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Joseph Kelemen Johann Kaspar Kerll: Complete free Organ Works OC 362 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 362
Release date17/03/2005
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Kerll, Johann Kaspar

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      Over 300 years after the death of Johann Caspar Kerll, musicologists are still discover-ing his oeuvre. Johann Caspar Kerll was born in 1627 in Adorf, Saxony. In 1656, he was appointed electoral Bavarian court kapellmeister in Munich. He composed his organ works during his years in Vienna, beginning in 1674, and died in Munich in 1693. Joseph Kelemen performs all of Johann Caspar Kerll’s free keyboard music on this CD. Kerll’s musical language demonstrates a high degree of virtuosity, which was strongly influenced by his Italian training. The works which Kerll explicitly composed for organ exhaust all musical and technical resources of the instruments of the period. This recording was made on the historical Egedach organ at the Schlägl Abbey in Upper Austria.

      Johann Caspar Kerll
      Complete free Organ Works

      “Time has not dealt kindly with Johann Caspar Kerll.” Thus begins the foreword of John O’Donnell’s edition of Kerll’s works, which forms the basis of this recording. Over 300 years after Kerll’s death, musicologists are still discovering his oeuvre. For many years, insignificant harpsichord and organ works of other composers were ascribed to him; a great part of his vocal works has still not been published.

      Johann Caspar Kerll, born in 1627 in Adorf, Saxony, probably received his first musical training from his father, organist Caspar Kerll. While still a youngster, Johann Caspar entered the service of Habsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who sent him from Vienna to Rome to continue his studies. Kerll is thus another of the Southern German keyboard composers with Italian training, along with Hans Leo Hassler (1564–1612), Johann Jacob Froberger (1616–67) and Georg Muffat (1653–1704).

      In Rome, Kerll studied at the Germanicum et Hungaricum Jesuit college from 1649–1651 with Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1674); it thus seems highly likely that Kerll knew Froberger, who was in Rome at the same time. Immediately after finishing his studies in Rome, Kerll was engaged from 1651–1656 as court organist to Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels, who represented the Spanish king Philipp IV as vice-regent of the Netherlands.

      In 1656, Kerll was appointed kapellmeister of the electoral Bavarian court in Munich, where he married in the Dome of our Lady in 1657. Munich was an important way-station for Kerll. He wrote music for the stage, church and chamber ensembles. His performances at the court are said to have returned Munich’s musical life to the level it had once enjoyed under Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594)1. Unfortunately, this productive period came to an abrupt end 16 years later in 1673, when Kerll was insulted by an Italian musician in a fully inexcusable manner.

      Kerll moved to Vienna. From 1674–1677, he probably worked as the organist of St. Stephan’s cathedral3; from 1677 on, he served as Leopold the First’s court organist. His keyboard works are most certainly the fruits of these Vienna years. Due to the agitations of the year 1683 (the Turks stood before the portals of Vienna), Kerll returned to Munich, where he published his Magnificat verses titled Modulatio organica in 1686. The supplement to the Modulatio includes a catalog compiled by Kerll of his works to that date; it is one of the earliest printed work lists of an individual composer yet found. We have very little information on the last decade of Kerll’s life; he died in 1693 in Munich.

      The famous anecdote4 about the legendary manuscript owned by Johann Christoph Bach of Ohrdruf, who occasionally allowed his younger brother Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) to play from it, and which the younger Bach secretly copied on moonlit nights, illuminates Kerll’s important role in the history of keyboard music. This manuscript contained works of three composers: Froberger, Kerll and Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706). These three, together with Georg Muffat, were the most significant 17th century composers of keyboard music in Southern Germany. This means that Kerll also contributed to Bach’s later musical synthesis.

      Bach even arranged Kerll’s Missa superba in his Sanctus, BWV 241, while George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) used entire passages of Kerll’s Capriccio Sopra’ il Cucu in the second movement of his Organ Concerto in F Major. And Kerll’s Canzone quarta is the model for Handel’s choir “Egypt was glad when they departed” in his oratorio Israel in Egypt.


      17th century composers often let performers decide which instrument to play their works on (organ, harpsichord or clavichord). Of Kerll’s works, the Toccata quarta (6) and sesta (11) are definitely for organ; the former is a so-called ‘elevation toccata’ (played during the transubstantiation of the mass), the latter includes the designation ‘per il pedale’. All other works can adequately be played on the harpsichord. This recording includes all of Kerll’s free keyboard music that can be realized at the organ. The only exceptions are the four suites (clearly for harpsichord) and the liturgical, chorale-based Magnificat cycles, even though these are organ works.

      For a list of the works played here, please see Fig. 1., page 5.

      Kerll’s studies in Italy had a profound effect on him; the structure and musical language of his works clearly show the Italian influence. The extensive, Italianate, written-out ornamentation is yet another example of this influence, being customary for 17th century keyboard music. Likewise of Italian origin is the virtuosity of Kerll’s music, long passages of which are at the edge of the technically possible – without Kerll ever using virtuosity simply for virtuosity’s sake.

      Kerll’s eight toccatas, organized according to the church modes, are formally related to the eponymous work by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643). The toccata was the most important genre of keyboard music in the 17th century and consists of various sections with contrasting affects, although the contrasts found in Kerll’s music are somewhat less pronounced than in Frescobaldi’s.

      The joyous canzonas are characterized by the contrapuntal refinement of their composition (seconda and quinta) as well as the strong-willed nature of their subjects. The rapid repetition of tones in the subjects of some pieces is also worth noting (prima, terza and quarta). The material in the Capriccio Sopra’ il Cucu – modeled on Frescobaldi’s piece of the same name from his Primo libro di Capricci 1624 – centers around the repetition of the cuckoo’s call, heard 203 times! The Battaglia, until recently considered to be a work of the Spanish composer Juan Cabanilles (1644–1712), uses a respectable number of drums, pipes and timpani to represent a battle scene. The Ciaccona and the Passacaglia, with their respective 20 and 40 variations over a two-bar bass theme, are masterworks of variation, while the Ricercata enthralls with its wonderfully sedate polyphonic texture.


      The builder of the first organ in the Upper Austrian Prämonstrate Abbey Schlägl, Andreas Putz (ca. 1590–1657), came from Passau, a city well known in the 17th century for its brisk organ-building industry. Whether Kerll was acquainted with this organ – finished in 1633 – e.g. while on his way from Vienna to Munich or Brussels, must remain in the realm of conjecture. The instrument’s current condition goes back to Salzburg organ builder Johann Christoph Egedacher (1664–1747), who expanded it in 1708 after a fire in 1702. After a number of alterations, including one in 1960 by the Swiss company Kuhn, it underwent exemplary restoration by the Dutch company Gebr. Reil in 1990, which based its work on historical models to the greatest possible degree. The Schlägl organ, with 21 stops distributed over two manuals and pedal (not less than six stops in the pedal), has great presence in the church. Most of its pipes are still original. Pipes which had to be replaced were reconstructed based on those found in comparable instruments (e.g. the Klosterneuburg organ built by Passau craftsman Johannes Freundt in 1642).

      The original sound achieved by this restoration makes the Egedacher organ6 perfect for Austrian/Southern German organ music of the 17th century, and thus, the music of Kerll.


      The Egedacher organ’s mean-tone temperament plays a central role in the sound concept of the works on this recording. In Southern Germany, organs were still tuned in mean-tone far into the 18th century (e.g. the Baumeister organ of 1737 in Maihingen), so that Kerll’s music, as a product of the 17th century, is ideally suited for this intonation. On the Egedacher organ’s somewhat “milder” intonation (by ca. 1/5 comma), only very few passages (those with d-sharp/a-sharp) in the Toccata terza (14) and quarta (6) are “impure”. In “pure mean-tone”, Kerll’s Toccata quarta (6) would be difficult to bear; it would require sub-semitones for an adequate representation.

      As most instruments that Kerll used, all of the Egedacher organ’s keyboards have short octaves. Kerll will have taken this into consideration while composing the works played here, because a number of passages (Ciaccona (4), m. 19 and Ricercata (12), m. 43 as well as the Toccata prima (1), m. 12) can only be spanned by the hand on instruments with a short octave. The f-sharp in the Toccata seconda (18) (m. 11) requires, in contrast, an extension of the low (short) octave which is the case with the so-called “broken” octave. As this interpretation is played on an instrument that only has a short octave, the f-sharp had to be converted to a d°. For an illustration of a “broken” octave, depicted in Manuductio ad Organum (Salzburg 1704) by Johann Baptist Samber, please see Fig. 2, page 8.

      An additional part of this program is the use of old fingerings. It is highly probable that the Venetian variant of such fingerings was used in Southern Germany during the 17th century, even though there were no clear geographical lines of demarcation between schools of fingerings. Because original sources of Kerll’s music contain no clear fingerings, I have based my interpretation on such Venetian fingering tables from Kerll’s time.

      The toccatas which form the backbone of this recording are arranged around two cornerstones. One is the Toccata quarta (6) – a good example of the “durezze e ligature” (dissonances and slurs) style. This style, also of Italian origin, even worked its way up to Northern Germany, beguiling the listener – in contrast to the figurative music performed by the full chorus, or Plenum, – with its “singing” character. It sounds best when stopped in the Italian-German tradition of the 17th century with a clear 8’ diapason, as heard here.

      The second cornerstone is the Toccata sesta (11), an outstanding example of the brilliant 17th century toccata with its cascading runs over an organ point, making it clearly a Plenum work. The Schlägl Plenum has remarkable variety for the instrument’s size; its sound palette ranges from delicate to festive, magnificent to penetrating. This recording takes advantage of the available colors and uses a total of nine different full chorus registrations.

      The Toccata prima (1), characterized by its impulsive drive, is a successful example of the harpsichord-oriented Italian toccata, and introduces the program with an Unterpositiv Plenum. The reconstructed 8’ Pusaundl of the Hauptwerk, the Schlägl organ’s single manual reed, underscores the rhythmic beginning of the Toccata ottava (3) with its clear attack, and is a welcome addition to the otherwise Italianate specification with few reeds.

      In the Toccata quinta (9), two choirs of diapasons in the 8’+4’+2’ range carry out a dialog with each other on the Hauptwerk and Unterpositiv respectively. Simultaneous performance by the hands on two different manuals remains the exception in the Southern German style, however. In the Italianate notation – also used by Southern German and Austrian masters – the right hand is assigned to the upper staves and the left hand to the lower ones – even when this contradicts logical voice leading.

      The beginning of the Toccata terza (14) uses a sole 8’ diapason to illustrate its songlike character. In the course of the work (mm. 50 and 61), two successive “slender” Plenum registrations using the same arrangement (8’+4’+Mixtur, Unterpositiv and Hauptwerk) can be compared. The reconstructed Copl 8’ (metal) of the Hauptwerk gives the Toccata settima (16), including its fast passages, a velvety, supple character. Kerll’s Toccata seconda (18) demonstrates the organ’s beautiful 8’ and 4’ flutes until these must defer to a passage of arpeggios (m. 25) and trills (m. 39).

      The canzonas are stopped primarily in the middle range (3’, 2’ and 1½’) in various combinations. Further, the beginnings of the Canzona prima (2) and terza (10) offer an interesting comparison of the 4’ Egedacher/Putz flutes.

      The Ciaccona (4) illustrates the beautiful, mellow sound of the well maintained Copula 8’ from 1633. The selection of the sonorous Principal 8’, with its pipes standing in front and still in original condition, is ideal for the strict counterpoint of a Ricercata (12). The Battaglia (17) is characterized by the nasal sound of the Pusaundl 8’ until finally “La Vittoria” of the Unterpositiv Plenum enters at measure 91. The Passacaglia (19) is certainly Kerll’s most profound work for organ; it exploits all tonal and technical resources of the organ of that time. As the final work of this program, it uses a powerful registration of the organ’s full chorus for a festive close.

      Joseph Kelemen
      Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • Johann Caspar Kerll (1627–1693)
        Sämtliche freie Orgelwerke
        Complete free Organ Works
        • 1.Toccata prima03:24
        • 2.Canzone prima02:09
        • 3.Toccata ottava03:34
        • 4.Ciaccona02:22
        • 5.Canzone sesta02:37
        • 6.Toccata quarta Cromatica con durezze, e ligature04:41
        • 7.Capriccio Sopra’ il Cucu02:24
        • 8.Canzone quarta01:55
        • 9.Toccata quinta03:14
        • 10.Canzone terza03:11
        • 11.Toccata sesta per il pedale02:48
        • 12.Ricercata03:07
        • 13.Canzone seconda02:29
        • 14.Toccata terza04:33
        • 15.Canzone quinta02:26
        • 16.Toccata settima03:08
        • 17.Battaglia04:59
        • 18.Toccata seconda03:27
        • 19.Passacaglia06:12
      • Total:01:02:40