"Making Music on the Organ"
Originally delivered as a lecture in St Cuthbert’s Church, Wells
as part of the Wells Organ Day
IAO South West Regional event
When I was a boy Fauré’s Requiem was always performed in the version for chorus and large orchestra. There was no discussion about this; that was the way it was. Then, in the 1980s, John Rutter produced an edition for considerably smaller forces, and his scholarship demonstrated that his version was probably more like the original version – though what exactly the original version was, was not entirely clear, as the story of the Requiem appeared to be one of growth and evolution. Moreover it became clear that the version with full orchestra that we had all known and loved was probably not Fauré’s own orchestration at all, but that of a pupil or colleague – possibly by Jean Roger-Ducasse. So which version is “right”? Which version “should” we perform? The answer seems to me to be that for a performance in church with a church choir, the “original” or “reduced” orchestration is best suited; for a concert performance with a large choir, symphony chorus or choral society, then the full orchestration which includes violins, flutes and clarinets is more suitable. But I have heard the two versions mixed (ie small orchestra with large chorus) – usually by choral societies who either know no better, or who are trying to cut down on orchestral expenses, but also by more revered institutions who should know better. But, at the end of the day, does it matter, as long as the various forces balance with each other?
Again, when I was a boy, all piano music was played on a “piano”, which, more often than not, meant a Steinway model D – a “concert grand”. Some pianists preferred a Bösendorfer, others, like the late Jeorge Bolet, a Bechstein; but Steinway was always the most popular, and still is. Nowadays you will find a few pianists who prefer a Yamaha or a Blüthner (particularly those who are sponsored to do so), but they are in a minority. But who can tell the difference? To most of us a piano’s a piano.
But now the situation has been complicated by the rise of the period instrument movement. In some circles it is fashionable to play Mozart & Haydn on a forte-piano; Beethoven is played on an early nineteenth century Broadwood, if you can find one, etc. But how far do you take this? Should Chopin be played on an Erard or a Pleyel? Chopin himself apparently preferred Pleyel, but was that just because he fancied Pleyel’s daughter? And what about Liszt? Liszt travelled Europe leaving a trail of devastation after him – both in terms of young (and not so young) ladies swooning and fainting at his performances, but also in terms of wrecked pianos. It was usual to find 2 pianos on the platform for a Liszt recital so that he could move to the second one after he had rendered the first unplayable. Clearly no-one is going to suggest that a piano of that type is necessary for the true rendering of Liszt’s music. And even if they did, no concert promoter would stand for it. Obviously something stronger is required.
Despite the fashion for period instruments, the Steinway has retained an astonishing universality. In really smart circles the word “piano” means Steinway Concert Grand Model D. And countless numbers of the world’s great pianists (and conductors) use this instrument when playing any thing from Scarlatti to Shostakovich. Haydn, Mozart, (Bach, even!) Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, John Ireland, John McCabe, etc etc. Think about it: 2½ centuries of music from Austria, Germany, Spain, France, Poland, Russia, England – all on the same instrument; and these are not 2nd class musicians. We’re talking about people like Horowitz, Rubenstein (OK, those two were before the rise of the period instrument movement), but also Brendel, Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Kissin, Gavrilov, Schiff, Hough etc. These are great musicians – amongst the greatest musical brains of our time.
And yet we organists get so worked up about exactly which stop is the right one for a particular piece of music, or century of composition, or country of origin. Why do we do it? Let’s face it: most composers are only too happy that someone plays their music at all. Most 18th and probably many 19th century composers would probably be astonished that anyone is playing their music today at all. And don’t forget that travelling virtuosi like Guilmant, Bonnet and Dupré played their own music on whatever organ was to hand – indeed much of Dupré’s music was written for American instruments – witness the pedal writing that calls for the high g, and manual writing that calls for high c – neither of which is available at S Sulpice. There is no evidence that I know of that any of these gentlemen complained that an English or American instrument was unsuitable for their music, or indeed that they refused to play their music for that reason. After all, what do you need to play a French toccata? As long as the organ can make a heck of a row, has a thundering pedal, and some sort of full swell sound for the boring bit in the middle, you’ve got all you need.
How many non-pianists can tell the difference between a Steinway, a Bechstein, a Blüthner and a Bösendorfer? How many non-violinists can tell the difference between a Strad, an Amati, a Guarneri, or a Maggini? How many non-organists can tell the difference between a Father Willis, a Cavaillé-Col and a Silbermann? To most of them it’s just an organ. So why do we get so worked up?
The answer may be that we want to perform whatever it is we’re playing in the best possible way – the way that best brings it to life. By that I don’t mean the way the composer would necessarily have heard it. And don’t let us assume that the composer necessarily gave the best performances of his own music. Rachmaninov, for instance – one of the greatest pianists ever – gave up playing his own 3rd Piano Concerto saying “That is Horowitz’s”. In other words he preferred the way Horowitz played it to the way he played it himself – what an admission! To play the music the way the composer heard it is probably all but impossible. There are too many matters to consider, such as temperaments, unsteady wind supplies, the fact that we’re probably making music and listening to it in a building other than the composer knew, and not least, the fact that we are no longer hearing with the composer’s ears – our hearing is coloured by our familiarity with Strauss, Mahler, Messiaen, Reger etc. And don’t forget that no composers before the 20th Century heard their organ music played through electronic speakers in the comfort of their own home. No, I don’t mean we want to play the music as the composer heard it; I mean we want to bring the music to life for our present day audience. Don’t forget that the music doesn’t exist until we play it. It only exists in some sort of abstract form – a spirit without a body, as it were. It is up to us, the players, to breathe life into it.
Now, however we try to bring this music to life, it has to be done in the terms of the instrument that we’re playing at the time. The truth is that whatever we do on an instrument, it’s never going to sound “French” or “North German” or whatever it is we’re trying to do at the time, each organ will always sound like itself. A great deal of rubbish is talked about this. People say “O that bit where you used such and such a stop sounded really French (30 years ago it would have been North German, by the way)” Rubbish! It didn’t at all. It sounded like the organ of Lincoln Minster (or wherever) playing music by Vierne (or whatever). People ask me about the Bath Abbey organ “Is it German or is it English? Can you play French music on it?” The answer is, of course, that it is none of these things; it is the Klais Organ of Bath Abbey and remains so however it is played.
The same is true of other instruments. I remember Roy Massey remarking to me about the Father Willis instrument at Canterbury Cathedral that, before it was Manderized in the 1970s, for all its defects, it was an instrument of character, and whenever you heard it on the radio you always knew it was Canterbury. Jonathan Rees-Williams, talking about the Salisbury Willis – a much revered instrument – once said to me that you didn’t really play Bach or Buxtehude (or whatever it was) at Salisbury, you played the Salisbury organ and it played the music its way. He then went on to say “It’s all about swell to Oboe really – that’s what all the fuss is about!”
So how are we to make music from different countries and from different centuries sound different, and come to life? Firstly let me say, the question implies some sort of choice. You only really begin to get much choice on a large three or four manual instrument. On anything much smaller you get what you’re given and that’s it; there’s little or no choice. Secondly, and arising from that, let me say that most of the time, most organists are asked to perform on an instrument, the equivalent of which, in piano terms, no pianist would look at twice. And for some reason we all accept it. We go on giving and attending organ recitals on woefully inadequate instruments, just because they’re there. We do our cause no favours by behaving in this way.
Let’s start with registration. That seems to be what’s most implied by my brief. Somehow, it seems to me that we have to find a balance between the demands of the period instrument movement (ie the type of instrument that the composer knew) and the fact of the instrument that we’re faced with at the time. An interesting exercise is to imagine that you’re a foreigner setting out to play some English Romantic music. You might ask an English friend a few questions:
What is the typical English Cathedral Organ like?
Does it have Tierce Mixtures? (And remember how much a third sounding rank colours the character of a chorus; it’s like adding a twist of lime juice to a source). Well, replies your English friend, if it’s a Willis, it does; if it’s a Hill, then no it doesn’t.
The foreign organist sees a crescendo sign over music apparently to be played on the Choir manual. Do English organs have an enclosed Choir Organ? Well, replies his English friend, some do: Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Liverpool & Durham Cathedrals have; how many others do? Maybe except on the monster organs an enclosed Choir is more common on a three manual organ than a four manual instrument, which is likely to have an enclosed Solo division (though the Solo at Truro Cathedral is un-enclosed as, originally it was at Salisbury). Perhaps we conclude that the typical large English “Romantic” organ has 2 enclosed divisions: either the Choir (3 manual), or the Solo (4 manual) being enclosed as well as the Swell. But in fact most 3 manual organs don’t have an enclosed choir organ.
What are we to make of multiple Diapasons (only usually available on the Great)? They had their origin in the screen organs in our great churches. The second diapason was supplied merely to fill the west facing case – the organ itself was usually an east facing instrument. So what is their purpose now? My view is that multiple diapasons exist primarily as alternatives in a general build up. That is, when building up through the Great an organist might first use the Small Open Diapason (and Small Principal), then exchange them for the Large Open Diapason (and large Principal – often called Octave). Notice that they are exchanged not added to. And what when there are three Open Diapasons? Well, there are different circumstances pertaining to different instruments. Quite possibly, for instance, not all the Diapasons are original, and one or more may have been added subsequently. Sometimes when there are three Diapasons the Smallest has no place in a Principal chorus and is only useful when accompanying; at Lichfield Cathedral the Large Open Diapason was added in 1908 on the same heavy wind as the reeds. It has no place at all in any chorus – it’s a whopper; it dominates everything and unbalances an otherwise superb principal chorus (there are 6 ranks of Hill mixtures). One visiting recitalist, who had done some research, but not enough, built everything on the Large Diapason, announcing that Hill built his choruses on the Large Diapason. True! But the recitalist had failed to realise that when the chorus was built there were two Diapasons and the large one was later renamed Medium when the whopper was added. By using the whopper the entire programme was ruined by relying on inappropriate text book knowledge, and failure to listen.
In what order do we add the Great Reeds? Do you always add the 8’ first, then the 4’, and lastly the 16’? Well, the answer is certainly not always. One of the first things I do when meeting a new organ is to listen to the Great reeds individually and at the same pitch to compare their strength. Then I get a clear picture of how to build them up. At Lichfield Cathedral for instance the 8’ reed is quite fat, so I add the 4’ reed with it. The 16’ reed is huge (bigger then the Pedal Trombone), so I add it last. At Bath Abbey the reeds get louder from 16’, through 8’ to 4’, so I usually (not always) add the 16’ first, then the 8’, and the 4’ last of all – and then quite often get rid of the high mixture to avoid being too bright.
What is the Tuba for? At Lichfield and York, the Tuba will be all but inaudible in the Quire, while from the Nave it will obliterate everything else. Does it exist solely for use when the copy says so, eg in music by Alfred Hollins, Norman Cocker, Healy Willan, Percy Whitlock etc.? Or is the organist at liberty to use this extraordinary stop whenever he feels like it, eg in John Ireland, Frank Bridge, John Stainer etc?
What are horizontal trumpets for? Are they a really loud solo stop like at St John’s College, Cambridge where it is the loudest stop on the organ – louder than the Tuba, or are they in fact loud Chorus reeds, like at Symphony Hall, Birmingham?
What about a Father Willis Swell, with its lack of a 4’ Flute? This is why his Oboes are so small and smooth. The build up on a Willis Swell, usually adds the Oboe after the Open Diapason; it is an integral part of the chorus. And the tierce mixtures were, apparently, intended to be drawn with the reeds. This is why the 4’ Principal and 2’ Fifteenth are often so bright. At All Saints Hastings, for instance, the Father Willis the Principal 4’ and Fifteenth 2’ of the Father Willis organ are so bright and send off so many harmonics that you’d swear there was a Mixture in there.
Having failed to give clear, helpful answers to the questions of our enquiring foreigner, we have to conclude that all organs are different and registrations must be modified in order to suit the character of the instrument we’re playing at the time.
Let’s move to France. What is a typical Cavaillé-Col?
In what order are the manuals? Usually it’s Grand Orgue, at the bottom, Positif in the middle, and Récit at the top. These manual divisions are traditionally equated thus:
Grand Orgue with the English Great
Positif with the English Choir, or Positive
Récit with the English Swell.
But the problem with that formula is that on a French organ the Positif is usually the second most important manual. On an English organ the hierarchy definitely gives that honour to the Swell; and on a French organ the Récit is definitely the third keyboard in order of importance and loudness, and on an English organ it is the Choir that takes third place. Also a problem lies not only in the order of the keyboards at the console, but also in the fact that the French Récit is definitely enclosed, whereas the English Choir Organ, as we have seen, usually is not. That can present English organists with a problem if trying to follow French manual and registrational directions slavishly. Also sometimes an English Choir organ is just not strong enough to make any real difference to the Swell.
One way round is to use a reduced Great (eg Small Open Diapason & Small Principal) as the Positif. Another way round is to use the Swell as the French Positif and the Choir (or even Solo) as the Récit. At Bath abbey we are lucky because the top (4th) keyboard is enclosed and contains a String and an undulating stop (Unda Maris), 2 x 4’ flues, and three quietish reeds (Clarinet 8’, Cor anglais 16’, and crucially, a small Trompette 8’) as well as the usual flutes and fractions, so we can pretend that the Solo (4th keyboard) is the Récit, and the Swell (just beneath it) is the Positif. This puts the three manuals (in French, Grand Orgue, Positif and Récit) in the right order and with the right balance between each other. Of course the system is not full-proof because the Oboe and Vox Humana are on the real Swell which we are calling Positif. But does that matter? Some sort of compromise is inevitable. Quite often manual instructions in French music are only an indication of a level of volume within the overall dynamic range. How that level of volume is achieved is less important.
And we shouldn’t forget that on an English organ we can usually make up for these various anomalies in other ways. Our instruments are usually rather better supplied with registration aids: we usually have a good supply of divisional pistons compared with the relatively cumbersome system of ventils which Cavaillé-Col supplied – to say nothing of general pistons or even steppers and sequencers. This can help us be rather more ingenious than might otherwise be the case. Westminster and Norwich Cathedrals for instance, each has a secondary Great division and well as the primary Great. I know that some of Westminster Cathedral’s most distinguished organists have used this secondary Great as a French Positif. But what do you do if the composer asks for one hand on the Positif and the other on the Grand Orgue? The answer is that unless there’s some sort of device that puts different choruses onto different manuals (eg Great reeds on Choir is not uncommon in this country) you have to do something different – as I said, some sort of compromise is inevitable. But who cares? It seems to have worked for Guilmant, Bonnet and Dupré.
Does a Cavaillé-Col have a Positif-de-dos? Well, it varies; probably most don’t, but S Ouen in Rouen, which many believe to be his finest instrument, does.
We have discussed the hierarchy between the three divisions, but of course there are exceptions. At S Sulpice for instance, and remember that this was Widor’s organ and Dupré’s (and Lefébure-Wely’s), the Récit is the loudest division. This is because of two particular circumstances: in the main case there are huge wooden sculptures right in front of the mouths of the pipes of the Grand Orgue and the Positif; these muffle the sound of those two divisions. The Récit however rises above the main case (in a most unsightly manner) and not only do its pipes have unimpeded egress to the main body of the building, but they are so near the stone vault that their sound is reflected straight down to the church floor, making this the most prominent division. So again, all is not necessarily what the text books say it should be.
How did Franck play his music on an organ bigger than his instrument at S Clotilde, eg the Trocadero Palace? Franck applied for other church jobs with larger organs on a number of occasions; did that mean he wanted to play his music on a larger instrument? What are we to make of the fact that Franck so frequently asks for the Voix Humaine (eg in the first two Chorals and the Fantaisie in A), and only once asks for the Voix Célestes (in the Grand Pièce Symphonique)? Does that mean that we shouldn’t play the first two Chorals if we don’t have access to a Voix Humaine? I think not! We know that Franck was particularly enamoured of the Voix Humaine at S Clotilde, but was he as fond of the Voix Humaine on other instruments? We don’t know. Often Celestes make a more than adequate substitute. I, for one, would rather hear Franck’s music in, for instance, Winchester Cathedral where there is no Vox Humana, but a fine Willis organ in a warm church acoustic, than in the Royal Festival Hall, which certainly has a Vox Humana, and probably every other stop that’s required, even with the correct spelling, but an acoustic which is dead as a door nail and which has no warmth whatever. So stops aren’t everything.
What are other characteristics of a French Organ?
i) Baroque – Supply of colours eg mutations making up a Cornet, which balances a Chromorne on a different keyboard; that is important – that the organist can play on the Chromorne with one hand and the Cornet with the other. Usually there is some sort of Cornet on each keyboard. Then there is a supply of other reeds, eg Trompette and Voix Humaine. The Pedal usually needs only a big Flute at 8’ pitch and a Trompette, also at 8’ pitch. Sometimes there maybe another reed or two, and maybe a 16’ Bourdon, but by no means always.
ii) Romantic – Lots of reeds, Gambas and a big Flute or two (ie open, or Harmonic Flutes) as well as Bourdons (Stopped Flutes). And I mean BIG Flutes. When I directed a performance recently of Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge noire in the Cathedral at Aix-en-Provence I was astonished at the size of the Flutes on the Récit. Everybody goes on about French reeds, but no-one had led me to expect flutes like these – miles away from the flutes typically found on an English Swell.
But the French Romantics only seem to have a handful of registrations: Think how often you see the direction Fonds, or Tutti. Of course there are some colour merchants. How are we, for instance, to interpret some of Messiaen’s more exotic demands? Well, frankly you can sometimes get away with any funky combination of a few fractions and a small reed (and a 16’ flue or sub-octave coupler). And how do we meet the demands of Jehan Alain (or his sister)? Now there’s a problem. Firstly Alain wrote his music for a highly idiosyncratic house organ which is unlikely to be reproduced in most churches or concert halls; secondly his music is all produced in editions by his sister Marie-Claire who says she remembers exactly how her brother played all his music, even though she was only 14 when he died. Moreover she’s not above producing new editions from time to time, presumably whenever her memory gets jogged.
What are the characteristics of a German Organ? Broadly speaking:
i) Balanced and complimentary Choruses on at least 2 manuals and Pedals – with Quint Mixtures rather than Tierce Mixtures, so in England for instance, probably closer to Hill’s organs than Willis’s.
ii) Not such penetrating reeds as a French Organ.
What was Bach’s Organ like? Does it actually tell us all that we want to know about playing his music? We know that, throughout his career, Bach never had a really fine instrument for regular use. He travelled a lot (though within fairly narrow confines); maybe, like the rest of us, he enjoyed different aspects of different instruments and so played the same piece differently on different organs. Certainly, better than any other organ music, Bach’s music is able to survive on a less-than-ideal instrument. Imagine, for instance French Baroque music on an organ with no tierce rank (or even without a nazard) – after all it does seem rather perverse to play a piece on an organ which doesn’t possess a stop actually mentioned in the title of the piece. It would be like playing Norman Cocker’s Tuba Tune on an organ with no Tuba. Or imagine Franck without an Oboe, or Howells and his contemporary compatriots without Celestes or an Open Wood. But Bach – well, he survives Jacques Loussier, he survives the Swingle Singers, he survives orchestration by Elgar, Respighi and others (in a way that Chopin, for instance, doesn’t), he’s going to survive a less than ideal organ. Let us ask ourselves a few questions about Bach’s organ:
i) Did Bach have a Rück Positiv? Only one of his organs had a Rückpositiv: Mühlhausen – his second appointment. By the middle of Bach’s career Rückpositivs were going out of fashion.
ii) Did it have lots of mixtures and mutations? Yes, a fair few – but there were lots of 8’ stops as well.
iii) Did it have Gambas? Yes: at Mühlhausen Bach replaced the Gemshorn 8’ with a Viola da Gamba.
iv) He also added a Sub-Bass 32’ and stipulated that the Posaunen-Bass 16’ should produce a much more solid tone. Both these alterations imply that he liked some gravitas in his instrument.
v) He also installed a Fagotto 16’ in place of the Trumpet 8’ on the Hauptwerk – “which is useful for all kinds of new ideas and sounds very good in concerted music”. What does that mean? Does it mean, for instance that he used it for the left hand when playing continuo? It’s a possibility.
vi) He also replaced the Quint 2⅔ with a Nasat 2⅔. That would imply that he considered a fluty quint stop (probably in a solo line) more useful than a narrow scaled quint in the chorus.
vii) Intriguingly, he also asked for a Glockenspiel 4’ on the pedal, though this was never built – did the parishioners think this was frivolous? Maybe there was a local academic who thought Bach's music shouldn't be played on a Glockenspiel...
viii) Another alteration at Mühlhausen was the addition of an entire new division – a Brustwerk of 7 stops – including a Shalmei 8’ a Quint 2⅔ and a Terz 1 3/5 “with which, by using a few other stops, one can make a perfectly beautiful Sesquialtera”. This meant that there was, after Bach’s rebuild of the instrument a Sesquialtera on all three manuals.
ix) A Brustwerk to Hauptwerk coupler was also provided. Was this so that Bach could add the Brustwerk (with its 8’ reed – now the only 8’ manual reed on the instrument) to the rest of the chorus? Or was it merely so that Bach didn’t have to reach up to the 3rd manual?
x) Lastly, Bach stipulated that the Tremulant should be repaired – presumably because he wanted to use it.
Spitta demonstrated how Bach used this new organ: he associates Walther’s copy (Walther was a cousin of Bach) of the Chorale Fantasy “Ein feste Burg” with the reconstructed Mühlhausen organ. On this copy there is the direction “a 3 clav” (for three manuals); above the beginning of the left-hand part “Fagotto”; and above the right-hand part “Sesquialtera”. Notice that the Fagotto and the Sesquialtera are duetting with each other; the real chorus work is done on the Rückpositiv. Spitta further conjectures that the first entry of the pedals in quavers would display the light and precise nature of the new 32’, just as the cantus firmus in the pedal 4 bars later would display the improved Posaunen-Bass. Here we have a fascinating example of Bach’s “bold and unusual registration” – the only extant example. Does this mean that we can only play this piece if we have an instrument on which these directions are capable of being carried out? No, it doesn’t; the music will probably survive however we play it. But it is worth bearing in mind how Bach registered the piece, always remembering that that was for a specific occasion and on a particular instrument.
Let’s look at some other questions:
i) “Should” his coloratura chorale preludes be played on a Sesquialtera, a quiet reed, or a Principal? with a Tremulant? I know of one international organ playing competition where this was a subject of hot debate amongst the jury. One judge is said to have marked a competitor down because he used the “wrong” registration, even though he acknowledged that the registration that was used sounded better on that particular organ (a world renowned historical instrument). What would a pianist say of this nonsense?
ii) “Should” we change manuals in Bach’s Preludes & Fugues? Now that really is a difficult one. The first answer must be that there is no hard-and-fast rule. Each example must be examined on its merits. Take, for example, the “St Anne” Fugue. It seems to me that no one sound is going to be ideal for the three contrasting sections of this piece.
In my interpretation (the performance of any composition must always be the performer’s interpretation of a more-or-less inadequate written down version of what was in the composer’s head), the opening section needs gravitas. Not too much upper work, and with 16’ tone in the manuals and 32’ tone in the pedals, if you can get it. The middle section needs something lighter and brighter for all those scurrying quavers – on a subsidiary manual. The third section needs something that combines both of those sounds, but probably with something else added as well; something like full Great chorus coupled to the full Positiv (or whatever your second manual is called) chorus. Do you add sesquialtera(s)? Well, as with all things, the answer must be “try it and see”. After all, Bach had one on each manual, so he probably used them in chorus, and those very high entries in the third section might benefit from a third sounding rank – so I’d definitely try adding a sesquialtera and discard it if I didn’t like it, and keep it if I did.
And that reminds me of a conference I attended a few years ago in Liverpool. During the conference some differences of view had immerged between the "players" and the "conservationists". At one point one of the latter observed in a rather pointed way that he would like to hear from one of the players when, for instance, they would use a Keraulophon (a mild string stop). How sad can you get? What he had in mind, apparently, was that players would be really scholastic and visit the RCO library or some other such institution and plough through copies once used by John Stainer or Henry Smart or somebody and see when they had written “Keraulophon” in their copy. In this way we would know to use that stop at that point in that piece, though presumably only if playing the same (unaltered) organ. I answered the question for him by telling him exactly when I would use the Keraulophon. He grew quite interested until I told him that, if I were playing a passage where I thought a Keraulophon might benefit the music (assuming the organ possessed such a stop) I would try it, alone and in various combinations, and if I liked it I’d use it, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t. The man got very cross because he thought I wasn’t taking him seriously. But I was. That’s how I register everything. It’s just that the thought of a player listing to the sound he was making, and being flexible seemed never to have entered his head.
Anyway, back to Bach, and changing manuals. What do we do, for instance in the “Wedge” Prelude? Over the years I’ve wasted hours trying to work out changes of manual to differentiate between the various musical ideas. I’ve come to the conclusion that it simply can’t be done – not, at any rate, without destroying the grandeur of the music; so the entire prelude must be played on a pleno sound that is attention catching, sounds mighty, but does not tire the ear by the end of the movement. Not always an easy thing to find! The fugue, on the other hand, provides the contrast and there are plenty of opportunities to change keyboard there. Furthermore, I believe there are other pairs of Prelude and Fugue where there is contrast between one movement with manual changes and its partner with no manual changes. The great C minor is one and quite possibly the 9/8 C major and the Great B minor as well.
iii) “Should” or rather “can” we get louder towards the end? All depends on the piece, and the instrument. I have to say that there have been many occasions when playing the central section of the Fantasy in G (we have to call it the Pièce d’Orgue now) when I have failed to resist the temptation to add full swell in the final lines of the central section – the bit where the pedal line rises in semi-breves through 2 octaves.
iv) “Should” we use a 16’ Pedal in the Trio Sonatas? Well, of course it depends to some extent how you are to register the two manual parts. If with single 8’ stops, then probably an 8’ pedal line is good; (this music, by the way, does become less hazardous if the LH plays on a 4’ stop, eg Principal, an octave lower – perfectly possible as not once does the LH go below tenor c). If however you use more “orchestral” sounds in the two manual parts, then probably a 16’ pedal would help. Sometimes a larger building benefits from 16’ tone as well. There are also moments when the bass line is upset if there is no 16' pedal.
v) “Should” we use the Rückpositiv in Trio Sonatas? My feeling is that a Rückpositiv is less than ideal, because it naturally gives prominence to that line and makes it feel like a solo – that is partly what a Rückpositiv is for; the whole ethos of the trio sonatas is that they are for three equal voices.
vi) “Should” all the Preludes and Fugues be played loudly, and on Principal choruses? Certainly, many of them seem to invite a pleno sound; but perhaps the earlier works invite a brighter pleno than some of the more mature works – the first movement of the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, for instance, seems to me to invite a brighter chorus than the Great C minor Prelude, or the "Wedge" Prelude. The Prelude and Fugue in A is an interesting example. Here the Prelude is little more than an introduction (some would say the same of the A minor Prelude) and the fugue is so lyrical and sunny that something bright and fluty might be deemed appropriate for the prelude, or at least a secondary or tertiary principal chorus, followed by the fugue played, maybe just on an 8’ Principal, or Principals 8’ & 4’. And the first movement of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor – maybe just an 8’ Principal with a gentle Tremulant?...
vii) What does “Organo Pleno” mean? Does it mean the same thing in the “St Anne” Prelude as it does in the Fantasia Komm heiler Geist, Herre Gott which opens “The Eighteen”? The “St Anne” Prelude is like a French Overture; “should” it be played like a French Grand Jeu, or a Plein Jeu? After all, we know that Bach was familiar with French organ music of the period…
How did Bach himself register? The obituary includes this famous passage:
"To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which could never be produced by their mode of registration."
"This peculiar manner of using the stops was a consequence of his minute knowledge of the construction of the organ and of all the single stops. He had early accustomed himself to give to each and every stop a melody suited to its qualities, and this led him to new combinations which, otherwise, would never have occurred to him."
More and more I feel that Bach, when writing for the organ, was writing in an abstract way, independent of the constraints of particular instruments. I think that he would have empathised with Beethoven who exclaimed to Schuppanzigh “Do you suppose that I am thinking of your wretched violin when the spirit comes over me?”
How do we play Mendelssohn on the organ? Mendelssohn’s organ music seems to look back to Bach – there are many fugues, for instance; the first movement of the D minor Sonata is like a chorale Partita, the first movement of the B flat Sonata is like a Bach Prelude, the first movement of the A major Sonata is like a Chorale Fantasia; yet the slow movements of the F minor, B flat and D minor Sonatas are like Songs Without Words; the drama of the Recitativo of the F minor is unquestionably romantic in spirit, as is the distant chanting of a chorale in the otherwise forthright and C18th first movement; and the last movement of that sonata is pianistic. Here we have Mendelssohn the reviver of Bach hand in hand with Mendelssohn the composer of the Songs Without Words, if not quite Mendelssohn of the Hebredes Overture, the Violin Concerto and the Midsummer Night’s Dream. How are we to marry all this? Then on top of that we know that Mendelssohn stayed with a friend in the Mosel valley while composing this music and practised on the local organs by the C18th builder Johann Michael Stumm – baroque instruments; yet apparently these instruments weren’t necessarily his first choice, they were what was available to him at the time. Perhaps that very fact gives us a clue.
Does any of this matter? As mentioned earlier, most composers, it would appear, are only too happy that someone plays their music at all. Most 18th and probably many 19th century composers would probably be astonished that anyone is playing their music today at all.
Now let us look at some problems facing the player when he sets out to perform English music.
There is a place in Percy Whitlock’s music where he gives the direction: “Open Diapason and Celeste” (Andante Tranquillo in E flat from Five Short Pieces) – not possible! A Celeste rank will naturally be pulled into tune by the rank next to it. This is why a Celeste is never placed on the wind chest right next door to the rank with which it is intended it should undulate. This is usually a Salicional or a Viola-da-gamba of some sort, and quite possible a Stopped Diapason or Lieblich Gedackt as well. This means that these stops must be separated – which usually only leaves the Open Diapason to put next to the Celeste; so, in most cases, the Open Diapason and the Celeste won’t beat with each other, they’ll sound in tune, or just off speech and wrong.
There have been many occasions where I’ve read “Add Full Swell” when I’ve already long since done that, eg in John Ireland and York Bowen (and probably in Herbert Howells).
So why are we so cavalier with directions in English music, yet so slavish in French (eg) music? Perhaps it’s because we feel we know how the music should go, but we’re less confident in music from other nationalities.
Playing English music abroad poses an interesting problem. Indeed I’ve come across the attitude that you can’t adequately play English music on a German or French organ because there’s no Open Wood, or the Swell organ is too small, or there aren’t enough quiet 8’ stops, or whatever it might be. Yet these same people are quite happy to play, and listen to, absolutely anything played at their local English cathedral. I’ve often found myself playing English music abroad – mainly in Germany and Austria, but also in America: I’ve played Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, John Ireland and York Bowen, but also Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Henry Smart, Alfred Hollins and Sir Hubert Parry. How does one go about doing this? One does it same way as playing anything else – you just try to bring the music alive in terms of the instrument at your disposal. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy. The main problem is often one of console management. It does seem to be a feature of much Romantic English organ music that it requires a lot of stop changes. Indeed many pieces seem to be constructed as one huge Crescendo e diminuendo. One thinks of the celebrated Adagio in E by Frank Bridge, the Elegiac Romance by John Ireland and almost anything by Herbert Howells. The Sonata for Organ by Sir Edward Elgar is an absolute minefield for anyone intending to do all their own stop changes, and I’ve never attempted it abroad – seldom even on any instrument other than the one where I’m resident.
Is this why English organs have developed such sophisticated registration aids – adjustable divisional pistons, Great to Pedal combination couplers (virtually unknown outside Britain incidentally, even in the US), and General pistons? Or is the music this way because the playing aids were invented and installed to help organists accompany choirs in our unique choral tradition? Whatever the reason, until recently the lack of sufficient playing aids made playing the English Romantic repertoire very difficult on foreign organs where registration aids were crude, few in number, or non-existent. Nowadays with the almost universal inclusion of multi-channel memory systems, steppers, sequencers etc it is all a great deal easier. Of course there are specialities. A Tuba, for instance, is a rarity outside Britain, but one manages.
Here are a few guidelines (generalities):
Reeds tend to be stronger in the bass than the treble (hence the strength of a Pedal Reed)
Quiet reeds work well for solos in the tenor register
For solos in the treble reeds are often better combined with a flute
Trumpets are often improved by the addition of a Cornet to fill out the treble
Flutes tend to be stronger in the treble than the bass (especially Open, or Harmonic Flutes)
Flutes work well for solos in the treble register
For solos in the tenor register they are often better doubled up (imitating a Horn)
Cornets tend to break up below about middle C
So they often don’t go down much lower anyway
They work well as treble solos
In a Tierce en Taille they are often better with Prestant 4’ and Larigot 1⅓ added
The only important thing is that the registration of a piece of music conveys the spirit of that music to the listener. And the only way to achieve that is to listen to the music, and adapt registration according to what you hear.
Changing the subject (at last!); there is an important relationship between acoustic and speed & phrasing. The length of Pedal notes especially can be a crucial factor in pointing the rhythm of the music. And the length of pedal notes must vary according to the acoustic. It is well known that in a resonant building we often need to shorten the pedal notes in order to retain clarity – otherwise everything gets muddy and bass heavy. Just think of the bass heavy acoustic of Bristol Cathedral and how the player must lighten the pedal there if all is not to become an indeterminate mush. Of course the converse is also true. I remember playing a recital on the Schuke Organ in the new concert hall in Bilbao. There the acoustic is very dry, and the pedal department not very strong – there are lots of stops, they just don’t make much noise. I found myself deliberately making pedal notes last as long as possible. It was an interesting experience: the concert opened with the Toccata and Fugue in F by J S Bach. Usually one dances over the two big pedal solos, lightening many of the notes (eg the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th semiquavers of each bar). On this occasion I found myself trying to play super legato, making each note last as long as conceivably possible in order to give the sound any weight at all; otherwise it just sounded silly. The result was, of course, that one had far less time to get from note to note, because the foot stayed longer on each pedal; so the piece became a great deal more difficult.
Incidentally, another feature of this organ was that the first Great mixture is a 16’ Mixture; that is, it has a 5⅓ Quint which is, of course, a harmonic of 16’ rather than 8’ pitch, so it sounds wrong unless the Great 16’ Principal is also drawn. In other words you have to draw the 16’ Principal with the Mixture – a very useful design feature in that acoustic.
The third interesting thing about that organ is that all the stop names are in Spanish. Well, one probably understands Chamade(!), but most of the names were completely new to me: Flautado, for instance, is a Principal, and Tapado means covered, or stopped – like Tapas. But what it did mean was that I couldn’t take any stop name for granted, and had to test each and every stop when registering, and that’s no bad thing. You should never believe what it says on the stop knob – partly because the same name implies different things in different countries at different times, but also because there may be other reasons why a stop knob does not tell you the whole story – the Quintadena at Bath Abbey, for instance, is spelt B-O-U-R-D-O-N! – and that was done for political reasons.
Also related to acoustics is the matter of tempo. A few years ago I was on holiday in Stockholm and I went to a concert in the Chapel of the Royal Palace. A period instrument band was going to play the Brandenburgs under the direction of a solo violinist of whom I’d not heard. The chapel is a fairly large baroque building and, on entering, I quickly formed the impression that it was going to be fairly resonant. Accordingly I say right at the front. I was horrified that when the music started it was played so fast (and with, it must be said, amazing technical skill) that I could scarcely make out a single note. All was a blur – and I was sitting in the front row. The players seemed to be enjoying themselves, but we in the audience most definitely were not. They had forgotten that, having the notes written in front of them and having practised the music recently, they knew what was coming and could absorb the music. Our poor brains on the other hand, being deprived of the visual clue of a score, and being placed at a distance from the sound source, just could not keep up. The entire performance became pointless, other than enabling the players to remind themselves of their own dexterity. I assumed that the players, of whom I had not heard, were an inexperienced bunch, experimenting with modern performance practice. On return home however I discovered that I was wrong. These were established players and their soloist director a highly respected period instrument practitioner who had several CDs to his name, a new highly prestigious position under his belt, and several BBC Proms performances lined up. The only explanation I can think of is that recording has been allowed to take over and this group of musicians are so used to playing to closely placed microphones that they have forgotten the needs of a live audience. – So much for “authenticity”!
My belief it is that it is programme planning which is the key to making an organ sound different in different pieces. So, with horrible generalizations: Buxtehude will use lots of bright, clear choruses; Bach will have a fuller, warmer sound; Franck, lots of Swell to Oboe; other C19th & C20th French music may well use Celestes, mutations, etc… But it is always worth trying to avoid music which really won’t work on a particular instrument – because its ethos is so far removed from the spirit of the music. I remember Timothy Byram-Wigfield telling me about the time when he first played one of the splendid new organs in Edinburgh: he said all went well until he tried to play some French music; then after a few minutes he gave up, the organ folded its arms and said “It’s no good, I’m a German organ, I cant do all this French stuff”. There are always extremes.
Another useful tip is, when faced with a quite equal choice as to which of two registrations to use, to have regard for other pieces in the same programme. If a later piece will be better suited to one of those sounds, then use the other sound in the first piece.
Well, where has all that got us? I think the point is that it is always helpful to listen to, and play, as many different instruments as possible – from different countries, different centuries, and different traditions. Then, when playing a piece of music on an instrument from a different tradition you have an idea what the composer might have had in mind for his music. But those sounds have to be re-interpreted in the terms of the instrument you are playing. Never approach any instrument with pre-conceived ideas about registration – they seldom work! You have to adapt to the organ’s way of thinking. We are fortunate: no other instrumentalists have the scope for experimenting that we do. Go to your organ and experiment. Try out new ideas; be imaginative, be bold. You will make mistakes – we all do. You will waste some time – we’ve all done that; but you will discover all sorts of things, and have great fun in the process, and then the time you thought you had wasted can all be notched up to experience. But couple this with some reading and listening to a variety of instruments, either on CD, or in the flesh. And always listen when you play.