Friday, December 1, 2017

Ghosts of Christmas music past

These notes concern music from the Pianonoise Holiday program for 2017 which  you can access right here at Pianonoise Radio! Happy listening.

For a lot of people an important way to relate to music is through memory--what was on the radio at a key moment in their lives, for example, or a special song that takes them back. As a musician I am not immune to this. Although I relate to music on many levels, most of which have more directly to do with the music itself, over time many of the pieces I play also have a part to play in the soundtrack of memory. This is especially true of the Christmas music, some of which gives me an excuse to relate some favorite anecdotes, some strange, some hilarious--well, perhaps. Or at least mildly amusing. It's really up to you...

The 2017 holiday program begins with a setting of "Now we sing of Christmas"--a piano piece far more modest that the vast, difficult Dupre organ setting I keep meaning to get around to each year. But even that was two years in the making. Like most of the pieces you are about to hear, this was recorded during my years in Illinois, during which the Christmas season was so busy that I sometimes only had time to jot down ideas for compositions while running down the hall between rehearsals. Thus, I began the piece one year, and, at about the 56 second mark, when I get to the bottom of that run, that's the following year when I picked the piece up again and finished it one evening in a lounge at a nearby church in a spare half hour (a luxury!). Good times.

I don't know when exactly I decided to pair it with a charming little piece by Edvard Grieg that has nothing whatever to do with Christmas, but I think it turned out well. It seems to be in the same spirit.

The organ piece that follows (Invitation) was recorded on an organ in need of repair (and soon to get some), which a tonic G that wouldn't sound. You can read about the hilarity of that recording sesson here.

I like to go hunting all over the world, and one fellow in Lithuania has an organ blog on whose sight I often get ideas. As a sight reading exercise he once posted something from a Croatian composer I'd never heard of, and although I didn't care for that piece particularly, I went on IMSLP and discovered four delightful little Pastorales that I played for Christmas in 2016.

The Bartok Carols came over the radio once when I was out Christmas shopping. Several years later I recorded them myself, complete with an outtake that featured some jingling bells.

By the way, regarding organ repair, I used to have fun with the playback system--the pipes didn't care whether I was playing them live or had pre-recorded the music. I would often record a performance at the console on the playback system and only later get out the microphones to capture what I had played earlier with my digital recorder, letting the organ play my performance back for benefit of the microphones. Thus, in one of the two Pastorales (the one in C)  that I didn't include in the program (but you can find on the mp3 Index page under Pintaric), the custodian is actually running the vacuum cleaner while I am recording my performance at the console (but not during the actual through the air recording which was done later) and in the one in Bb that you are listening to I didn't have time to make all the necessary stop changes so while the sound was being fed to the microphone I posed as my own organ assistant and pushed in and pulled out the stop knobs as needed while the the organ played--this is like playing a duet with your past self (which I have also done).

I enjoy musical detective work but I had a heckuva time tracking down the music for Samuel Wesley's strange and interesting digressions on the old carol" God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman." Eventually I found a professor in Maryland who had recorded the music, emailed him to ask where I could find it, and he kindly sent me a copy. It was from a volume that was no longer in print. A year later I found myself at a table in my own church next to the musicologist who had edited the volume! If only I had known sooner I could have saved a little geography.

I'm going to skip the next three pieces except to mention that the Marteau was written in quite a hurry and recorded before an unrelated concert.

The Gigue fugue is called that because there is quite a lot of delicious dancing about in the pedals. About a third of the way through the recording I discovered that one of my shoes had come untied, which made for a rather uncomfortable two minutes--but I went ahead and finished it anyhow. I usually do a few takes, but the runner up (or was it slightly better) featured someone dressed as Santa coming into the sanctuary with bells ringing loudly and basically wrecking the end of the recording (which I never let on; I mean, it was Father Christmas, after all).

Gottschalk's Cradle Song reminds me of Christmas Eve 2010 which might just be the best one ever, with a foot of snow outside and easily the best Christmas present I ever gave my father (or perhaps anyone)--for a more expanded version go here. During the Gottschalk prelude you could have heard a pin drop which is unusual for any audience, particularly at the start of a church service, and a downright miracle with a sanctuary full (300?) of families for what I always thought of as a pretty zooey 7:00 service. It was less miraculous, but just as special, at the 11pm candlelight service later on.

I've been playing the Bach Pastorale on and off ever since my first church appointment as a teenager, at a little church in the burbs a college friend called  the "Fisher Price" church because of its size and primary color scheme. It had been a tradition of the former organist, who referred to the organ there as "the eight-rank wonder."  I've graduated to bigger things of course but next week I'll be playing a concert out of town that isn't much larger (a 9-rank Wicks). Small organs can be charming if they have a pleasant complement of stops. I'm looking forward to it.

I sense your attention is waning (or mine is) so I'll save the remaining commentary for next time.

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