Friday, April 29, 2016

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

What was he thinking? What was in Francois Couperin's head while he was writing "Mass for the Parishes?" Specifically, what did he have in mind for the 2nd verse of the Sanctus, which happens to be what I'll be "feeding" my congregation this weekend. I'll be doing it in absentia, thanks to our playback system. I actually recorded it in December, while working my way through the entire mass, most of which you can hear at pianonoise on the Listen page. And since our pipe organ was rewired in 2014, it can record any data from the console, included stop changes, swell and crescendo pedal movement, and of course, all the notes. So even though I'll likely still be in the hospital for a second cycle of chemotherapy, I can still share music with my congregation, which feels pretty good.

It also hasn't stopped me from asking questions, one of which I shared with the congregation, courtesy of the church bulletin. The question was: why? Given that solemnity in worship was the order of the day, and still often is, in worship, given that this was the Catholic Church in the 18th century, and given the tight guidelines laid down by the archbishop for any organist who wrote a mass, which surely would have not encouraged much levity, what would be the cause of such a light, pleasant little piece? I'll let you listen to it before I prattle on too much. It's only a minute and twenty seconds:


Couperin's Mass is, mostly, much more solemn than this. Even the Gloria, the part of the Mass which is filled with praise for the glory of God, spends most of its time in a minor key. So this seems odd.

First, a little background. Couperin's Mass would have been part of the Mass celebration of the Catholic church. The way that worked, was that monks would have chanted each verse of each part of the mass, starting with the Kyrie (confession), then the Gloria (praise), the Credo (statement for beliefs), the Sanctus (glory to God), the Agnus Dei (communion), benediction and dismissal. The organist would play a short piece after each chanted verse, alternating with the singing, except for the Credo, during which the organist was forbidden to play (hence there is no Credo section in Couperin's Mass) and making up for it with a long offertory afterward.

Part of what would determine the character, as well as the key (and the mode--major or minor) would be the chants that came before. Another thing that the organist was required to do was to use the chant melody in at least the first verse of each section, per orders of the archbishop. Keep that in mind.

Now I'll try to touch on a huge subject very briefly. It has to do with appropriateness in church music. We'll at least limit it to French organists. We'll start with the most egregious example I can think of. Lefebure-Wely wrote music for his church that even his fellow organists thought sounded much too cavalier and popular. But he was popular with his parishioners; priests could clench their teeth all they wanted. Here is his most famous postlude:


Lefebure-Wely comes much later than Couperin, however, about 150 years. He lived after the French revolution which tried to stamp out the Catholic Church in France, and after Napoleon halfheartedly brought it back. If there was ever a time for cynicism in France, this was it. Let's get a little closer to Couperin.

Before the revolution (though he lived through it as well) was a fellow named Balbastre. He was very popular with his congregation, too, playing jigs and waltzes during masses, and annoying the priests, who sometimes forbade him from playing, despite the fact that whenever he did, the church was always packed. Was it jealousy? A sense of injured propriety? He didn't seem to be taking the mass that seriously, after all. Here is a set of variations he wrote on a Christmas carol:


This was also a tradition in France. And while Balbastre was born only 9 years before Couperin died, we can trace the tradition back to the generation after Couperin, by way of Daquin, who also wrote a pretty jiggy version of a Noel. He was born 26 years after Couperin, so we're getting a bit closer.


Then there is Nicolas deGrigny, who was born only 6 years after Couperin, and wrote this gigue-like verse of a hymn to the Holy Spirit:


So it is not like the French couldn't cut a rug--or a gigue--even in church. The priests may not have liked it, but they don't seem to have been able to stop it. Still, Couperin, seems to have been relatively well behaved. The last section of his massive offertory from the same mass is nearly in the same style as the deGrigny we just heard, but the mass is mostly pretty somber. If you're in the mood, you can hear most of it in the listening room in the organ section, under Couperin.

And then there is the fact that there are two Sanctus pieces. I don't know exactly where they fit, but the first one might fit after this text:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!:


That's pretty majestic, actually. Full stops and lots of heavy sound. But then the Sanctus goes on:

"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!"

Now is it possible that the composer wanted to change the mood to one of joy at the coming of the Savior, as opposed to the majesty and glory of an awesome, and fearsome, God?



As usual, I'm left asking more questions, and without the time to really delve into the subject, aka read books and articles and generally do more research. I've a feeling I'll be getting to that, especially as I have less time to play the music. And as musicologist sometimes don't ask these questions it may take time to connect with more curious souls who are interested, not just in the music itself, but how it worked in its original context. The same way people can spend all of their time wondering how the Bible speaks to us today without wondering what it was intended to mean to its first hearers (which is after all much harder to find out).

This weekend, my congregation gathers around the communion table, and, without realizing it perhaps, speaks those same ancient words that form the Sanctus, as old as the oldest Catholic Mass, still preserved in our Methodist worship. And the piece I'll be playing in absentia during communion is nearly in the same place it would have gone in Couperin's church, only a little later and without the chanting and the incense. There is a connection, but it is of course not an unbroken tradition. This is a varied world, and the poor priests who try to make it uniform never manage to succeed in quelling a variety of styles, innovation, exuberance, and criticism for their efforts. But things don't entirely fly apart, either. There is still a center. And, if we look hard enough, we can still find it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The temerity of a tumor

It's called a mediastinal seminoma. The first word refers to the region of the chest directly behind the sternum--right in the upper middle--, and the second is a kind of germ tumor which typically grows there. Not too typically, understand. It is rare enough to be a bit off-the-beaten-path medically and not so rare that nobody knows how to treat it but at least there is a chance they'll name it after you. Call it medium rare.

I mention this because I am currently hosting one of my own. Like many tumors in this class, it has grown quite large because it sets up shop in one of the few parts of the body with a nice bit of real estate undeveloped by vital organs, and expands until it has run out of chest cavity, finally making its presence known by trying to bump your lungs and heart and whatever else it assumes is unnecessary out of the way so it can take over everything.

I have a problem with that.

Fortunately, so did my doctors, although the story of my first month spent with the knowledge of a large mass in my chest did not go as pleasantly as I had hoped. It was March 2nd on which, fed up with a cough that just would not go away all winter and into the spring (it started in November, but as several people in my environment also had coughs that weren't going away it blended nicely with its surroundings and I assumed if I just waited a while it would finally clear up)--my patience gone completely, and my ability to run without an unusual amount of effort and exhaustion particularly at short distances finally being the last straw, that I visited a clinic nearby and complained of a "chornic cough" (OK, they mis-typed it) and a "tightness of chest." When an exam with a stethoscope didn't turn any problems up I was sent for a chest x-ray, and that's when they found it. Something that shouldn't be there, was there.

What it actually was took a long time to find out. First a CT scan took a more three-dimensional image of my chest. But the biopsy was what took so long, and around that, not the test, but the paperwork, and the second opinion from a large and respected clinic up north (Mayo) and than some more dragging on paperwork, while I called periodically and tried to figure out which of the 8 doctors who appeared in my chain of care for various reasons (some of whom I had never actually met or received any care from) might have gotten the results of the test.

By this point we were pushing up against Palm Sunday and Easter, which puts a special pressure on a church organist. I thought my time might be very limited, even, given the size of the thing, my time on this earth, but especially, as soon was we had a name for it, we'd start treatment, and that surely meant disruption. Either chemotherapy, which would cause an uncertain amount of it, or surgery, which would put me completely out of the picture for a month or two. Flat on my back, recovering from being pulled open like a lobster. But the mass gone completely. Perhaps.

I had to tell the staff at the church, and my other employers, that we had to have someone on standby if I suddenly was unable to perform my duties. And at least secretly, I thought, I just somehow have to make it through Easter. I can't leave my church high and dry on Easter Sunday, of all things. Just though Easter! Please.

Which in some way made those foot-dragging doctors useful, because it wasn't until after Easter that I got my results. And then another week to correct an early mistake I'd made trying to save money--I was out of network, and had to get my records transferred from one oncologist to the other, which took another week's time.

So on Match Day, when Kristen finally found out, after most of a year, where she had been selected to do her medical residency, after a long period of uncertainly, knowing we were going to move away but not knowing yet where, we finally had answers. A destination, a goal, a place for me to start looking for jobs. Future less cloudy. On our way to with the path well marked. Oh, and I might have cancer....

But I got through Easter, and somehow played about as well as usual, three epic services in one morning and an evening choir practice on top of it, no time to nap in between because we have people to see (I may have squeezed in a few zzzs after that). Alleluia!

And then I had a Baron Richtoffen moment.* I told the staff at our next meeting how glad I was that I had made it through Easter. And that, so far, has been my last Sunday! Well, I'm still glad Easter came early, and I still think it is much better to miss a Sunday or two that is not a major holiday.

I had a virus last weekend with a fever which conveniently robbed me of my voice on Friday, and the rest of me on Saturday and Sunday. And this was the week that we had decided to tell the whole church of my condition. The pastors had to do it while I was not present and I asked them to please let the church know that my absence was not due to the advanced stages of the disease, but an unrelated virus that was causing a fever. I'm sure some folks panicked anyway. The next day they sent me the entirety of the altar flowers (they normally divide these up between shut-ins--so sorry, guys!) care of the office manager, Janelle, who said that the ladies would have brought them to my house themselves, but were afraid they'd cry!

(I'm not at death's door yet, guys)

Meanwhile, we were trying to figure out just how bad things were, or weren't. Once I got to see my oncologist, things changed very quickly. He's been championed as "aggressive." He wanted me in the hospital the next day to start chemotherapy while simultaneously being available for all of the tests to determined whether it had spread. To our relief, we found it had not. It was just a very large tumor in my chest. About the size of a nerf football.

A seminoma is a strange type of cancer. It grows quickly, which makes it easier to treat. Seminomas can be shrunk very well with chemotherapy. It may only take three months. I have been told my cancer is very treatable, and I'll probably be cured completely (though that's not guaranteed). In the meantime, I still have to go through at least four cycles of chemotherapy. I'll have some good days and some bad days. Which is where this gets relevant to my blog readers.

Some of you are pianists and organist who do not read this blog to find out about me personally. I also have many Facebook friends and family who sometimes read this blog only when it contains information about me. Usually I'm here to share music with anyone who will listen and hopefully find it fascinating. But on the theory that music and life are connected, and given the major transitions we are going through this year, I occasionally get autobiographical on you. This particular journey might entail some inconsistencies in this blog. For instance:

1) I may find it next to impossible to get myself out of bed some days and unable to think straight enough to put sentences together because of the effects of the drugs and therefore will not be publishing the blog regularly for the remainder of the semester.

2) I may find that blogging is about the only thing I CAN do with any consistency, or on good days I may write several, set them on auto-publish, and proceed marvelously uninterrupted.

I can't say yet. Today is my third day in the hospital and third day of chemotherapy. So far it has not had negative effects on me. The anti-nausea drugs they are giving me are working wonderfully, and my kidneys are doing their jobs wonderfully, too. I won't be running any marathons this year and I have even stopped practicing the piano and organ. But since I work ahead I can still share new recordings with you through the end of the semester so long as I can think straight and stay awake long enough. Which isn't the problem right now--I haven't been getting enough sleep!

Those of you who are friends and family members, or concerned blog readers, can go to a place called and look for a fellow named michael andy hammer (the middle name is a good way to find the right me). I'll be putting all future cancer-related information there and not going on Facebook or this blog with it, so that we can continue to live our musically rich, intellectually curious lives as well as we can to share our passions with as many people as we can for as long as we can. All of us.

*I read a children's book once about the "red baron." Despite his success, he was never happy--never thought he had enough kills. First he becomes an ace--you need 10 kills for that--and the kills keep piling up. 20, 30, 40---I think he get all the way to 80. And they have a banquet for him and he drinks the toast, and says, "80 kills. Now that is something" as if satisfied with himself for the first time. And the next time he goes up in a plane, he gets killed. Moral: don't get complacent!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No place for the timid

There's a little bromide that used to be very popular on wedding programs, that, like most really popular bits of sentiment, didn't sit well with me. It was meant to be really nice, of course:

Don't lead me, I may not follow
Don't follow me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend

Which sounds simple and lovely, but doesn't really work in a marriage or anywhere else. There are times when you have to lead the other person, times when the other person leads you, and yes, times when you both walk leisurely into the sunset together holding hands and everything works out nicely.

I bring this up because I think accompaniment works the same way.

First of all, the chairman of the department of said accompanying in college hated the word. She preferred to call it "collaboration." That does sound like a more equal term in some ways, but it still needs to be understood correctly.

There were folks who joined the "collaborative piano" department because they were too shy to be soloists, much the way violists are sometimes people who don't play the violin well enough or lack confidence. That doesn't really work in either case.

That's because a collaborator has to have the boldness of a soloist, mixed with the discretion of a respectful partner. In other words, you've got to have the ability to take charge and the wisdom to know when that's necessary.

There are some places, of course, when the choir stops singing, or the instrumentalist stops playing, and you have an interlude all to yourself. Some of the wallflower accompanists in college would get nervous and make a mess of passages like that because suddenly they didn't have the security of someone else playing along.

You could be an organist playing an introduction to a hymn or a pianist playing a violin sonata in which the piano plays the opening measures alone. Either way, you have to set the tempo, you have to set the mood, and you have to deal with the fact that people are listening to you alone, and that any mistake in the piano part is going to be noticeable. But then, that's usually true of my situation anyway. Even when I'm collaborating with the 70 voice choir, I figure that if a false piano note develops, it will be obvious who did it. No hiding behind 5 other tenors!

You've got to have the guts to be wrong in order to be right. You can't wait for somebody else to start the piece, or hide behind their sound. In fact, you often have to be ready to equal or even outplay your choir or soloist.

Heresy! they all cry. An accompanist should always be softer than the soloist or choir. That's why they are an accompanist.

Not true. There is also a line, a chord, something that is an important part of the music that needs to be heard. It may be a small percentage of the notes on the page. It usually is. But one of my most important jobs is to recognize those places. It may be that the composer has given the piano alone a chord on the downbeat of the measure and the entire choir comes in on beat two. In that case, that chord has to be the equal in volume to the whole choir or it will sound musically wrong, and it needs to have sufficient vigor to give the choir a secure sense of the rhythm, so they can bounce off of the beat that they don't get to sing.

Changes in harmony that are given to the piano, or to the rhythmic inflection--if the musical information is not in the solo part, than it must be audible. The clarity of the musical argument depends on it.

And if it is redundant--if the soloist or choir is already giving out the information (i.e., singing the same notes)--I back way down or leave those notes out altogether, to let my partners shine out. Unless they turn out to need help, of course, in which case I offer as little as is needed to help them achieve their independence!

One of the best compliments I've received is from the choir members who have said "you make us sound better" because I think it illustrates what I hope is true about my approach to accompaniment. To be solid and secure and to let your choir or soloist shine forth when they are in fine form, giving them strategic help when they are not, and, without drowning them, serving the music such that the important notes come through clearly no matter who has them.

I sometimes hear that the problem with other accompanists is that they think they are soloists. Now here's where it gets tricky. I've been talking about accompanists as if being soloists is a useful skill. I still think so. The problem is in what kind of soloist we are talking about. A good soloist to me is one who listens. Even when playing by yourself, you have to balance the different parts of the music and be sensitive to the musical material, bringing some things up and some down. Often what emerges with persons who cannot accompany well is that they really don't listen very well. Because the only real difference between balancing a solo sonata and playing in an ensemble is that some of the parts that you are listening to, you aren't initiating yourself. But if you are used to listening, to liberating music from your own physical motion, it doesn't really matter. It is just as important or unimportant regardless of where it is coming from. Besides, even in a solo piece, there are often places where the soloist is playing an accompanying figure, as in several piano concertos. A soloist can never escape the need to be a collaborator any more than a person can live completely apart from society. And an accompanist can't avoid being a soloist, either.

But then, I do plenty of both kinds of playing, so I guess I would think that way, wouldn't I?

Monday, April 4, 2016

going Medieval

We've been going for walks on Mondays of late, listening to pieces of music with the curious title "praeambulum." This is not the same as your standard-issue prelude, which of course, means it comes "before a lude." Incidentally, the German term for this is "vorspiel" and if you'd like a little diversion, Kurt Knecht has a very funny story about what happens when you get lost in translation.

The term "praeambulum" seems to mean to amble ahead of, an instruction which, while charming, is unlikely to have been taken literally, since while if you go back early enough, there was a time when organ keys were big enough to be played with the fist and, not having pedal boards for the feet, you could stand up to play the organ, still, even the portable ones were probably not played whilst walking.

Then again...

One of the functions of a "prelude" or a "praeambulum" seems to be, not to precede a king, but to presage a Divine Service*. Last summer, during my "Medieval period," I played some pieces from one of the earliest sources of keyboard music we have, the "Buxheimer Organ Book." This dates from about a century later than the Robertsbridge Codex, which I've already found a way to complain about in this space.

The Praeaumbulum I'm going to share with you today is one of three that will make their way to the pianonoise catalogue in a week or two. It sounds rather improvised, and it occurs to me that, especially after our rather rapid 20th century jaunt last week, we might enjoy the opportunity to slow down a bit and appreciate the perfect intervals.

Anonymous (from the Buxheimer Organ Book): Praeambulum super C

*of course, God and the King were on a first name basis.