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Well, In My Opinion...
Monday, 22 February 2010
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part IIIc: Or, Who Are These People?
Topic: Music Commentary

 So, what are these "strange" behaviours that seem to be manifest among organists?  Let's take a look:


1.  Organists eat their own.  When an organist bucks the trend and decides he wants to actually inspire an audience by using the multitude of tonal colours at his disposal, even (actually hopefully) going above and beyond a literal reading of the registrations called out in the score, such a performer is at best ridiculed, or worse, vilified.  Such playing requires something of an anomaly in the organ world — an extroverted personality.  Harkening back to my earlier sections we learned that such a personality is generally unwelcome in the church, and so it goes in the rest of the "organ monastery."  The immediate example of such an anomaly, of course, is the late Virgil Fox who, although he thrilled thousands of people to his dynamic and highly extroverted manner of playing, was almost universally condemned as a "showman" and as "undignified," often referred to as the "Liberace of the organ" (as if that was a bad thing).  He received the greatest amount of vitriol from Academia for his decidedly romantic manner with the music of J. S. Bach.  No matter that his approach to the big Bach pieces was dynamic, exciting and musically astute; he was in violation of Baroque performance practise — or so we are told.  The fact that he played Bach expressively, passionately, electrifyingly, was... well, that's just not done!  Since Virgil Fox similar fates have been endured by Carlo Curly, Cameron Carpenter, and I'm sure a few others, although not as vehemently.  Carpenter is the latest target of invective because he breaks the rules. He may at times push the envelope to good taste with his "rock star" apparel and some of his histrionics; but, he has generated a good deal of excitement; and, with the organ world in such a near comatose state the need for extremes is not completely unwarranted.  The point being, is that the organ world constantly bewails its woeful state; yet, virulently castigates anyone who actually demonstrates to the world how glorious and thrilling the instrument can be.  I don't get it.


2.  Organists are visually impaired. What I mean is that they don't understand the importance of the visual aspect of performance.  Allow me to illustrate my point.  Now, when a person goes to hear a famous pianist in recital, upon entering the recital hall and seeing a beautiful concert grand piano on the stage there's a sense of eager anticipation; and that's fine and quite true.  However, when that same person goes to an organ recital at a concert hall (as opposed to a church), where the organ console is traditionally placed centre stage, often turned stage left at slightly less than a 45º angle, and sees this "monster" with there its three, four, even five rows of "teeth" and what appear to be hundreds of "eyes," (stops) and manifold levers and buttons large and small for the hands and feet, along with the pedals, poised there looking ready to devour its next victim, anticipation gives way to awe. The idea that just one person is not only supposed to tame this beast, but make music doing it, can be very compelling. The potential to electrify an audience is virtually illimitable.  Yet, organists just don't seem to get it; all that eager anticipation, all those keen expectations end up like so much dust on a wood shop floor, and the listener invariably is left wanting.  Great musicians over the ages have understood the the visual aspect to performance.  Stokowski, Bernstein, Jacquline Dupre, Kissin, Argerich, ANY singer, have realised the value of visually connecting with the audience.  Mahler even calls for the French Horns to stand during the finale to the last movement of his Symphony #1. Yet for some reason organists will have none it.  Instead of dazzling an audience with her command of the myriad aspects of the console, and with Cyd Charise-like fleet pedal technique, the organist sits at the console with her eyes glued to the page avoiding as much as possible any rapid stop changes either electro-mechanically (pistons) or manually.  But, you see, that requires the organist to express an interest in the instrument beyond the basics needed "to get the job done," so to speak.  And, well... why bother?  


You see, organists feel they don't have to play by the same rules as other recitalists. They figure since, in most cases, they get to: 1) hide from their audiences, and therefore, don't have to 2) memorise their programmes, or 3) even manifest any feelings, much less interest, for the music to an audience outside of getting the notes right.  It's bad enough for an audience to experience this sort condescension in a church setting where the organist is often hidden; but, to endure this kind of truculence in a concert hall with the console on stage for the audience to witness this all too common cavalier attitude that organists have toward their listeners, is not only tedious but, more than a little disdainful.  An unfortunate paradox has presented itself in recent years with the proliferation of performing organisations spending millions of dollars on new, or newly restored large pipe organs for their concert halls and finding virtually nobody of significance to play them.  Again, so much of this is personality based.  If you have some one who lacks the necessary drive characteristic of a serious concert performer all the beautiful new pipe organs and awesome looking consoles in the world are not going to save the organ from being a shepherd without flock.


3. Organists are dependent on the musical, or worse — organ — fashion du jour.  Yesterday it was severity, historical accuracy, authenticity; now it's neo-Romanticism.  As hopeful as this may seem, a few problems arise.  First, with the mass destruction or mutilation of many 19th and early 20th Century organs there are few instruments today that are suited to the Romantic repertoire. So, we're stuck with listening to Mendelssohn and Liszt, and even Wagner transcriptions on Baroque styled scream machines with thin, small scaled foundations, "chiff," and an overabundance of mixtures:  hardware products of the anti-romantic, new music and early music "authenticity" movements.  

Second, most of these people, having been schooled in those philosophies, either don't have the training or the personality to comprehend what the word "Romanticism" means (although the term gets bantered about constantly), much less interpret the music; the fact being (with a tiny number of ostracised exceptions) the legacy was lost several generations ago.  For instance, there is a prominent organist who performs regularly on a very large, high profile romantic, orchestral style organ. This organist happens to think of himself as a "Romantic;" in so far as he has even written a number of transcriptions of famous orchestral pieces specifically with this organ in amind.  The problem arises in that his performances of this repertoire are usually stiff, uninspired, and, considering the organ on which he's playing, ironically monochromatic. One gets the sensation that, in the specific case of the orchestral works, he never bothered to listen to the original, although he very well may have.  By contrasting example, we have Josh Perschbacher, who has also made a speciality of performing transcribed orchestra pieces (also many of which he himself has written). However, he plays these pieces as if he were conducting an orchestra.  In other words, he thinks orchestrally first and organistically second.  The result are performances that completely captivate the listener. The images of Edwin H. Lemare, or Will C. MacFarlane or Samuel P. Warren and, yes, Virgil Fox, and the other giant virtuosi of that philosophy of performance come to mind. Just playing a big romantic organ isn't enough; in order to excite an audience you need to have the personality to make it work — "fire in the belly" as the saying goes. 

Then third, there's the bickering.  Which is better, tracker or electric/electro-pneumatic?  Proponents of fully mechanical action (tracker) organs and their counterparts who espouse either fully electric or electro-pneumatic action are so vociferous as to their causes that nowadays if a concert hall owner wants to build a new organ they're compelled to spend the extra thousands of dollars to build two consoles; i.e., one of each (Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, PA for example) so as not to alienate either of the two factions of this already diminutive group of so-called music lovers. 


4.  Organists have problematic taste.  This is a broad agenda which includes aspects from the above category.  Notwithstanding, organists have this uncanny predisposition toward ugly sounds.  Let's choose a few examples.   1) The Tierce as a chorus stop:  As a facet of their association with the Baroque revival organists have mindlessly accepted the near constant use of the tierce (for non-organists the tierce sounds two octaves and third above the fundamental pitch) as a chorus stop.  Now don't get me wrong, the tierce can be very handy and colourful; however, it's use requires great discretion — an "acquired taste" as they say.  It's one of those sounds which is unique to the organ, and is primarily (though not exclusively) French. It's been imitated by composers in other media:  Saint-Saëns (an organist himself) in his Piano Concerto #5, and Ravel in "Bolero" are classic examples of this effect used in the orchestra.  In conjunction with other stops the tierce makes for an interesting and colourful solo voice.  But, in chorus, it's just bloody ugly.  As an artificially amplified harmonic which, when added to any chord, even a basic triad, it will sound dissonant, or at best alien.  Now, I realise that the French, and in particular the French Baroque, were supposed to have used the tierce in full chorus sound; and let's say that's a given: that doesn't preclude its hideousness.  Just because Louis Marchand had bad taste do you have to?  2) The Krumhorn:  I have yet to understand why organ builders continue to insist on making this gratuitously unappealing sound a regular reed stop.  Whether it was suppose to have been an early imitative stop redolent of the renaissance wind instrument (of which it's not even close) or not is irrelevant.  It just sounds like a very poorly voiced Clarinet stop.  Adding to the sin of this obnoxious sounding thing is the fact that since it is an ancient organ stop dating back to the early Renaissance, it is often UNENCLOSED, making it almost totally useless as an expressive solo stop. As a chorus reed it's extraneous at best since there are so many other solo/chorus reeds which are less displeasing and more versatile.  Moreover, if you want a clarinet sound then install a Clarinet stop!  As an imitative stop the Clarinet is actually more "authentic" (sorry, I couldn't resist).  3) Then there's this proclivity for organists to hold final chords ad æternum.  A very long final chord ending a very soft piece on an highly expressive instrument with the kind of soft stops, in a swell box in which, as the box is closed, the chord seems to almost disappear can be an enchanting experience: again, something only the organ can achieve.  But, on the full organ, it just becomes another example of an organist's tasteless self indulgence, if not gratification.  This usually occurs (though not exclusively) with a modern piece in which the organist is essentially covering for the incompetent composer's inability to effectively write a final cadence.  If the organist sits on the last chord long enough the audience will get the message.  Unfortunately, all to often it's not the intended message.  


5.  Organists are too literal.  I can't tell you the number of performances, live or recorded, in which I've either walked out or decided to listen to something else because some organist in his misguided fidelity to the score has tried to follow the registrations that are printed on the page to the letter. The result is often something completely contrary to the spirit of the music.  This invariably occurs during the most lyrical passages in a piece, because the organist sees that a certain solo stop (usually a reed) is called out in the score, and instead of listening to the context, simply pulls out said named stop whether it sounds appropriate or not.  Hey, "it's what the composer wanted."  Yes, for the organ which the composer had in mind or was playing at the time the piece was written, but not necessarily the instrument upon which the piece is being performed.  It just takes a little thought, and, yes, a certain amount of good taste. It's ridiculous to follow printed registrations literally. Since every organist from day one is taught that virtually every organ is different, blindly following the registration strictly as indicated in the score goes against this fundamental tenet.  Context is everything. The determining factors should be:  1) voicing of the instrument, in particular the stops relative to those called out in the score.  For example: when Franck calls for a Swell "Trompette" stop in the Third Choral, in both soft chorus or solo line, context (forget the history or any knowledge of St. Clothilde for now) tells us that most trompette or trumpet stops would simply be the wrong choice.  They're usually too loud or coarse, or both.  The context within the score calls for a much smaller scaled stop; an organist with even an ounce of reasoning or musical acumen would/should understand that fundamental precept.  If a small to medium sized reed is desired then find something — anything — more suitable, even a Gamba stop:   if it fits the context.  2) the room.  Most American sanctuaries and concert halls are typically dry and non resonant and often a stop or combination that sounds perfectly wonderful in the softening context of a highly resonant European nave or concert hall will sound brittle and harsh — in your face, as they say.  This pertains to my earlier reference concerning the building of "Baroque style" organs in most American churches or concert halls.


  6.  Organists aren't literal enough. Or, in other words, they don't breathe.  Actually this is a major failing among keyboard musicians in general.  In music of the 19th Century and later many composers went to great lengths to indicate how they wanted their music phrased only to have their intentions completely ignored.  As a composer this is something that I find not only exasperating, but mystifying.  All I ask is... Why?  Why is it with all of this blather about being faithful to the composer's intentions do pianists and organists so flagrantly disregard what the composer considers crucial to the life of his music?  Phrasing, i. e., the points at which the performer is supposed to breathe, is as critical to the "composer's intentions" as dynamics, tempo and rhythmic precision. In the case of organists, they are usually so wrapped up following either the registrations too strictly, or conforming to what is "proper" performance practise, or are so enamoured with their interminable legato line, they forget to read the score.  But, what about Bach and other 17th and 18th Century composers who didn't always indicate or rarely indicated how they would phrase their music?  Well, you're on you own.  But then, that's my point; an intelligent performer, with the help of scholarship and a little musical insight, will determine what is the logical shape of the phrase, and then actually articulate the phrase.  Sometimes it's helpful to have a good singer or wind player actually sing or play the lines for you.  It's amazing what one can learn from others.  The phrase is God — and most keyboard musicians, especially organists, are apostate. 


So, is there any hope?  We'll see in my final part.


Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:07 AM EST
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