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Category: Organ playing

  1. Dynamics dilemmas

    Posted on

    Dynamics markings in organ music can be a little perplexing. When a pianist's score is marked crescendo, there's only one way to increase the volume, and that's to press the keys harder. But how exactly should crescendo be interpreted in an organ score? Does it might mean open the swell box? Does it might mean add more stops? Or does it mean a combination of both?

    The only answer which can be given to this question is: it depends. Mostly it depends on the composer, of course. It may take a certain amount of background knowledge about the composer and their musical world to make an informed decision. In the absence of such knowledge, the only advice which can be given to the beginner is to listen to an expert playing the piece and copy what they do! One factor which complicates the issue is that organ composers differ greatly in the extent to which they specify registration for their music. Bach's is (for the most part) just notes on staves, without any additional instructions whatsoever. Felix Mendelssohn declared himself reluctant to give registration instructions because he had found, through playing various organs on his travels, that the effects of same-named stops differed greatly.

    Cesar Franck, on the other hand, gives very detailed instructions regarding registration, perhaps because he travelled less than Mendelssohn, and within his immediate environment the success of the organ builder Cavaille-Coll had imposed a certain standardisation of what organ stops were supposed to sound like. This doesn't necessarily mean that his instructions should be followed slavishly, of course, but we can be fairly sure that when he expects a change of registration he will ask for one explicitly. Conversely, dynamics markings without an explicit change of registration should be accomplished using the swell pedal alone. There's a good example towards the end of the introduction to Grand Piece Symphonique where four bars are marked molto crescendo followed by two bars marked f followed by a further four bars marked dim ending with pp. One could be forgiven for thinking that such a  dramatic effect could only be achieved by adding and subtracting stops, but that was almost certainly not the composer's intention. The f should be interpreted as meaning as loud as possible with the stops currently drawn, and the pp as quiet as possible with the stops currently drawn

    It was at this point that I was planning to illustrate my point with a Youtube clip, such as this one of Doug Marshall at the Organpower! 2004 event:

    The only problem is that Doug does add stops (at 3:06) and he does subtract them (at 3:13). He rides roughshod over the composer's intentions at a number of other places too! No doubt he would claim it as his right as interpreter to make these changes.  I can't deny that I greatly enjoy listening to his spirited performance, but I would still question whether the above registration changes really do represent an improvement. They could be said to disrupt the smooth flow of the musical idea, and also to steal the thunder of the really big crescendo which follows just afterwards.

  2. Record if you dare!

    Posted on

    Needless to say, I'm an enormous fan of Hauptwerk, and one of the many things I like about it is how easy it is to make a recording of yourself playing the organ. No additional equipment is required, not even a microphone, everything takes place inside the computer. Recording can literally be done at the touch of a button, or - if you're a bit cleverer about it - at the touch of a piston. 

    But what if you've never recorded yourself playing before? If, like me, you're a totally unqualified amateur organist, then maybe you should think carefully before proceeding. The sad truth is that we're inclined to con ourselves into believing we're a lot more competent than we really are. The first time we hear ourselves recorded it can come as a very unpleasant shock - and I'm speaking from personal experience here! I suppose the root of the problem is that we don't really hear what we're playing, our mind is too pre-occupied with hitting all the rights notes in the right order. Maybe that's one of the qualities which distinguishes a professional musician - an ability to play and truly listen at the same time.

    In spite of the danger to our self-esteem, I'm convinced recording is actually very worthwhile. Once we've bitten the bullet and made a more realistic assessment of our abilities, recording can be a very useful tool in improving them. It gives us the chance to analyse the sound we are producing and do what is necessary to improve it. This is particularly valuable for anyone who is learning to play the organ on their own, without the aid of a teacher.

    Of course, a tendency to self-delusion isn't limited to amateur organists. I'm sure it applies equally to other instrumentalists, as well as to singers. Listening to the early rounds of the X-Factor provides ample evidence of that! (And there's a great deal more that could be said on that particular subject, but I'll save it for another day.) But to return to the organ world, a friend once related an incident he witnessed while attending a workshop event organised by the makers of his home electronic organ. The organisers employed a professional organist to offer help and advice to the attendees, and to help solve any problems they were experiencing. One of the attendees complained that he couldn't use the built-in metronome on his home organ - instead of providing a regular beat it varied erratically. The professional invited him to play with the metronome on his instrument. My friend listened while the metronome produced its unwavering beat. The hapless amateur hadn't got the foggiest notion of rhythm, and his playing went all over the place. When he'd finished, he turned to the professional. "You see what I mean?" he said. "Yours is doing it too!"