Helmut Walcha

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Helmut Walcha (October 27, 1907 – August 11, 1991) was a blind German organist, harpsichordist and composer who specialized in the works of the Dutch and German baroque masters and is known for his recordings of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach.


Born in Leipzig, Walcha was blinded at age 19 after vaccination for smallpox. Despite his disability, he entered the Leipzig Conservatory and became an assistant at the Thomaskirche to Günther Ramin, who was professor of organ at the conservatory and cantor at St. Thomas'. In 1929, Walcha accepted a position in Frankfurt am Main at the Friedenskirche and remained in Frankfurt for the rest of his life. From 1933 to 1938 he taught at the Hoch Conservatory. In 1938 he was appointed professor of organ at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt and organist of the Dreikönigskirche in 1946. He retired from public performance in 1981 and died in Frankfurt.

Walcha recorded Bach's complete works twice, once in mono (1947–52), and again in stereo from 1956 to 1971. The former (mono) cycle has been digitally re-mastered and re-issued as a 10-CD boxed set. This latter stereo cycle (released 10/09/2001), has been remastered, and repackaged in a 12-CD box. This edition also contains the recording of his own conclusion of the last fugue of The Art of Fugue - previously unreleased.

Walcha's completion of the last fugue of The Art of Fugue was also recorded by his former pupil George Ritchie as part of Ritchie's recording of The Art of Fugue, released in 2010.

Walcha also composed for the organ. He published four volumes of original chorale preludes (published by C. F. Peters and recorded in part by, for example, Renate Meierjürgen[1]) as well as arrangements for organ of orchestral works written by others.

He lectured on organ music and composition (illustrated by his own playing) at the Hoch Conservatory and the Frankfurt Musikhochschule. One other contribution to music scholarship is his attempted completion of the final (unfinished) fugue of The Art of Fugue.

Walcha taught many significant American organists of the twentieth century who travelled to Germany as Fulbright scholars: these include Robert Anderson, David Boe, Margaret Leupold Dickinson, Melvin Dickinson, Delbert Disselhorst, Betty Louise Lumby, Paul Jordan, David Mulbury, Fenner Douglass, Jane Douglass, Ray P. Ferguson, Grigg and Helen Fountain, Barbara Harbach, Charles Krigbaum, J. Reilly Lewis, George Ritchie, Russell Saunders - all of whom became major teachers and performers after their studies abroad.

A section of the documentary film Desert Fugue is about Walcha, and explains how he memorised music part by part, and passed on this method of learning counterpoint to his pupils.

Selected discography[edit]

  • Bach: Organ Works. Performed by Helmut Walcha. 12-CD set from Archiv Produktion (Deutsche Grammophon) Catalog No. 463712 ("Walcha's Bach holds a similar place in the annals of recording to Fischer-Dieskau's Schubert, Toscanini's Verdi, and Gieseking's Debussy." -- [2])
  • Bach: Great Organ Works. Performed by Helmut Walcha. 2-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon Double Catalog No. 453064 (one disc with Walcha playing the organ of St. Laurenskerk in Alkmaar and the other with him playing the organ of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg).
  • The Early German Organ School. Helmut Walcha at the Arp-Schnittger organ, in Cappel. An Archiv Produktion (DGG) 4-LP set, with works of Georg Böhm, Nicolaus Bruhns, Dietrich Buxtehude, Vincent Lübeck, Johann Pachelbel, Samuel Scheidt, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Franz Tunder.

Helmut Walcha has also recorded most of Bach's harpsichord works (the English and French Suites, the Goldberg Variations, Partitas, the Italian Concerto, 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias, the Well-Tempered Clavier) for EMI. These recordings are still available from EMI-Toshiba (Japan). The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations are also available in Europe in a 5-CD set. He also recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier for Deutsche Grammophon, using a Ruckers cembalo for the first book and a Hemsch for the second book. This recording is only available in the Far East (Korea, Japan).


Further reading[edit]

  • Coppey, Joseph; Kunz, Jean-Willy (2004). Helmut Walcha: Nuit de lumière. [Colmar]: J. Do Bentzinger. ISBN 2-84960-019-9.
  • Hicks, James DuVal (1989). The chorale preludes of Helmut Walcha. Thesis (D.M.A.)—University of Cincinnati. OCLC 24563604.
  • Jordan, Paul, The Diapason, October, November and December 2007, 3 articles: In celebration of the 100th birthday of Helmut Walcha, artist-teacher.
  • Jordan, Paul, "Helmut Walcha-Artist-Teacher," College Music Symposium Vol. 22, No. 2 (Fall, 1982), pp. 148–154
  • Joy, Jeremy, "The Truth of What We Hear: Thoughts about Helmut Walcha and His Art," The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1789 (March 1992), pp. 145–147

External links[edit]