What happened was, in the time of J.S. Bach there were no big orchestras, so most of his music emphasizes that boring stuff like inner detail and emotional tension and shifting soundscapes. When he wanted to write Big Loud Music, he wrote organ music. Which left modern orchestra conductors who really liked Bach with not much to play. So Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) solved that problem by arranging lots of Bach compositions — mostly organ pieces — for big modern orchestras. This horrified a lot of Bach purists, but the arrangements are mostly pretty great, and that Fugue, properly called BWV 578, is a fine example.
Stokowski was a really interesting dude and his life is worth reading about. Speaking as a hardcore Bach cultist, those arrangements were all I knew about him, but I think now I’m going to go have to check out some of the other recordings.
Now, Bach’s biggest, heaviest, most Dazed and Confused-like piece was probably the big organ Toccata & Fugue in D minor, and Stokowski’s take on that is fine, but kind of misses the point, which is to show the audience a good time and get offstage while they’re still cheering wildly. And anyhow there are just too many totally great organ recordings. The “Little” Fugue is shorter and tighter and also Stokowski’s arrangement is awesomely clever and entertaining. All the media linked to in this piece should be played at a volume like that of a good organ in a 17th-century church, which is to say: Really. Fucking. Loud.
I know nobody buys albums any more, but if you were going do that, you’d probably be a happy camper if you bought Bach by Stokowski, which is a whole record full of this stuff.
Look, I totally sympathize with the original-instrument partisans who think this approach is basically really wrong. And I love a lot of their recordings. And yeah, splashing this stuff across the 100 players of a modern orchestra loses as much as it gains. And normally, when I’m in a Bach mood, this isn’t what I turn to. But when I’m in a really-beautiful-music-by-a-big-orchestra, well yeah.
Links · Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes. Now, as for video, do I ever have a treat for you. Here’s a 1969 broadcast concert for schoolchildren featuring Leonard Bernstein, who explains the background and then pops a surprise out for the audience. It starts a little deliberate but stay with it, you’ll end up smiling.
Now, for completeness, I must leave you with two other performances. First, the music the way old Sebastian Bach wrote it, ably performed in Sweden by Elisabet Wimark on a small organ with a lot of transparency. If you stay till the end you’ll see why I suggest you stay to the end.
Now, you might wonder how Leonard Bernstein followed up that Stokowski guest appearance. Answer: He went all steampunk with a 1969-vintage Moog synthesizer.
The interpretation, uh, has its moments, but is worth watching for the audience-reaction shots. Remember, it was a schoolkids’ concert.