Last week it seemed like a good idea to play one of the nastiest pieces in the organ literature for a bunch of organists on an unfamiliar organ after sitting on my hands (and feet) for an hour. Like I said, that was last week.
At any rate, the performance this past Monday went fairly decently, occasional mishaps aside, and, since it was a meeting of the American Guild of Organists in Pittsburgh, there were people to talk to afterwards. I'm still fairly new to Pittsburgh, and this pretty much counts as my debut as far as most members of the organ playing community were concerned. Most were impressed. Then there was the professor at one of our universities who had studied in France with the composer in question and wanted me to be aware that I wasn't approaching the piece properly. Which brings up the conundrum.
Marcel Dupre, and as far as I can make out, most French organists of the 19th century, loved legato. Long limpid lines of unbroken sounds. It was, you might say, the fashion. Dupre didn't mark that in his score because he didn't think he'd have to. It was the way it was done.
My approach was much more staccato. You might explain this as a result of my pedigree. For instance, when asked who my teachers were, I give out names like McDonald, Hahn, and Fleischer, teachers at the Peabody Conservatory were I got my graduate degrees. All pianists. This is usually an interesting development for the organist asking the question because I have no background on this instrument at all. However, I do plenty of reading so I should point out that when the professor made her observation I was not unaware. I knew what I was doing. I knew it was not the norm.
That clear, articulate, staccato-esque approach seems to be my natural accent. It may be a result of simply being a pianist. It might have something to do with the Fleischer school. Although I didn't take that many lessons with the man himself, I spent four years studying with a student of his who took so much of his teaching from his master that the first time I had a lesson with Fleischer I felt an enormous case of deja-vu. So I think it is safe to say that his system is embedded in my system.
This puts my natural accent and Dupre's natural accent at odds with one another. And the question might be, should I adjust? After all, he is the composer. The professor naturally believed that I should, and that one should play a composer's music the way the composer himself played it.
It occurred to me that I could actually resist and be quite blunt about it. In fact, if you know the ways of the world, you know that this is a far better way to build a career. You want to be noticed, and that means being controversial. The thing to do is to double down, insist you are right, insist on doing it your way, whether or not you want to admit that it is your way being optional (Wanda Landowska famously insisted she alone was playing Bach HIS way), and after you've gotten enough people talking about you in tones of both outrage and admiration, you found your own movement and change what is fashionable. Then everybody else has to do it your way. Strong personalities do this. Maybe this is where the legato came from in the first place.
The irony being that Dupre's generation, when it came to playing Bach, applied their same natural musical accent, and in the process played his music in a manner which we know today to be completely inaccurate historically. One wonders to what extent they knew they were misrepresenting Bach. But I had a theory for the professor, having to do with succeeding generations almost being impelled to take a different approach, and it should be noted that Dupre and his colleagues were about as far removed from Bach (about a half century more, in fact) than I am from the early works of Marcel Dupre.
The reason I did this is that I am that rare self-reflective type, and also one who does not like to be irreversibly certain about anything. I took the harder path, not to defend my position, but to consider it from many angles. I will admit, first of all, to knowing that my approach is not the composer's own. I will also submit that this bothers me, because, as a composer myself, I would like persons playing my music to consider my wishes for the music that I wrote. Not only does the composer assume authority in our tradition, it is also bad form to simply remake everyone else in your musical image because you can't, or won't, consider anything from outside yourself. It also inhibits growth. Striving requires you to become more than you already are, rather than trying to shrink the universe down to what already appeals to you.
In fact, after our conversation I was thinking that perhaps I ought to try a smoother inflection across the board. However, I have listened to others play it this way, generally taking the fugue slower than the composer's own tempo marking to boot, and I have to say I find the piece pretty dull this way. I also have trouble imagining that unbroken lines in reverberate churches sound like anything less than mud. I am left having to mostly wonder about this for the present, however. Perhaps in future years I'll find out. To me, an articulate touch (which does, by the way, include connected groups of notes) not only makes the music less muddy in a wet acoustic environment, it also helps the composer's ideas stand out in the mind of the listener, just as diacritical marks on a page keep our eyes from glazing over and having to work harder than should be necessary to extract the meaning of the words. Breaks are important. In my experience those who won't use them often indulge in sloppy playing generally, and show little understanding of the linguistic or structural properties of the music. Maybe that's another reason for my reluctance. Not that a good legato approach can't work, but that I have so few good role models among that "school."
I suppose the first thing I ought to do is to hear Dupre play it himself. These days that shouldn't be too difficult. Of, course, with all the qualifiers swimming around in my head I will want to know how old he was at the time and whether his playing changed over his lifetime. Whither could I find that out?
Most of us are simpler animals. There is correct, and incorrect. I'm willing to inhabit space between the two. And, considering the piece is fairly new (it was only my second public airing) and I'm still reasonably not-old, there is time to evaluate, re-evaluate, and, in any case, not to worry too much about wrecking Dupre single-handedly, even if people in general, and the organ community, find it distasteful. Actually, I don't think most of them cared. But that doesn't let me off the hook.
There are always torchbearers for tradition. I want to respect that, but also to leave room for the living. As if life really were an ever evolving process rather than a perfect sculpture, frozen in time.
And as long as we are able, that means...stay tuned.
The piece in question was Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in B major, op. 7 no. 1, which I've recorded last fall when the piece was even newer than it is now. Here it is.
Also, you should check out this week's edition of Pianonoise.com, which has more music and abstruse commentary like the ramblings above. Also, a recording of Mendelssohn on my old organ in Champaign which is where I'm hanging out this weekend. Cheers!