Friday, February 12, 2016

simplicity itself

This is the 5th part of the Flashy French Organ Toccata series which normally runs on Mondays. I'm putting it here (and interrupting our normally scheduled Friday series on Changing the Culture in Your Church) so I can run a special, more personal article this Monday. 

"Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else."

Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair...."How in the name of good fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?" he asked. "How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour..."

"Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed."

"Well, the snuff, then and the Freemasonry?"

"I won't insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breastpin."

"Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?"

"What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiney for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk."....

Mr. Jabez laughed heartily. "Well, I never!" said he. "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all."

"I begin to think, Watson," said Holmes, "that I make a mistake in explaining...."

--The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, "The Redheaded League" by Arthur Conan Doyle

Last week I made the mistake of showing just how simple an outline Charle-Marie Widor used in his famous Toccata. It sounds like a sea of notes, a welter of sounds, a vast managerie of tones, but in the end, they can all be traced back to a very simple three-notes down, two-notes-back-up, repeat, end on a C, chant-like melody. The rest is harmonic filling in.

Strangely, it was not one of my most popular blogs, which didn't really surprise me, as I had opined at the time that people often don't care to know how something is done, or to have it simplified for them, thus apparently removing the mystery, or perhaps the charm of ignorance. Show them how such a piece is put together, separate the elements and explain how they were manipulated to produce a final result, and the response is 'is that all? Well, any idiot could have done that!' which is not true, actually, because idiots don't do that.

Why? Perhaps because simplicity isn't as simple as it seems. Certainly the discipline required to create a simple but powerful outline and then to flesh it out in an interesting way is rare. It requires a kind of compositional control few have.  And, of course, you have to have plenty of craft, which requires the ability to spend little time figuring out the details (because those are easy) and concentrate mainly on the heart of the matter, which is creating the structure. The rest, as movie Amadeus said, is just "scribbling and bibbling!"

If you ever plan to write a toccata yourself--at least, a good toccata, this kind of understanding is quite necessary, but it is also essential if you are a performer with only a few days to learn one. I usually find that toccatas of this sort only take a day or two to learn and are much easier than I had supposed. This is certainly handy if you are on a deadline (which is perpetually true in my case) but it is also a help for the impatient person who doesn't want to spend six months learning the Widor toccata.

As for the listener, how does this strange combination of simplicity and apparent complexity work its magic? Do we somehow, whether we know it or not, sense the outlines, or at least realize the simple elements in the constant repetition, uninterrupted babble of notes, or steady increase in volume? And does the spray of pitches then not seem like an incomprehensible, messy reality, but a welcome, dazzling effect? Somehow, these pieces, fast, loud, full of glittering detail but simple of construction, have held a mesmerizing effect on many a listener. An organist who plays them knows they have a very high yield in admiration, particularly because if you understand the fundamental makeup they do not take long to learn and yet the organist is seldom as popular as after playing the Widor toccata, or something similar.

I'll leave you with another example of a toccata I forgot about when I opened the series. It is a charming little number by Pietro Yon, known best for composing "Jesu, Bambino." This is a toccata for what he calls the "primitive organ" which means the use of only one flute stop. It is the only quiet toccata you are likely to hear, but it bubbles over with joy and good humor, which is also in Mr. Yon's long title. Toward the end (right before the return to the opening theme) there is a pause you can drive a truck through, and somebody outside our church unfortunately did, though you won't notice unless you've turned the volume way up or are listening through headphones.


Yon: Humoresque "L'Organo Primitivo" (Toccatina for Flute)

p.s. Pietro Yon was an Italian who emigrated to the U.S. so I suppose the above doesn't qualify as a flashy french toccata--except by musical ancestry, which is really what matters.

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