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Upcoming Performances

July 2, 6:00 pm
Guest recitalist, Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Cazères, France

July 18
Guest recitalist, Church of St. Jacques, Muret, France

August 20, 3:00 pm Central
Inaugural recitalist, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Enterprise, Ala.

September 10
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.

October 1, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Ga.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2018
Guest recitalist, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 2018, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

Friday
Mar202015

Franck-ly speaking, Part X: Choral in A minor

This is the tenth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the third Choral in A minor. See the first post in the series for background information.

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This is the last organ solo piece we have from Franck. The popular perception is of him finishing the manuscript on his deathbed. Whether or not that is accurate, we do know that he was fighting an infection and died soon, and we also know that this music is the crowning achievement of Franck’s quest into transforming the organ into a concert instrument capable of playing its own symphonies. This is a profound piece indeed, and there is absolutely no shame in approaching it as a sacred treasure every time you sit down to it.

Of the three Chorals, this one is probably the easiest to play. That’s all relative, you understand; none is truly easy. And everyone will have his own opinion on which Choral speaks to him most deeply. This one speaks to me, if I listen to it through the lens of it being Franck’s final notes written for the organ. But my favorite Choral, indeed my favorite Franck, is the E major.

Measure 1: I would suggest that the opening tempo be determined by how you would like to play measure 30 and following. That is the real Chorale, and perhaps the ideal tempo for that should be transferred to the beginning. More often than not, the beginning is played far too fast, especially in proportion to the rest of the piece. This is neither a toccata nor a cadenza. The piece has something to say in the opening notes, and there might even be a phrase or a nuance or two to be had in this section. Give yourself time for them. And be very precise with the difference in length between sixteenth notes and eighth notes as Franck wrote them.

Measure 5: Metrically speaking, the last note of this measure is very unimportant. Therefore, it destroys the pregnant pause that follows when this note is held even slightly past its value. Other examples are measures 7, 14, 16, 18, 52, 54, and 56. I can tell that a performer is listening to every note (or not), based on their treatment of these cutoffs.

Measures 16 and 18: Notice the fermatas are on rests, not on notes.

Measure 27: Franck initiates the ritard here. Many people start it in 23, but that overblows all these quarter notes starting in 26 and makes the section interminable. Allow Franck’s slower rhythms to be their own slowdown on some level.

Measure 30: One should probably resume tempo here, so that we can discern the melody (which is the real Chorale). Otherwise, it’s just chords.

Measure 39: I take the alto E-flat with the left hand and then use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato on the third beat.

Measures 91-96: Don’t start this section too slowly. It will get tedious and labored otherwise.

Measure 96: The fermata is on the final note of the outgoing registration, not on the first note of the Adagio section. I would make the pickup from 96 into 97 be in your intended tempo.

Measures 97-116: This slow chorale (arguably not the Chorale in this piece) is among the most excerpt-able moments we have from Franck. Be sure the melody notes don’t blur together. If they do, it just makes that Trumpet loud and muddy. Play every note right where it belongs. I would suggest treating this section like Chopin, where there is a general pulse in the background that is stretched and compressed here and there but never loses count. Finally, in too many performances, the player gets stuck on the ties in the melody (96-97, 98, 99-100, 105-106, 107-108, etc). But it is directly on a tied note where the melody needs to regain its momentum after the longer note that precedes it. Listen, listen, listen.

Measures 117-141: This is one of those sections that needs to be “perfect,” plain and simple. Too slow, and it languishes in its repetitiveness. Too fast, and it takes the limelight from what follows it.

Measures 143-145: Don’t speed up. You’ll just have to slow right back down in a moment.

Measure 146: The fermata is on a rest, not on the manual note!

Measure 147: I put my left hand on the Récit to avoid sharing middle C among the hands and breaking eighth notes into two sixteenths. In 153, I bring the left hand back to the Positif.

Measures 147-173: Try entertaining the notion of a subtle accelerando, all the way to 173.

Measure 170: I move the right hand to the Great on beat 3. That’s a safer spot to move that hand accurately, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow into 171 that way.

Measure 173: The registration instructions appear to be aligned with the downbeat in the editions I have used. But I would suggest that that piston be hit on the third beat, to coincide with the first note of the “chorale” climax.

Measures 190-199: Of course, legato with manual octaves is impossible. I feel it is most unfortunate that composers for the organ write full chords or octaves for hands and then mark it all legato. The French are pretty sparing about that; when, say, Widor or Guilmant wrote full octaves and chords, the style was already march-y or heroic, so you knew that it would automatically sound right. But Franck was still experimenting. [The British are utterly notorious for such writing. It’s kind of like playing the organ like a piano that has a broken damper pedal. It drives me insane.] Anyway, there are some options in this section. You could separate the octaves and make them a bit more declamatory. You could jump from octave to octave in a panic trying to lunge for legato (please don’t!). You could leave out some notes, particularly to keep the upper melody legato. I still experiment every time I get to this section. It just depends on what you want to say with the music. How it sounds is most important. Making alterations toward legato would sound completely different from a declamatory broken style. Take your pick. Franck wouldn’t be allowed to complain about your choice, since he marked octaves and full chords legato in the first place!

Finally, I make the ritard in 190 last until the very end. Every note is a wee bit slower than the one before. Such a slowdown is very long, very gradual, and very subtle and requires lots of practicing and lots of listening. Keep the beat or any background pulse you have going. The danger is in overblowing it. We still have to get to the end, you know, so don’t park somewhere when you’re not arrived yet. Think of this like trying to stop an old steam locomotive. You can pull on the brakes, but it won’t stop for a while! You have to pull harder, harder, and it finally slows down, little by little, until completely stopped.

Tuesday
Mar102015

Franck-ly speaking, Part IX: Choral in b minor

This is the ninth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the second Choral in B minor. See the first post in the series for background information.

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You may want to fire me for saying this, but this piece sounds better if played in one rather than in three. Yes, Franck indicated 3/4 and marked it Maestoso, but a large beat of 1 can be majestic, too. I’m not advocating for 3/8, but if this piece is too slow, then the recurring theme and its momentum are lost, and there is little glory in things to come later on in the piece. Give it some thought, make the theme move along, and make any accompaniment fit in with that at all times.

Measures 1-32: There are a number of spots where it might help the rhythm and the independence of voices if the hands and feet release notes at different times. For example, in measure 4, the Pedal needs to release the F-sharp in order to re-strike it, but that does not mean the hands should release their note early, as well. Experiment with this sort of thing as you wish. I feel it enhances the independence of the various lines and lends a sense of continuing, rather than bringing everything to a halt just because the primary voice needs a breath.

Measures 8, 10, 12, and similar spots throughout the piece: It is fine to break the main melody for phrasing. (Don’t forget that wall-to-wall legato came around after Franck.) The problem with that occurs when those breaks alter the forward-moving rhythm of the whole theme. Don’t allow any breaks to interfere with the progress of the theme.

Measure 24: I don’t repeat the F-sharp in the right hand.

Measures 27-28: I play the bass notes in the Pedal (no Pedal stops on), to assist with legato.

Measures 33-39: Here is another example of what I’m talking about by playing the piece in a feeling of one rather than three. Most folks make a huge, emotive deal out of the eighth notes and eighth rests in the manuals in these measures. But the melody is in the Pedal here, and it has its own ideas of how things should be paced. Pay attention to the melody, and stop setting up camp on the eighth rests in the manuals. Keep things moving; use the shape of the melody to inform all other voices.

Measures 41-48: Again, the melody needs to move and to rule. Although the accompaniment here is difficult to play, it must move along in service to the melody. Transfer your ears’ allegiance to the theme, and the piece suddenly comes together.

Measures 49-64. Same comments. Melody, melody, melody.

Measure 64: I have always found that moment strange the way Franck wrote it, and so I “fix” it by playing the third beat in the Pedal an octave higher. I also don’t make a huge break into 65; I use the eighth notes of the third beat to carry us into the next theme. Seamlessness is a good thing.

Measures 65-80: I know it’s tempting, but this section should not go slower. Don’t forget that this theme will be combined with the main theme later on, and so it should follow the contour of the main theme, even if not present.

Measures 80-114: This begins a “development” of sorts, as it were. The main theme is not present, so now you may emote and mess around with rhythm and tempo!

Measure 114: Most people put the brakes on hard here. I put the brakes on, but I start much earlier, to make it a more subtle ritard that leads smoothly into 115.

Measures 115-126: This is the true Chorale, hiding in this little section and in its companion section at the very end of the piece. Don’t hurry through it, and remember that it is subtle and will not survive attempts to turn it into a major event.

Same section: No 32-foot? Play the Pedal an octave lower (except the low Bs, of course). That’s one option. Another option is to play 115-118 an octave lower, then move to the tenor octave in 119. That will prevent the chromatic descent in the Pedal from being displaced an octave when the B comes along in 120. Now, to move to the tenor octave in 119, I play the first beat on low D (continuing 8vb from 115), then add a quarter note on the second beat on tenor D. It’s only one note so subtle and unexpected that few people will hear the difference. No one will run you out of town for it. Again, both of these options just described are useful only if the organ doesn’t have a 32-foot flue, or if the 32-foot flue it does have is too heavy or too quint-y.

Measures 119-122: Notice Franck’s quoting of his own melody from the first movement of his Symphony (for orchestra). That can’t be an accident!

Measures 131-135 and 142-147: I wouldn’t go too slowly here. This needs to be looking ahead to the gloriousness to come. In both sections, you can make some interesting decisions on what to tie, what to make legato, and what to detach. Use your own judgment – it’s probably right. I also couple the manuals to (dead) Pedal to assist with legato in 133-135 and 145-147.

Measures 148 and following: This is the "fugue," if you insist on finding one. Franck says we can move this along a bit. In any event, the “development” is over, and it’s time to get back to having the main theme call the metrical shots.

Measure 149: This is one of those maddening moments in organ music: Should we break that G in the melody to hear the eighth-note motion in the accompanying voice? In most cases, when we encounter a moment like this, we can make a decision based on the acoustics, the organ, or anything else. But I have discovered that if played all on one manual, this spot never sounds good, no matter what. My solution is to start at 148 with the right hand on the main manual and the left on another similarly-registered manual not coupled. Then bring the left hand to the main manual during the rest in 156.

Measures 162-194: You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to decide when to tie, when to break, and when to play legato. But it’s worth the trouble. Work things out, and write them in. In some cases, you’ll want to break more notes in a warm acoustic. But always make a decision that serves the rhythm and meter. If too many notes break, we hear an “event.” If not enough notes break, we lose the eighth-note motion.

Measures 182 and 186: I use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato.

Measure 187: Many people ritard here, but again, since it’s in the middle of a statement of the main theme, it should follow the same contour the melody has maintained all along. Listen with all your might to the main theme throughout this entire piece, and the piece will then assemble itself into a very clean structure that needs little help from you otherwise.

Measure 188: I move to a somewhat louder registration here.

Measures 195-226: The themes are finally combined. There is nothing you can do to make that clear to your audience, especially to first-time listeners. So just play it, no slower, and obey the contour of the main theme (in the Pedal) for phrasing.

Measures 209-210: The soprano tie across the barline between these two measures is a mystery to me. It doesn't appear in sister sections (79-80 and 225-226), so I'm taking it out!

Measures 211-226: There’s that pesky main theme calling the shots again. I can’t overemphasize that approach to structuring the phrasing. Although the upper voice appears to have more emotive potential, it absolutely cannot be allowed to derail the main theme (Pedal), just because it “wants a moment!”

Measure 222: After much discussion with myself, I decided to change a note. (Quelle horreur!) Compare the left hand in 222 with the left hand in 206. If 222 goes as written, then there would be parallel octave motion between the second tenor and the Pedal. I "fix" that in 222 by changing the second tenor third beat to an E, to match the voice leading in 206. Now, Franck does indulge in parallel fifths all the time (measures 96 and 104 in this piece, plus plenty in other pieces), but notice how this section (195-226) is absolutely pure in its five-voice texture -- it is some of the richest writing we have from Franck, because it is so pure in its voice leading. Hence my suggested change (well, that, and making the notes identical from statement to statement is easier to memorize, too!).

Measure 257: Some ritard is good, but too much will spoil the chromatic tension here. You need to arrive at 258, not get stuck in 257.

Measures 258-272: Of course, we can go slower and grander here. But that melody is still in charge – use it to determine the flow of things.

Measures 266-269: It is possible to play both octaves of the Pedal legato. Pedaling for the Bs to the F#s is straightforward. The Gs to the Ds may be pedaled LF o^, RF ^o (toes pointed out, not parallel). Loosen up those ankles and give it a try!

Measure 270: Franck’s Molto rall. is not kidding. You’ll need it to keep 273 from taking off before you were finished with the main theme.

Measure 273 leads into 274. Try not to take a huge break to hit a piston. Try to keep it all flowing, one idea to the other.

Measures 274-285: Same comments as for 115-126.

Measures 285-end: I solo out the eighth notes. In 287, I span my left hand across two manuals, playing the low B on the eighth-note manual and the tenor F-sharp on the Swell. I transfer the low B to the Swell in the very last measure; it helps to make further decrescendo.

Measures 287-288: The Pedal will disappear on the low Bs if you don’t have some independent 8-foot stops drawn. Listen carefully there, and if you do choose to make a registrational adjustment, make them from 274 on.

This piece has always been with me. I learned it in college, one of my teachers recorded it, and the other one claimed to have played it “when God was a child.” Although it is mostly quarter notes and eighth notes, it is hard to play and to play well. Approach it with love and care and with ears listening in the right places.

Saturday
Feb282015

Help Yourself XIV: Places to visit

Here are five more of my re-harmonizations, tunes for which are named for places.

As with all the files available in this tagged series called "Free PDFs: help yourself," click, print, and use freely, with my compliments!

AUSTRIA with descant

DUKE STREET with descant

EISENACH

MADRID with descant

NICAEA with descant

Tuesday
Feb172015

To tail or not to tail

A friend’s Facebook post has started a discussion on the fate of white tie and tails among organists. The friend was asking if he should move away from white tie for his performances, since one so rarely sees white tie any more. He is a self professed “friendly curmudgeon and somewhat old-fashioned crank,” and so he does not take this new idea lightly. The responses he has gotten have leaned toward “keep wearing tails at all costs.” The reasons given, though not always stated, are things like ‘it looks good,’ ‘it’s more proper,’ ‘I just love it,’ etc. But none of those gets to the root of the etiquette, which is where my friendly curmudgeonly friend must suspect something is going on, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place.

Before I proceed, we should clear up some terminology. White tie and tails go together. Saying “tails” assumes “white tie,” and vice versa. Black tie does not belong with tails. Neither does a black vest. It must be a white waistcoat. There.

Now, what has happened to white tie? Music lovers still see it all the time in symphony orchestras (sometimes mismatched with black vest or black tie with tailcoat). People who attend organ recitals played by men from the major concert artist rosters still see it fairly regularly. That's about all I can come up with right now.

White tie has faded from view in other places. During my graduate school days, my teacher spoke of white tie tending to be more proper for concerto appearances and little else. Even he was moving toward more black tie in his performances, and in his final years, he was wearing a white silk pullover with tux outerwear. Many solo performers and conductors have opted out of white tie to be more comfortable (poor reason to disregard etiquette). Some have opted to give themselves a “look” (just like everyone else, apparently). And let’s not even get started on what proms and weddings have done to fashion etiquette and good sense. As for me, I have worn white tie exactly ONCE since 1996, and it was just last year.

I believe the lust after white tie as a look is no longer relevant; we have to address why it came along in the first place and why it appears to be going away. I would offer a simple rule I learned years ago, which is always to dress one notch above your audience. If they are in white tie, then you should be, too. If they are in black tie, then you should be in white tie. If they are in business suits, then you should be in black tie. If they are more casual, then you should be in a suit.

I believe showing up in white tie to play a recital for people who are in jeans and t-shirts is as awkward as showing up in jeans and t-shirt (or even white tie!) at the business-casual office party. Fashion etiquette has always required us to keep an eye on where we are and whom we are among. Since society has changed, so must we, which just might mean a re-thinking of “white-tie-just-because-I-like-it-screw-everyone-else” mentality. Just as most of society has dressed down in an effort to thumb a nose at the Establishment, it is possible for us clotheshorses to dress the other direction for the same reason. Common ground might need to be established, even if it’s not much respected on either side.

White tie lovers, I feel your pain, but I have made more friends for myself and for the organ by staying only one or two rungs above the local dress code, rather than standing on top of the whole ladder!

Sunday
Feb082015

Help Yourself XIII: Earth tones

Here are three more of my re-harmonizations. The texts for these tunes deal at some point with earthly beauty. As with all the files available in this tagged series called "Free PDFs: help yourself," click, print, and use freely, with my compliments.

DIX

LAUDES DOMINI in B-flat, with descant, two texts

LAUDES DOMINI in C, with descant, two texts

TERRA BEATA with descant

Thursday
Jan292015

Franck-ly speaking, Part VIII: Fantaisie in A

This is the eighth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the Fantaisie in A. See the first post in the series for background information.

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Measures 1-8 and 13-20: No need to play the left hand, since everything is coupled to the Pedal. You could split the right-hand part among the hands so that the right hand does not have to work so hard to position itself in the lower tenor range.

Measures 1-8 and 13-20: It is compelling to break at the phrase marks, and I do so throughout the piece. (Don’t forget that wall-to-wall legato was an idea that came along just after Franck.) Any breaks have to be executed carefully so that they sound neither like coffee breaks nor panic moments. Compare this with the all-legato approach for, say, the Prière.

Measure 28: I take the lower E with the Pedal (no Pedal stops on), just to preserve all the legato I can.

Measure 34: Ditto for the low A. That means needing a piston for 35.

Measure 40: See those hairpins? I insert them in 36 and 38, as well.

Measure 51: I “thumb” the E in the left hand with the right to preserve legato.

Measure 59: I “thumb” the high A in the left hand with the right to preserve legato.

Measure 84: I “thumb” the A in the left hand with the right to preserve legato. It’s a stretch!

Measure 86 and following: Now we get into the dangers of turning fermatas into events. Franck is exploring form, fantasy, and improvisatory effects. But if we go out for a burger on each and every fermata, then the piece grinds to a halt at every turn, and the emotional impact is lost. I recommend deciding which fermatas are worth some extra time and which are worth barely more than a breath. For example, I don’t hold the fermatas very long in 86, 88, 90, 95, and 98. Even though those measures are pausing for “punctuation,” they are still “telling a story” that needs to go on. Commas, not exclamation marks. In contrast, see 101 below.

I reduce registrations little by little at 87, 96 and 99. I feel this makes a smoother transition down to the voix humaine. And while I observe the fermata in 98, I go into 99 without breaking. I just like that effect, especially if the boxes are capable of closing things down to nothing.

Measure 101: Now THERE is a fermata worth sitting on for some extra time (but not all day). That’s a major seam before introducing the voix humaine theme.

Measure 102: No voix humaine on your instrument? I’m not surprised. Welcome to America. But sorry, the voix celeste is not a suitable substitute. It is often used as a substitute just because it contains the word voix in its name, which is a worse transgression than using it as a substitute in the first place. However: once you get past the “rules” of registering in the French manner, you may start experimenting with registering this section in the absence of any necessary stops. I’ll make a long story short: when faced with no voix humaine, I do use the celeste, but without the string, and add the 4’ flute and the tremulant. That lends an air of mystery to the sound, and it’s probably not a combination that has been heard on a given organ. If the organ is well voiced, I have discovered that this can elicit an audible gasp from an astute audience.

Measures 119 and 121: Notice there are no fermatas like there were in 88 and 90.

Measures 118-132: I do here what I did in 87-101 with fermatas and registration.

Measures 161-162: There are no fermatas there. I go right on without breaking, after some healthy Molto rall.

Measures 165-166: I keep the uppermost note legato. For whatever reason. Same thing in 175-176.

Measure 167: There is no fermata there. Neither is there one in 177. Keep going, and in the “Poco animato” tempo, not the “1º Tempo.”

Measures 170-171: Before this section begins, I have cancelled the Pedal and added only the Récit coupler to it. I play in the Pedal the last two notes of the right hand in 170 and the first note of the right hand from 171. That achieves complete legato. But look at that final D – the Pedal already has that note, but the Pedal will need its stops back on for that note as Franck wrote it. So I also hit a Pedal divisional piston in time for that note, and then hit a General to bring everything back on for 172. This sounds like a lot of trouble, but if you have the pistons and the stomach for all these little details, then we have the technology.

Measures 197-198: I don’t pause or break before 198. Ritard, yes. Stop or break, no. I feel the swell of sound is more effective if we use all that endless wind the organ can use!

Measures 198-213: Franck’s Très largement will have to be gradually (and subtly) sped back up in time for 214, if you want 214 to match the tempo of 47. That is an approach I take; I feel the two themes require different tempos. Or perhaps more accurately, I feel that the theme at 214 is not as effective if it’s slow; those punching triplets suggest a bit of a driving sense to me.

Measures 213-214: I take the final three eighth notes from the left hand with the right. That prepares a smoother move for the left hand to the Positif. Since I’m retaining two voices in the right hand on the Great there, I also “complete” the lower voice by adding an alto A in the right hand on the downbeat of 214, then I release it, and it is then present on the Positif when the left hand arrives there.

Measure 218: I “thumb” the left hand E with the right. Same thing with the left-hand alto A in 226.

Measures 258 and 260: I reduce a bit. I like to use the entire section as a long cool-down.

Measures 275-276: It’s hard to get a quiet-but-French sound here. I just go to whatever stops are quieter than 274 was. I tie everything from 275-276.

I often get asked the question, “What’s your favorite piece?” I usually respond truthfully by saying, “Whatever I’m working on at the time.” Although the Franck E Major Choral is my favorite Franck, the A Major Fantaisie runs a close second. The E Major thrills me most, but the A Major haunts my ear.

Monday
Jan192015

Growing up

Tell me again: when was I supposed to grow up?

For my entire career, I have been doing for pay what I was doing as early as grade school: playing keyboards. At what point was I supposed to transition from being a wunderkind into being a professional? At what point does your typical prodigy transition into being just another performer, if not just another great performer?

When was I supposed to go from being clueless to being respected in the field? It’s really scary to recall that during my work at a certain church, I was thrust into the leadership due to the boss’s illness. We made it just fine, and I didn’t feel any different then, but I am horrified today to think what my immaturity and inexperience might have done.

I did not feel one bit smarter when I turned in my dissertation. I did not feel one bit relieved when I released the final chord of my final doctoral recital. I did not feel one bit more degreed when I got hooded. And I have never been taken by surprise when anyone addresses me Dr. Bell.

I am teaching in the same building where I was an undergraduate student. Sometimes I have to reflect on my past and my present to remind myself that I am no longer a student in that building. (Maybe that's why I grew a beard and wear a coat and tie to work.) I still feel energized in that building, just as I always did. I don’t feel any different now vs. then, but I see external evidence that I’m now making a difference and an impression, which helps when I lapse into kid mode and feel that no one will take me seriously unless I yell and scream.

I don’t need my students to love me in order to make me a good teacher. I just need them to do what I teach them to do, at least until they graduate. I don’t need to win a teaching award to know that I’m doing good work. (Good thing, because I haven’t won a teaching award and probably never will. I just don’t teach enough students directly to generate votes among the student body.) Tenure and promotion are designed to reward good teaching and retain good faculty. But if I may put those under a microscope, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that I became a good teacher at some point before the hiring committee decided I was a good teacher? And that I was a good teacher before the tenure/promotion committee decided I was a good teacher? I did not feel one bit different when my tenure and promotion were approved, nor when they actually went into effect, nor when I saw the raise in my paycheck. My art and my work ethic didn’t change when those things did.

There is deeper therapy to be explored here. At what point was I supposed to stop being a good little boy? My rebellion wasn't much -- it consisted of playing the organ rather than the piano, attending grad school in Texas rather than in North Carolina, joining and leading an Episcopal church rather than a Southern Baptist one, and establishing family and friends among gay people.

Though our statuses rise and change, we are much the same person we were way back when. Now, just as then, there are still accolades and approvals some of us crave, yea even need, to continue doing what we’re doing. I can’t work in the pragmatic vacuum I have discussed here today. I need human interaction and human approval. Therefore, yes, I do need students to love me. I do need audiences to celebrate my work. I do need presenters to keep calling me. I do need committees to consider me worthy. I do need (or at least want) pastors and conductors to acknowledge me as an expert, rather than as hired help.

To many, I am da man. To myself, I am often merely the same man. To those who seek an organist or organ teacher, I am their man. As a boy, I wanted to be a man. As a man, I sometimes miss boyhood. I think I’ll just continue being Joby the organist and good man, if it’s all the same to you. If you’d like to give me an award for any of that, I’ll gladly accept it and proudly display it. But otherwise, I’m still practicing my notes, teaching my students, and continuing to grow up.

Thursday
Jan152015

Franck-ly speaking, Part VII: Prière

This is the seventh installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the Prière. See the first post in the series for background information.

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“Prière” is one of those titles that seems as if it might have been born of desperation to find a title. Picture Franck agonizing over what to call this piece and then discovering that he could call it what we all need in the first place: a prayer! Not a true story, but the title is perfect, really. The piece sounds like a prayer – more like a litany – with a single theme being presented and re-presented in full and in part for fifteen minutes.

And I wonder if Franck suspected that people would resort to prayer to play every note of this piece and still maintain their dignity! This piece is the hardest thing the man wrote, I believe. It’s piano music without a damper pedal. It’s ten-key data entry for a hand missing two fingers. It’s a leap across the Grand Canyon with a sack of bowling balls. Everyone knows that Franck had huge hands, and this piece proves it. [Check out that photo of him seated at the Ste-Clotilde organ. Notice how long his fingers on that stop knob are.] The Prière is full of tenths, elevenths, cross-rhythms, and everything else that makes us want to take up knitting instead. I can usually provide good advice to someone with small hands how to get through a spot or two in a given piece, but when that “spot” is fifteen minutes long, we’d need to publish a separate edition! Ah, but what beautiful music it is. Let’s see what we can do with it:

The entire piece should be ultra legato, which means going to some trouble here and there to preserve the legato. Only melody notes should be broken when they are repeated in the score. Virtually everything else may be tied; the only exceptions I make are when a beat needs to be heard more clearly in another voice.

At the beginning: BUT OF COURSE, couple the manuals to a dead Pedal to help get through the wide spreads. People who don’t do that are just showing off, or they’re compromising the integrity of a complete legato. Franck was fine with using the feet to achieve manual legato – don’t forget that he composed vertically, not linearly in these sections; and he was also saving paper this way. When I use the Pedal in these manual-only sections, I use it only when needed, rather than playing every one of the lowest notes down there. For example, I’ll use Pedal for the first three measures and then I’m able to cover everything with my hands for a few beats, then I use the Pedal to cover the wide stretches in measures 6 and 7, etc. The Pedal here is a convenience, so I use it only when necessary.

Measure 49, beats 2 and 3: The alto has the same melodic fragment that the soprano just played, and so I repeat the alto E notes to announce that fragment.

Measures 50-51: The melodic fragment mentioned just above seems a little obscured here, to my ear. I clean things up a bit by omitting the tenor E in 50 and the alto B in 51. Heresy, I know, but I like how it makes the melodic fragment in the alto clearer. It’s just two little notes, you know…

Measure 71: I “finger” the alto D-sharp with the right hand until the left can get to the scene from the previous measure.

Measure 72: That same D-sharp mentioned just above can be released from the left hand on beat three. The right hand now has it in the alto.

Measure 79: I delay the left hand’s arrival on the Great until 81. I feel that makes a more effective and smooth crescendo. The entire section that follows is full of opportunity to re-distribute notes among the hands. Don’t ask the poor left hand to do all the work there.

Measures 95-96: Most people just jump the left hand to the Positif, and you can hear the bump when they do. That can be smoothed out: in 95, take the alto D-sharp with the right hand on beat 2. Then in the 3rd beat, take the tenor F-double-sharp with the right hand. Now your left hand has only the final C-sharp to play, during which time it can be positioning fingers on the Positif to set up for 96.

Measures 108-109: The transition to the Positif can be smoothed out by moving a beat earlier in the lower two manual voices, leaving only the final G-sharp on the Great.

Measure 110: Theoretically, both hands are still on the Positif here, but on some organs, the right hand may be well served to play those few remaining melody notes on the Great.

Measures 114-158: This is the “development” section, if one is required. It would probably be well served to sound like an ongoing improvisation rather than a series of events. Even Franck indicates at 120 “with a certain liberty…” as opposed to a disorderly one. Keep things moving; it’s still only one theme.

Measures 146-147: I use the (dead) Pedal to help maintain legato in the manuals.

Measures 149-158: Don’t rush through here. That would be out of character with the piece, and you’ll only have to come to a screeching halt again for the recap at 159.

Measures 159-174: Plenty of opportunities to redistribute notes among the hands. Don’t be lazy.

Measures 175-187: This is that section that sends people screaming into the night in their underwear. There are some obscenely wide reaches plus some nasty cross-rhythms. General suggestions: 1) If you have large hands, congratulations. Use them well. 2) Keep the melody legato at all costs. 3) Jump the left hand lightly when necessary. Do not lunge for notes – astute listeners can hear the panic in the sound when you do that. 4) People with small hands deserve every permission to leave out some notes, re-configure some octave placements, etc. Do what you have to do; feel free to ask for help.

Measure 182: In the interest of melody legato, I move the final alto note E-sharp up an octave. Who’s going to notice?

Measures 190-196: Left hand still on Great.

Measures 197-198: I play the left hand on the Positif for some extra decrescendo. The left hand goes back to the Great for 199.

Measure 198: If the left hand takes the final C-sharp in the alto, that will allow complete legato for the right hand’s return to the Great.

Measure 205: Second beat, lower alto: I add a G-sharp (second line) on the final triplet of that beat. I feel we just need another pitch there to keep the texture from thinning so much in that little spot.

Measures 212-222: This is one of the most beautiful passages I know of for the organ. I go into some interesting contortions to keep the right hand legato. It is possible, but it will require your absolutely best Gleason “Finger Crossing” technique. If you’re interested in the details, I’ll send you a copy of those measures with my fingerings.

Our Prayer is concluded. Amen.

Monday
Jan052015

Help Yourself XII: Three saints

Here are a few more free PDFs of re-harmonizations of mine. Feel free to click, print, and use in your services at will. Honest!

ST. ANNE descant only

ST. DENIO

ST. THOMAS

Thursday
Dec252014

Christmas Eve 2014

Christmas magic never gets old. But I believe that my particular brand of magic might be a little warped from everyone else’s. From 1988 until 2004, I was employed in churches and had Christmas Eve duties. That means that with few exceptions, 2014 was the tenth consecutive year that I did not play anywhere for Christmas Eve. I have enjoyed church-hopping each year, wherever I am.

But I tried something new this year. Last month, I decided that I needed a change of pace for Christmas Eve. I decided that if I can help out a church in need that night, I might as well put my talents to good use. So I emailed a few key friends and posted on Facebook my availability; I included the stipulations that the church must be in need of an organist, not just looking for someone to cover for an organist who didn’t want to play that night. I also stipulated a general geographical area so that I could make it to my sister’s at a decent hour that night. As it turned out, no one needed me. I suppose that’s good news that all organists in the region I was advertising must have been in good health and willing to work that night! I’ll try harder next year.

All that to say that my warped sense of Christmas magic is that I miss the sheer size of Christmas Eve as experienced from the organ bench. I miss practicing for it and preparing a 30-minute organ recital before the services. And I certainly miss the singing of choir and congregation on that night. I also miss that magical feeling that the Willcocks arrangements give off – even when I was playing in warm, humid Houston all those years, it was very easy to imagine that we were in a quaint stone church with snow falling outside and that everyone was going to walk home in the snow with their candles and spend a joyous and solemn Christmas with family near the fire. That’s the Christmas magic I love, the part that I create on my own with just a little musical cueing.

Anyway, since no church needed my services, I church-hopped again this year. I suppose it would take a minimum of two churches attended to constitute church hopping, and that’s all I had time for this year. The magic described above is still present, even though I don’t experience it from the organ bench any more. But we all know that a blog post of mine wouldn’t be complete without some subjective statistics thrown in! Here are some observations by Joby the professional musician. You know I can’t resist:

So this year, I heard half of one service that was perfectly dreadful, and then I scooted across town to a full service that was quite nice. One service had a good organist seated at the worst appliance of an organ I have ever heard. I couldn’t see anything, but I’m figuring that that organ came from the old building when the church relocated in 1973. Perfectly hideous. Another service had a pianist seated at an above-average pipe organ. He played with very good rhythm, but I could tell he misses his beloved damper pedal. One sermon was about death, pain, and how to attain salvation. The other was much, much better. One center aisle runner was crooked; interesting sight on the way back from communion. Speaking of communion, I was struck by the taste of grape juice coming out of a golden chalice; I was expecting some fermentation. Finally, both services had sound systems run by deaf music haters. That will be worth its own blog post one of these days.

I believe it’s no accident that Christmas Eve and Good Friday tended to be my favorite services of the year. They have something in common: at some point, both are done in darkness. I enjoyed hearing a pipe organ played in the dark. I enjoyed working in the dark while so many other people were at Christmas parties or already in bed.

Whatever your magic, embrace it! It’s kind of fun. And a Merry Christmas and a blessed 2015 to you.