During a decades-long career studying, admiring and performing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, James Kibbie occasionally finds himself perplexed by the 18th century German composer.
“Sometimes I want to write him a letter and tell him it would have been so much easier if he did it this way,” Kibbie joked.
But for each of those occasions when Bach confounds Kibbie, there have been scores more when Bach impressed, captivated and inspired the former Department of Organ chair and university organist.
Kibbie’s love and admiration for Bach have been on full display in his last academic year as professor of organ at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as he prepares for the 18th — and final — live performance of Bach’s solo organ compositions.
For 17 Sundays since September — including April 2 — Kibbie has filled Blanche Anderson Moore Organ Recital Hall in the Earl V. Moore Building with concerts featuring Bach’s solo works. His April 16 concert at Hill Auditorium will complete an extraordinary effort to play Bach’s organ canon — all 281 works. The April 2 concert starts at 4 p.m., and the final performance April 16 begins at 8 p.m., with an introduction at 7:40 p.m. The performances are free and open to the public, and tickets are not required.
“Dividing them into 18 concerts was me thinking about the audience,” he said. “I try to have each program be a sort of audience-friendly mix of different periods of Bach’s life, different textures, different sounds, partly with the idea that someone could come to just one recital and get a sampling of the whole range of Bach.
“There is such immense variety, such genius there. Out of those 281 works, I don’t think there’s a bad piece, and I don’t know of another composer I could say that of.”
The task has been equal parts daunting and rewarding, but it’s not the first time Kibbie has tackled Bach’s expansive collection of solo works. In 2000, when there were 266 of Bach’s extant works for organ, Kibbie performed a similar series of concerts.
“That was the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, so it was a good year to do it,” he said. “We have this wonderful, essentially Bach organ at Blanche Anderson Moore Hall that’s patterned after the 18th century organs that Bach knew and was known to admire, so it was a great way to use that resource.”
Kibbie said a couple of years after those performances, he was approached by then professor of biology Barbara Sloat. She said her husband, J. Barry Sloat, had attended and enjoyed all 18 of his concerts and was battling cancer. She wanted to do something to honor him.
Kibbie told her he had always wanted to record the complete Bach works on original Baroque organs in Germany, but the cost was prohibitive. Sloat underwrote the cost of the recordings, which he made over the course of three years, and those 274 works are available for anyone to download for free.
“That website has gotten immense traffic,” he said. “It’s astounding the number of people who have downloaded those recordings.”
Performing Bach’s works will test any organist, including Kibbie, who has been a professor of organ at U-M for 42 years, and has been studying and playing the organ since seeing and hearing it played at church as a young child.
Kibbie said he became intrigued with Bach when some of the first sound recordings of organ music he heard were Bach pieces performed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer.
“It sold itself,” he said.
Kibbie eventually came to U-M as a doctoral student, completed his studies and joined the faculty. He has taught countless students over the past 42 years, with Bach having an influence on them as well.
Kibbie said among the most challenging music in the organ repertoire are Bach’s trio sonatas, which the composer wrote partly as teaching material for his oldest son. They are required repertoire for organ majors at U-M and most higher education institutions.
“They’re difficult partly because the right hand, the left hand and the feet are doing something totally independent, but also every note matters,” Kibbie said. “There’s no filler, no background. At every moment you have to give your attention simultaneously to three totally different things: right hand, left hand and pedals.
“Thankfully not every one of the 281 is quite that difficult.”
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Each concert is about 70 minutes long, and the entire collection of 281 works would take a little over 18-and-a-half hours to complete. A few of the works are fragmentary, meaning Bach started writing them but didn’t finish, or the last part of the manuscript is lost.
“Since he wrote them, I wanted to include them on the series, and I’m not trying to complete them or round them off,” he said. “When I run out of notes, I stop playing.”
Kibbie said attendance for the first 16 concerts has been tremendous, and that includes a vast audience watching on livestream. Blanche Anderson Moore Hall holds about 150 people, so the final concert was scheduled for the more spacious Hill Auditorium, despite the differences between Hill’s Frieze Memorial Organ and the more Bach-friendly Marilyn Mason Organ in Blanche Anderson Moore Hall.
Kibbie will retire July 1, but he has various concerts already lined up and will continue recording and doing masterclasses. He said he is retiring from U-M, not from the organ, and he will try to maintain that focus at the last performance April 16.
“I’m just focusing on doing the music,” he said. “This will be my last faculty recital because I’m retiring, and if I start thinking about all that, I’m dead.
“One of the secrets of music performance is paying attention to the moment you’re in and not letting externals intrude. No one does that completely, but as much as you can.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
In 2000 a group of my former students led by Edward Maki-Schramm created the James Kibbie Endowed Scholarship. We’ve awarded it annually to U-M organ students and have gradually increased the endowment, and we invite anyone attending the concerts to donate to the endowment.
What can’t you live without?
Pipe organs and the wonderful music written for them. I’m looking forward to continuing to perform concerts, record and teach masterclasses during retirement.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The stage of Hill Auditorium. After 42 years of teaching weekly organ lessons there, plus my own practicing and performing, I think I’ve spent more time on the Hill stage than anyone else on campus.
What inspires you?
My students. Some of the world’s finest talents in organ come to Michigan, and I learn from them constantly. I love keeping in touch with former students and watching how they shape the future of our profession.
What are you currently reading?
“Voices of French Organists’ Experience.” It’s an anthology of the personal experiences of 19 luminaries of French organ music over the past century.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My own organ teachers, especially Donald Willing, my beloved organ professor for undergraduate and master’s study. I draw on musical wisdom and life lessons from him and my other teachers in every lesson I teach.