My life with Bach’s music

Text written for The Bach Cantata Website (BCW

My oldest memories about Bach’s organ music go very far into my childhood: when I was very young, my parents, my sisters and I were listening almost every Sunday to Bach’s cantatas and to the organ recordings played by Helmut Walcha or Pierre Froidebise. I still remember some of them very precisely, and when I played later on in Capel, Lübeck or Alkmaar, it revived beautiful old sound memories.

When I was 5 years old, I wanted to start playing the organ, but this was impossible, of course. So I started playing the piano, with J.S. Bach as my favorite composer. And at the age of 15, I entered the organ class at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Liège, where I studied four years with Hubert Schoonbroodt.

In 1972, at the age of 19, I got the chance to meet and work a bit with violin player Sigiswald Kuijken. Very inspiring experience! He also introduced me to Gustav Leonhardt, and I went several times to Amsterdam to study with him. I still remember each minute of these lessons. Gustav Leonhardt was very encouraging when I started recording the first Bach CD’s in the 80’s, he invited me several times to give organ recitals there and he facilitated some contacts to be able to record a CD there.

I also listened to the early concerts given by the Collegium Vocale Ghent and Philippe Herreweghe. It was incredible to hear such a vocal flexibility and expressivity, completely new at the time! I played some concerts with the Collegium Vocale in the 1970s. At the same time, I started playing a lot of contemporary organ works, giving many world premieres. Working with living composers has been a crucial experience: you learn how essential and incomplete a score is, and step by step, you realize the need to focus on the inner musical world – imagination – of the composer you are performing.

Another beautiful experience was the Ricercar Consort : we founded the ensemble around 1980 together with Philippe Pierlot, François Fernandez, Jérôme Lejeune (the boss of the CD label Ricercar) and some other friends. We played a lot of Bach but also many German composers of the previous century: Schütz, Tunder, Weckmann, Bernhardt, Buxtehude, Bruhns, J.C. Bach, and so on. As an organist, performing these fantastic pieces together with great singers and musicians was a privilege, an unforgettable experience. I probably learned more from these musical contacts, also with singers such as René Jacobs, Henri Ledroit, James Bowman, Greta De Reyghere, than in my Conservatory studies. I love playing solo recitals, but I also enjoy tremendously playing continuo and accompanying good singers, choirs and instrumentalists.

In parallel with this musical development, I have found a lot of interest in Peter Williams’ and Christoph Wolf’s books about Bach, as well as Michael Radulescu’s and Jean-Claude Zehnder’s articles (a.o.). Hans Davidsson and Pieter Dirksen also inspired me a lot about the XVIIth century German composers.

In 1973, at the age of 20, I realized a dream: the recording of a first Bach LP on the Kern organ in Thionville (for Musica Magna). This first one was very well received. Ten years later, I started recording the complete Bach’s organ work on historic instruments (Ricercar). It took me 15 years from 1982 until 1997 to search for the organs, prepare the best program for each of them (or vice-versa). The preparation trips, the discovery of newly restored historic organs and the recording sessions have been crucial moments in my musical life. When I started this project, apart from the organs in Ottobeuren, Neresheim and Muri, most organs I’ve been selecting for this series of CDs were not yet available, being not yet restored or not accessible (it was almost impossible to record on the Silbermann organs in DDR at that time). So the long list of historic organs I used for this project gives a good idea of the process of restorations that were realised in those years: Amsterdam (Nieuwe Kerk), Groningen (Martinikerk), Norden, Stade (Wilhardikirche), Hamburg (Jacobikirche), and after 1989, the Silbermann in Freiberg (Dom and Petrikirche), Ponitz, Pfaffroda, as well as Thuringian organs in Bettenhausen and Zella-Mehlis. 

I learnt a lot from all these historic instruments: if you carefully listen to them, they give you a hand, sometimes they correct you, they offer solutions to many questions and most important, they inspire you profoundly. The way they sing or/and speak, the colors and sound contrasts they can produce, the balance between the different keyboards, their projection into the space of the church, all that is extremely important to analyze and include in your performance.

My love for historic organs leads me to write a series of pieces for some of them, sometimes with the model of composers such as Arnold Schlick, Giovanni De Macque or Dietrich Buxtehude.

During these early years, I was teaching music theory at the Liège Conservatory. I’ve always been looking at the audience, trying to enlarge it, to share this fantastic music with people who don’t know it. I worked with school classes in Belgium and France, I was active at the Jeunesses Musicales (Youth and Music) and I became the chair of this organization in 1986 until 1990.

I organized some organ series in Liège and Brussels with some of the best international organists, and together with Jean Ferrard, we founded the Séminaire d’orgue de Wallonie in 1983, inviting people such as Michael Radulescu, Jean-Claure Zehnder, Jean Boyer, Bob Van Asperen, Michel Bouvard, James David Christie to join us and teach young European organists. In 1989, with some friends, we founded Ars Musica, a festival of contgemporary music based in Brussels.

In 1992, I became general manager of La Monnaie, the Brussels opera-house, and from 2007 until 2018, I lead the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Working day after day in Brussels with conductors Antonio Pappano or Kazushi Ono, José Van Dam and many other great singers has been a very inspiring experience. In Aix, I could accompany the work of Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle, Ekka-Peka Salonen, René Jacobs, Louis Langrée, Teodor Currentzis, Jérémie Rhorer, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon or Raphaël Pichon. During these 27 years, we commissioned and created some 30 new operas and worked with great composers such as Philippe Boesmans, Jonathan Harvey, Peter Eötvös, George Benjamin, Pascal Dusapin, and many young composers… The baroque repertoire was another source of strong emotions and revelations, from Monteverdi and Cavalli to Purcell, Charpentier, Rameau or Haendel. Also very inspiring was the collaboration with world class stage directors, choreographs and visual artists, such as Patrice Chéreau, Luc Bondy, Klaus-Michael Grüber, Herbert Wernicke, Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker, Trisha Brown, William Kentridge, to name just a few of them.

Since 2009, I came back to teaching organ at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles. It’s been another opportunity to experience how much we learn by teaching and working with young musicians. In Aix-en-Provence, the Academy that is part of the Festival also gave me many opportunities to work with young talented artists coming from all continents. Every year we welcomed more than 250 young singers, musicians and artists from all disciplines. I very much believe that such the Academy played a crucial role in the new dynamic of our festival.

During those years, playing the organ, giving concerts and recording CD’s was a fight and a vital necessity. Very often, even when I was exhausted after a heavy week, I could feel the energy coming from J.S. Bach, more than from any other composer. After having recorded all Bach organ works, I decided to work mainly on the North-German school, and I played for example all Buxtehude in four concerts over one week-end in April 2007 in Brussels, and later in Paris. Very beautiful memories…In 2018, I gave in the Brussels Cathedral a concert completely dedicated to Mathias Weckmann: most listeners discovered this composer on that occasion, and fell in love with this extraordinary music. For me, Weckmann’s music is very close to J.S. Bach – even more than Buxtehude -, in terms of polyphonic complexity and abstraction.

Now that my “operatic years” are behind me, I can focus again on performing Bach, re-questioning some aspects of his work, deepening the links with his predecessors and successors. I can finally dedicate a major part of my time to composition, which has been a dream for so many years. And maybe, opera will come back again in another way…

Bernard Foccroulle

January 2019

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