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When rewinding the film now at age seventy, I see it all started with growing up in a musical family; my dad was active in music education with music students also coming to our house for theory lessons in preparation for the entrance exams at music universities. My mom was also teaching music, math, and physics in high school with students appearing at home for piano and voice lessons.

I was surely surrounded by music as a child and excited to hop on the piano bench at age 3 to imitate what I observed; good finger positions, loose wrists, and then copy what I heard. My parents never interfered and let me have the piano as a toy.

My skills in improvisation all over the keys developed swiftly, stealing the style of Chopin, Bach, and many other composers, mostly playing in my favorite keys, f sharp major, g sharp, and never just in C major.

I had no knowledge then of any key grammar or scales until my first formal piano lesson at age 6, with outstanding instruction for 10 years; then formal organ lessons, although I had befriended that King of Instruments already by playing church services before age 16.

My organ teacher in Fulda, Germany, trained me in “boot camp” with the Franke Orgelschule, then the JSB 8 little Preludes and Fugues, then Orgelbüchlein. After three years of this weekly exercise of learning one JSB work after another, I had covered almost the complete organ works of Bach at the entrance exam of the Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt and was allowed to jump right into the third semester of church music study, organ under Prof. Helmut Walcha.

Walcha was most concerned that the student would become more aware of the art of polyphony by having to sing the inner voices while playing for this blind teacher. I recommend it now highly.

I was to graduate at a very young age and unable to avoid the then still mandatory German military service. Prof. Walcha sent me overseas to prolong the graduation date in Frankfurt and I studied with one of his finest American Fulbright students, Dr. Robert T. Anderson, at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.

Here I discovered organ repertoire the world over, from early music to Messiaen. Every week I studied a new huge, often very difficult work of Reger, Franck, Langlais, Dupre...and the list goes on and on. In Dallas, I practiced six hours daily. Never before had I covered more repertoire in one year. The Masters Degree I earned there was surely the one “golden life key” that changed everything in my career and contributed tremendously to my winning the Grand Prix de Chartres, Interpretation, in 1973 - the first German to do so.

Upon returning from Dallas, Texas, I completed my degrees in Church Music and Organ Performance.

Additional study under Marie Claire Alain in Paris began in 1971. What fun it was to travel once a month to Paris for a long lesson with Marie Claire, often having not practiced enough, which she excused by saying: "Wolfgang, oh, do not worry.  Just the music counts." I was also teaching music part time during that time in the German school system to earn my living expenses.

Marienstatt Abbey then was my weekend church job with a beautiful large Rieger Organ. Here my first commercial recordings were made by Da Camera, including works by Max Reger and Jehan Alain.

I became friends with the sound engineer, Teije van Geest, in part because we had a mutual interest in sound engineering and editing. Many recordings then were produced via this friendship over the years to come, including the legendary complete organ works of Bach that were offered and sold to Phillips Records. These recordings were available initially on 25 LPs, later on 15 CDs, then they vanished from the market.

1973, the year in which I won the Grand Prix de Chartres, was another “golden key” event that opened the door professionally to teaching in the USA.  Northwestern University in Evanston/Chicago offered me the Assistant Professorship of organ and church music in their school of music in Evanston. This offer came over the phone without any interview or sample teaching. A one-year contract culminated in 23 years of teaching students from all over the globe, and I eventually became the chairman of the department.

But these years were also filled with activities in aviation. I immediately worked on my private pilot license, followed by the instrument license, and I flew myself to most of my organ recitals across the USA.

But the appointment at Northwestern was also a golden key event for my private life in that I met my dear wife,  Jan. We raised two marvelous daughters. Yes, they are also very active in music.

Johanna played and performed on the trombone as a graduate from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. She is now living in Bern, Switzerland, and is married to a world renowned trombonist. They enjoy now two wonderful little children.

Christa married in Minneapolis and has a degree in graphic design but is very active in several bands, performing on violin, cello, erhu, voice, and often assisting in studio recording projects for film or disc release.

I started my own recording studio in 1974 while teaching at Northwestern, mostly because of travel issues, cranking out a lot of the piano recordings for Naxos in the Heidelberg Studio under jetlag conditions. At home, this was continued for Naxos at my own pace, and in my own studio with an outstanding Boesendorfer piano.

I have engineered, edited, and mastered almost all of the Naxos complete organ works of Bach as well as most of the CDs of the Naxos Organ Encyclopedia Series with large, complete recordings sets of Reger, Dupre, Scheidemann, Buxtehude, and much more, here mostly providing a chance for young organists to be heard.

After 23 years of teaching at Northwestern University, also serving as University Organist of the University of Chicago at Rockefeller Chapel, the Hochschule fuer Musik Saarbruecken, Germany, asked me to join their faculty, and I accepted. It was a great fourteen years in a small school environment where the faculty felt like a family. The students were even allowed to be on a “du” basis with the Professors, though not in my class.

Retirement was on the horizon in 2010 after 14 years of teaching in Germany and commuting from the US.  Now we live on a beautiful lake with a music studio at hand for more recordings, most recently the Well Tempered Clavier of Joh. Seb. Bach on a Lautenwerk/Clavicymbal.
Music is a language with countless dialects - that is to speak to the heart and mind of the listener. I hoped all my life to achieve just that and instill it in my many students as well.


On Horizontal Interpretation

About exactly one year ago, my friend Keith Hill had built yet another Lautenwerk in his keyboard shop in Michigan. I immediately loved it because of how it inspired my playing, in effect, talking to me every millisecond as I played.  Keith suggested that I take it home and record the complete Well Tempered Clavier on it, doing something never done before: using Bach’s manuscript and literally following the vertical alignment of notes—those meant to be played at about the same time—as they actually appear from Bach’s hand in relationship to one another so that, if one pitch appears to the left of another, it is played slightly before those to the right.  This set of 5 Compact Discs, recorded in High Definition audio, using the Kirnberger III well tempered tuning, represents my work on this project over the span of one year.
The Lautenwerk is the perfect instrument because of its overall warm, lilting color that does not rely on either manual or stop changes, allowing the intense individuality of each measure to be retained, while remaining interesting at all times--never predictable.
In my view this rich and inevitable music needs to be unpredictable. More to the point, each voice of the polyphony must be able to sing and interact to fully express Bach's complex linear architecture. Furthermore, even after repeated listening to the same track, listeners should perceive yet more beauty in matters of elegance, individuality, rhythmic complexity, ornamentation and overall color of interpretation by virtue of total independence of voices interacting
In Bach’s music, polyphony creates the harmonic architecture and color, not the other way around.  This is clearly and often significantly misunderstood by even serious keyboard players worldwide. The complex interaction of singing voices that results in this recording is what I refer to as a “horizontal interpretation”, as opposed to what seems to have become the run-of-the-mill finger-oriented vertical/chordal/harmonic/mechanical approach to performance, of what J.S. Bach clearly meant us to understand and communicate.  I hope that this recording helps to counter this misunderstanding and serve as a vehicle to assist and re-orient the cultural “inner ear” for Bach and for early music in general. Perhaps beyond that it may encourage further the art of elegant ornamentation especially, but not exclusively in pieces having repeat sections. This skill is not limited to just adding trills but in fact includes all kinds of flourishes, especially in sequence patterns and in many cadences of the Well Tempered Clavier.
Last but not least, I invite each listener to focus with eyes shut on each independent voice and discover how the music embraces the heart and mind.

Wolfgang Rübsam
September 2016



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