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Helmut Walcha(27th Oct. 1907 ~ 11th Aug. 1991)

< Insight instead of Sight >

Curriculum Vitae

    If you must memorize all of the Bach's works, perhaps you will think you'd rather die. But you will be very surprised that the man who memorize all of the Bach's works for organ and cembalo is perfectly blind, and that he began it even after his blindness, which spent about 15 years. The hero who completed what an ordinary person cannot even imagine, and who said "The disease which cut me off permanently from the visible world also opened up and smoothed for me the way to inner perception.", was Helmut Walcha.

    Helmut was born on 27th December 1907, in Leipzig. His father Emil was the head of a post office, and his mother was named Anna Ficken. He had himself lost much of the vision by the aftereffects of the smallpox vaccine at 1908, but not all the sights as his parents soon knew it and entered elementary school at six. He liked music by virtue of his parents, and was taught the score-reading by sister. By accident, he was moved by Bach's F major invention and later interested in organ, so practised it the church near home. His parents considered that he had to enter music conservatory, but Helmut preferred only playing.
    When Helmut was twelve, Feintheizen(?) who was the bassist of the Gewandhaus Orchestra gave him the chance of the meeting with legendary Arthur Nikisch(1855~1922) after he was impressed by Helmut's playing. It is said that Helmut played an improvisation after German folktone at the meeting. Nikisch knew Helmut's gifts, recommending normal musical training. Feintheizen taught Helmut the piano for a year. But gradually Helmut's sight was deprived. Chronic keratitis threatened his weak sight, and operation totally failed. Therefore, Helmut perfectly lost the light after sixteen(1923).

    In 1922, he entered Leipzig Conservatory and was taught by Günther Ramin(1898~1956), who was famous for the authorities of Bach. Later he succeeded the Thomas Kantor after Karl Straube(his teacher) in 1940, who gave the premier of the Art of Fugue. Ramin thoroughly cultivated him, and Helmut greatly progressed at piano, organ, and musical theory.
    He gave the first recital at St. Andre Church, which was well accepted. He became vice-organist of Thomaskirche as Ramin's assistant in 1926, and graduated and passed qualifying exam for organist in Leipzig Conservatory summa cum laude next year. Same year he came into chamber music research center in Leipzig, and elected organist of the Peace Church in Frankfurt in 1929. His Frankfurt ages thus began. He was elected organ faculty Frankfurt Hochschule fur Musik in 1933. This school became national in 1938, and he professor of Church Music Department. He married Ursula Koch in the next year, when he made Bach series in Frankfurt and gave concerts for a week every year. At the end of WWII he temporarily stopped musical activities, but restarted concert appearances in 1946. He took the post of Dreikönigskirche(Three King's Church) in Frankfurt. In 1947, the first newly made organ after WWII was installed at the auditorium of Frankfurt University by his effort. He played(and improvised) organ each week at Dreikönigskirche, and gave lectures on Bach's 165 organ works with playing them at Frankfurt University. His good activities made Frankfurt central position of Bach playing.
    In 1947, he recorded Bach's works with the small organ of St. Jakobi Church in Lübeck at Archiv Produktion. His recordings by EMI and Archiv Produktion increased his fame all over the world. He appeared Bach bicentenary festival at Göttingen and taught apprentice from the world. Frankfurt am Main rewarded him by Goethe medal by memory of his great contribution to music. He was revered as the master of Bach before he resigned in 1977 because of the bad health, and finished his respectable life on 11th Aug. 1991.

    His main repertoires were Baroque era, including Sweelink, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, J.S.Bach, and Händel, all of which he learned after becoming blind. Of course he had to memorize all. When he did so, two women helped him; mother before wedding and wife(Ursula) after wedding. They played one by one of the each voice by piano, then Helmut memorize the voices and 'synthesize all of the voice parts in his head'. He made up his mind to memorize all the works of Bach at 25 years old, which he took 15 years to finish the job. From this thorough practice(is there any better method for landscaping Bach's polyphonic structure?), trained technique, and long experience rooted his stylistic music, with masterly nobility (and stubborness). Strict tempi and rhythm and well-considered beautiful registration teach us manly facet of Bach's organ works. As he grew older, his music warmer, more delicate, and more beautiful. I wish he had not resigned at (only!) 70 years old.
    There are many of his recordings in DG and EMI, total about 50 items by CD. Most of all, the supreme is the second complete recording of Bach's organ works(Archiv). This recording is monumental in all the Bach recordings. I cannot forget the beautiful lucidity of chorale preludes, and (toccata/prelude/fantasy and) fugues are proud of the perfect construction of music and technique. His last record 'Orgelmeister vor Bach(Organ masters before Bach)' is also good(Archiv). He gave exquisite registration in Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Böhm, etc. and warmer musical line than younger years. In cembalo works, EMI recorded most of the Bach's representative works in 1958~62. He used modern model(Ammer), outstanding colorful registration in spite of rather dark tone. In special, English suites, Partitas, and Golberg variations are very good. In 1970s, he re-recorded the Well-Tempered Clavier with historic model at Archiv Produktion, which is said to be very beautiful(transferred to CD by Japanese and French DG). Only one chamber music recording is complete set of violin sonata with Szeryng(Philips, by historic model), and it's also well refined in ensemble.

Photo Gallery

5 Playing Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune organ 5 In front of the organ in Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Church
5 Playing the Great organ in Saint-Laurens Church, Alkmaar, Netherland

The Resources

  • Main ; an appendix of Eumak-Donga(a Korean music magazine), my records.
  • Biography ; mainly from Toshiba-EMI TOCE 6887~99(Bach's cembalo music)
  • Photos ; Archiv 419 904-2(12CD), by Mr. Rodrigo de Sa-Nogueira Saraiva(playing Alkmaar organ)

(c) 2000~ , Youngrok LEE ; Link free, but please get my approval before you reuse, copy, or quote this materials.

Music Home Photo Gallery Discography On Organ recordings Jacket Images Korean

Created ; 3rd Dec. 2000
Last Update ; 14th Mar. 2002