Monday, February 22, 2016

Putting on the brakes

This is the final installment in the flashy French Organ Toccata series. The rest of the posts are here: part 1   part 2   part 3  part 4  and part 5

Steve thought he'd have a little fun. I was conducting a small group of singers from The Chorale from a seated position on the living room floor (I told someone it felt like being a cross between a conductor and a Rabbi). The singers were seated on couches and chairs or standing behind them. When I cut everybody off at the end, Steve kept right on holding the note. I turned to him and said, "so you're the guy during the Hallelujah chorus...!"

That joke immediately registers with singers, who recognize the spot toward the end of the piece when, after eight repetitions of the word "hallelujah!"--suddenly, there is a pause. Dead silence. Unless, of course, someone hasn't been counting their hallelujahs and sings an impromptu solo. woops.

 The silence, of course, is followed by the grand conclusion, loud, majestic, and very slow. As we wrap up our series on Flashy French Organ Toccatas this is the last feature I want to point out--what happens at the end. We've noted that all of these toccatas are very busy--that there is a constant stream of notes, that most of them are very loud, that some of them have contrasting melodic sections in the middle before returning to the atmosphere of the opening, that the overall plan of these pieces is actually very simple but the shower of notes makes them sound complicated, and that they usually get louder toward the end, crescendoing to a mighty climax.

But all good things must come to an end. And if the piece is chugging along at 80 musical miles an hour, how is it going to seem over when it's over? How can you just suddenly stop a piece that hasn't even come up for air in several minutes and not seem as if you'd suddenly slammed into a brick wall?

Handel found the answer. Silence. It is such an arresting feature, after the constant babel, that it alerts us that what follows will not be business as usual, but instead the grand finale. Apparently, some of our French Toccatanist liked that idea so much they used it in the their own creations, 150 years later.

I'm going to post all six of the pieces we've talked about here, a grand review of the mighty French organ toccata, consisting of the piece which, for one reason and another, I happened to have recordings of (in case you were wondering about the criteria). In light of our present analysis, note the ending of the famous Widor Toccata. The recording follows the first edition--Widor later changed it so the high F continues to sound through the pause so that there isn't absolute silence before the final chords. The Yon follows the pattern. The Gigout follows the pattern. The Guilmant does not. The Dubois does not. He finds a way to apply the brakes by bringing back a snatch of the melodic middle section, as does Guilmant more fully.  Some people like to pump the brakes; others come to a stop more smoothly.


Widor: Toccata
Yon: Toccatina for flute
Guilmant: Allegro Assai
Gigout: Toccata in b minor
Dubois: Toccata

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