Friday, December 6, 2013

Planning Ahead

The piece I'm about to play for you was recorded in July. It is a short set of variations on a Polish carol known to many of us as "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly." I'm going to play it at church this year on Christmas Eve:


I've found it not only expedient but completely necessary to work far in advance when preparing for the Christmas season. As it is I'm about three weeks from having the real life nightmare of walking out on stage to play a concert and realizing you haven't managed to practice for it. Have you ever had that one?

One disaster scenario at a time, however. This year I got Christmas Eve settled early. It was a morning in July and I decided to see what else Alexander Guilmant had written that I might want to play, since I had enjoyed his Easter offertory so much. I stumbled across this piece and decided to play it for Christmas. If you were wondering when I choose music for major church holidays that answer is always. Whenever I find it, even a year ahead of time. And in this case I promptly found it in print at, took it to church, practiced it for a couple of days and made this recording, figuring two things would happen:

1) I wouldn't have to make time to record it in the middle of the Christmas Crush, and
2) When I got around to practicing it again, perhaps just a few days before the service, I would find that it slid back under my fingers pretty quickly, since I had learned it well enough to record the first time. Also it only took a couple of days so I know just how hard it is--or isn't.

So if you are a church organist I heartily advise planning as far ahead as you can. Even in a position that requires a good deal of preparation for each week's service, just managing to do slightly more than is required for each week will eventually pay off in all sorts of ways, one of which enabled me to share this music with you tonight!

Now as to the music itself--you might have noticed something odd about the composer's approach to the tune, particularly if you know the title of the tune and the words. The fortissimo dynamics are the composer's own. But let me explain in the words I'm planning for the church bulletin that evening (they are already written. You can hate me now. I'm too tired right now to care! :)

       Alexander Guilmant's "Variations" on the carol we know as "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" begins with a grand introduction, and then something odd: the tune of this Polish lullaby enters very loudly.  Guilmant probably did this for practical reasons. The piece is marked "Sortie," the French word for Postlude (it literally means "exit") and, assuming members of Mr. Guilmant's church made the same cacophonous exit as most congregations, the theme probably needed to be loud if he wanted it to be heard. The tactic is unnecessary tonight and yet I'll hold to the composer's markings for more theological reasons: the theme is a bold proclamation of the arrival of "God with us." Gradually the variations grow softer (perhaps by this time the more noisy congregants had left!) and at the heart of the piece there is at last a moment for soft strings you might associate with the unfolding of a mystery and the birth of a child. Then it erupts in a jubilant conclusion.

The reason for the "tactic" being unnecessary is that I will not be playing the piece for a postlude. And people will not be talking over it. It does make for an interesting meditation on the miraculous things going on in the world that nobody is paying attention to--then and now. It's a theme I turn over in my mind every now and then, and have for quite a while. In my teens I played a very unusual Christmas offertory of my own extraction on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" which explored the noisy environs of a more realistic Bethlehem than the one in our cozy Christmastime imaginations.

If you can manage to avoid distractions for a few minutes this time of year perhaps this piece, or others like it, will speak to you. If not, maybe it will get your attention anyway! Just don't turn up the speakers TOO much!

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