Friday, December 14, 2012

Silentium Hydraulus

The organ in transit
The organ at Faith UMC has fallen silent this week. The reason for it is that we are re-carpeting the sanctuary, which required the console to be moved. The pipes are all still there and in working order, and the console itself is still there, and still connected, I think, but I dare not risk turning it on. It is a foot or so off the ground on a dolly, and the pedal board is disconnected. Quite a Christmas present for the organist, don't you think?

But as far as the church is concerned, there wasn't going to be any organ music this week anyway. That's because we will all gather in the Worship and Life Center (our "Contemporary" worship facility) for an all-church drama, with music from the band, the adult and the children's choirs, the congregation, and the actors in the play. We do this every year the third week of advent. Combine this with the week before, in which the choir at our 10:30 service sings a full program, and there are two weeks each Advent in which I don't play any solo music for piano and organ. Oh, I play plenty of other music. I accompany the choir, and I play for the band and the choirs and the soloists for the drama. It's not like I get the week off. But it does change things up a little. And it got me thinking about some of the customs of the church.

In the Catholic church, there appears to be a longstanding directive either against playing the organ altogether during Advent, or restricting its use. I don't know very much about this, but I have come across it in some historical contexts. It was so, for instance, at St. Mary's in Lubeck, Germany, where one Dietrich Buxtehude was the organist. Mr. Buxtehude had quite a reputation as an organist, so much so that a young fellow named Bach walked 250 miles to hear him play in November of 1705. He stayed during the entire Advent and Christmas seasons and didn't get home until February.

What did Bach stay for so long? Probably to hear a special series of concerts that Buxtehude arranged for Advent. Since organ music wasn't allowed during the service in Lubeck, that freed him up to play concerts in the evenings, which was allowed. That was, evidently, one way of getting around the regulation, more or less.

There is no getting around Faith's present silentium organum, however, and, except for the problem of being able to prepare the music for Christmas, I am not sure it is an entirely bad thing. It does, after all, free up some of my time when I am in the midst of everybody's Christmas program to not worry so much about practicing anything for the services. I'm not sure that was what was on the mind of the folks who issued the directive in the first place, though. So what is the point of it?

Well, according to the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" as of 2002:

"In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season's character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord."

In other words, don't rush the build-up. There are similar rules in places like the Musica Sacram of 1967 (which I assume lays down all sorts of rules for the music of the Catholic Church in general):

"The playing of these same instruments as solos is not permitted in Advent, Lent, during the Sacred Triduum and in the Offices and Masses of the Dead."

Here is what I suspect is the thinking behind all this: seasons like Advent and Lent are times for sober contemplation, for penitence, for modesty, for sparseness, in order to think about our sinful natures and be still and thoughtful and so that the seasons of Christmas and Easter spring forth that much more abundantly. Instrumental music, and organ music in particular, signifies richness, fullness, joy, exuberance, and is therefore better withheld until a more festive time, such as Christmas itself, when the peals of the organ will make our praise that much more pronounced. Having to do without for a period will discipline us not to expect everything without being grateful for it, and having it return will make us that much more thankful.

I haven't asked any Catholics about it, but that seems to be the idea. And, honestly, in a society that can't wait for anything, in which Christmas--not Advent, but Christmas--starts in October and won't stop until you buy everything in the store twice--such discipline seems badly needed, and likely to remain drastically out of step with our culture.

On the other hand, such liturgical purity also means that you don't get to sing all of that wonderful Christmas music until Christmas day itself, and only on that one day, unless we go back to the medieval custom of celebrating 12 days of Christmas rather than merely singing about it. In the Protestant church there are fights every year over whether or not we ought to be singing Christmas music during Advent. I haven't heard anyone suggest we cut back on our organ playing. 

That doesn't solve my present dilemma,  however, which is how to prepare for Christmas. Fortunately, back in July I came across some delightful carols by a French Baroque composer named Claude-Louis Daquin which use the pedals very little or not at all. For Christmas Eve I plan to play the last of these, known as the "Swiss Carol." It exudes a curious, minor key joy. But what to do without an organ to play it on? Not only that, but our Steinway piano, also in residence in our North Sanctuary, is in a pile of stuff in the choir loft that looks like a rummage sale is about to take place. 

There's a Steinway in there somewhere.

So the wily organist retires to the Worship and Life Center where sits our Yamaha, unfortunately out of tune, but nevertheless willing to be played. And while the present recording does not meet his standards, both for the condition of the piano and the fact that he only started the piece yesterday so it still has some performances issues to be worked out, it does give us an interesting opportunity. You can preview the piece, 10 days before Christmas Eve, in less than its full glory. Think of it as a kind of black and white before the full color of the various organ stops is applied, the shout of the reeds, the tang of the cornet combination, the alternation of the various choirs, the throb of the trombone stop on the occasional bass note in the pedal. It also gives us a chance to ask, what is the music anyway? Is the instrumental color a critical element or not? How differently will the piece strike me when I hear it played at a different dynamic on a different instrument?

No looking up the organ version on Youtube or somewhere. Wait until Christmas. If you can.

Daquin: Noel XII, "Suisse"

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.