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Wolfgang Rubsam discusses his career as an organist and Associate Professor of church music at Northwestern University

BROADCAST: Mar. 1, 1984 | DURATION: 00:24:03


Studs interviews Wolfgang Rubsam who is performing at the St. Clements Catholic Church in Chicago. They discuss the sounds of the harpsichord, piano, and organ. Rubsam explains how the organ builder and the acoustics in a church affects the sound of the organ. Rubsam talks a little about various teachers he has had and the things he learned from each. The musical numbers are removed from this edited version of the original recording.


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Studs Terkel Wolfgang Rubsam, who is Associate Professor of Church Music at Northwestern University, is probably one of best-versed of organists in our country today, and he's recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and for Philips, went all the way from Bach to Messiaen, and there's Telemann and Couperin and also he is a scholar, a student of the organ, and we thought, perhaps, his thoughts about the nature of organ music--not just the virtuosity--the nature of the organ itself and how the approach is so different than that of other keyboard instruments, too. And it happens that Mr. Rubsam is offering several concerts. And by the way, in case you haven't heard them, they're very moving and quite exciting ones, too. He's offering three concerts at St. Clement's Catholic Church, that's at 6-4-2 West Deming, March 11th, March 25th, and April 8th, and the proceeds go to the restoration of the Roosevelt organ at the St. James Catholic Church on South Wabash. And, of course, the nature of the instrument itself, and its meaning, and church music, in a moment with my guest, and of course, examples of his playing. Wolfgang Rubsam after this message. Yeah, I think you were talk--we just heard Bach, the prelude, first harpsichord, then piano--

Wolfgang Rubsam The

Studs Terkel And you, Mr. Rubsam, you, Wolfgang, you were describing, you were saying the instruments have a different temperament.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes. The harpsichord is tuned intentionally--

Studs Terkel Not the performer! The performer, but the instruments themselves!

Wolfgang Rubsam That's right. The tuning system, to make it clear, is a very different one than what we are used to from the piano. What we try to do now in performing Bach on the harpsichord, and also we would like to see this on most organs, that we tune the harpsichord in a well-tempered manner, which is what Bach really wanted. Well-tempered does not mean equal temperament. Well-tempered means that it favors certain keys and it is more striking in other keys of

Studs Terkel So, "The Well-Tempered Clavier"?

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel It's just that. So, as we hear the harpsichord, we heard the harpsichord, it had a sharper sound, more of a dissonant sound, than the more fluid, piano-sounding piano. So the instruments themselves, you say, have a different temperament.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes. And it's actually very interesting to deal with the same piece on two different instruments, namely one that has a tradition in the early music-making and then, of course, going to the piano which came much later than Bach ever knew it. In fact, at his later stage of life--

Studs Terkel What's the organ's--now, the organ of course, we come to more complexity as there are more keyboards here, too. What's the organ's temperament? Is there a temperament to the organ?

Wolfgang Rubsam Oh yes, definitely. Now when we build new organs of the highest quality, which includes the tracker control from the keyboard and excellent specifications that are based on certain historical traditions, we do try to tune organs of this nature, in a well-tempered manner now, rather than an equal temperament. Equal temperament really does not give any key a certain character, whereas well-tempered or unequal temperament does give character to a certain key such as F sharp, the major is about as wild as you can get in unequal temperament and that's why I selected this

Studs Terkel I think, now, if we may we hear you now with a contemporary composer, Olivier Messiaen.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah.

Studs Terkel And now he, this is what, "Children of God", "Les Enfants de Dieu"?

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes. This example would be good to show that organ playing needs a complete awareness of timing. This is, actually, the most important subject in my opinion, that organists and those who are interested in the organ are aware that timing is our only expressive tool on the organ; when to play the next note; when to play the next chord; how fast to play a certain run, how slow to start a certain run.

Studs Terkel Is this timing more important for an organist than for a pianist?

Wolfgang Rubsam I think so.

Studs Terkel Why would that

Wolfgang Rubsam The reason why I say this, the pianist has a much greater tool in that sense that he can play easily loud and soft, which we really cannot do that easily on the organ, even though we can pull on more stops--

Studs Terkel Because of the multiple keyboard?

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, just the way organ registration is handled in general, you don't really go and have somebody pull stops at all times and get the organ louder and softer and louder and softer, whereas pianists have total control of making even a certain group of notes gradually louder and gradually softer--

Studs Terkel So the flesh-and-blood performer finds it easier to control the piano than the organ.

Wolfgang Rubsam I think, well, it's difficult to make the statement that firm, but I think there are difficulties on both sides of the game and the aspects of piano playing are, perhaps, as complex as the aspects of organ playing, except they're very different, but I think it's very important for an organist to be able to play the piano in a very expressive way, and it's therefore very important for a beginning organist to have a very good piano background. You don't really grow as a musician directly on the organ--

Studs Terkel I'm going to ask you about your background during the second half of this program. So we're going to hear Messiaen now, what should we look for in hearing you interpret Messiaen?

Wolfgang Rubsam I think we should look for here for music that builds up, not only in acceleration of the notes that progress in a sort of sequence fashion in the first part of the piece and building up to full organ, and then how we have to control the cut-down, namely the decrescendo of the sound of the organ in addition to playing the correct notes. And I think the second half is a very meditative moment.

Studs Terkel Wolfgang Rubsam. I can see why you chose this Messiaen, because of the contrast, there's the excitement and then the sustained notes, the quality. Now, that calls for something from that person, that man, that woman

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah.

Studs Terkel That flesh and blood being at that organ.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah, one really has to get involved in the music to the point that you can build excitement and come to a climax with your heart, really, and then bring this contrast with the kind of patience, calmness, and control of the organ also in terms of closing a certain division, which we call the swell, at the appropriate time to differentiate the loudness and, of course, changing the stops at the right time. Sometimes that is done with the help of others that stand at the organ and help you out a little bit, but--

Studs Terkel One thing we haven't talked about and that's the locale, where that church or that hall in which you play [unintelligible]. You played this at the Cathedral of Orleans.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah. In Orleans, Frances we recorded the complete suite of "La Nativite", at present also not available on record yet, but we did that at the same time when we recorded the Franck organ work for Deutsche Grammophon, and recording such an item is really not very easy because you have to work in the middle of the night and to avoid all the traffic around the church, and it causes incredible strains on the performer to keep that calmness is

Studs Terkel You won the Grand Prix de Chartres.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, in '73.

Studs Terkel In '73, the big contest, you won that.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel And that's the organ competition at Chartres is like, I suppose, a Moscow or Leningrad competition for--

Wolfgang Rubsam It does compare, if one wants to compare anything, it would probably be in that range.

Studs Terkel But in that, as you play in the Chartres Cathedral, L'Orleans, Rockefeller Chapel, now the question to ask you as you will play at, here at St. Clement's, the question is, does the place, what role does the place you play in affect the organ?

Wolfgang Rubsam It's incredible importance. Most people don't realize that organ playing and your choice of interpretation is very much affected by the room. And it's also important to realize that acoustics, where you find suddenly a church carpet all the way from the back to the front is really not helping the organist nor the organ sound. And what I always say is that our sound board of the organ is really not found in the organ, it is the church. And if we don't have a sound board to work with, it's very difficult.

Studs Terkel Another question, this is a tough one. Is it a wooden place, a stone place, this is a simplistic question.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, it is a simple question, and in Europe, of course, you don't find necessarily a church is built in the same style as in this country, but we find the tradition being very much the hard surface kind of construction. Stone with hard surfaces and no carpet anywhere. And as you can tell from all my recordings, there is always quite a bit of reverberation intentionally there, I never make organ records that don't have reverberation on them because I cannot play with the timing again.

Studs Terkel Let's just resume, Wolfgang Rubsam, after this message, we're talking to the Associate Professor of Church Music, I'll ask you about that course, church music, at Northwestern University who is performing Bach, some Bach organ works at St. Clement, yet, you're doing

Wolfgang Rubsam A series of Bach organ

Studs Terkel Bach

Wolfgang Rubsam And we started this last

Studs Terkel At St. Clement's.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, and I brought some examples from last year's concerts, we might have it some time to play. But here is a wonderful place here in this Chicago, with an organ that is actually built only very recently. I think it's now, perhaps, two years.

Studs Terkel What,

Wolfgang Rubsam At St. Clements.

Studs Terkel And that we should point out--

Wolfgang Rubsam And it is in a very fine acoustical setting and the organ is somewhat in the French tradition more than in the German tradition of organ building. And when I say so, the French classic tradition not the Romantic

Studs Terkel Well, what--you say in the French tradition. Well, let me just give the address.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel Let's talk about the French and the German tradition. Since just you spoke of North Germany being a harder, tougher sound than the more Italianate South German, want to ask you about French German, also about the course and the role of the church, but at St. Clement's Church, that's at 6-4-2 West Deming, and that's March 11th, March 25th, and April 8th at seven o'clock, and all the proceeds go to restore a certain organ, the Roosevelt organ at the St. James Catholic Church on South Wabash. We'll resume after this message. Resuming with organist Wolfgang Rubsam, and his works, examples, but also his thoughts about the place you play at is important. St. Clement's where you're performing, you did that last year, too. Suppose we hear what you sound like at St. Clement's, and what the audience

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah, it would be very nice to have an example of the full organ, this is the last variation of the partita [German].

Studs Terkel And this is of the Bach series. Yes.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel So this is how you sound at St. Clement's.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel I was thinking we--as the subject, of course, is church music, too, we think of the organ, we think primarily of church music.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, I think most of the repertoire that was ever written for the organ, most of it was really supposed to be used in the church service at certain

Studs Terkel Well, you have been, I know in your musical adventures and travels and recordings, you, you have been visiting and playing in the various churches and cathedrals of the world much in the tradition of E. Power Biggs.

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, I somewhat feel that, perhaps I might be a parallel similar case as Power Biggs was, interested in going to Europe recording on certain fine instruments at different traditions in organ-building. And not only that, but he was also interested in the technical aspect of recording which I find myself being also interested in, and in fact those recordings were recording

Studs Terkel Your own influence, by the way, aside from E. Power Biggs, and your hearing him, your own training was in Frankfurt with Helmut Walcha and in Paris with--

Wolfgang Rubsam Marie-Claire Alain, and I think I learned very different things from these two teachers as well as my American colleague that I studied with in 1969-70--

Studs Terkel Who was that?

Wolfgang Rubsam At Southern Methodist University. Robert Anderson. I think I've learned very different things from each teacher, and I'm very grateful for all of these different aspects. I think one could summarize quickly, from Walcha I certainly became more aware of the beauties, the delicate nature, the wonderful polyphonic writing for the organ, whereas in Dallas, I think I stretched my imagination for the romantic period, and-- What

Studs Terkel What about Alain?

Wolfgang Rubsam And with Alain it could be summarized as somewhat a mixture of things, namely awareness of early music, practices in the classic French tradition, as well as, of course, her brother Jehan Alain's work, which is a very fine contribution to the organ literature. Unfortunately, not very much because he had died very early.

Studs Terkel Can I ask about the course in church music. What is the training? How? What is the nature in the training of a church organist?

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes. On one hand, of course, in a university situation we find ourselves being very much interested in giving the student the awareness of different styles and the different periods and correct handling of the organ and, in summary, really, to develop a good musical taste rather than emphasizing only the right and wrong notes at a given

Studs Terkel But is there not now, the word "improvisation" always comes up, so I wanted to ask you this.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, this is one area that I teach at Northwestern University, and it changes from year to year. It very much depends in your core structure what kind of resources your students bring along. And I think we have a problem in this country by comparison to Germany that organists in this country are not forced early enough to come up with their own harmonization of a hymn for instance, because our hymnals in America already mostly in four-part available, four-parts music.

Studs Terkel You mean it's all set?

Wolfgang Rubsam It's all set. There's no--

Studs Terkel You mean is it different in Europe? It's

Wolfgang Rubsam Very much so, because you hardly ever find a hymnal with four parts, it's strictly one line and the

Studs Terkel And therefore the organist is allowed more room to

Wolfgang Rubsam Not only allowed, but you have to. And this is an area that we must stress in this country more and more, because it is almost the only tool in a church service to make organ playing be part of the liturgy in an uplifting manner. I think it is not good to just pull out the scores one after another and fill every minute with another little score. One should be able to bridge certain moments in the church service with your own musical thoughts. And that does take training, does take years before you can do that, but I think it is very important for any organist, and we stress that at Northwestern, that you get some basic skills, at least a kind of motivation to continue later in your life.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear you again, Wolfgang Rubsam, and more Bach. This is from this small book, the [German].

Wolfgang Rubsam Now, basically to show in the first piece that will follow, the happy kind of approach to organ playing and thinking in larger beats instead of just four beats a measure you should probably try to think in one beat a measure, and then the second example, "[German]", will give us some idea of what we are now experiencing in early music trends, namely the grouping of two notes together instead of a lot of notes slurred together over one slur, and I think of the strong and weak comes very nicely.

Studs Terkel This is also at St Clement's. Wolfgang, I was thinking, this was Bach again, we have to come to another composer and interpretation, Charles Widor, Widor 19th, now he, primarily organ.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah, most of his compositions were for the organ as far as I'm aware of, his total output reflected in his symphonies for the organ and then some lesser-known organ works that, so far I think, only a few people know of, they're more fantasy kind of pieces

Studs Terkel Now, what is it about Widor, what would be his contribution as a composer for the organ?

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, in the direction of symphonic writing for the organ, a large piece what different movements, different aspects of styles in each movement, the expressive moment and the andantes, or the rather virtuoso moments and the allegros or toccatas, I think it is beautiful to see his writing go hand in hand with organ building at the time of the Cavaille-Coll organ building, the tradition.

Studs Terkel We're talking now about 19th century now.

Wolfgang Rubsam Nineteenth century French--

Studs Terkel And what were the, since you speak of the moment of Bach as a glory moment--

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, I think we are looking at another high point in France. Can

Studs Terkel Can I ask you a question? Did that have something to do in France with the role of the church at that time, too? Did that play a role, you think?

Wolfgang Rubsam Oh, I think everything goes hand in hand. Traditions in the church influence composers, of course, but foremost in the organ world are very much the organ builder influences the

Studs Terkel The organ builder does,

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes,

Studs Terkel Who is the great--is there one organ builder--[unintelligible] say it was Stradivarius or Guarnerius

Wolfgang Rubsam In France for the romantic period are we are primarily interested in the work of Cavaille-Coll, and that is the school where we like to perform the works of Widor, Vierne, Franck, and Tournemire--

Studs Terkel Well, let's say to play Bach, who

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, in Bach, let's say the ideal organ for that is kind of difficult to pinpoint, we're looking more in the direction of Gottfried Silbermann in East Germany and we still have some very fine historical--

Studs Terkel That's the

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, we have to keep in mind that there are two different Silbermanns in the Silbermann family, whereas Gottfried Silbermann was in East Germany, and Andreas Silbermann was later in Alsatian area and so their--

Studs Terkel So they, so the organ builder plays a role--

Wolfgang Rubsam Very

Studs Terkel In the actual craftsman--

Wolfgang Rubsam Very much so. I think

Studs Terkel The nature of the music, isn't that it--what is there one, this is a silly question, before me we hear Widor we'll hear the toccata from the Fifth.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes, I think it's an fine example for the powerful virtuoso--

Studs Terkel Let's hear that--

Wolfgang Rubsam Of dramatic style of

Studs Terkel Where did you play that?

Wolfgang Rubsam That's also recorded at Orleans Cathedral.

Studs Terkel At

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel Okay. There is one word comes to my mind: power. Sense of power. I--this would be ideal, seems to me, to close a service.

Wolfgang Rubsam It would be marvelous for a festive service at the right place with the right organ. It certainly makes for a fine, uplifting moment. And of course, what the motor rhythm being the same through the whole piece, that in itself is quite powerful. But even in those situations, the organist should allow some freedom and look for the high moment, high point in the piece and play for some agogic moments and aspects and freeness of performance practices in that school, a different kind of freeness of a more singing type nature.

Studs Terkel You said sing--you, pardon me, you said singing type.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yes.

Studs Terkel So there's a singing aspect. Do you sing in your head?

Wolfgang Rubsam I consider in early music, I consider myself more a recorder player and I became very much interested in the tonguing of music, using my tongue and my diaphragm to support certain lines

Studs Terkel You do that as you're playing

Wolfgang Rubsam I really do, yes, I breathe in a certain way that I--

Studs Terkel See, 'cause the reason I ask that is because we're--you're talking about motor, we talk about technology today and more and more technological perfection. There is that flesh and blood person that is there in all these cases. And it's that aspect, you spoke of freedom, too.

Wolfgang Rubsam Freedom that really comes from the heart when it has to be powerful, and the last piece would be more in the direction of a singer being accompanied on a piano and it would be fine to see that--

Studs Terkel We hear that, we end, we're talking to Wolfgang Rubsam, who is Associate Professor of Church Music at Northwestern University, and who was offering as last year he did at St. Clement's Church, which has a marvelous sound, a concert, three concerts should say, March 11th, March 25th, and April 8th of Bach music and at 6-4-2 West Deming, 11th, 12th (sic) and April 8th. And I know it's--powerful is the word, and we hear--we'll end with? End with toccata? No, the "Andante Sostenuto" from the Gothic symphony of Charles-Marie Widor.

Wolfgang Rubsam A fine example for the freeness of a singer being accompanied on the piano, so to speak. That attitude from as an organist and then the middle section, the foundation sound of the organ and closing with an A section again.

Studs Terkel And this is by way of saying to you, Wolfgang Rubsam, oh, by the way, he's to be, for his recordings, many, many organ recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and for Philips.

Wolfgang Rubsam Yeah, Harmonia Mundi for the companies,

Studs Terkel And this is by way of saying thank you very much.

Wolfgang Rubsam Well, thank you for inviting me.