Johann Speth: Complete Organ Works – Vol I & II

Johann Speth (1664-c1720)
Complete Organ Works Vol I & II (Ed. Ingemar Melchersson)
Vol I:
  32 pages • ISMN: 979-0-012-20126-7 • Softbound • DM 1449
Vol II:  44 pages • ISMN: 979-0-012-20127-4 • Softbound • DM 1450
Doblinger (Diletto Musicale) DM 1449/1450 

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With one or two exceptions, the organ music of South Germany during the Baroque era is usually overlooked in favour of the far more musically advanced North German organist-composers – and, of course, Bach. These two volumes of the only surviving music of Johann Speth helps to redress that balance – or, perhaps, to explain it. Speth was born in 1664 in Speinshart in the north of Bavaria, about 30 km south-east of Bayreuth. Speinshart has a substantial monastery complex, and little else, then and now. The original Romanesque monastery buildings were reconstructed in High Baroque style between 1681 and 1706, and may have been in a poor state prior to that. Earlier assumptions that Speth must have studied music at the monastery have been disproved, not least on the grounds that the abbey’s music school did not exist until well into the 18th-century. But he may well have received lessons from a musician connected with the monastery. The first we know of Speth is in 1692 when he applied for, and got, the post of organist in Augsburg Cathedral. The calling card he offered with his job application was the music contained in these two Doblinger volumes, published the following year under the title of Ars magna Consoni et Dissoni. 

Ars magna  Consoni et Dissoni consisted of ten toccatas, subtitled Musicalische Blumen-Felder (Musical Field of Flowers), eight organ verse settings of the Magnificat, and three variation sets. The ten Musicalische Blumen-Felder toccatas are in Volume I, the other pieces in Volume II. The editor is Ingemar Melchersson, and his notes on the music and the edition are (only) in Volume  1. They include a description of the organ that Speth knew in Augsburg, an instrument dating back to Eusebius Ammerbach’s 1577 organ. The original 1577 specification is given, but not that of the organ as enlarged in 1656. Originally a one-manual organ, with pull-down pedals, it may have had a second manual added later – Toccata Quarta included dynamic markings f, p and pp, although this could have been achieved by adding and subtracting stops.

The Toccatas are miniatures, in three sections, generally with a short central fugue. Several specify the use of the pedal, probably just playing the lower notes of the manuals, without adding additional pedal stops. They vary in style, the first being longer than the others, with five sections. The second opens in the Italian Durezze e ligature style. The fourth has the dynamic markings mentioned above, while the fifth is in a single section in a rather free improvisatory style of overlapping semiquaver motifs. They move through the various usable keys of the day, plus a couple that would have sounded distinctive on the (presumably) meantone tuning of the time.

The Magnificat settings are clearly intended for alternatim use, with an opening Praeambulum, five short versets, and a concluding Finale. Like the Toccatas, they vary in style, and also draw strongly on Italian models and other contemporary composers from the southern German-speaking world such as Pasquini, Storace, Muffat, Kerll, and Fischer. The three Partitas, a rather curious addition to the otherwise liturgical Augsburg calling card, offer rather simplistic variations on la Todesca, la Pasquina, and la Spagnioletta.

This Doblinger edition was published in 2012. It is based on the original 1693 Augsburg source, the title page of which is pictured below. The printing is very clear with the music well-spaced. The occasional editorial notes are, helpfully, at the foot of the relevant pages, rather than hidden away elsewhere. This is probably not the finest organ music you will ever play, but it is representative of a particular Italian influenced South German-style closely linked to the Catholic liturgy for which it was intended.

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