Monday, December 31, 2012

The colorized version...

A couple of weeks ago I posted a preview version of a piece I played for Christmas. With the sanctuary being re-carpeted  I, the displaced organist, sneaked over to one of our other facilities, and recorded the piece on our second-string, out-of-tune piano. Was it good for you, too?

Today, may I present the "colorized" version of what was then a black and white performance. It is the last of a set of twelve "Noels" by 18th century French composer Claude-Louis Daquin. First I'll re-post the not-ready-for-prime-time piano version (gasp) so you'll be stunned by the transformation :-)

Daquin: Noel XII on the piano

And now, what you have all been waiting for this overlong fortnight, on the organ, in its full glory, and possibly (see Monday's post) registered correctly! (or not) Here it comes....wait for it....

Daquin: Noel XII, "le suisse" on the organ

Hearing the same piece from different angles can lead to some interesting discoveries. I hope that's the case here--though I do personally find the piece repetitive and realize that hearing it twice is only going to aggravate that situation if your ears are telling you the same thing. But beyond the apparent repetition of the same tune, Daquin's piece is also evolving. If we realize that Daquin was basically using this piece as a chance to show his skill as an organist (imagine a human being with a desire to show off! how odd....) the piece begins to make dramatic sense. First he plays the tune more simply, and then the fireworks being to unfold.

Actually, the Noel I posed on Monday does a much better job of this. It begins with a jaunty little tune with a built in Baroque contrast between loud and soft, and then, exactly one minute in, the tune is repeated, but now it has three notes in the space of two. This second verse is followed by a third strain (1:41) which is just the same thing we heard at the beginning. After that, (2:05) the organist really lets his fingers run riot, particularly in the left hand. You can imagine the people listening holding their breath and wondering if his hands were going to fall off. In our day and age we are spoiled by so much virtuosity that the effect may not be nearly so great, but imagine when this sort of thing was rare.

Then again, I am often approached by persons after a concert whose first comment is that they didn't think anybody's fingers could move so fast, so there you go....

I probably ought to make a video of this sometime you so get a better idea of what I'm talking about, but for now, the organist (as in most churches) is hidden from view. Anyhow, here is the 7th noel again so you can hear the gradual evolution from pretty tune to time-to-melt-the-plastic-off-the-keys-and-prove-that-I-am-Lord-master-of-the-organ-playing-universe time.

Daquin: Noel VII

See you next year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Look what I got you for Christmas...a faux pax!

I've heard it said that "nothing is as over as Christmas." Despite that, and despite the fact that it is already December 28th, it is still Christmas on this blog. There are two reasons for that. One is that now that the Christmas rush is over, all (but one of) the concerts, productions, church services, parties, and so forth, I can relax and feel a bit of peace on my own bit of earth. I am calling it "musician's Christmas"--it's kind of like Boxing Day except I plan to give it about a week (I'll still be working, but I'm going to stare at the Christmas tree a lot and knock back some egg nog) and it hasn't started yet.

The other reason, which our hurried culture has forgotten about, is that Christmas used to start on the 25th (of December, not October) and last 12 days, through January 6th. Thus, there actually were 12 days of Christmas (not 280) and by my count, we're only on the fourth day.

This past summer I discovered twelve delightful little organ pieces by an 18th century French composer named Daquin (pinch your nose and say "da--caaahhhh"). If I'd really been industrious and planned ahead, I could have played one each day for twelve days. Did anybody request a set of French Noels for Christmas? Oh well, you can put them on your list for next year.

One of the two I've so far committed to the wax cylinder is number seven, a delightful little number that, as soon as I heard it back in July, I promptly downloaded from everybody's favorite public domain resource ( and rushed out to learn and record so it would be ready during the Christmas madness. One small problem. Or a large one, depending on your makeup.

I was never trained formally as an organist, and have only recently learned a lot of things I would have learned in school if I had been an organist instead of (or in addition to) a pianist. One of these involves the fascinating subject of registration. The organ, unlike practically any other instrument, allows the player to use, or not use, many different groups of pipes which make different sounds, either alone, or in combination. This means the organ can really sound like a variety of instruments on demand. And it helps to have a little imagination and a good ear for those times when the composer hasn't left any clues as to how you should, or might wish to, employ all of those colors. It would be like staring at a symphonic score in which the composer left all the notes, but didn't tell us which instruments should play what. It makes sort of a difference, you know?

Now very often you get to (or have to) make these sorts of decisions yourself, within certain stylistic limits sets by the time and place of the music. And then there are limits set by tradition, which is the most difficult thing to master because it isn't written down anywhere, and written evidence often contradicts it. For instance, you read through a song that is to be played "Adagio" (very slow) and when you get to rehearsal you find out the singer wants to take it at more of what you would consider "allegro moderato" (moderately fast) because they are primarily concerned with getting all the way through a phrase without running out of breath. I call it "singer's adagio" and it is much quicker than instrumentalist adagio. It is just one of a million things you just learn by doing it because it isn't written down anywhere and nobody tells you about it.

As it happens, those French Baroque composers were pretty picky about what you could and could not do regarding organ registration. This summer I read a very interesting (:cough::geek::) 300-page book about organ registration, and while most of it involved suggestions, historical guesses, and general directives based on a few writings from organists and listings of what sorts of things they had available on their organs, when you got to the section on French Baroque music it suddenly got very detailed and left no room for guessing.

In my hurry to get the piece ready (I think either recorded it the same day or the day after I first saw it) you might say I didn't exactly read the instructions. Still, I liked the piece well enough that I didn't really let that bother me, for a few hours:

Daquin: Noel VII (with a very horrible registrational wrongness perpetrated by yours truly)

After I brought it home I thought I would find somebody else's record on the interwebs to see what they'd done with the music and that was when le sheet hit le fan.

Some organ student had posted a recording of this and the first comment that had been left was "ummm..nice registration." To which the student responded, "what was wrong with it?" but apparently the assailants (there were actually two of them) preferred snark to information, so neither the student nor I found out what the matter was. Then I went to my music dictionary. Now, the french term "Gran Jeu" means "full organ." But when the French Baroque composers wrote "full organ" they meant "without mixture stops." Sort of full, but not technically everything.

Mixture stops are interesting. A mixture is a group of pipes banded together, usually 3, 4, or 5. If you play a C, the stop will also play a G using a different group of pipes, and possibly an E using yet another group, perhaps an octave higher C, and so on--the recipe varies depending on the makeup of the stop itself. The stops are usually high-pitched, and the additional notes are quiet enough that it doesn't sound like a chord organ, (where you can distinctly hear a full chord when you play one note) but rather it has a shimmering, bright sound that gives the organ its full grandeur when used in combination with all the other stops. However, instead of this brilliant sound, what these fellows seemed to prefer (the composers) was the nasally sound of reeds (hold your nose and say "hahaha"). This is what I learned in time to make the second recording, a mere six months later when I got around to it right before Christmas.

Daquin: Noel VII

You might not notice a great deal of difference if you've got low-end speakers or are listening through your computer's external speaker. Also, the change effects the loud parts. The soft ones are mostly the same. On the other hand, if you are in the mood, you can play one of those games where you try to spot a handful of differences between two versions of the same thing. One may be faster, or the touch is different, or the dynamics are different, or...whatever.

As for the registrational change, is this a picky detail, or not? Being a composer myself, perhaps, I am more disposed to try to respect what the originator of the music wanted me to do with it, even if it takes more time and effort to find out. I am also a product of a conservatory, where I was schooled in the idea of taking the composer's directions seriously. That doesn't necessarily mean cramping your creativity, although I'll admit this group of composers seems to have been much more set in their ways than I would be. There is another angle here, though, and that is the behavior of the fellows who decided to criticize the student who dared to post the piece on Youtube. There is merit in pointing out a mistake, and I hope to have the grace to accept such correction whenever it is offered to me. But you don't have to be a jerk about it.

Meanwhile, between those two recordings stands half a year, summer and winter, and even a change in sanctuary carpet. Boy, you can really hear the bright orangeness of the carpet in the first recording, can't you? And the light grey, by contrast, sounds...well, it's hard to put my finger on it, but wow.

p.s. I'm kidding. Nobody can hear the color of the carpet on a recording. Some of you are too easy.   :)   Merry 4th day of Christmas

p.p.s. Anybody notice that last sentence is missing a period?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

In a few hours, the Christmas Eve marathon will begin at my church. Services at 5, 7 and 11. Rehearsals with the band, the choir, several soloists, myself (!), and my student, and, after the rush of humanity that comes through our doors at 5 and 7 for the roughly 90 minute services, a quick trip home for Christmas Eve dinner--shocking how the atmosphere changes all of the sudden--and then, when we get back to church, feeling a bit frayed, wondering if we can do this all again, the most peaceful service of the night. There is an air of beautiful exhaustion waiting for us at the end! We wrap around midnight and I end up watching Christmas movies until 2 a.m. because I can't get to sleep (I'm too tired for that). I wouldn't trade it. But it's probably a good thing that it doesn't come more often.

Oh, the things we do so we can light candles and sing Silent Night. All the running around, the stress, the sermons reminding us that those things aren't really important, then rushing to the mall again anyway. All the parties and the concerts and the seasonal festivities of one sort and another: whew! we're almost there. Silent night and the candles are just around the corner. And if that isn't your thing (or your religion)  Merry Christmas nevertheless. You can translate it however you want so it comes out peace, joy, hope, and love. And ixnay on the crazy stressful rushing around-nay.

My Christmas present to you this year is a curious little piece by Samuel Wesley, based on a curious little carol you don't hear much anymore called "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman." Notice it's not "God rest ye, Merry Gentleman." I think that has something to do with the kind of rest involved, and not that the gentleperson was merry to start with.

The piece is actually called "The Christmas Carol Varied as a Rondo for the Piano Forte." Wish you'd thought of that, don't you? Sorry, it's taken.

Despite the piece's strange little title, it is a nice bit of music. The title, I fear, sounds a little bit like an academic paper. Actually, as all my academically inclined friends know, it really needs a colon. As in the formula: Pizazz-filled shorter Title, colon, longer and far drearier but exhaustively descriptive subtitle. So the piece, as an academic paper, might read as follows:

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman: The Christmas Carol Varied as a Rondo for [the new fangled] Piano Forte [sic]

I'm afraid the reason for this semi-scientific titling might have something to do with a musician's attempt to legitimize their craft in jolly old mercantile England by making it sound like music was an enterprise for the mind, and the high-minded, not just some silly old stuff for making idle people merry.  That sort of thing has had a long history. Samuel did, in fact, have a rough time keeping on with music, given his father Charles' attitude toward it, which was pretty much the standard attitude of the time and place of persons of standing, namely, that music was a frivolous activity, unworthy of a gentleman. This was also not the time to suggest that music might have something to do with the feelings, so playing up the compositional techniques involved (variations on the tune) or the was the piece was constructed (as a rondo) might seem to give it some legitimacy  If you are not impressed by this, then clearly you are the wrong audience. But the music may move you all the same. It isn't really a rondo anyway, and the variations of the tune don't in any way resemble a set of standard variations on a tune. Instead, it is really a kind of run-on, stream-of-consciousness fantasy on the carol. And, for all the running around it does, there are moments of peace, and joy, and...well, you get the idea. I'll be playing it tonight at the 7 and 11 o'clock services. If you can't hear it live, you can listen to the piece via the link below, wherever you are this Christmas Eve, and if you and I never meet, God rest ye merry, whomever you are. Merry Christmas.

Samuel Wesley: The Christmas Carol Varied as a Rondo for the Piano Forte
("God Rest ye Merry, Gentleman")

Friday, December 21, 2012

A little Light on a dark day

This isn't the last time you'll hear me on this blog or elsewhere saying that a church musician needs to be flexible. But that virtue was made all the more necessary in the case of Jan Peterszoon Sweelinck.

As I told my congregation in October, Sweelinck grew up in Catholic Amsterdam in the late 16th century. He was mentored by a Catholic priest and then given the post of organist at the "Old Church." A year later, the Protestants came to town.

They didn't just set up shop across the street and try to compete with the Catholics for spiritual customers. Instead, they took over the church, and the town, and required everyone to become Protestants...or else.

At least they didn't smash the organ. One of the things Protestants liked to do in those years after the Reformation was destroy anything that they associated with Catholicism, which pretty much included all vestiges of art and music. Somehow they made it a short trip from Luther's 95 Theses,  which complained about the church's literal selling of absolution for money, to the Regulatory Principle, which said that if it wasn't expressly spelled out in the New Testament, it wasn't acceptable in worship. Since there is nothing about pipe organs in the New Testament, these were out.

It didn't take the leadership in Amsterdam to figure out that there might be a small problem with this zealous approach. The congregation was expected to learn a whole raft of new hymns, and, being average churchgoing types, they weren't likely to pick up on them really quickly unless somebody played them through for them a few times so they could listen to them. So Sweelinck got the job of playing the new hymns for the congregation--before the service began. And, while he was at it, he made brilliant compositions out of them, which seemed to be tolerable to the relatively enlightened Protestants of Amsterdam.

What's curious about the piece I'm going to play for you today, however, is that it is based on a Catholic chant. Did Sweelinck write this prior to the Protestant takeover? Or was it later, because it reflected something of his artistic heritage and he wanted to do it (in which case, was it never heard in his church?) I pose the question, but I don't know the answer. However, if you haven't visited's Godmusic page this week, here is what I told my congregation about the music:

Our theme for Advent this year is "light," which is why this selection was chosen. However, it is not "liturgically correct:" the detailed procedures of the Catholic church required that this ancient chant be sung at  Compline during Lent. Compline is the last "office" of the day, when the monks are getting ready for bed, which may explain why it parts of it read like a sinister ancestor of the child's prayer "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." The text begins amiably enough: "Christ, who art the light and day, You drive away the darkness of night, You are called the light of light, For you proclaim the blessed light." Later the prayer asks to keep us free from sin and not to let "the enemy snatch us away" while we sleep as well as to keep our souls awake and vigilant. The hymn concludes with a doxology of praise to God. Sweelinck has set three verses of the chant, for the second of which I am employing the trombone stop on the pedal to bring out the melody; the third uses full organ.

Sweelinck: Christe qui lux et dies (Christ, who is the light and day)

It seemed an appropriate selection for this blog, on the shortest day of the year, and the longest night, December 21st, the Winter Solstice

Merry Solstice. May some light shine in our darkness. I'll see you on Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 17, 2012

More scary organ music for the holidays

Today I was going to play you some familiar Christmas carols on the piano. However, I didn't manage to record them before the workers started replacing the sanctuary carpet (see Friday's post) and as of today they are still working. They've made good progress and might finish up today, and with any luck the organ will be put back in place tomorrow, along with the piano. But it seems the carols will have to wait for next year. There are an awful lot of them that ought to be played more, particularly as, for every concert, church event, and service, we seem to sing the same three or four. I think I've played "O Come, All Ye Faithful" at least a half-a-dozen times already and we've still got a week to go before the big day.

So for today you're stuck with something else you may not have heard before, an organ piece by Michael Praetorius, from early 17th century Germany. I recorded the piece back in July (note to organists: it is a good idea to record/practice your Christmas music in the summer) which is the only reason I can post it now.  For me, the piece is not new. I first played it on Christmas Day 2005, when Christmas was on a Sunday. We had four Christmas Eve services that year, and I played about 26 verses of Silent Night. I also remember trying to nail down all the Christmas music while flying out to Baltimore for my oral defense--I was finishing up my degree that year, my first in Illinois. It snowed a couple of days before I had to fly, prompting concern over whether I was going to be able to get there on time, and it snowed in Baltimore that afternoon as well, after it was all over. I also played the piece on the day after Christmas (a Sunday) in 2010. It might be my favorite of Mr. Praetorius' organ pieces.

Funny--the first time I recorded the piece, in 2005, I remember some workers coming into the sanctuary and loudly dropping a stack of lumber right near the end of the piece! It's hard to listen to the present recording without hearing it in my mind. Fortunately for your peace of mind, this recording is lumber-free. I hope you are having an enjoyable holiday season, and that Mr. Praetorius is able to contribute to it. The chant on which it is based shows up in slow motion in the bass, where it is hard to hear, but you know what? Just enjoy the sounds and the festivity and don't worry about it.

Here it is:   Michael Praetorius:  Summo Parenti Gloria

p.s. The Christmas show is up at hour of organ music for the holidays. Enjoy.

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"

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kellemes Karácsonyt! part two (that's Merry Christmas in Hungarian, by the way)

As I've mentioned before, I'm a bit of an explorer, even at Christmas, and like to find new things to play. Last week I presented the first set of Bela Bartok's Romanian Christmas Carols, which I had just learned. I thought it might be a little bit of a stretch for all of us, who tend to expect familiar music particularly at Christmas. But since I didn't hear any complaints (he says with a sly smile, noting that nobody ever posts comments on this blog) I'm going to forge ahead with the sequel, for which you will not have to wait until December 2013 (take that, Peter Jackson!). If you aren't much of a fan of Bartok or his take on Romanian peasantry and its music, you needn't suffer any longer: there are only two sets of these carols, so after this week it's on to something else!

This second set is longer--still ten carols, but they take a bit longer to play. Mostly they are a little slower and more introspective than the first set. Bartok also brings the sixth carol back for a brief reprise after the seventh; he has discovered another harmonic guise for it, and wants us to hear it both ways. It is a strange and interesting carol. Despite Bartok's "Many Moods" he remembers at the end to give us a celebratory finish.

My favorite carol from the first set is the seventh; but the ninth carol from the second is so cheerfully festive I might have a new favorite. I also can't stop thinking about the sixth one. What is your favorite?

Bartok, Bela: Romanian Christmas Carols, set two

The timings at the start of each carol so you don't have to count while you listen:
#2--0:52, #3--1:28, #4--2:09, #5--3:05, #6--3:46, #7--4:52, #6b--5:18, #8--5:52, #9--6:31, #10--6:57

While we're at, I'll re-post the first set with a similar key:
Bartok, Bela: Romanian Christmas Carols, set one
#2--0:30, #3--0:44, #4--1:14, #5--1:29, #6--1:53, #7--2:22, #8--3:02, #9--3:42, #10--4:01

Of course, you don't have to like any of them. You might even have a least favorite. I was trying to think of mine, but the problem is they grow on you with time, so that I can't remember which ones I didn't care for before I started working on them. I've grown fond of them all, even though I still have favorites. Are these new to you like they were to me?

Friday, December 7, 2012

The hymn tune with the funny name (you know, that one!)

The church calendar and I may have gotten off to a rocky start with you all last week when I posted a rather severe piece that had us thinking about the Apocalypse, which is exactly what was called for in the assigned lectionary scripture reading for that week each year and might strike some people as a rather odd way to start off the season of  Christmas (which it isn't, according to the church calendar).

This week we're going to do a 180. I'm not playing anything at the organ; the choir is doing their annual service of song, so I'm going to post what I actually played in church last week; the previous blog contained music I actually played back in 2008 (and recorded in 2011). Last week's rendering was a piece by 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams based on a hymn tune called "Hyfrydol" which I think is supposed to be pronounced with a couple of short y's, but sounds pretty strange either way. Hymn tunes often do--sometime I think I'll hold a contest for the strangest hymn tune you know of. In the meantime you can prepare for it by scouring your hymnbook for suitable candidates: if you are a United Methodist the tune name is in all caps in the lower right hand corner of the page.

The tune Hyfrydol is paired, in our hymnbook, with the text for "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" which is what makes it appropriate for Advent. Here's how it goes.

The catch is that Mr. Vaughan-Williams seems to think you would have a lot of patience. In his piece, the tune proceeds apace.

You might have noticed that it is a bit slower. But at least it is in the upper voice, so it won't be so hard to distinguish for the rest of the texture. And what a texture it is.

I mentioned in the bulletin notes from last week that the composer had a taste for "spicy harmonies." At the risk of kicking over a rather large can of worms in only my second church-related blog post, I've been pondering the relationship between his rather unorthodox harmonies and the way he colored outside the lines in his personal beliefs. You see, although he wrote a good deal of sacred music and even edited some very important hymnals for the Church of England, he was apparently, at least privately, an atheist. That's not really all that unusual. I can think of at least a few prominent composer of English sacred literature (one still living) who didn't exactly buy what the church was selling. Now one of the major themes of the church (particularly in England, where the church has been enmeshed with the state for several centuries) is authority. And on top of that, the church tends to be a very conservative, tradition-bound institution, in which creative, innovative, and otherwise unusual or forward-thinking persons proceed with great difficultly, or leave. Now our good composer has left us a piece that, for all its studied pomp and solemnity, does have moments which suggest its composer was exploring the world of the possible, rather than the tried, when it came to harmony, expanding its vocabulary, finding new things to say, as gifted composers generally do. The piece is in this regard a good marriage between the new and old. Someone said of Vaughan Williams' music, "One is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."  Now suggesting that Vaughan Williams' atheism has anything at all to do with his penchant for out-of-the-box harmonies is a stretch, but then, on the flip side, it's the sort of argument church types have been making for centuries in their writings, many of which, when they mention music at all, are intended to reign in their willful musicians who wrote music that was too complicated, too different, and who liked to experiment. "Devilish discords" and that sort of thing, you know. Of course God only likes dignified, solemn, and above all, tame sorts of music. (Does he live in a harmonically sealed environment?) Unfortunately, some of us organists do enjoy the occasional unlicensed sonic protuberance, if only to relish its resolution all the more.  Whatever Mr. Vaughan Williams' thoughts on all this, beside the "Three "Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes" (of which this is the third; I posted the second a couple of weeks ago) there are only a handful of other organ pieces. Of course, he wasn't an organist. All the same, he doesn't seem to have been very interested in writing for it, either.

In any event, if you like unusual harmonic digressions, there are some places near the end of the piece of particular interest. If you don't, you'll find yourself turning your nose up around 3:31, where there are six chords in a row all of Mr. Vaughan William's special vintage. My favorite, though, occurs at 4:13, right before the final ascent.


Vaughan Williams: Prelude on "Hyfrydol"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Kellemes Karácsonyt!

Merry Christmas!

Over on the Friday, church-music-related side of the blog it's still Advent, a four week period leading up to Christmas (which is 12 days long!) but here on the secular side of the blog as we all know the Christmas season is about three-quarters over already, having started sometime in September. So I'm actually very late in acknowledging this. My apologies. And hohoho.

I have what might be considered a bad habit at Christmastime, which is to find and learn some new music every year. One reason for it is that it helps keep me from getting bored playing and listening to only and always the same music every year, and it also helps to set each Christmas apart from the ones that preceded it. Then, when I approach the music in following years I can recall the year and the Christmas in which I learned it. Although at this point many Christmases have pretty much receded into a vague mush of half-remembrances, and only a few still stand out. I suspect it is like this for most of us.

Another interesting thing about the new music is that it is sometimes from different cultures and reminds me that Christmas is a holiday that has been celebrated by a whole lot of people over a wide span of time and space. Which is were today's selection comes in.

Bela Bartok liked to do a little field research. He would go out into rural Romania and collect folk songs. The  group of 10 very short pieces you are about to hear were (are?) sung by children in Romania in the 19th century. I don't know anything more about them yet.

If you are getting bored with Jingle Bells already this might be your thing. (I'll also be posting a Christmas program, in about a week, over at the mother website,, consisting of an hour of organ music you might not normally hear at Christmas.)  On the other hand, it does collide with one of the more important requirements that people have of music in general, and particularly at Christmas. It isn't familiar.

The funny thing about traditions, though, is that they all start somewhere. If you listen to this a few times this season, box it away (don't worry, I'll store it for you) and get it out again next year it may become a part of your Christmas. In which case we can share in this process, and this tradition, together. You'll be including the children of 19th Century Romania in your Christmas, too.

True, for those of us in the United States of the 21st century, these don't really sound much like Christmas Carols. But if you listen carefully, you might start to hear sleigh bells.

Bartok, Bela: Romanian Christmas Carols (1st set)

p.s. Actually, I started to hear them, too. While I was practicing for the recording, Christmas wreaths were being hung in our sanctuary, and you could hear the bells jingle. As I got to the final chord I had an idea for a little sleigh bell obbligato. So I switched on the microphone and my assistant accompanied me on this last carol. In the end, this version wound up on the cutting room floor because my favorite take was at a faster tempo then the one we did, and tacking it on the end of the other nine carols done in this fashion would have taken the air out of the climax. But who doesn't enjoy a good bonus feature now and then? So here's one of the outtakes....

With bells on...