Monday, January 18, 2016

At the top of the chute

"And they're all lining up for the start of the spring semester....they'll be running into gale force's really a beautiful day out there!"

It's always a good idea to have a strong opening. That's what each of today's panelists would tell me if they were still here to do it, and if they'd debase themselves by coming on this blog to being with. They are all very gifted French composers--were very gifted, anyhow. And they all knew how to lead with some arresting musical ideas.

This is something I could use right about now. The start of the "long semester" can be a bit daunting. While the fall semester seems short and intense, and usually involves cramming in a concert or two before the Christmas season, which runs from about Nov. 20 to the 1st of January, and includes every organization I work for putting on most of their shows for the year, the spring semester is less packed, though it seems to go on twice as long and largely takes places in the cold and dark of January and February and sometimes March. When it's not dark it's overcast.

I could use a new start, the sense of a fresh new beginning. That's where these consultants come in.

Why, we might inquire, do a series on flashy French organ toccatas in the middle of January?

Well, why not?

And then it hit me: maybe I need a little bit of a pick up. Maybe you do, too. So we'll let these fellows dazzle us with the loud and the flashy for a little bit, and by the end, we'll really know something about the institution of the French organ toccata.

Today we're really just interested in the opening. I'm going to post the entire recording of each one because it's just easier, but you can listen to the opening minute or so of each one and get the idea.

Notice how they all open: loud, fast, and with a continuous sense of momentum. Now, the idea here, to be blunt, is display. Organists know that if they pull one of these out of their hats the congregation will be impressed. Probably a little too much--most of the time these aren't as hard as they sound. But there is a sense of joy in the proceedings as well, is there not? And not simply in how fast the organist's fingers can go, I hope.

Let's sample a few. Here's one you might not have heard of unless you are an organist, but I'll bet it becomes one of your favorites:

Dubois: Toccata

That one goes on for seven minutes, but remember, don't spoil the ending. Just listen to the first minute. We'll get back to it.

That's a cheerful little guy, isn't it?  How about something a bit different?

Guilmant: allegro assai

Points for your bloggist for noticing that, despite having a different name (namely a tempo marking) that it is, in fact, a toccata. No need trying to hide it, Alexander!

Alright, you probably have detected that these two pieces, being from the standard organ literature, are not that well known to the guy on the street (as is pretty much the fate of all the organ literature). There are a few pieces that have managed to transcend the boundaries of the organ loft, however. Surely you know this one. It's an Easter tradition at my church:

Widor: Toccata

Both the Guilmant and the Widor, by the way, happen to be the final movements of larger works. A grand sendoff.

While we're doing famous, how about the other toccata you've all heard of? Particularly, the opening (and remember, just the opening! No getting distracted and listening to the whole thing!)

Bach: Toccata and Fugue in d minor

OK. We've got a bit of a problem here. It's pretty obvious that this one doesn't even begin to sound like the others, and that's because it is an entirely different animal. Sure, it's got the same name as the others (toccata) but it's not similar at all; it has no more in common with the others than a water buffalo and a zebra.

So a quick definition before we go on. Toccata is from the Italian toccare, meaning to touch, and it involves digital display. The KIND of digital display however, may be rather different. The 19th century French had a very different idea of what that meant than the 18th century Germans, which means that yes, there are two kinds of toccatas, and that they are not very similar.

Sorry, Bach, but you get voted off our island. Besides, you're not French. But you can come back for our series on 18th century German Toccatas.

Now we've heard from three flashy 19th century french toccatas, and one that wasn't. (by the way, some folks like to call the piece I play at Easter the Widor Toccata and Fugue. It isn't. It's just a toccata. It doesn't have a fugue in it.)

What do they all have in common?

They are loud. And fast.
They maintain constant rhythm.
They would be hard to sing. If there is a melody, it is either buried in the midst of a lot of other notes or it comes in later in the pedals (like the Widor).
The fast, active part is pretty much the only thing going on (ie., no counterpoint or separate melodies going on at the same time)--except for a light, sprightly accompaniment.
They make the organ sound really terrific.

One more thing--They were all written by Frenchmen working at churches in Paris in the late 19th century. Charles-Marie Widor was organist at St. Sulpice from 1870 to 1933 (64 years!), Theodore Dubois was organist at La Madeleine (our lady) from 1877 to 1896, and Alexander Guilmant was organist at La Trinite from 1871 to 1901. Imagine all of those great organ toccatas pouring forth from all of those churches at the same time in the same city!


Then again, perhaps it is a good thing that they normally keep the church doors closed.

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