Helmut Walcha, blind organist, plays the Prelude in D major by J. S. Bach
Some of you may know that I have been experiencing problems with my vision, specifically my right eye. It happened suddenly about three weeks ago when I woke up one morning and perceived everything was at a 45 degree angle. I even had a dream about it where I was playing the continuo organ at a slant because Carl had placed the instrument on a 45 degree sloped board. Even my music was falling off the rack because of the angle! Thankfully that feeling of being cock-eyed only lasted a few seconds, but ever since it seems that my eye is not the same. I have been to three specialists and we are now mulling our choices for treatment.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about the significant number of blind organists. Last Sunday I played music by blind organist John Stanley. Besides Stanley, though, you can also name Conrad Paumann, Antonio de Cabezon, Francesco Landini, Jean Langlais, André Marchal, and Helmut Walcha among others as notable blind organists. Even Bach was blind near the end of his life because of two botched eye operations.
I wondered what it is about the organ as an instrument of choice for visually-impaired musicians. In contrast to the piano, the organ (mostly) only uses a limited range. A piano has 88 keys and the standard organ keyboard has 61. At LCH our organ has just 56 notes. You see, in order to play more notes, the organist just pulls out more stops to add harmonics. A pianist, though, has to physically press down the notes in order to produce rich sonorities. I often have a vision of pianists flailing about on the keyboard, marching up and down the full range of keys. Not so, organists.
By the way, I’m embedding here a video interview with organist George Ritchie and how he studied with blind organist Helmut Walcha, who was a great interpreter of the organ works of Bach.
I came across a very interesting article by blind organist David Liddle, who writes about the challenges of church music-making. He reads music in Braille with his left hand and plays with his right and the pedal. He of course relies on his memory and ingenuity, but also describes a remote control vibrating device by which the priest signals him to stop or start his improvisations. (He says not to get too excited — this is more like the vibrate mode on a cell phone!)
And my husband, Carl, says “yes, there are blind organists, but that means you can’t watch the conductor!” Of course, he will argue that I never watched him anyway! (In case you haven’t been to LCH, you must know that when I sit at the organ I have my back to the congregation, and can only see the conductor in my peripheral vision).