On a Magic Carpet in the Aa-Kerk

James McVinnie

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On 23 April 1710, the recently built tower of the Aa-kerk in Groningen collapsed, killing two people and destroying the organ, which had been installed by Arp Schnitger 13 years earlier. The tower was rebuilt but the organ gallery remained empty until 1815, when another Schnitger organ, dating from 1702, was relocated there, where it still stands. It is one of the supreme surviving examples of Schnitger’s work (though with alterations and additions from later organ builders), and speaks with an amazing clarity and beauty into the long, high, bright, plain church interior.

I first got to know the instrument in 2014, playing a concert of music by Nico Muhly and Philip Glass. Spicy-sounding baroque organs turn out to be well suited to 20th and 21st-century American keyboard and organ music: the repetitive spin of a Glass arpeggio or a Muhly filigree comes alive. But I also knew that the heart of the instrument lay in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially J.S. Bach. I returned to Groningen in the dead of winter in 2017 to record Clavierübung volume three, Bach’s longest and most significant collection of music for the organ.

Lasting just under two hours, Bach’s Clavierübung III comprises 27 pieces unified by a great musical and theological design: a cosmopolitan encyclopedia of musical styles, it is also an affirmation of Bach’s faith and a musical summation of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church. It was published in 1739, the bicentenary of Martin Luther’s preaching at theThomaskirke in Leipzig (where Bach was now employed as Kantor) and the city’s official acceptance of the Augsberg Confession, the Lutheran Church’s main profession of faith. The body of the work consists of chorale preludes – organ pieces based on the melodies of Lutheran chorales – and each piece makes a theological statement relating to the central tenets of Lutheranism.

In the chorale prelude Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, for instance, which tells the story of Jesus’s baptism, Bach sets an animated duet in the high register above a fast running bass line depicting the flowing waters of the Jordan. Less obvious is that the first four notes of the piece trace out the shape of a cross in musical notation.

In more abstract terms, the collection seems to be a meditation on the number three. Three flats to the key signature of the opening prelude and closing fugue; three distinct musical ingredients in the opening prelude; three sections to the final fugue, whose three themes finally conjoin in a spectacular musical jigsaw; three settings of the chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr in three different keys, each in three parts; Clavierübung volume three; 27 pieces in total (3 x 3 x 3); and so on.

Recording an organ is a tricky art. I wanted the recording to sound as if the pipes were speaking into listeners’ ears at close quarters, with a crystalline sound and intricate detail of phrasing, articulation and musical projection, without losing the sense of the instrument’s cavernous acoustic habitat. Numerous microphones were suspended from the Aa-kerk’s vaulted roof to capture the extraordinary beauty of the instrument at close hand. It sounds as you would hear it if you were sitting on a magic carpet right in front of the organ, forty feet in the air.

Allein Gott, in der Höh Sei ehr, BWV 676, by J.S. Bach. James McVinnie at the Schnitger organ of the Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2017.

Perhaps the architectural element to the record – the sense of being present in the space – may begin to compensate for the loss of site-specific live music this year. In July, Nick Cave broadcast an ‘as-live’ film of a pre-recorded performance at Alexandra Palace’s West Hall, shot by Robbie Ryan. It was a ticketed event, to be viewed online at a specific time and unavailable subsequently (though there is now talk of releasing it in cinemas in November, if they remain open).

I’ve released my Bach album together with a host of additional historical material on Patreon, a subscription platform that allows artists not only to keep creative control of their projects, but also to earn revenue from subscribers. Unlike a traditional record label, Patreon allows the direct artist-to-audience relationship to include a wealth of detailed and varied material. Other musicians – including Rhiannon Giddens, Becca Stevens and Sam Amidon – are curating similar projects, with exclusive recordings, masterclass livestreams, interactive Q&A sessions and more.

The music industry has been brought to a halt and shaken to the ground by the pandemic. It will have to be rebuilt, just as the tower of the Aa-kerk was. Having music available at the click of a button or tap of a screen has numbed us into assuming we can listen to it for free. We all, as individuals, need to address serious ethical questions about how we consume music. Artists’ revenue from streaming apps, unless you are a mainstream act with millions of fans, is negligible. Live performance was an essential source of income. One-third of Musicians’ Union members have said they are thinking of quitting. With lockdown continuing to prevent venues from reopening, we are all having to think creatively about how to bring our work to the public, and how to earn a living.


  • 7 October 2020 at 10:38am
    Farrah Jarral says:
    Glorious. Thank you for this.