Seven Favourite Christmas Moments for Organists

As ever a personal list and excluding some of the choral repertoire that I sing or listen to.

7. Of the Father’s Love Begotten

I did not know this in my childhood. I came across it when it was a regular feature of our college’s Advent carol service.

Powerful words and a swinging tune. It was a pleasant surprise to have it chosen by the rector for our Midnight Mass.

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6. Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland from the Orgelbüchlein

I love the way the harmony builds from the lower parts. If I didn’t know the title and liturgical use, would I still identify a sense of longing? I hope so.

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5. Hark the Herald – what a crunch

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4. Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (from ‘the 18’)

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I’ve selected another ‘crunch’ – C in the bass, D suspended in the tenor and Eb at the top.

The piece starts with a walking bass, the tenor and alto pick out the shape of the choral and then the solo crowns it all. There is such logic to the inner voices – always a delight to play.

3. O come, o come Emmanuel

I aim for seamless and fluid playing. Another one to enjoy the words and the longing for a brighter future. I think of the difficult situations in the world and the lives of my family and friends and pour my feelings into my playing or singing.

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2. O little town – that E flat 

Is it because the tune and harmony are relatively restrained and verse 3 is often done quietly or unaccompanied because of the words (‘how silently’), but the descant certainly lifts it to another plane and we know that moment is coming in the last line.

It really has been rather ridiculous ranking these. On another day the order could be completely different.

1. Word of the Father

I want to call this the ‘chord of Christmas’ and judging by Twitter it is a favourite for many, made especially poignant in 2015 the year of Sir David Willcocks’ death.

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there is something rather marvellous about having to wait another 11 months to hear these again. I’m sure they’d lose their impact if we heard them throughout the year.

Now what would we think of strawberries if they were only available in June and July?

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Debussy writing about Bach

I am reading Sir John Eliot Gardiner book on JS Bach and I came across this quote from a letter to the publisher Jacques Durand:

“When the old Saxon Cantor hasn’t any ideas, he starts out from any old thing and is truly pitiless. In fact he’s only bearable when he’s admirable. Which, you’ll say, is still something! If he’d had a friend – a publisher perhaps – who could have told him to take a day off every week, perhaps, then we’d have been spared several hundreds of pages in which you have to walk between rows of mercilessly regulated and joyless bars, each one with its little ‘subject’ and ‘countersubject’.

Sometimes – often indeed – his prodigious technical skill (which is, after all, only his individual form of gymnastics) is not enough to fill the terrible void created by his insistence on developing a mediocre idea no matter what the cost!”

This brought to mind Sir Thomas Beecham’s saying “Too much counterpoint, and, what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.”

A word or two about the Durufle Requiem

Our choir performed the Durufle Requiem last Saturday. I had been wanting to sing it again for many years – not least because this would be with a more proficient choir. In fact my two previous performances were either side of 30 years ago.

This time it was the version with solo organ accompaniment. Durufle left us with a full orchestral version and a reduced one for organ,strings, trumpets and timpani – the latter being the one on my CD. The trumpets and timps are especially thrilling in the Sanctus.

Had I not been singing it would have been fantastic to study our organist. He was amazing and I am totally in awe of someone who can play the notes, manage the stop changes and follow a conductor with the inevitable pulling about of tempo that happens. Sadly he had a typical English romantic instrument of approximately 100 years ago. Oh for some French reeds and stronger upperwork to give more definition to the ‘libera eas de ore leonis’ section. On reflection that’s a little harsh as everything else was very effective – the diapason tone, the quiet string stops, the clarinet and nazard.

The organ accompaniment is idiomatic and works well. It’s the only work I know of where the score has exactly what the organist should play. Other works (or individual choruses) which are often performed with organ accompaniment (Zadok the priest, How lovely are thy dwellings, Faure’s Requiem, Messiah, the heavens are telling) require the organist to re-arrange a piano accompaniment as he or she plays – something that has largely been beyond me.

At the risk of being thought a teenager I’ll quote the last line up to that final chord with 6 RH notes to be played by 5 fingers and then the start of the Sanctus with its rippling or bubbling LH sextuplets. Durufle - last line

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Bach Organ Music for the New Year

I had not been learning the organ long before my teacher put ‘In dir ist Freude‘ (In you is joy) in front of me. Some years later I realised that the Chorale on which it is based is for New Year’s Day. Bach’s piece is full of joy and tremendous fun to play with its repeating pedal motif and dashing scales. The choral melody or fragments of it appear in minims and pass by relatively slowly. This website indicates that the first documented version of the melody is in a collection of Balletti by Gastoldi published in Venice in 1591. Certainly playing the melody at a brisk 1-in-a-bar gives it a real feeling of dance. It’s hard to hear the dance and chorale as the same tune such is the tempo difference.

Our culture treats the New Year as a cause for celebration and an excuse for a party. For a long time I struggled to understand why Bach’s setting of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (the old year has passed away) is so sad. Finally I began to think that he is thinking of the Old Year dying and any death is of course sad. Bach knew great tragedy in his life from the early death of his parents, a tough schooling, the death of this first wife and the death of many children in infancy. Is the death of the old year just another excuse to demonstrate his toolbag of techniques. The piece features many chromatic inner lines and suspensions – some of which sound odd and one might question whether they really ‘work’. It needs to be taken slowly to allow the ear time to process the harmony and I think one wants a clear-sounding organ. Even with very light stops I find it sounds very muddy at Risley unlike on some of the recording I have listened to on the internet.

I am tempted to buy a complete set of Bach’s organ music, but how to decide. For £20-30 one can get 20 hours of music. Hans Fagius, Simon Preston and Kevin Bowyer are all in the frame. I guess they’re all good. I’m looking for clarity, good organ sound, phrasing, dance and joy in the quicker pieces, anguish etc in the slower ones, mainstream interpretations, nothing too extreme. I have many CDs of Christopher Herrick who is brilliant so I don’t really know why I’m considering more versions.

Whitbourne: Son of God Mass for saxophone, choir and organ

We rehearsed this for the first time in church last Wednesday and it made a huge difference to have the sax, the organ and the church acoustic – so much better than just with piano. The organ sounded great and it reminded me of playing for Britten St. Nicholas a year ago. I would describe it as medium-sized instrument but it is quite a bit bigger than the one I usually play.

Also on the programme is James Macmillan’s Cantos Sagrados with its uncomfortable text describing political oppression in South America.  Without doubt the hardest thing I’ve sung on account of the rhythms, notes and tessitura. Here is a clip from a recording by the Elysian Singers.

Looking forward to the concert now and hoping for an audience.

Karg-Elert Sarabande

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) is an obscure German composer, primarily of organ music. This is his sarabande  on the chorale “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele” (Rejoice greatly, o my soul).

The Organ at Risley Church

Soon after buying my Zoom H2 microphone I went down to church to record some organ music. Here is an arrangement of the ‘Pearlfishers duet’ (Au fond du temple saint) by Berlioz. The piece allows me to display the full dynamic range of the organ from the pp start to the ff end.  The organ is a small 2 manual with 13 stops – specification here.