E. Power Biggs Bach Trio Sonatas

Here, take your weary minds off ChatGPT and listen to this:

I think there is progress in Art, in a stumbling sort of way. How far have we come since this. The instrument! The playing! The concept! All so dreadful I am lost for words. And yet people claim he was a good organist?

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I was just playing C.P.E. Bach post-baroque sonata of 1747 (the one with detailed registration for a two-manual harpsichord) and the paper scrutinising it by Koster (1999). The type of registration Power Biggs uses may remind one of the CPE 1747 prescriptions, but sounds certainly very odd with the earlier baroque style.

I have heard many recordings by Power Biggs and cannot recall a single one I find satisfactory.

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There is ONE feature I like in Power Biggs and other players of his generation, e.g. (and of course infinitely more stylish) Walcha, and makes the rhythm exciting in fast movements: there is none of the present-day omnipresent unhistorical dwell-on-any-fast-note-even-on-weak-beat-forever thing.

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Just try to imagine a young enthusiastic organist in the US in the early 50s, feasting his/her ears on the organs of Holtkamp (and shortly later of Fisk). Biggs’s recordings of historical EU organs were an important part of the enthusiasm, then. Performance practice as a discipline had hardly been invented or was little more than a fad; Flor Peeters’s Ars Organi was the most enlightened method. Historical restorations of instruments were not on the agenda, except maybe in museums or in EU. They still aren’t, in the UK.
For that enthusiastic organist there was lots to be learned from Biggs, who was certainly stretching the boundaries of his time & place. Walcha was another step ahead, and soon had a number of US pupils; Leonhardt was still hardly known.



What I learned from!

Finn Viderø Orgelschule in my case. I still recommend it.

  • David

From “draak via The Jackrail” <noreply@jackrail.space>
To bedlowdavid@gmail.com
Date 03/06/2023 13:31:11
Subject [The Jackrail] [General] E. Power Biggs Bach Trio Sonatas


Do you have a Wq or H number for the 1747 sonata to which you refer?


Which I also had. Gosh!

Answering to Keith Womer’s question.

Sonate in d Wq 68 H 53.
I have Henle’s C.Ph.E. Bach Piano Sonatas Selection Volume I, where it is Nº 8, pp.75ff.

This edition carries the original CPE Bach registration indications in German. However, the Preface by Darrel Berg, dated 1986, does not carry any indication about their meaning, which is not straightforward, first because CPE uses stop names that are not in the classical harpsichord tradition but in the one of middle 18th c. German lands, second because the instrument disposition does not match the “classical” double-French model.

A very accurate analysis of CPE’s directions in the 1747 Sonata and which type of harpsichord disposition they imply is available in Koster, John. “The Harpsichord Culture in Bach’s Environs” in Bach’s Perspectives: The music of J. S. Bach—Analysis and Interpretation, Vol. 4, ed. David Schulenberg. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska (USA) 1999, pp. 67-69.

Thank you.

I looked it up on cpebach.org. I think you meant Wq 69.

In this (free) edition, there are translations of the registration directions. To me, it is clearly registered for a two manual organ, although the ubiquitous use of a cornet, often in harmony, is curious. I haven’t a clue what “spinet” means.

There are instances where the bass goes below the range of most organ keyboards (CC), although extensions are not unheard of.

I became aware of Mr. Biggs when his first volume of Bach on the Flentrop at Harvard was released. Before that, I had only heard “American Classic” electropneumatic instruments and their electronic imitators. Hearing the Flentrop was a revelation similar to the one I would have years later when I played my first historically oriented harpsichord (a Kingston double). I know there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but I have to give Biggs credit for championing historical organs and modern ones built on the same principles. Like most organists, he knew nothing about harpsichords, with a predictable result.

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Hi Keith. I stand corrected: Wq 69!.
And no, the registration names for this “Claviersonate” are for a not-uncommon disposition in German mid-18th c. harpsichords: this has been shown by the essay I mentioned by John Koster.
Besides, the fact that the octave stop is only in the lower manual, and that the upper 8’ has a buff (gedämpf) leaves no doubt.
“Spinet” is identical to an English lute stop.
“Cornet” is the normal upper 8’ row of jacks.
You should read Koster’s article.

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I found and read the Koster article (which somehow I overlooked in your initial post). Very enlightening! Thanks for calling my attention to it.

Curious naming of the “organ stop registers”. Other than “flute”, the others seem quite arbitrary. I presume the source articles referenced by Koster would have discussed that some.

In any case, I agree it would be highly instructive for performers of CPE on harpsichord to play this work and learn from it.


I don’t think we should be too hard on Biggs. First of all he brought a lot of great music to the attention of the public - and not just the obvious pieces. I heard him play when I was a teenager and the first piece on the programme was by Sweelinck.

He was also instrumental in getting that Flentrop for Harvard, at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which was an important Neo-Baroque instrument - with tracker action, very daring for 1958. It inspired organists and organ builders in the US, helped establish Flentrop as a contender in the US market, etc etc etc. Adolphus Busch Hall, Harvard University — Boston Organ Studio

This trio sonata recording is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite today. But bear in mind that playing those pieces on the pedal harpsichord is MUCH more difficult than on the organ (which is difficult enough); the precision required is very daunting. Biggs was highly skilled and a good ambassador for the organ and, to a lesser degree, for the harpsichord.