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Well, In My Opinion...
Thursday, 13 August 2009
The Case for Organists Memorising Their Recitals
Topic: Music Commentary

(Political correctness caveat:  I hate having to write "he or she" or "she/he." So, in an attempt to assuage any gender sensitivity I will alternate by paragraph my gender references to the generalised performer.  Grammatically and usage-wise I find it reprehensible; but, God forbid that I damage anyone's self-esteem.) 


I received a comment to a recent review I wrote of an organ recital in which, although this person agreed with most of my impressions, he thought I gave too much importance to the performer's need to memorise her programme.  As an organist I find it not a little disconcerting that this should even be an issue.  It seems to be a matter with which only organists have a problem.  Almost every soloist I've seen and listened to on any other instrument (including voice) performs before an audience without her head buried in a score.  So, why not the organist?

There are any number of reasons given, all of which are simply lame excuses. Here's one:  Since most organs are in churches most organ recitals (surprise, surprise) are in churches; this explains — though does not excuse — a lot.  Most organ consoles are either buried away in a corner of the chancel behind the choir or completely out of sight in the gallery above the narthex in the back of the sanctuary.  Being "hidden" gives the organist a sense of justification for not having to memorise repertoire — out of sight out of mind.  Who's going to know?  Well... for one, the audience.    

Let me explain:  Stephen Best in his article "On Passionate Music Making"  wrote about the somnolent experience of attending organ recitals nowadays; that the one major characteristic missing in organ recitals is passion — real sanguine, heartfelt passion. A major contributing factor to this problem is this bent for playing from music.  It has a stultifying affect on the performer's ability to empathically communicate her feelings for any of the pieces she is performing.  Empathy is a powerful force.  We all have it.  We all experience it. When we "feel someone's pain" we are empathising.  Empathy is disseminated via raw, instinctive sensation and that doesn't come from watching, or even listening blind, to someone who has her eyes glued to the ink on a page.  

I remember when playing, reciting, singing, or doing anything from memory was referred to as doing it "by heart."  By heart — that pretty much says it all; and it only comes from having learnt a piece of music so thoroughly that it has become a part of your very being.  That is when you truly know a piece.  And it is that which makes the difference when listening comparatively to Hillary Hahn play a Bach solo Partita or Sonata on the violin, or Imogene Cooper play a Bach Prelude & Fugue from the WTC on piano from memory, to listening to Ann Elise Smoot drone on in the Passacaglia & Fugue in c on the organ.  The other two have made that music their own.  It's part of them, as natural as each breath they take.  The last thing Hahn or Cooper need is the music in front of them.  It quite literally gets in the way.  

When the late great Virgil Fox played a recital it was from memory, all of it. Without the music in front of him he was free to interpret a piece fully with great confidence without dropping notes caused by cumbersome page turning, assisted or not, or worrying about losing his place if he happened to take his eyes away from the score. The result was the audience could fully experience the music because they weren't obstructed by a wall of paper, or the distractions caused by the hazards of page turning.  Notwithstanding, as great fun as it was to watch him play, an audience didn't have to see him.  They felt him, they felt him as someone totally immersed in the music, and that in turn immersed the audience in his music making — empathy.  

And that is my point about the audience knowing; they instinctively know.  Of course, if an audience can't see the organist because he is in the choir loft, they can't specifically tell that he is not playing from memory — by heart; but, they can certainly sense the lack of surety or confidence, and the lack of tension and continuity as a result from being dependent on the page. 

Here's another:  So often I hear the organist say, "Well, for all intents and purposes I really have it memorised," or "I really don't need the music.  I just have it there just to be sure."  This I find, is at best, just a little disingenuous. Using a crutch no matter how fluidly, is not the same as walking securely or confidently unaided.  If you know it by heart, you know it by heart, pure and simple.  If you have to have that score in front of you, you patently don't know it.  Oh, you may have the notes, and dynamics right, but it isn't existentially realised.  Moreover, if you still need the page, you do not fully comprehend the arch of the phrase, and ultimately, the arch of the whole piece:  at least well enough to communicate it to the audience.

And here's still another:  Organists are at a disadvantage in so much as they have the added burden of memorising the instrument; i.e., the unique qualities of the stops on each instrument (particularly solo stops) and the layout of the console.  It is here that we separate the grown-ups from the children.  For the organist, getting to know an unfamiliar instrument is not an easy task.  It's not like another keyboard, string or wind instrument in which the primary concern in dealing with a strange instrument is adapting to the touch or the general "feel" and tone of it.  For the organist it is those factors and much, much more.  The organist must also adapt to and memorise:   

1) a strange console.  For awhile there was a bit of standardisation with American console design as perfected by E. M. Skinner in the early 20th Century; but, much of that has gone the wayside.  Organ companies today are again including 19th Century French semicircle and 17th & 18th Century German tracker configurations in their design schemes.  For an organist getting a feel for the console (especially if she likes to make frequent stop changes manually) requires almost as much practise as the music itself — in many cases more.  the layout of the stops must be memorised so that she knows exactly where that Nazard 2�…”' is, because she may only have a split second to reach over and draw it, or flip it, or press it. (The great American organist Lynwood Farnam used to require that his students be able to pick up a pencil that had been placed at one end of a keyboard and place it at the other end whilst in the middle of a Bach fugue without dropping any notes.)  In addition to the stops themselves, there are the pistons and their corresponding toe studs which allow the organist to preset  any number of combinations so that major changes in tonal colour and dynamics can be affected instantly.  Again it's a matter of knowing virtually instinctively where that particular preset button is; because, in many cases she doesn't have time to think about or look to where it is, and hitting the wrong one could easily spell disaster; she simply has to "feel" it; and that requires complete memorisation of the console. 

2) the organ's tonal scheme.  This includes learning and adapting to the individual sound (voicing) of each stop alone and in their relationship to each other in combination.  Again each organ can be radically different from the next, even within the same builder.  On one organ an oboe stop will be very imitative of the orchestral instrument on another it can sound like a small trumpet stop; on one organ the pedal 16' Bourdon will be very soft with the fundamental pitch dominant, on another that same named stop will have very little fundamental and strong octave overtone which makes a much louder 8' foot sounding stop.  These aspects and a myriad of others are what the organist has to remember as he adapts to each instrument. Often an organist (if he has any integrity as a recitalist) will have to radically change the combination of stops used for a particular piece from one organ to another because the tonal designs can be so completely different.

For instance, how does one get a French Romantic sound on an organ of primarily German Baroque design, or the converse?  If an organist doesn't know that organ inside and out it will be reflected in a complete lack of colour and dynamism in his performance.

Granted that's a lot to remember above and beyond the printed page.  Notwithstanding, the fact that anyone or all of these items can make convincing excuses doesn't alter the reality that they are still excuses, not reasons, for not playing from memory.  It's all part of the challenge of being an organist.  When an organist has memorised the instrument and the music so that it is all second nature to him (I know, I know I promised to alternate, but I'm getting sick this overly PC crap) there's isn't solo recitalist, except for possibly a singer, who can electrify an audience as an organist who is in total command of his instrument.  Observe any of the videos on Youtube of Virgil Fox or Paul Jacobs and you'll see what I mean.  It's rare performers like them who prove that the organist can be the greatest of musicians and the organ the "King of Instruments."

Posted by ralph.fisher at 1:08 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 13 August 2009 1:27 AM EDT
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