Friday, June 14, 2013

The year in Review

While the church year stretches from December through November, the active year runs September through May. For a large portion of my life I have been experiencing this rhythm as one enormous breath, in and out, relax a bit in the summer months, and head back for another intense academic year, beginning with the opening ceremonies of September, punctuated by Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and finishing, exhausted, in June. Now that another such spasm of activity is in the rear view mirror, I need to process it--and, eventually, get a little rest.

Much of the year has gone by in the rush. The hymns, the anthems, the service music, perhaps remembered, perhaps not--we may visit some of it again next year as we plan. But the music I played on the organ for the services has been preserved because I recorded it myself--we don't record our services--which has the happy effect of reminding me, well after the fact, what some of that rush was about. For many congregants, what the organist plays is of no significance in a service, but to me, those musical offerings are an opportunity to offer to the community some of the best musical thinking of the past several centuries, from various parts of our great tradition, as well as the here and now. Fortunately, some in my congregation think so, too. More on that another time. For now, I pause on the landing to offer again some of the music I played this year. It is out of context this time, but it can live again in a new skin.

In September we kicked off in a celebratory mood--often the week the choir returns is an occasion for high church. I discovered a fun little French Toccata by Dubois over the summer. I have since discovered a handful of these flashy Toccatas, which are not hard to play and sound so very festive. The next week it was a piece by Michael Praetorius called (in English) "Praise the Lord, O My Soul." Notice that the first week was French, from the 19th century, the second week German, from the dawn of the 17th. We'll be keeping score. I don't like to linger in one era or national for too long, though the transitions aren't always quite so quick. One thing I like to note about the Praetorius is that, as a trained pianist (with an advanced degree) but an untrained organist, I really discovered a lot of new organ literature this year--most of what I played was new to me. And I learned a good bit about how to make the organ sound differently (registration). I had a little help--I read a couple of books and asked a few questions, though mostly it was through experimentation. I happen to like the interesting combination in the second part of this piece, achieved by double the flutes above and below (There is a button or knob for just about anything you can think up on an organ, the trick is to think to use it, and to use it wisely.).

One of the difficulties with this year is that I got sick four times (a new record?), twice in the fall, a month apart. Thus the middle of the semester consisted of piece less ambitious than originally planned. But at least I had a plan B and muddled through. I should mention that on World Communion Sunday I played from a another set I discovered over the summer of 10 communion meditations by a living Scottish organist, Evelyn Stell. I particularly enjoy the pieces because while they are very easy the music is also good (I can't say that about many another simple piece of music) and so I get a week to relax (and practice ahead) and not feel the least embarrassment about not playing anything more complicated. When it is well said it does not need to be hard.

Thanksgiving rushed on past, and I played a few weeks of music on the piano--I think this is a new low. There was no piano whatsoever in the spring semester. A piece by my french cousin Marteau based on the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God," came the week before one of my unusual selections: the first movement from the Sibelius piano sonata--rare, not liturgical, and beautiful. I forget now what was the point in playing it, but I know it was meant for a particular week and for a particular reason.

Then Christmas. This year, some short, delightful Noels by the 18th century Frenchman Claude-Louis Daquin. Here's one, it's his number VII.

I mentioned the need for variety, particularly as it reminds us that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves, but I think this year may have been dominated by Frenchmen. We'll see in a moment when I do the final tally.

The spring semester was certainly very french. I did something rather odd for Transfiguration Sunday and played an offertoire based on an Easter hymn (by Guilman), then spent Lent working my way through something English (20th century), Italian (18th) and the biggest project of the year, to play two of Cesar Franck's monumental organ Chorales in back to back weeks during Lent.

After that all I have the heart to include are the pieces I played on Pentecost, by living Lithuanian composer Vidas Pinkevicius (Veni Creator Spiritus), and the final "hymn to exhaustion" (my title, not his), a piece celebration summer and renewal (in every sense) by Brahms, (It gives my heart joy....)

This is the first year I managed to record absolutely every week's selection--last year I came close but missed a few in the rush. (It is also the first year I managed to make time to write up a year in review!) The complete rundown is available as an archived page at here.

Now the count, because I am curious. By era: I played the following number of works from each century:

17th--7, 18th--10, 19th--8, 20th--9, 21st--6

That strikes me as very well balanced, particularly as I didn't think too much about it as the time.

Now as to nationality:

American--4, Austrian--1,Dutch--2, Finnish--1, French--7, German--8, Italian--3, Scottish--4

It turns out the Germans have a slight edge. This is by number of works played, not by number of composers represented.

If you are wondering about the low numbers, I am counting only the works I recorded (which means I left out two 20th centuries works for which I have not obtained copyright permission to post), and, although there are three slots in theory for each services, I always improvise the postlude, which no one listens to anyway, and is particularly short at the first service (I also need to rush across the hall to start the next one). Often someone sings the offertory as well, which means I can concentrate on one quality selection each week. Some weeks there are two.

If you couldn't care less about any of this, I'll be back next week with something you'll find more relevant. I just had to put this year to bed though for my own records, and also so I can check on how thoroughly I am applying certain principles in choosing music--principles which I think are pretty important after all.

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