Monday, February 1, 2016

The boring bit in the middle

Now let's turn to the part of the toccata that gets no respect: the middle part. It was referred to on one site I visited as "the boring bit in the middle."

Mssrs. Gigout and Widor avoided this part altogether--Gigout because his toccata was short and he didn't need a contrasting section, and Widor because he decided to make the entire toccata about one theme--though his entry did quiet down in the middle, and if anyone is going to fall asleep, that's when it would happen.

But any piece of a considerable length; say, more than three minutes, is likely to have a contrasting section. It usually falls in the middle, to give the whole piece a broad ABA architecture. And whereas the first section of a french toccata is generally loud, fast, in a continuous whirl of notes, and completely unsingable, the middle section is usually slow, stately, soft, and melodic.

Theodore Dubois' toccata is a good example of this. For the first three minutes, all is active--then the last triumphant chord dies away, and what we hear next is a hymnlike melody completely unlike anything that had happened before. Unfortunately, human beings often don't have patience for this sort of thing, particularly now that we are so accustomed to sensory overload. I once saw a video of Diane Bish playing this toccata, and when she got to the part in the middle, she began talking over the music, assuming her audience was going to zone out at that point and she'd better entertain them with pictures and stories about sightseeing in Europe until the fast part came back.

This was a shame, partly because it is a nice, if innocuous, little melody, but also because it really doesn't go on too long before something else happens--the first part begins to want some attention.

What begins to happen in this section is that the rapid theme from the beginning is revealed in little snippets--one measure here--then back to the slow melody--then another measure--then back to sleep--then again we here it. It is as if the piece is waking up again, or spring is springing, or something is gradually coming to life. It is a process. It will take some time, But it is not like watching grass grow. It will only be a minute or two. Wait for it. Long for it. Get excited. It's coming. And then--it's here!

Actually, there are several other ways you could describe this phenomenon. Maybe the two musical elements are fighting for supremacy. Maybe they are just negotiating. Maybe the music is trying to make up its mind. There are plenty of emotional conclusions you could draw from this--and you'll have plenty of chances, because this sort of thing happens in any number of pieces of music. Once you know to listen for this, you'll hear it often, particularly in French organ toccatas. Particularly in our next piece, the one by Alexander Guilmant

Like the Dubois, Mr. Guilmant makes it very clear when the second part begins. In fact, when the first part of the Dubois ends, you could easily think the piece is over! And if that architectural feature is obvious to you, keep it in mind. When the piece actually DOES end, When you've heard that entire opening section again to its conclusion, it will basically end the same way--except perhaps for a little additional tail (coda) at the end.

Mr. Guilmant, however, does not want us to make the mistake of thinking his piece is over so soon, so the chord he choose to end the section with (great chord, by the way) is noisy but inconclusive. And THEN the quiet, songful part begins.

It's not long, however, before the fast theme of the opening reappears. In fact, it is making little asides between each phrase of the long-breathed melody. Then gradually it starts to reassert itself, in different keys and registers, still alternating with the slow tune, and finally, thrusting itself back into the limelight, there is a very dramatic moment as the organ grows to full blast and the opening returns. Can you hear it? It's quiet now, but soon it will be in full force. You can be caught off guard by it, or you can notice it happening right from the start. It isn't as easy, or natural, to listen for, but can be very rewarding. And, with classical composers doing this all the time, it makes a lot of "boring parts" suddenly less boring.

Transition may be the least natural part of being human. We like to dance, to sing, and to react to what is happening right now, but we aren't very good at preparing for future events. Sometimes we like to deny them, like refusing to wear a coat out of the house because it isn't cold right now (but it will be in a few hours according to the weather forecast). This applies to larger social conditions as well. With gas prices their lowest in years, many Americans are lining up to by the same kinds of gas guzzling vehicles that caused so much pain at the pump the last time prices were high, setting themselves up for the same thing all over. When things are going well, people always think they are going to last forever...and when they aren't going well, it's the same story. But why plan ahead, anyway?

The point of my little sermon is that listening for process, for transition, for the start of something new or its return, isn't just something to keep us from being bored in the concert hall; it's also a life skill.

Guilmant: Allegro assai

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