Fugue State Films: Bach and Expression

Bach and Expression
Fugue State Films: Organ Cinema

Film documentary.

Will Fraser’s Fugue State Films have built an impressive reputation for producing high-quality film documentaries on the world of organ music. Originally available in sumptuous box sets of DVDs and CDs and illustrative booklets, they have since expanded into digital access for their film. In the light of changing aspects of access to recorded content and the increase in streaming media, Fugue State Films, in conjunction with the Royal College of Organists have just announced an important new initiative, Organ Cinema. To celebrate and promote the launch, they are allowing free access to all their film documentaries for three days over this weekend, Friday 31 March to Monday 3 April. After that, a range of subscription options will be available.

One of the most interesting films is the documentary Bach and Expression, first released in 2022 and now available to watch for free until 3 April. It is an inspiring introduction to the world of Fugue State Films as well as a superbly informative introduction to the world of present-day performance of music written centuries ago.

The distinguished English and German organ teachers and performers Daniel Moult and Martin Schmeding explore the nature, history and performance practice of Bach’s organ works. The centrepiece is a seven-part documentary in which the two organists explore how to bring these pieces to life, with reference to the available scores (with examples from the Leipzig Bach Archive described by Dr Christine Blanken) and surviving instruments as well as the changing performance traditions. They also perform the pieces themselves on four contrasting central German organs of Bach’s time: the two Silbermann organs in Rötha, the Trost in Waltershausen and the Hildebrandt in Sangerhausen. These organs demonstrate the changing taste of organs during Bach’s lifetime in Central Germany.

The key questions that the pair discuss are “How should we ideally express both ourselves and the music of Bach while playing his organ works? How do we move beyond the weight of various traditions of performance practice and other cultural baggage? How do we reach the deepest meaning in our interpretations?” They explore these issues in a fascinating series of discussions, questions and answers, and organ demonstrations. Their approach is commendably straightforward and communicative.

There are four videos on the streaming site – Bach and Expression Documentary Parts 1 to 4 and Parts 5 to 7 (1h58′ + 1h24′), Musical Performances (2h34′), and Organ Demonstrations (59′). The music performed and discussed includes the Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV 551; Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV 535; Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582; Toccata and Fugue in F major BWV 540; Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564; Concerto after Ernst BWV 595; Canzona BWV 588; Trio BWV 1027a; and the Chorale Preludes BWV 654, 659, 660, 661, 662, 676, 688, 691, 698, 715, 730, 1092, 1093, 1115.

The playing of Daniel Moult and Martin Schmeding is outstanding. Both have at least one teacher in common, the late Jacques van Oortmerssen. His influence shows in both their performances – he has also influenced my own organ playing. As is usual with Fugue State Films, the filming and sound quality are top-notch – organs are not the easiest things to record, given the sometimes complex acoustic situations in which they are found.