Blog/Archive

Nov. 10, 2018

(con't from Part XXXVI)
"Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
-- Saint Francis of Assisi

The note upon which the 1st voice of an organ fugue starts is subject (no pun intended) to certain general principles with which the would-be fugue writer needs to be thoroughly familiar.
It's unrealistic to expect any online crash course in fugue writing to turn us into a fugue writer overnight, but there is much, very much, preliminary learning about it that can take place online provided we're receiving full and correct information and we're persistent in our search.
The following will illustrate this:
The 2nd voice to enter typically repeats the 1st voice, or subject, transposed up a 5th or down a 4th in the dominant tonality; this is called the answer.
The dominant key is typically chosen for the answer because scale degree 5 is the 3rd harmonic (2nd overtone) of the natural harmonic series and, save for the tonic and its octave, is the next most important note of the scale; when the answer begins in the dominant tonality it sets up a tension with the subject which has just entered in the tonic; this tonic-dominant tension is what drives all tonal music in the Western world.
The 1st note of the answer, however, and sometimes a few others as well, is sometimes transposed a 4th higher; the reason for this discrepancy has to do with harmony.
If the answer is to enter as the subject finishes, as it usually does, it generally needs to begin on a note that's consonant with tonic harmony or it will enter jarringly on an unprepared dissonance (although these days, dissonance is the norm).
For a subject that begins on scale degree 1, the answer can begin a 5th higher, on 5, which is consonant with the tonic harmony implied when the answer begins at the end of the subject, but if the subject begins on 5, the answer cannot start a 5th higher, on 2, because 2 is dissonant with tonic harmony.
Consequently, the answer is adjusted to begin on 1, a 4th higher, in order to begin on a consonance; this type of adjustment is called a tonal answer because it has been modified from its usual strict 5th transposition, this in order to confirm the tonality (tonic) by entering on a consonance, rather than conflict with it by entering on a dissonance.
After this adjustment the remaining notes in the answer are all 5th transpositions of the subject.
We read in various sources that the appearance of scale degree 5 at or near the beginning of the subject is the signal that that answer MUST be tonally adjusted, whereas if 5 does not appear at or near the beginning of the subject, no adjustment is necessary, and we speak of a real answer (a literal transposition of the subject, note for note).
The fact is, it's entirely possible for the answer to appear in the subdominant, a 4th higher than the subject rather than a 5th, with the result that no tonal adjustment in the answer is needed and a real answer will be supplied.
In this case the subject starting on the 5th scale degree is sufficient to set up a tonic-dominant tension; in such a situation, after the bridge passage following the answer brings about a return to the tonic key for the 3rd entry, the 4th entry will also be in the subdominant tonality, i.e., a 4th higher.
Due to this alternative, those who teach and maintain that all fugues which begin on scale degree 5 MUST have a tonal answer are either laboring under a serious misconception or simply not providing complete information perhaps to steer the novice away from what they consider to be any serious entanglements in their first attempts at fugue writing.
One might only examine the expositions in Bach's great d minor Toccata & Fugue for organ BWV 565 or this author's b minor Prelude & Fugue for organ Op. 26 for proof however that it can be done, and there are innumerable other examples.
Students not fully informed by this could begin to surmise, using the same reasoning, that fugue subjects DO NOT start on scale degree 3; they can presume that the answer, in this case, would have to begin on 7 (leading tone), a 5th higher than 3, and that would be impossible because tonic harmony prevails as the answer begins, dovetailed as it is with the end of the subject.
The inference here would be that it isn't possible to write a correct fugue which starts on the 3rd scale degree; when the interested student is directed to "the 48" and asked to find a single fugue there which starts on scale degree 3 and they cannot, they're tempted to accept this as proof that it isn't feasible.
There's a problem with this whole idea: while the premise may be good, we know from a reliable source (Kirnberger) that the same Bach who wrote "the 48" would never hear of it being not feasible.
It fails to take into consideration a subject which has a tail which points strongly to the dominant key; in such a case, it's not only entirely possible for the subject to start boldly on 3, but a real answer can be supplied; this too, can and has been proven, multiple times, in this author's Op. 19, 27, 29, and 30 Fugues for Organ, all of which are correctly written.
From this we may draw a corollary: any fugue subject starting on scale degree 3 MUST have a tail which points strongly to the dominant key.
If often happens in education that those individuals upon whom we habitually rely for trustworthy information can give us all the basics about it that we can stand; the trouble is, most of us students who want to really penetrate a study need more than the basics, and we need it all the time.
J.S. Bach was the greatest fugue writer in history, and he had no university education; as a fugue writer he was coached at an early age by his older brother, but he was mostly self-taught and penetrated to the core of this art through sheer hard work, an obsession to excel to the best of his ability, a dogged determination never to give up, and by doing what was necessary to his work-a-day existence, working the possibilities, and making his own discoveries; the trail he took as an emerging composer led him down every blind alley as his mastery developed.
This can be an arduous path full of cruel uncertainties; it is also the path that allowed him to put music on a plateau that no one else has ever reached, the same path that makes a really good teacher, which is why every serious organist and composer who comes after him has to be his disciple.
Likewise, when we learn our own fugue writing, it always helps to start, as Bach did, by doing what's necessary, and then do what's possible.
And suddenly, as Saint Francis observed, we find ourselves doing the impossible.

Nov. 6, 2018

(con't from Part XXXV)
"The great J. Seb. Bach used to say 'Everything must be possible,' and he would never hear of anything being 'not feasible.' This has always spurred me onward to accomplish many difficult things in music, by dint of effort and patience, according to my own poor powers."
-- Johann Kirnberger, pupil of J.S. Bach

Now that we've seen a number of successful 4 voice organ fugues using the Ten Step method for fugue writing described on this blog [See blog, Ten Steps] we've discovered, among other things, that what the theorists may be teaching and maintaining about fugue writing, as far as it goes, doesn't always apply in every application (photo).
We have demonstrated, for example, that a correct organ fugue can have a subject which starts on the 3rd scale degree provided its subject has a "tail" which points strongly to the dominant key [See Getting Started With Writing, Part XXXVII].
Since the F Major Fugues from this author's Op. 19 and 27 were both written in triple counterpoint and employ 2 countersubjects we might examine yet another example, only written in quadruple counterpoint employing 3 countersubjects in, let us say, the minor key, which includes entries in all related keys and perhaps one unrelated key.
In this connection the score for Postlude in e minor, Op. 29 may be followed as this narrative continues:
As the famous 19th century French organist Camille Saint-Saens aptly pointed out, "The fugue is the ideal form for the postlude; as the voices enter, the people leave; when all the voices have entered, all the people have left."
Bearing in mind this adroit observation, this stand alone fugue was given the simple title "Postlude."
The subject begins boldy, as mentioned, on the 3rd scale degree in the tenor voice and is provided with a real answer in the soprano; the exposition continues with the 3rd entry in the alto and the 4th entry in the bass to complete a 4 voice texture.
Since the subject and its 3 countersubjects are relatively long (5 bars), sixteenth rests were included to break the subject and countersubjects into smaller phrases to give them room to breathe and make them sound more "singable."
Like so many other fugues, the 2nd entry in this exposition is followed by a codetta (link) of 2 bars whose function is to bring back the home key for the 3rd entry.
Each of the succeeding entries are separated by episodes of 5 bars length, each of which are constructed around the subject or one of the countersubjects in inverted or retrograde form.
This score, like the d minor Op. 22 Postlude, is marked at cadential points to remind the performer where the tempo may slow very slightly, then resume, to create nuance; this was done to keep the music elastic, living, and breathing; a fugue, like any other piece of organ music, should never be performed like a typewriter is playing, page after page, in an unvarying tempo from first note to last.
The episode following the exposition modulates to a G Major entry where the subject enters in the soprano, the 1st countersubject in the alto, the 2nd countersubject in the tenor, and the 3rd countersubject in the bass.
Another modulating episode brings the music to an entry in b minor where the subject enters in the alto, the 1st countersubject in the tenor, the 2nd countersubject in the bass, and the 3rd countersubject in the soprano.
In the following entry in D Major the subject enters in the bass, the 1st contersubject in the tenor, the 2nd countersubject in the alto, and the 3rd, once again, in the soprano.
So far, these have all been related keys, but an episode follows which lands the music in the unrelated key of g minor where the subject enters in the tenor, the 1st countersubject in the alto, the 2nd countersubject in the soprano, and the 3rd in the bass.
From there the music modulates to C Major where the subject enters in the alto, the 1st countersubject in the bass, the 2nd countersubject in the tenor, and the 3rd in the soprano.
With this entry all 4 moving lines have entered at least once in the bass, thus establishing quadruple counterpoint.
The ensuing entry in a minor has the subject entering in the alto, the 1st countersubject in the tenor, the 2nd countersubject in the soprano, and the 3rd in the bass.
A section of 8 bars follows in which the head of the subject is inverted and enters successively in the tenor, alto, and soprano lines in imitation at the interval of 2 bars as the music undergoes a crescendo.
This brings about a return to the home key (e minor) during which the subject, following many examples by J.S. Bach, enters in the bottom octave of the pedals; here the 1st countersubject enters in the alto, the 2nd countersubject in the soprano, and the 3rd in the tenor.
The work concludes with a short coda of 4 bars during which a 5th voice (low tenor, or baritone) is added to the middle staff as the music undergoes a further crescendo.
The music finishes with great finality in 5 voices employing a Picardy 3rd on the final chord following a trill in the top voice and an anticipation on the tonic note.
How this work was constructed will repay careful study.
(con't in Part XXXVII)

Nov. 4, 2018

"It will be fine, even if you sit on the keyboard."
-- John "Quasi" Weissrock

There are many cautionaries in music, and the best suggestion we can give an organist is up for grabs, but, here's one that has to rank right up at the top:
Keep your sense of humor.
Let's say you're the principal organist presiding over a large instrument -- and a big semiannual event is approaching at which you're expected to accompany 20 choral numbers not counting the performance of certain repertoire, hymn arrangements, and incidental music -- all before a large audience over the span of 2 days and one intervening late night.
And let's say you've prepared for it by practicing 3 hours a day on a hard organ bench for the last 2 weeks, never missing a day -- so much in fact that your bottom is sore.
And let's say you live a distance from the venue, have to drive back and forth, and you've had only 3 hours sleep between both days.
Most people won't have a clue about what you have to do, how you've spent yourself, or what you've sacrificed to get yourself prepared for this and won't care -- and let's say you know from experience that compliments from the sidelines are generally not plentiful.
You can always invite the sideliner telling you that your choir soloist "can't sing" to put on a choir robe himself and join all the rest of you in the balcony where you and your choir are living a dream.
When you happen to walk up to a sideliner with his back to you and overhear him telling someone else that you're "not much of an organist" you can always tap him on the shoulder, tell him he only thinks he knows you, and invite him to sub for you at the next big event.
The organist is the only musician on the face of this earth who plays too fast and too slow, too loud and too soft, too smooth and too choppy, too familiar and too strange, too simple and too confusing, ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
Even J.S. Bach, his art, and even his education, were not immune in his day to the slings and arrows of malicious, rude, and undeserved criticism from charlatans and armchair experts.
It's tempting to get annoyed, if not angry, at the stupidity we discover around us -- but it's the organist's job to minister to everyone, not just those who know something about it and know better than to criticize.
An expert is someone who has stopped thinking.
The true pro in the audience will be a lifter who offers you and your singers an encouraging pat on the back for the job you did, someone for whom the very thought of throwing rocks at fellow musicians would be abhorrent.
Being a pro is an attitude.
Learn to laugh at things like this, know that you're in the best of company, and move on.
It's important to enjoy.

Oct. 22, 2018

(con't from Part XI)
Generally an organist must wait for cues to begin playing, and this is especially true when serving Masonic organizations.
This presents a number of challenges, not the least of which is that the Mason on the organ bench must know the ceremony or work at hand well enough to know 1) when to expect to play, 2) for how long, 3) what has to be performed (choral accompaniments, incidental music, repertoire, etc.), 4) what type of mood, if any, the music is expected to portray, and 5) how much advance preparation and practice will be needed, among other things.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
Let's be clear: it's no accident, ever, when the music sounds well; it's the result of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work, plain and simple.
Those listeners who think that an organist can just sit down to a colossal affair like this (photo), turn it on, and by some mysterious process a stream of inspired sound will emerge from the instrument automatically simply because the bench is being occupied -- that all a Masonic musician has to do is simply show up at the event, sit on the bench, have a good time, and go home without doing any of the heavy lifting -- that a brother with a modicum of talent can "play it in his sleep" and doesn't need as much preparation as he's claiming -- those who think such things are laboring under a very serious misconception.
Those who have themselves convinced that there's no real work involved with the musician's job should try doing it for just one year.
Everyone in the audience may have had a full, restful night's sleep the night before, but they don't always stop and think about what could be going through the mind of the musician whose instrument must lead the opening and closing Ode, perform the incidental music, or accompany the choir -- that the excitement of the next day's work may have had that musician unable to fall asleep easily or maybe waking up every hour through the night knowing that the alarm clock will ring very early the next day so he can get himself ready to leave the house in the dark to get there on time.
No one usually considers that this same brother may be trying to perform the music for us, complicated music at that, on 3 hours sleep.
They also don't stop and think that performing at the organ before an audience at an important annual or semi-annual event is very much like the Olympic games; the musician doing the performing may have practiced for months, even years, to get that song, that hymn, that piece of music just right, and the moment that musician has to produce, they have one shot at it.
They're like an Olympic figure skater doing a triple axel under the steady gaze of a curious public and a panel of judges; if the skater manages to get it right this one time in their life, they've succeeded -- it all boils down to what they do in that one moment in time ... only in the case of organists their listeners demand that they earn their wings each and every day, with every bar of music played.
Any battle that Masonic organist currently may be having with a serious health problem, the struggle they may be having with the side effects of medication, their family responsibilities, lack of sleep, distractions, interruptions, hardships -- none of that matters an inkling to an audience.
The listener typically doesn't have a clue about what it takes, what that musician had to sacrifice to get himself to this point, and doesn't care.
But that musician cares.
Listeners don't always stop and think that the same 70 year old sleep-deprived organist whom they heard make some mistakes in their playing today, while fighting to maintain concentration waiting for some wretched cue, may have practiced 3 hours on an organ bench every day for the last 2 weeks getting ready for this meeting while a great many other seniors in the audience during this same time frame were at home watching television, taking a nap, chasing a golf ball, sipping ice tea from their folding chair, playing with their grandchildren, or working their hand held device.
It often happens that the Masonic organist staring at the score sitting on the rack is made to wait a time, more or less prolonged, before he's given the cue to begin playing.
He readies himself at these times by bringing his concentration into tight focus; he begins thinking about the mood of the piece, its structure, tempo, registration, and a hundred other things while he keeps his eyes glued to the first page, ready to charge out of the chute at any second.
If then he's forced to wait too many minutes in this condition, maybe with his hands and feet poised above the keys with nothing to do just yet, something begins to happen: he tends to let up, recoil a little, and his concentration begins to wane a bit.
Then, if all of a sudden, he's given the cue to play, the music must sound immediately with no time to reset himself to begin playing; the train winds up leaving the station without him being fully ready to take off, and playing mistakes are the result.
Practice, unfortunately, doesn't seem to help with this; he still messes up even when the song or hymn is well known to him and he can play it by heart (provided he has a few moments to where he can start it when he's ready).
This is a tricky business, and there may be no real solution for it except to know that it can happen and try to do our best to either prevent it or recover quickly from it.
Here's what we say to ourselves, if and when it does happen: Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow, which will probably be a better day than today; it's better to be performing in public when the heat is on and messing up, taking our licks, learning from it, and moving on, than to be playing at home with no one else ever listening.
In a world bulging with complaining, where compliments are not plentiful, we organists simply go about our business no matter what comes; we strive for excellence and do the best we can, knowing that it's a waste of time to pursue perfection, for no matter how many times we practice a work, a song, a hymn, each time we play it there will be a difference.
The number of people -- men, women, and children -- who refuse even to try to learn something new unless they can do it perfectly are legion; they think that every attempt they make to produce something has to be the next Michelangelo masterpiece.
This is destructive to all legitimate creative activity and anathema to any practitioner of the creative arts; perfection and the folly of its pursuit is the true art-killer.
It is certain that there will be times when a Masonic organist is less than happy about the job he did because of the uncertainty of cues, not knowing exactly how long he needs to play, or for declining health, not feeling well that day, or other reasons; this is inevitable and to be expected.
The more conscientious he is, the more disappointment he may feel from his own perspective upon returning home that day because he knows in his heart that he can play far better than what people heard.
It happens to all of us ... there are no exceptions.
What he doesn't always consider is that the idea that the organist didn't do a good job wasn't universally felt from the floor, officers, and candidates who were genuinely appreciative of hearing the instrument sound under his hands and feet.
Tomorrow will be another day, a better day.
As for "the complainers" -- we speak here only of that very small, theoretical group of hard to please, perpetually dissatisfied, self-centered, self-appointed semi-afficionados who, if ever present, have nothing constructive to offer and only know how to talk about their annoyances -- such people, if offered the organist's job, couldn't do it and they know it.
Faced with the same set of tasks they would know how to do just one thing, and one thing only -- run and hide.



Oct. 7, 2018

(con't from Part V)
Every organist who is part of a staff of organists working for the same institution can sometimes find themselves having to sub for and take over the duties of the Principal Organist and Director of Music for an indefinite period.
The amount of advance notice given in these types of situations is often minimal, and there may be only a limited amount of time on the clock to get the music ready for an important event.
Because this world is so full of surprises like this and the day can be short (photo) it's helpful to have a plan in mind for how to make our practice time really count as such times.
When we have only two weeks to prepare for an event two days long, for example, and there is new learning and a certain amount of review involved, the question becomes, is it better strategy to 1) keep all the music from the entire event in one hunk, go through all the preludes, choral accompaniments, communion songs, altar music, hymns, etc. from it in their chronological order and practice them piecemeal every day accordingly as today's time will allow, then pick up practicing the next day where we left off, or to 2) break down the entire big event into several smaller but manageable sections, give concentrated practice to the first section the first day before moving on, then practice the next section the next day, perhaps by including a quick run-through of the previous day's work? ...
The results could vary from individual to individual, but this author has found the second method to yield more progress for the time and effort spent.
The probable reason for this has to do with the way the brain stores memory: it seems evident that it can do a better job of consolidating new memory, i.e. moving the day's learning from a temporary place of storage to a place of permanent storage (where it can be accessed in the future) when more repetitions are possible.
Repetition is the key; by breaking up the entire task into smaller chunks, more repetitions are possible each day in the same amount of time.
This little tip for making the best use of very limited practice time is often all it takes to eliminate anxiety as the event approaches and to boost one's confidence the day of, when the heat is on.