Monday, April 1, 2013

Toccata minute?

Yesterday, Widor's celebrated Toccata, the final movement from his Fifth Organ Symphony, was heard throughout the land. It has been a tradition at our church, too, as the Postlude to our Easter services. So a few days ago I dusted the thing off and gave it another go.

The piece is probably one of the two most popular pieces of organ music in the world. This does not mean it is popular with organists,--I've come across several of them complaining about it recently online--but then, anything that popular with the general public is going to come into some irritation with the professionals, for two reasons:

1) it gets played entirely too often, and to the exclusion of all kinds of other great music
2) it is not the undisputed and far-and-away greatest piece of music in the world, despite what many people think.


The first reason is obvious. Anyone who plays the organ for a living is going to get tired of playing the same piece or handful of pieces again and again no matter how great it is; if a piece gets regularly requested (or demanded) for various occasions, it is probably going to wear thin after a while. Keep in mind that an organist is going to live with the piece while learning it (possibly an investment of hours, days, weeks, and months) and then keeping it under the fingers (more hours) and is going to have exponentially more exposure to such a piece than a person who only listens to it while it is being performed.

As to the second reason, there are certainly plenty of other fine pieces of music in the literature, and it is a shame many people don't know them, or care to know them. Widor's Toccata is, in my opinion, a very fine piece of music, though it is probably overplayed. I only play it once a year, on Easter, but I recently came across a comment saying that her organist played the piece four times a year.That seems a bit much, though I'll grant that as a listener you would still only be spending about 25 minutes a year listening to it, which doesn't seem at all excessive. It is a remarkable piece, though as an organist I know there are many others which I would like to share with people and would make their hair stand on end the way they do for me. But every year when I play the Widor I get an ovation; more compliments and more appreciation than at any other time of the year (and I am lucky: I have an appreciative and open-minded congregation); more people coming up to me with moist eyes telling me how that piece was played at their wedding, or a dear friend's funeral, or just thrilled that I am (so the legend goes) one of the few organists in the world who can play such a supremely challenging piece. I suppose I feel a little guilty and embarrassed about being such a celebrity for a day; on the other hand, what a privilege to be able to make so many people so happy with a single piece of music! I've had people suggest to me before that it just "makes Easter" for them. What is it about this single piece that makes it so loved while so many other great pieces never get the acclaim?

In the first place it makes an immediate impact. It does not require repeated hearings to figure it out, nor does it parcel out its mysteries over time with patient effort. Like a handful of other classical pieces that everybody seems to know, it gives a lot and makes few demands on the listener. It is loud and fast, which makes it exciting, and it delivers an constant stream of 16th notes which never changes for the entire course of the piece. The harmonies change--that is what makes the piece interesting--but the rhythmic pattern never does. The same thing happens with pieces like Bach's Prelude in C from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier and Pachelbel's Canon in D, both mainstays of wedding ceremonies, pieces laypersons like and request frequently.

In a nutshell, the piece is both viscerally exciting and highly predictable, which is to say it soothes the mind and quickens the pulse. I might differ with some of my colleagues by suggesting that it is also a great musical achievement  and I certainly don't mind playing it a couple of times a year. One thing that none of us can deny is that it sounds very hard to play and earns many accolades from an audience. It is also used and abused by many an amateur organist as well as professionals trying to set land speed records as if it were the Widor 100 meter sprint.

The curious thing about it is that the composer, in the usually doomed but valiant attempt by a composer to keep his creation from being made into a vehicle to simply show off the performer, put staccato dots above every single note and it is really impossible to articulate each note and play the piece ridiculously fast at the same time.

I'll show you what I mean. Kristen and I were at an organ recital for tourists in Prague last summer, which of course concluded with this organ showpiece par excellence. Whether because the organist was tired of playing the piece 365 days a year or didn't think the audience could handle more than 3 minutes of Widor, he played the piece so quickly that he had to leave out several notes every couple of measures in the left hand because the organ (and/or his fingers) probably wouldn't respond fast enough. Then he cut the last couple pages and went straight to the final chords. This was in a real bathtub of a church, so to give you an idea of what it sounded like--begging your pardon--I added a "crap-ton" of reverb to this recording, which I played twice as fast as I usually do. It's only the first 45 seconds--or minute-and-a-half, depending.

Widor Toccata, tourist's edition

The odd thing about all that is, to my ears, at least, the piece doesn't sound all that fast anymore. It has gotten so close to warp speed that the stars aren't moving. All of which is delightfully ironic--in a bid to impress, it gets so impressive it isn't impressive anymore. But then again, my ears aren't your ears, or anybody else's. Maybe it does sound fast to you. For me, once those sixteenth notes lose their individuality and disappear in a hazy sound cloud the sense of motion gets lost and you have to fasten your ear on the much slower moving melody notes in the bass or the changing harmonies once a couple of times a measure. The effect is the same as being in an airplane and watching the ground beneath move ever so slowly even though you are going 600 miles an hour.

Last year, the day after Easter, I recorded the piece in a tempo that was probably closer to what Widor had in mind.  Widor often complained about American organists taking his piece too fast so I slowed it down a little. Now it turns out you can actually hear Widor himself playing the toccata online (probably a copyright violation but you can find it yourself) and his version is still about 30 seconds slower than mine. Then again, he was practically ninety at the time of the recording! And although his physical control suffers at times, and the staid tempo occasionally lapses into the banal, most of the time his interpretation is riveting, majestic--alive! On Easter, when the message is pure joy, this is its musical evocation. One is again reminded how this simple piece became a musical symbol of resurrection, of hope beyond the grave, one great glorious Easter shout.


Happy Easter!

Widor: Toccata from Symphonie no. 5

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