Born: October 27, 1907 - Leipzig, Saxony, Germany
Died: August 11, 1991 - Frankfurt am Main, Germany
The renowned German organist, harpsichordist and pedagogue, (Arthur Emil) Helmut Walcha, was stricken with blindness at age 16. He courageously pursued organ studies with Günther Ramin at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1922 to 1927.
At 17, Helmut Walcha made his debut in Leipzig, where he then served as assistant organist at the Thomaskirche from 1926 to 1929. In 1929 he settled in Frankfurt am Main as organist of the Friedenskirche. In 1944 he became organist at the Dreikönigskirche. In 1933 he became a teacher at the Hoch Conservatory. From 1938 to 1972 he was a professor at the Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt, lecturing on organ music and composition. After World War II, he became internationally known via his recital tours and recordings. His performances of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach were distinguished by their insightful interpretations and virtuoso execution. He also championed J.S. Bach's music on period instruments and made appearances as a harpsichordist.
Helmut Walcha recorded J.S. Bach's complete works twice, once in mono from 1947 to 1952, and again in stereo from 1956 to 1971. This latter stereo cycle, remastered with more bass definition, brilliant highs and repackaged in an economical collector's edition 12-CD box, has his only recording of The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). The original analogue engineering by Deutsche Grammophon contained in these recordings surpasses many digital efforts.
Helmut Walcha's performances set a new standard in their day and they have not yet been supplanted by more recent attempts for several reasons: His search for and use of two of the best Baroque organs (which he preferred to those of the modern or romantic period): the great organ of the St. Laurenskerk in Alkmaar (Holland) and the organ of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg (he held fundraisers for the authentic restoration of these and other Baroque organs); His brilliant registrations (the careful pipe rank selections, he never allowed their publication) enable multiple voice lines to be clearly legible; His supple pedal technique and keyboard skill give balanced and complete musical images which remain in the mind long after listening; His musical inner vision: As a result of a smallpox vaccination, Walcha had poor eyesight since childhood, and was fully blind by sixteen. He learned new pieces by having musicians (including his mother in his childhood and his wife in later years), play for him four times (each hand separately, the pedal part separately, and the complete piece). Having perfect pitch, he would memorise the piece while listening.
The inner vision capacities of the blind have been well documented but perhaps never so compellingly as with Walcha's recordings. They are an extraordinary example not only of the human and his music but also of the human spirit. Helmut Walcha could envision Bach's multiple lines simultaneously and share each of them with the listener, not crowding them with unnecessary ranks for the sake of volume, enabling the sheer drama of the music, a view of its architectural genius, and allowing attention to any line at any time.
Helmut Walcha edited the organ concertos of George Frideric Handel, and also composed for the organ. He published four volumes of original chorale preludes (published by C.F Peters) as well as arrangements for organ of orchestral works written by others. One other contribution to music scholarship is his attempted completion of the final (unfinished) fugue of The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). He taught many significant American organists of the 20th century who travelled to Germany as Fulbright scholars: these include Robert Anderson, Margaret Leupold Dickinson, Melvin Dickinson and David Mulbury, all of whom became major teachers and performers after their studies abroad.