(Re-) introducing JS Bach’s complete works for organ, performed by Robert Huw Morgan

July 7, 2020
Ray Heigemeir
Organ loft in Memorial Church, Stanford University

Over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year, Stanford’s Memorial Church celebrated the 25th anniversary of the majestic Fisk-Nanney organ with a series of recitals by University Organist Robert Huw Morgan. The complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach were presented in fourteen recitals, with commentary by Dr. Huw Morgan. Audio files for each recital were recently transferred to the Stanford Digital Repository (thanks to Geoff Willard, Media Production Coordinator, DLSS), and continue to stream freely from the Music Library website. At the ten-year mark, It’s time to check in with Dr. Huw Morgan. 

The JS Bach organ recital series was a huge undertaking.  What was your inspiration? Do you have any plans for spotlighting another composer?

It was quite the undertaking, I must say!! The main inspiration was the anniversary of the Fisk. Also, a friend of mine did the complete works back in 1985 (the tercentary year) and he appeared to be unscathed!! I’m not sure about spotlighting another composer just at the moment. I played the complete Buxtehude waaaaay back - 2000? 2001? Complete Duruflé a few years ago, along with complete Nicolas de Grigny. There are many composers who I enjoy very much, but couldn’t imagine committing to their complete oeuvre - Marcel Dupré and Max Reger spring to mind. They maybe great composers but not everything they wrote is good…..

How did you decide to group the organ works?

Well, they grouped themselves quite easily. There are many chorale preludes - pieces based on Lutheran hymn melodies. They organised themselves very nicely into the pattern of the liturgical year. I didn’t want to be playing a Christmas piece in the middle of Lent, for example. Thereafter, it was a case of spreading out the six sonatas (because they’re tricky!), and working out where to place the major preludes and fugues. I knew that I wanted to play Clavierübung III as the final recital, and so played the great Passacaglia at the end of the very first recital. I felt it important to have some wonderful bookends. 

My white board was covered, I can tell you that!!

Passacaglia, BWV 582. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin--Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Passacaglia, BWV 582. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin--Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Mus.ms. Bach P 274)

You’ve now served as University Organist and Director of the University Singers and Memorial Church Choir for just over twenty years.  Can you describe any fond memories of concerts, special services, or other happenings at Memorial Church?

Oh boy, so many to name! It’s been lovely to play for the weddings of organ students, simply because they want music that’s not the run-of-the-mill stuff. The Bach series, obviously. Conducting the Bach B minor Mass with the University Singers. The MemChu choir are a wonderful bunch. Every service with them is great fun! Also, I’ve worked an awful lot with my beloved friend Steve Sano, and the Chamber Chorale, both in many concerts and carol services at the church, as well as on tours. There have also been moments of great poignancy, happiness, sadness...

How many organs are there in Mem Chu, and do you have a favorite?

Five, believe it or not!!!! The favorite? Impossible question, but suffice it to say that the Charles Fisk organ is the greatest organ I’ve ever played. I also have a very special place in my heart for the Hupalo & Repasky Tudor organ. Much of my work in graduate school was on that repertoire; so to be able to play that repertoire on such an instrument is a great joy.

What is the state of organ playing in the US these days?

Ach, there is a shortage of organists, and so departments are closing. It’s a difficult instrument. It needs a huge commitment. 

Do you have any advice for a young player preparing for a professional career as an organist?

Take the vow of poverty right now. You’ll never be wealthy. But, you’ll never regret it. I don’t and I started lessons nearly 40 years ago. As I say to my students: My goodness - I get paid to do this??????? I’m very, very lucky. I never forget that.

Any final observations on music, on life?

Music is amazing. Life without it wouldn’t be worth much. I continue to have fun with it every day because, at some point, the hands will stop working. 

Life’s good...

University organist and music professor Robert Huw Morgan gives a a demonstration and shares his unique perspective on the instrument with alumni during Reunion Weekend.

Robert Huw Morgan gives a a demonstration and shares his unique perspective on the instrument with alumni during Reunion Weekend.