If there is anything that is obvious to the average listener of these Flashy French organ toccatas, it's that they have a lot of notes, and those notes go by fast. I'm going to use my powers of musical deduction now to leave you as un-impressed as possible. Far from convincing you that I am using musical magic to get my fingers to move that fast, I want to slow down the musical maelstrom and show you the outline behind those notes. We're going to do it in steps, by a kind of musical subtraction, taking away the superfluous notes a step at a time.
Here is, for instance, a bit of the Widor toccata. First you'll hear the opening bars of the right hand just as Widor wrote it, using just a couple of flute stops (already less impressive, isn't it? The volume is part of the piece's aura). Then I'm going to "subtract" the notes that do not change from group to group--that's most of them. The ones that are left in each group--three of them--, I'm going to play loudly on one manual, and for now you'll still be able to hear the remaining five notes in each group, played softly.
Now, Since the second note of that remaining group of three loud notes note is simply the lower neighbor tone and the third note is a repeat of the first note, I'll take those two notes away also and only play the first note of the entire group loudly, and the rest softly.
After that, I won't play the remaining notes at all. Now all the notes have disappeared except the backbone of the phrase.
The last thing I did was to play that nine note tune in the pedals, which is actually what Widor himself does with it shortly after, and again at the triumphant return two-thirds of the way through the piece. The left hand, as it happens, also echoes this little tune. It's just three notes down, two back up to where we started, back down, back up, and a final C. And even that, it turns out, is the same thing twice. The first eight notes are really just four notes repeated with a C on the end.
Now let's listen to the entire process I've just described, with the subtractions done one at a time. It is a bit like listening to a "Cheshire toccata" with bits of it dispersing until only the grin is left.
That's right, the whole opening phrase--the whole piece, really--reduces to four notes.
Not that the other notes don't matter, of course. Music theorist Heinrich Schenker once showed pianist Arthur Schnabel his system for finding the most important notes in a piece of music. Under his system (unlike what I just did) entire pieces reduce to just a few structurally important notes. Schnabel's comment upon seeing this was that "you've taken away all my favorite notes!"
Don't worry; we'll put them back. Those rapidly fleeting notes create a visceral excitement. And when that simply tune comes rolling through the pedals it is a even a physical challenge to play them. Widor places them in double octaves at the extreme ends of the pedal board, meaning a short man like me can barely get his legs parted wide enough to play them. It feels like trying to straddle the universe.
And it is the difference between something that could easily be chanted by monks and what appears to be an epic organ toccata.
And yet, that outline is there all the same. And for those who can hear it, much less write something like it, it is a way to organize all of that information, and to understand it. It does not make it less fascinating. After all, I'm sure the designer of the Taj Majal knew the basic principles of architecture, but still created a masterpiece out of these simple ideas. So it is with the Widor. We could go on studying the piece, and I could point out how the it breaks into sentences and paragraphs and repeats those four notes in different keys and modes, again and again, and by the end we could marvel at how something that ---well, childish, really--could add up to something so impressive.
Because that kind of simplicity isn't lazy or ignorant, or unable to be complicated. It is the sign of a master at work, organized, methodical, and yet able to provide flashes of insight, exploration, genius.
It is a gift.
After I wrote this I learned that the French would like to KEEP all those extra notes--and letters--thank you very much! This article is from The Guardian about attempts to simplify the French language and the controversy it is causing in France.