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Back-to-back Bach
Organist performs marathon of composer's organ works
The sanctuary at Wesley Monumental featuring the historic organ

Bach Marathon

When: 10 a.m.–9 p.m. March 8–9; break each day from 2:30-3 p.m.

Where: Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, 429 Abercorn St.

Cost: Free and open to the public, donations accepted

This weekend, organist Christopher Jacobson will sit behind the historic organ in Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church and play all 257 organ compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In under 24 hours.

Since only a few musicians have ever attempted the feat — Felix Mendelsohn being one of them — Wesley Monumental will enter the ranks of musical history.

"If he survives, yes," laughs Wesley Monumental Music Director and OrganistMonica Harper.

Jacobson, Associate Organist at Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, does indeed have his work cut out for him playing the works on a mechanical action organ, the type Bach himself played. It happens this weekend, in two 11–hour sessions Friday and Saturday.

"To play an organ like this one you have to use a certain technique, which Bach would have known very intimately," Harper says. "You need a very sensitive touch because the keys are directly attached to pipes. If you press one key, you can almost feel the valve opening to let air out of the pipe — as opposed to an electric action organ, where there's a valve under the key that pushes air for you."

The downside of this type of organ is its very demanding physical nature.

"Because you have to play it with your feet as well as with your hands, there's nothing upon which to balance yourself. So all of the weight of the body is on your lower back," explains Harper.

Imagine balancing yourself on a barstool for 11 straight hours with your feet hanging in the air and nothing to rest on, and your hands out in front of you, that's what this weekend's marathon by Jacobson would be like, she says.

"There are points where your arms and feet are completely stretched out. It's often extremely acrobatic just to play one piece," she says. "And organ benches aren't cushioned either, like piano benches."

Jacobson arranges the works in fourteen chapters, beginning with a cross section labeled, "Glimpses of Genius." The works then progress through the stages of Bach's life and development as a musician, ending with a performance of "Last Words," Bach's final utterance dictated from his deathbed in 1750.

Each chapter is roughly an hour and twenty minutes long, and Jacobson has scheduled ten minutes between chapters.

"But he's going to introduce each of the pieces, so there will really be very little break time," points out Harper, adding that Jacobson will have one break from 2:30–3 p.m. Saturday "to have a little something to eat."

So why Wesley Monumental?

"Jacobson chose this church because of the wonderful acoustics at Wesley Monumental," says Harper. "The reverberations are just perfect for performing this type of music."'