Monday, January 25, 2016

OK, but when is this thing gonna be over?

Last time on "Flashy French Organ Toccatas" we met three of the flashiest, loudest, most aurally attractive pieces your ears will ever have the pleasure to meet. And they're modest, too!

Actually, modest is the one thing they are not. They don't steal subtly on the ear; they claim their ground right away. All is a rush of activity and exuberance right from the start, and at the finish, too.

In between?

This is where many a classical music listener gets lost. Novelty wears off after a while. In which case, it helps to have some sense of the "plot" of a piece of music, its structure. What's supposed to happen? What do I want to happen? Getting the key to that will unlock several secrets and make even the longest piece interesting. Or, at the very least, keep you from looking at your watch every few minutes.

Although, in this case, that's less likely to happen. One of the things that must make these toccatas so appealing to the average listener is that they are pretty easy to follow. That's because they often take the most basic shape. They get louder, they reach a climax, they conclude.

By the way, they don't rise to a crescendo. You may have heard that expression a great deal, but it is really a lot of nonsense. A crescendo means GETTING louder, not BEING louder. it is a process, not a goal. You don't rise to a rise.

In the middle of posting the blog last time I discovered that I had left out one very important Flashy French Organ Toccata. This is something I played in concert last fall. It is the shortest of the toccatas, and was one of two pieces its composer, Eugene Gigout, was asked to play at every appearance. He always obliged. You can listen to the entire toccata if you like--it's only three minutes. It does something that tends to make piece popular--it gets louder throughout. Unlike the other toccatas, which began loud, this one begins in a whisper, and then begins its crescendo.

Gigout: Toccata

Like the others, it consists of a continuous flurry of notes. The reason it is over so quickly is because it has all the formal complexity of a musical tapeworm. There is one simple tick-tock idea right at the beginning (hear it?) which lasts about 20 seconds. Then it is repeated. This time, the pedals add a long ominous note to the bass, while the hands play the same music as before. At this point, (:42) the harmonies change more quickly because some motion has been introduced into the piece. When the pedals come back a few seconds later (:52), they alternate long notes, wrapping around the dominant note of the old order; then they choose one very low note (1:00) and sit on it while the harmony settles in to prepare to its return to the beginning. The music grows louder, and when we start the whole journey over again, (1:11) the pedals have taken over the melody that used to be on top. This entire process (stasis, movement, setup) repeats, and then does so a third time (2:12); we hear it on full organ (this time our composer has filled in that opening tick-tock interval, still in the pedals,  with the note between which makes it sound more melodic). Finally we settle in on the home note in the key of b minor (drummed again and again in the pedals at 2:29) and one final move takes us to the thrilling conclusion. When a composer stops on a dime like that, after non-stop motion the entire piece, you know it's nearly over.

And that's it!

While the paragraph above may make your eyes glaze over--it may even seem like excessive analysis for such a short piece--I've managed to describe virtually everything of any importance that happens in the entire run of the piece! I don't plan to do that with its close cousin, the Widor Toccata, a piece which is twice as long, though in some respects no more complex.

I do hope you'll notice, however, that there are several things the two pieces have in common. Although the Widor begins loudly, it gets quiet in the middle, and then gradually builds again to its conclusion. Also, its beginning is very similar to the Gigout. It too begins with the hands alone for about 45 seconds, and then repeats the same block of music, but this time with booming octaves in the pedals (just like the Gigout). Although the Widor is much more harmonically complex than the Gigout (rather than repeating the same interval again and again and staying in the same key the entire time, Mr. Widor goes on a long, twisting harmonic journey, changing keys and modes frequently), it still returns to its beginning for a louder, grander run at the same material. This time the pedal octaves sound together, rather than apart. And again, at the end, the motion stops, and in the pause (which Widor changed to a sounding high F in later editions--one of several occasions on which he changed his mind about pieces he'd already written) we prepare for the final triumphant chords.

Widor's piece is much loved, and previously in this space I speculated about why. I assumed some of it had to do with the exuberance, the major key, the loud volume, the constant activity, and the fact that there is really only one idea in the entire piece which simply changes harmonically again and again, which requires little adjustment from the brain. However, his can also make the piece seem rather long. A large scale softening (it takes what, a full minute of decrescendo to reach the quietest point in the piece?) and then an equally long, if not longer, crescendo, can require some patience on the part of the listener, who must appreciate how the piece unfolds, slowly becoming something, rather than being, at every moment, full of interest and activity. It asks us to wait a little. In some ways, while it is one of the structurally simplest of the toccatas, it may make more demands (and unlike the Gigout, it runs the risk of being long enough for the scarcity of material to matter). It does not offer any contrast (except dynamically) to give our ears some relief from the same idea presented over and over.

That contrast, which will be the subject of the next installment, can be a welcome relief: but it holds its own challenges for the ears.

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