Friday, March 29, 2013

Passion Chorales

This weekend a group in town is performing J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. If you had gone to church in Leipzig in 1729 at the church of St. Thomas, where some guy named Bach was in charge of the music, the Good Friday service would be the musical and liturgical climax of the year. During the three-hour musical presentation of the events of Christ's death (church was regularly three hours long) there would be soloists, a double choir, an orchestra, a chorus of boys, and, by my count, twelve places where the entire congregation could join in singing a familiar hymn, or Chorale. If you don't count the places where the same tune is sung to different words, there are actually only six Chorale tunes represented in the entire three hour drama.

My offering to you this night is a simple rendition of these six tunes for solo piano.

Herzliebster Jesu     Ah, Holy Jesus!
Ich bin's, ich sollte bussen   It is I, I who should be sorry
Erkenne mich, mein Huter    I will stand with you now
Was mein Gott will, das g'sche' allzeit   What my God wants, may it always happen
Mir hat die Welt truglich gericht't   The World has judged me falsely
Bin ich gleich won dir gewichen   If I have ever abandoned you...

It is perhaps an unusual, and certainly not a historical approach, to play these wordlessly on an instrument Bach only knew in embryo. But I hope they bring you peace.

Easter is barely more than a day away now. This organist is going to bed!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Vault

I grew up in a little village, more rural than suburban, in a family that wasn't musical, in a place where there weren't many cultural opportunities. For a while I didn't really know much about what was out there. When I started to gain some proficiency at the piano with the help of my elementary school music teacher (it didn't take long to become something of a star in my little orbit, as good a player as most of the adults) I began to wonder how I could grow. First I discovered a few records at garage sales, and later, the classical radio station in the big city, 45 minutes away. It was playing great music by great composers, and I was hooked. But where to find the music?

The local music store didn't seem to offer much help. Between Mozart's "Greatest Hits" (simplified, for piano) and Mel Bay's Big Note Guitar Method, there wasn't much of a market, apparently, for the real thing in its original form, and, therefore, not much of an offering. Could I get a copy of Beethoven's Sonatas? No, they didn't seem to be able to get those. I started to develop the crazy idea that there must be a vault in Vienna where all the manuscripts of the great composers were kept and only the finest pianists were able to gain access--after all, they had to be able to make all those recordings somehow, and I sure didn't know where all that music came from!

Of course, this level of parochial ignorance isn't really that unusual. I still get questions from young people, for example, wanting to know if I happen to know the piece "Minuet." Presumably this is the first time that the young person has encountered a piece of music with such a strange title and they assume it is unique. Instead I have to explain that a minuet is a kind of dance and was once very popular among the ruling class and that lots of composers in past centuries wrote lots of pieces all with the title minuet so I can't be sure if I know which one they have in mind. Do they happen to know who wrote it? ( Why? Is that important?)

There are a handful of such pieces that have been often used in piano teaching books so I probably could make a decent guess. I can be even more confident when a future bride comes to me to play her wedding and asks for "Prelude in C." Sometimes she knows the one she wants is by Bach; in any case, most brides get their inspiration from the same basic set of sources, and that handful of pieces is well known to those of us who play weddings. So even though Bach wrote about a dozen preludes in C, I can tell which one she is talking about ("you know, the famous one."). Young or old, pieces with titles like sonata and prelude and minuet never really assume a real identity to us until we know them from more than one filtered source. Otherwise, we never make the transition from the child who thinks the food grows in the refrigerator to the adult who knows were all the stores are in town and which ones have the best produce.

Two things happened to me since my days as a youngster with limited musical food to feed on. One is that I went to college in the big city. I learned from trained concert professionals, heard some of the world's best musicians, and had access to a large library of books, scores, and recordings. It changed what I thought I knew about music.

The second thing that happened will be of more use to any young person in a small town or countryside environment who happens to be reading this. After I graduated and as I was started graduate school the internet came along and started to offer vast amounts of musical resources that I had never had before. Now I live in a university town with a huge library system and it used to be one of my favorite things to do to walk 20 minutes to the library and go find something new and interesting to play. But these days I don't even have to do that. Not five minutes after I discover the music's existence I can listen to one of the worlds' great pianists and organists, or some fellow in his living room, play the piece while I look at the score, then download it, print it, and take it to the piano or organ to start learning it. I just happen to be old enough to regard this as an amazing thing. Someone younger would probably think: well, it's always been this way. What's the big deal?

Most trained musicians know about the International Score Library Project, which is a huge library where people around the world upload scores of all kinds of public domain music. This is a long way from having about two choices in the "classical" section. Composers you have never heard of are there, and so are dozens of different versions of pieces you already know.

The difficultly with such a resource is not in being unable to find something, it is in not knowing the quality of what you have found. One of the things we learned from our teachers in music school was which editions of which composers were regarded as most reliable and which ones had editors who liked to inject their own ideas about the music without telling anyone.

The music is free for the downloading, and it is almost certain that you will find anything you know to look for. That will only get you part of the way there, of course. If you live in a place without good teachers (or people who know who good teachers are) you are still going to suffer. But the internet has some answers to that also. People post advice, and contact information, and even give lessons over Skype, daily.

It is enough to make me wonder how things would have been different had I been born later. I don't know. Anyhow, it wasn't the Dark Ages. We already had CD players. I once learned Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata by ear before I knew how to get the music. Such isolation can tend to develop other skills.

As for sorting one's way through the resources, I'm planning to help you with that. Just stay tuned (as they used to say on television, that 20th century device I don't use anymore because all the old and new shows are one the internet now).

By the way, I've been to Vienna. I've seen all the shrines to the composers, with velvet ropes around the exhibits and plaques on the wall.Most of the furniture isn't there any more. And the contents of that vault that I thought was there--the vault has exploded; the contents are everywhere!

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Musical Mountain (conclusion)

This is the conclusion to a six-part series. If you're new here, you can catch up with the first five parts of the series here: one two three four five.

The idea has been to take us all through a large piece of music, a part at a time, discussing various aspects of the composition as we went. I suppose some of us would just rather listen to the piece itself without all the preliminary discussion: in that case, you'll like today's installment, in which I simply post a recording of the entire piece.

Why the build up? As I said at the beginning, a musician spends a great deal of time studying any piece of music he or she performs, particularly if it is of unusual artistic merit. There are always things to learn, secrets of uncover, ways of hearing things that we didn't notice before. But for non-musicians there is seldom time to do this, and rarely do people encourage this approach anyway. You are just supposed to listen and pick up whatever you can at the time. The odd thing about this is that it is upside down. The professional concert givers have spent all kinds of time listening to the music--why would we expect the amateur concert goer to be able to figure it all out on the fly?

It reminds me of a story an old pastor of mine told while I was growing up. His family had just hiked up a mountain trail and were enjoying the view. It seemed tremendous; not only an accomplishment to be at the summit, but also greatly rewarding with a spectacular view. Then another family drove up in a car. They got out, tired, bored, looked around for 30 seconds, got back in the car, still looking uninterested, and left. The journey had apparently made all the difference.

Similarly, you can hear things, and then you can hear things. A major part of the artist's job is to try to get people to notice things around them. Otherwise you can be surrounded by the greatest inheritance and not enjoy any of it. Just the way a musical climax can be the final link in a great struggle or a great story, or it can simply be a bunch of loud sounds which may (or may not) be thrilling nonetheless, to the senses, but maybe not the mind or the soul. And if the music goes on for very long you are more likely to start looking at your watch under those conditions.

So for whatever naivete or misguided remarks of which I am guilty, that was the plan--really being able to hear things in the music because you've heard some of the parts and you know they are there. And to experience the journey as we make our way through the whole thing, part by part. And now we stand on the summit. For me, the final two minutes of this epic piece cause a greater thrill because I know how we got there, and what we're hearing. Of course, this is just a broad outline of the piece. We could easily spend six more blogs on it, and maybe someday we will. But there are other pieces in the musical firmament, many of them written for the piano, and I promise to actually return to the piano literature now that this series is over.

Having said all that, here is the complete recording of Cesar Franck's Choral no. 3 in A Minor for organ, which I made last Thursday. I was pretty worn out already from a long series of Lenten music, and the piece is still new to me. Nevertheless, I think it turned out pretty well. Now, for the rest of my natural life I can continue to study this piece and come to new insights and achieve new levels of comfort and fluidity in the playing as well. Enjoy the last leg of the journey, and thank you for reading, and listening.

Franck: Choral no. 3 in A Minor

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part five)

This is the fifth of a six part series on Cesar Frank's Choral no. 3 in A Minor for organ. The first four parts can be accessed here: one  two  three  four

After introducing the various ideas present in the piece in the first three parts, part four began an account of what happens as the piece unfolds. We are currently right in the middle of it!

And now the thrilling denoument....

after building to an awesome climax at the end of the "slow movement" Franck immediately lets the music die away on a single low E so that it can build again. When he starts the gradual ascent, it is to a transformed version of that restless figure from the very opening of the piece to which he turns:


As in so much Romantic period music, this piece progresses in waves. Large ones, like the five minute section through which we've just passed, and now a series of small ones, getting progressively louder:


And as that wave builds, Franck calls on something else. A first time listener might not notice this when it went by so I'm going to underline it. Do you remember that "sacrificial suffering" theme from way back at the beginning of this series? Now hints of it begin to become enmeshed in the musical fabric.


Often, when two such themes, the restless, dramatic one, and the tragic, lyric one, are opposed to one another, twin sides of the same piece of music but with vastly different profiles, it is a question of the dramatic machinery as to which one will win. Which theme will be left standing at the end, triumphant over the other one. Who gets the last word? And yet here a curious, sensational thing happens:


both! together! And from a purely musical (architectural) perspective,  why not? One, a slowly moving melody, the other really no melody at all, rather an accompaniment figure. One with very little motion, the other all motion. One taking nearly a minute to unfold, the other a protean cell that goes by in a second and can be transformed into any harmonic guise with ease. Why not? And just like that, the dramatic worldly theme and the 'love of God' theme collide head on, and yet neither is obliterated. If anything the dramatic theme is made to fit the progression of the other so that the Lordly tune can sing out above all else.

And then the wrenching conclusion. Because this is not a triumph--at least, not yet. The "suffering" theme still suffers, even though it is now grand and majestic. As the last lights go out in our sanctuary, the music this year will be loud, and awful. And right at the end, as the struggle reaches it apotheosis  right on the last chord--it is finished--, we will be engulfed in darkness.

But it will be a major chord.

on Monday, I'll post a recording of the entire work. See you then!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I don't usually go in for the latest fad, but last week practically everybody in my working environment came down with the flu, so I just had to try it for myself.

I don't recommend it, actually.

I spent the first three days with something that felt like an exhausting head cold, but on Thursday I got a nice fever of 103 and spent the evening on the couch. Up until then I had actually been managing my rehearsal schedule, including choir practice on Wednesday night, during which I called our confused director from 15 feet away on my cell phone and explained to her that I was under quarantine and that if any new music needed to be delivered to please put it at the end of the piano and I'd retrieve it so as not to come too close to anyone. I parked the piano in the middle of the sanctuary, about 20 feet from the choir loft, and stayed put. By Thursday I wasn't fit to rehearse with anybody.

As it happened, on Saturday I had a short program for a group at our church. It was only a half and hour and mostly involved accompanying a soprano, with a couple of solo pieces thrown in. On Friday I spent half the day wondering if I was getting over the flu. By evening, it looked like I had. But on Saturday I was still pretty gone. The symptoms had left, but my head was not all there if you know what I mean. And I hadn't practiced any of it.

The singer and I had a short rehearsal on right before the program. And then it was time to basically sight-read two solo pieces in front of an audience. I hadn't touched either one in about a year and I had to trust that somehow they would be alright. Sound like your idea of fun?

In the first place, I chose a couple of pieces I thought would let me get away with that. One was very short and slow and pretty easy. The other, longer and faster, still had gone pretty well the last time I played it in public about a year ago. I hadn't thought of it since, but, hey, here goes....

If you are wondering how I thought I could make this work, that is the point of this blog. Because the piece I played, a little Mozart Rondo, sounds like it has a lot of things going on. There are quite a few fast runs, lots of notes per square second, enough to saturate the ear with details. But the details aren't what I was fastened on to. To give just one of numerous examples of how a professional pianist must be able to think, here's one pretty simple passage toward the end of the piece:

Now, you might be looking at a lot of notes. But to me that's just a D Major scale. I can play one of those in the dark backwards while whistling When the Saints Go Marching In and reading the paper. What my eye wants to know is simply where the landmarks of that passage are. What note starts the ascent and when does it end. In other words, I see this:

The dots that are left are unique to the passage itself. The rest (represented by those lines in between) is just a scale, with its pre-learned, prefabricated fingering and all. It's about pattern recognition.

This, I think, is probably the biggest difference between a practicing professional and the person who has been practicing the piano for years and yet still needs a year to learn a Mozart sonata and is afraid to play it for anybody. Not only do your fingers need to be in shape, but you need to be able to think differently. Size up the details and realize pretty quickly that they are parts of patterns. What are those patterns? Not "what are those notes" but "why are those notes there?" The example above is pretty much like a "whole word" exercise for piano. When you read words, or a sentence, you don't have to stop and sound out each letter anymore like you did in first grade. If you have to think about every note on the way up a scale you will never get to the next level.

If you see a measure and know that, say,  Mozart is modulating to the dominant, as usual, and that the progression he is using to get there involves a V of V, which is, say, and E major chord, or that it takes him five bars to get to the recapitulation, or that the coda is just a repeat of the second theme in a new key--all terms and buzzwords which may or may not mean anything to you--if you can see all that, it actually slows things down and means you have less to think about because you are thinking in larger units.  If you have to concentrate on all those details, details that you may not really understand, you'll never gain any speed in your playing. I don't know about you but my mental processor isn't that fast. So it helps a great deal to be able to think of an E major chord as it goes by and not "ok, I have to play a G# followed by a B and E."  That's just too much at large information roaming around unsupervised!

I won't suggest that I played the piece perfectly on Saturday. Under the pretty powerful influence of dizziness and confusion, I played a couple of passages in the wrong octave, and fluffed a couple others--enough to annoy any concert pianist with my inaccuracy. But the interpretation wasn't bad, and probably 98% of the notes were there, too. When you aren't all there, it really helps to paint on a large canvas and trust the details to take care of themselves most of the time. That's when you really find out what you know, anyway--when life throws you a curve and things aren't like they were supposed to be--with plenty of practice time, warm up time, no stress, no worries, no audience! In the real world, that seldom happens anyway. What really happens are lots of obstacles you hadn't planned on, which is why it is always wise to be far readier far sooner than you think you will need to be. In case, for whatever reason, your head isn't on straight.

Don't get me started on the "virtues" of jetlag!

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part four)

Now that the thematic "characters" of this symphonic drama have been introduced in parts one, two and three of our six part series on Cesar Franck's epic organ Choral no. 3 in A Minor, let's get to the musical structure itself:, as the narrative unfolds:

We begin with an agitated, busy (almost violently so) theme, which, as we've observed, culminated in a very organistic buildup of sound.


The tense silence (it is one of the loudest silences in the music literature) is broken by a repeat of the same agitated material, in a new key, along with the same crescendo--this time there is a sudden release, an evocation of something far away, and gradually the music subsides. At this point the soprano notes are headed downward (while the pedal bass rises to meet it)--it is the sonic buildup in reverse, both in volume and in the direction of the notes. Keep this in mind--we will hear it again, much later.


Now that that short section has ended, we hear, for the first time, a melodious theme which would likely have been a preexisting chorale (or "hymn") tune (the piece, after all, is called a "Choral(e)") had not Mr. Franck written it himself, an unusual move for a piece with this kind of title.


It is a beautiful, haunting melody, but apparently it is not enough to tame the forces that gave rise to the first theme. Instead of moving to a new place, musically, we start the process over again. The same agitated theme from the beginning takes the floor. It builds again, but not to a climax. Instead we hear:


It is the same pleading melody from before, which does what most of us do when we think no one is listening to us and we have something important to say. It says it louder. Last time the score was marked mezzo forte--this time it is forte.

Now we are going to get a taste of what is to come. The agitated, dramatic figure returns, but this time it seems more frenetic because it has another melodic line with it. That line is almost a slowed down version of the agitated figure itself. (listen)--at least, it has the same melodic profile: It rises and falls similarly, but it is like an echo of the first--late and slow. Mr. Franck has provided his own compositional reverberation.

With the cumulative weight of three large-scale repetitions of the agitated figure surrounding two iterations of the pleading Choral theme, it must be time to develop something new. And, indeed, this is heralded by three more of those grand sonic build-up gestures we discussed in part two. Now the music crescendos to something we hope will be really grand.

I've heard several musicians tell me that they can't stand an unresolved 7th chord. At the risk of seeming like a very bad child, let's see how you get along until Friday, when we discuss the piece's exciting conclusion.

on to part five

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part three)

This is part three of a six-part series. Here are parts one and two.

I said on Monday that we were going to take a music detour. That's because after introducing the dramatic, tense opening theme and the subdued, lyrical theme and having them hold the floor for about five minutes, Franck give us an entirely different melody, with a different character, as a tender interlude during the middle of the large piece before hurtling on toward the majestic conclusion as the two earlier themes continue their opposite aims. Which one will dominate, we will wonder, as the tension builds.

But for now, a respite. And a chance for theological reflection. In past years on Palm-Passion Sunday at the conclusion of the service, I have played Marcel Dupre's Crucifixion movement from the Symphonie-Passion. Given the programmatic name, it is not surprising that it is a hair-raising, dramatic piece with a single narrative arc and a terrifying climax, followed by a numbing conclusion. We leave the sanctuary in darkness and silence afterward and you can hear why.

Franck's piece comes from the same larger tradition but is cast in quite a different vein. We sing a piece of music in our church which contains a reference to the "wrath of God" which one of our pastors has changed to "love of God." This emphasis on God's love rather than God's wrath could be said to have its musical reflection in this year's selection. As the altar gets stripped and the sanctuary darkens it won't be simply dissonant, tense music that is heard, but also this:


Much as I labelled the theme we encountered in part one of the series the "suffering" theme, I'm calling this one the "for God so loved the world" theme. It is actually contained within this broad, spacious middle episode, and after it leaves, we won't hear it again. Remember, we are using our homiletic imaginations here. It isn't that Franck actually specified that that was what he meant when he wrote this piece. Also, as we're labeling things this way we are also listening for the musical argument. One of the things that bothers many musicians is the thought that we'll be so busy hearing our own meanings in a piece of music we'll forget about the music itself.

About halfway through this long, luxurious episode come a few bars of something we've heard before:


that something is our "sacrificial suffering" theme, the slow Choral-like tune we discussed back in the first blog, only now it has been transformed into a major key. Music's ability to make these transformations could prove fertile ground for theologians. You'll also want to keep your ears on what Mr. Franck does with that theme in the next two installments of this series.

The music swells, building on thematic scraps from the seemingly endless melody we heard at the start of the section. Grandly it sings out in a triumphant major key, and then suddenly shifts to minor where we get another glimpse of the "suffering" theme in the soprano....


and finally, no longer much a "hint" and more of a baseball bat--the theme booms out in the pedals...


before we are at last poised on the brink of what seems like a cosmic battle. Now the music reaches its loudest point yet--but that final chord isn't a final chord; it lurches us forward to meet the final struggle....

on to part four

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


I'm sick again this week. It's the fourth time this academic year. Has to be a personal record.

Lots of people I work with have gotten sick in the last week so the bug's origins aren't all that mysterious. Still, it stinks to be sick. On Monday, just as I was about to record musical examples for the first of a six part  blog series, during the 2 1/2 hour rehearsal that preceded my chance, I started to feel really weak. I don't think I haven't gotten much practicing in this week, and I'm not planning to record anything. But I am going to post the blogs in their respective spots (hey, this thing's time stamped) and update them when I get the opportunity.

The first thing I do when I get sick is to strategize. How long 'till Sunday service? Or the concert? What should I cut back on? Can I drag myself to this rehearsal or that one? How badly do they need me? If I'm practically dying then all of that doesn't matter. But usually I can get through an illness by doing the most critical things and leaving the rest, which, unfortunately, means practice.

On top of which, at church I scheduled not one but two epic organ Chorals by Cesar Franck for consecutive weeks. These pieces are almost 15 minutes long, and, while they're not as technically difficult as I thought they'd be, they aren't easy.

The good news is that I started working on them both in January. I gave one two solid weeks, got it in pretty fine shape, and put it away. I'm confident that I can get it out with a week to go before performance and it will be fine. I've done that a lot. The other one came together late last week. It's not as polished as I'd like, but I think I'll be able to do a somewhat decent job. The main thing is to have the energy, preferably with a couple of days to go (like Friday) so I can give it a last push. Normally I don't like to do much practicing toward the end but I'll make an exception.

Although it isn't likely I'll be able to post recordings of at least the first one for at least a few days (I may even have to wait until after Easter; I don't have a lot of extra time with a piece because it is quickly time for the next one) I am not that worried about it being ready to play live. That's because of advance preparation. I knew how much it was likely to take, I made sure that all of the pieces that led up to it were on a schedule that gave me some extra cushion for the tough pieces at the end, and I got things done a little ahead of time, and then I got sick.

In other words, I took care of the only thing you can really control--your preparation. Since Wednesday's blog is for my fellow musicians, that is my wise counsel for the evening. Even while feverish, with my head spinning a little (actually I'm feeling better at the moment) I know I am pretty well prepared. I dragged myself to the organ bench for an hour this morning just to touch up a few things and then let it go. Hopefully I'll be well enough to give it a go on Sunday; so far I haven't missed a rehearsal this week. I stay far away from everybody, though! And being prepared gives me some peace of mind.

Because if you leave things to the last minute, you never know what may happen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part two)

On Mondays and Fridays I'm blogging a six-part series on one tremendous piece of music. This is part two. You can catch part one here.

On Friday we started to explore Cesar Franck's epic Choral no. 3 in A minor. I introduced you to the tragic, lyrical tune that is at the heart of this amazing piece. Today, we'll delve into the other strand of this Choral's thematic heritage:


It is actually the very first thing you will hear when the piece begins, and, like the tune from Friday, you will also hear it return in many guises. But I'd also like to comment on the theme's paternity. It reminds me of something:


That is the opening of a Prelude in A Minor by J. S. Bach. I've only played the opening of it because it's been a few years since the last time I played it and I don't have a recording. Besides, we don't want to get distracted. (Although, if you want to listen to it later, its catalog number is Bwv 543. James Kibbie has recorded the entire Bach catalog and put it online which is a good place to look for it.)

Now then, that opening salvo is followed immediately by this sonic buildup, which also reminds me of a little Bach:


That's from the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, again right near the opening. I bring this up because I want you to be aware of how frequently composers speak from within their traditions; conscious of the great contributions of the past, Franck seems to be almost quoting from it, though he will soon use the material in a new way.

Now that we've been introduced to the dramatis personae it is time to see how they interact to bring us this musical narrative. But first we need to take a little detour into one major episode that we haven't covered yet but will absorb our attention for nearly five minutes in the piece's middle. That's on Friday.

go to part three

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part one)

Last time I said we'd do a little mountain climbing. The peak I've got in mind is Cesar Franck's Choral no. 3 in A minor. It's one of the cornerstones of the organ literature and I'm playing it this year for Lent.

Often these musical riches go by in one sudden rush for the listener. While the performer has spent weeks, months, years, thinking about the music he or she is playing, the rest of us get one listen. And if you've never heard the piece before, that's a lot to absorb. So for the next six blogs, Monday and Friday (on Wednesdays I'm going to write about something else) I'm going to take you into the world of this incredible piece of music.

We'll start with a tune. Franck is considered by many to be the most important composer of organ music since Bach, which is interesting in that he only wrote a dozen pieces for the instrument. But what epics many of them are! The three Chorals (the French spelling of Chorale leaves off the E for some reason) are the last pieces he wrote. Unlike other pieces with the same title, these Chorals aren't based on pre-existing hymn (or Chorale) tunes. Franck wrote the tunes himself. I'll play what is perhaps the most important tune in this 3rd Choral without any supporting harmonies:


It is a haunting, beautiful melody. You will hear it several times over the course of the near 15-minute long piece.   Because I'm going to be playing the piece in church as part of the passion I'm inviting us to use our homiletic imaginations. I've decided to call this tune the tune of 'sacrifice' or 'suffering'or perhaps 'sacrificial love.' You'll understand why in subsequent installments. For now, it is enough to get the tune in our heads.

Now for those of us sensitive to harmony Mr. Franck has an exquisite way of presenting this tune. I'll play it for you now with the supports underneath:


This is how we'll hear it the first time it is presented in the piece, about 45 seconds or so in.

Now as I mentioned a few posts ago in an observation about sonatas (the sonata principle) pieces like this usually have a musical foil, an opposite theme, running in a different direction. Just like in a good story, the antagonism between the two conflicting ideas often sets up drama and propels the story forward. Next time we'll meet the other side of this Choral's dual personality.

on to part two

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Permission Granted

listen to this.

It's a passage from Cesar Franck's Organ Choral number 2 in b minor. It's beautiful, solemn, evocative of a slowly unfolding drama, makes me want to learn the rest of it!

But it's Wednesday, the day when I address fellow musicians of all stripes, and the reason I brought it to your attention is actually for a picky technical reason. You can't hear it, but you can see the awful transgression staring you right in the face the moment you open the score. Franck doubles the pedal with the left hand! (I should link to a bruising harmonic outburst here but you can take a hint)

If you are wondering what the fuss is all about I should mention that as an organist with practically no organ lessons, even I heard pretty early on that it was a sin to play the pedal and the bass notes in the left hand in unison. The feet and the hands are supposed to be gloriously independent of each other. Whole books have been written for organists to gain--painfully, in some cases--complete independence of the two appendages. Exercises in which the left hand goes one way and the pedal the other are the stuff of nightmares, and good organ technique (in that order). When you play hymns in church you aren't supposed to cheat by playing the bass part with the pedal and the hands simultaneously.

And then Cesar Franck goes and does it in the middle of one of the pillars of the organ literature, written by a guy many regard as the most important organ composer since Bach. I mean....I guess if he does it...but is it really allowed, even then?

That's the point of tonight's effusion. When are rules rules, and if your teacher told you to do something and you see some paragon of the music world violating said rule, what does it mean?

It's an interesting dynamic. One of the most important things a renowned musician can do to get scared students to relax is to remind them in a casual, friendly way that some rules were made to be broken. To give them permission to do things they didn't know they were allowed to do. It loosens them up and unlocks some of the passion and musicality inside that wouldn't come out because the students were afraid of being wrong. I learned this observing several masterclasses in my days at the conservatory. I remember something  Leon Fleisher said about the use of the "soft" pedal in the piano. On a grand piano, the pedal on the left shifts the hammers over to the right and instead of each hammer striking three strings it only strikes one. Its technical name, "una corda" (one string) comes from this. It therefore makes the sound quieter. But it also changes the sound, like a mute. Many pianists are told not to use the pedal just to make things softer for this reason. Fleisher said. "there are many pianists who think that the use of the una corda pedal is cheating, and I go to them for confession every Sunday."

Well, if he uses it....I mean....

There are successful musicians with unorthodox techniques. People who didn't take lessons. People who aren't doing all sorts of things the "right" way. I once had to field an uncomfortable question from a young lady as to why I was looking at my hands when I was supposed to be looking at the music (actually, it was a lead sheet and I had it memorized and was improvising).

Of course, on the other side of this there are the legions of people who make excuses for their unorthodox laziness as easily as they breathe oxygen. The ones who like to remind their parents that Einstein failed math, too. Or, if you are a musician, that Scriabin flunked music theory. Who needs it then?

That's the other side of the question. Which side are most people likely to be on? Can you trust your own judgement anyway?

One thing I would offer up. When it comes to matters of composition and theory, it helps to understand the prohibitions, not just as a series of Thou Shalt Nots, but to realize what they are there for and why most composers have treated them that way. It also helps to understand the larger issues and when breaking one "rule" reinforces another. Brahms actually collected a series of examples of composers who used the forbidden "parallel fifths" in an effort to understand why great composers of his past would do what they did. That's a long way from using an approach like so-and-so broke this rule so I don't need to bother with it. That's using so-and-so's unorthodoxy as a learning tool.

When it comes to performing, results make a difference. If you are Horowitz and your pinkie finger is tucked in the way teachers say it shouldn't be but you are winning competitions and get concerts, maybe you know what you are doing. If everybody says it is wrong and you aren't getting any positive feedback from anybody based on the way you play, maybe they are right.

Still, at the end of the day, it sometimes helps to throw out a rule or two once in a while if it is tripping you up and experience life without sweating the small stuff. It may be important small stuff, actually, but sometimes a little lack of discipline can be liberating and lead to new discoveries.

But don't tell your teacher I said that!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Sonata Principle

Let's play "drop the needle"


Based on that tiny snippet you've just heard, what sort of piece do you think this is? What does the music sounds like that leads into it, or that comes right after it?

I'd like you to take a second and try to imagine it. Do something with that musical fragment--in your head, in your larynx, in your feet or hands, or at the piano or oboe. Imagine it, hum it, tap it out--just play with it a little. Be a composer.

I'll wait.

Ok. Ready for the next part? This might seem a little odd because here is what actually comes immediately before it.


I thought I'd put these two parts in isolation because so often we just listen to pieces of music and it is like the aural equivalent of going Greyhound--we just leave the driving to the composer. Well, I'd like to encourage you all to be backseat drivers for a while.

You must have noticed that these two bits of music didn't seem like they had that much in common--one in a chirpy major key, march-like, kingly, trumpets and drums, the other in a minor key, subdued, all in unison, no rich harmonies to back up the sparse musical motive, trumpets and drums need not apply.

It's a union of opposites. And this is often what sonatas are all about. Here is one musical point of view, here is another, and---go! And then we listen as they struggle with each other, attempt to come to terms, or one dominates the other.

Actually, I can save you some suspense. Coming of age as sonatas did during the era of Enlightenment and Colonialism (how's that for a collision) the musical winner was generally a foregone conclusion. But that's for another time.

For now, the second movement of Haydn's sonata in A Major (Hoboken number 5), the middle section of which provided today's musical examples.

Haydn: Menuetto from Sonata no. 5 in A Major

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lento ma non troppo

We're in the middle of the season of Lent right now. Lent, a word that is closely related to the musical directive "slow." That's not an accident.

The term doesn't have anything to do with the Italian for "minor keys" but those tend to get a good airing this time of year, too. Last year I posted an apologetic for the use of those sonic depressants, including when they aren't very depressing, such as in the music I'm playing at Faith this week. It's at the bottom of the post--the music, that is. The article can be found here.

This week's organ music is brought to you by not one but two geniuses of the Baroque period. That means it is fortified or something. And it should be. It took some effort to track it down. But I like a little musical detective work, now and then.

This summer I found a DVD called "History of the Organ." The promotional video online had an attractive piece on it that sounded like it would be fun to play. But they didn't say what it was. A couple of Googles later I found somebody complaining that they didn't know what it was, either.

I ordered the video because it looked like it might be a useful watch and they might list the musical selections. No luck on number two. That's because this particular selection served as a background for the narrator to talk over and thus it was considered bumper music.

This use of music is so pervasive that even organizations whose purpose is to "exhibit" the very same music will also present that music as travelling music. For instance, our classical radio station will play a piece, the announcer will tell us what it was and who played it; then you will hear about 30 seconds of something completely different and just as you are getting into it the music will fade and they'll go on with their programming. That's bumper music. They don't tell you what it was. It has no identity.

A few weeks later (I think I was in the shower) I suddenly woke up and thought, "well, it sounds like a Vivaldi concerto and it is being played on an organ. Now who do I know who arranged Vivaldi concertos for organ?" That would be Bach.

It seems kind of silly that I didn't think of that right away. I have a doctorate of music--in piano, not organ. In order to get one of those degrees they give you a test on the literature for your instrument. You have to know, for instance, what keys all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas are in, and be able to list the opus number. You have to recognize which of Bach's dance suites have overtures and which have preludes. If they play drop the needle on a piano concerto you have to know which one. Since I didn't go through that process as an organist there are still some fairly standard pieces by well-known composers that I don't recognize. I'm still learning the literature.

Still, I happened to know that little corner of the Bach repertoire by reading--not because I had actually heard the pieces, but I'd heard of their existence. And I used my ears to tell me what characteristics the piece had and matched it with the composer who wrote music that way. (This was also something you got tested on during your oral defense, by the way)

As music mysteries go, it was a relatively tame one, and not very time-consuming. I'll tell you sometime about whole afternoons trying to coax information out of the internet--nay, several years spent in the pursuit of specific pieces of music starting from perhaps few clues. But now you know one of the ways in which I find music to play in church. It doesn't just show up on the music rack, you know!

I think it was a piece worth tracking down. I'm enjoying playing it, and I hope my congregation likes it on Sunday, too. It is in a minor key, but it is hardly ponderous, or sober. Perhaps it celebrates a more vigorous side of Lent--Sunday as a "little Easter." Serious, but active, even joyful.

Here's the first movement. I'm playing the last next week, and I decided today to wait a day or two before trying to record it. So for the rest of the story you can check in at the pianonoise listening archives in a week. Next week in this space we're going mountain climbing. Bring your oxygen.

Vivaldi/arr. Bach  Concerto in A minor, Bwv 593   I. Allegro