score from which he had conducted until the Passacaglia was published by Broude Brothers in 1951. This proved invaluable in tracing its performance because the manuscript contained many crossed-out sections that had not been included in the Broude edition; it had always been a work inprogress and was only finalized when eventually published. …

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