Sep. 20, 2015

Widor 5 toccata, Part I

The music is the star in any performance, NOT the performer.  For the player who knows how to listen, organ music will suggest its own tempo relative to the instrument's type of key action and its breathing in its own acoustical environment.  Speed in organ playing therefore is an illusion.  What counts is how well a language of warmth and meaning can be communicated using the instrument and building at hand, i.e. how well the majestic powers at work on the page can be delivered clearly to the listener in the present circumstances without upsetting the music.  In pursuing these objectives, extremes should be avoided like the plague.  No music from the standard repertoire illustrates this better than the Toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony of Charles-Marie Widor.

This work is a favorite wedding recessional, Easter Sunday postlude, and, believe it or not, some people even ask for it to be played at their funeral!  If the organist is able to manage it, it's pure rock and roll, the equivalent of sitting in a Lamborghini Gallardo on the open road, pressing down the gas, and feeling the G-forces pressing you back into your seat.  It's Widor's best known organ piece and, save for the Toccata and Fugue in d minor BWV 565 of Bach, the most widely recorded organ work ever.  Because it's 10 pages long, has over 5,000 written noteheads, and proceeds in an unbroken rhythm from beginning to end, it's become, through no fault of its own, a vehicle for display, a transcendental etude "a la Liszt," a tool for measuring the extreme to which a fast tempo can be red-lined.  It was not conceived as an etude, but it's almost single-handedly given birth to the mistaken idea that whoever can perform it at tornado speed without dropping a note can play anything.  Some players even argue, with apologies to Bach, that this work is "the greatest organ composition ever written" and the result, when they play it, sounds more like the Flight of the Bumblebee than Widor.  In so doing, the work is reduced to little more than a time trial.

New organists sometimes sell themselves short and let this one scare them.  Granted, it's not an easy piece -- some organists say they've been working on it all their lives, it's their favorite organ piece, and they still can't seem to get past the first few opening chords.  But it isn't the  hardest organ piece to learn, either -- some of the standard repertoire is a good bit more difficult.  True, there's a lot to consider when practicing it, but It isn't insurmountable.  It will take determination and a little attention to detail to get it under the fingers, but it will fall in place more quickly than the new organist might think.  We just need to come at it thoughtfully and remember not to fall into the "speed is skill" trap.  Just because the organist across town is playing this music faster than we do does not mean they're playing it "better" or with more musicianship, or, that we have to do the same from now on, to prove ourselves equally skilled.  That fallacy should be dispelled immediately.

The use of "bat out of hell" tempos at the organ causes all short notes played in rapid succession to blur -- to collapse into each other.  When this happens, what reaches the ear of the listener is nothing more than an indistinct wash of sound.  It's hard to take in the countryside at 500 mph.  The same is true in music.  We need to be careful not to expect to dart through this work at a ruinous tempo, playing it as if we're parked in a tow away zone, and not giving it time to develop a life of its own [see Balance In Organ Playing, Part I].  The composer created it to be music, not a speed drill, and it's up to the performer to breathe life into what can easily become yet another empty performance of an old standby.

Here's the problem with playing this piece too fast:  In every measure of this work save for the closing chords Widor writes moving arpeggios of 32nd notes separated into 4 groups of 8 notes each, with a slur mark over the first 2 notes in each group of 8 notes, and staccato dots over the other 6 notes; this notation indicates legato touch for the first 2 notes of each group and staccato touch for the remaining 6.  The composer took the time to mark the score accordingly because he wanted very minute separations between each of these last 6 moving notes in each grouping of 8 moving 32nd notes.  These minute separations are so short they can be heard, but not counted.  As the tempo is increased more and more, at some point a threshold is reached at which these last 6 moving notes can no longer be articulated at all and have to be joined legato, which is not what the composer had in mind.  This is why, in every recording made on every organ where the organist races through this music, the moving arpeggios sound legato because excessive speed is making it impossible to play them broken.  When this work is performed on an organ with mechanical (tracker) action without pneumatic assist it might not be possible at proper concert tempo to get the moving notes staccato at all -- unless, of course, a very slow, ponderous tempo is used.

The point being made here is simply this:  touch and tempo are related.  To the ears of a crowd of adoring fans standing on their feet offering thunderous applause, the organist who plays this work insanely fast can do no wrong; such an audience is often unaware that many majestic moments were missed along the way because the music they just heard was raced through in a way that would have Charlie Widor spinning in his grave like a turbine.  It's both amusing and sad to listen to the uninitiated cheering "Bravo, Bravo!!" after this work has been torn to pieces by the organist and the final chord is released as if a grenade went off, both hands exploding high into the air, when the same people cheering the loudest are demonstrating that they know the least about what they just saw, what they just heard, and what failed to be delivered to them.

Certain technical bounds to speed in this work are set by the instrument's action and the way it breathes in its own acoustical environment.  This could also affect the type of touch demanded for the moving notes in order to keep the tempo from becoming too slack in speed and oppressively dull when performed exactly as written on the page.  The keys for the reiterated left hand chords in this piece require a tiny split of a second to rebound sufficiently before they're pressed down again.  This is not always evident to those who perform only on electrically assisted actions which can better accomodate runaway tempos.  Electrically assisted actions render the manuals of an organ inert, the old sense of touch dies [See blog, Touch, Parts I-V], and it becomes more obvious that the organ with its long drawn-out sounds is contrary to the idea of extreme rapidity.  Practicing just the manual parts of this work on an acoustic piano or a weighted keyboard is a good idea as it will help develop the required finger strength and independence.

In a recording made in the almost strangely dry acoustics of New York City's Riverside Church, Virgil Fox raced through this piece in only 4:30 minutes (crotchet = 152, roughly), but in the very wet acoustics of the Cathedral in Ulm, Germany, Diane Bish recorded it in the nearly identical time of 4:32 minutes.  Regardless of the size of the reverberant field, some listeners have actually complained about being bored to death whenever this music is played less fast.  Jeanne Demessieux recorded this work at St. Mark's Church in London in a mere 4:24 minutes (crotchet = 156, rougnly), the most extreme tempo of any recording known to this writer.  When in all of these recordings the prestissimo tempo is making it impossible to observe the composer's markings for articulation, this is virtuosity, to be sure, but not serving the music.  Being able to display tremendous speed like this is a wonderful gift to have, but when someone is a recognized virtuoso they don't have to repeatedly slaughter this piece to prove over and over again, wherever their travels take them, that they ARE a virtuoso.

Should an audience have to sit there and listen to a speed-demon organist racing through the Widor 5 Toccata and absolutely murdering it? ... Certainly not.  They can always come back at a later time and listen to that same organist playing Bach way too fast and murdering HIS music, too.

Seriously, Widor was already quite perturbed in his day to learn that virtuoso musicians were ignoring his markings in the score.  Prestissimo is not what the composer had in mind when he marked this music "Allegro," which means "lively."  When Widor recorded it himself at Saint-Sulpice in Paris (photo) in 1932 the performance time clocked in at 7:00 minutes (crotchet = 80).  A ponderously slow tempo (crotchet = 62, roughly) at the extreme end of the scale is traditionally used by Vatican organists when performing it at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, often as a recessional for Christmas Eve midnight Mass.  This translates to an overall timing around 7:30 minutes.  Under most conditions this tempo would be entirely too slow and sound like the organist was trudging through molasses, but when performed in this largest church in the world where it takes time for the clergy to travel the long aisles, ponderous tempos like this can at times be helpful in getting recessional music to "stretch."  But the price to be paid for stretching music this much to fit a longer time frame is that it can sound labored, which it does on these occasions.

Once again, those organists who have studied with any of Widor's students are quick to relate that Widor's main criticism of most organists playing this work is their failure to observe his markings of articulation for the moving notes.  Many performers, even when they play it slower, slur notes all over the place in this music when Widor did not mark it that way.  They also change the original phrasing and deliberately try to play it as fast as they can just manage.  Several organists also incorrectly double the tempo in the last 2 bars, falling into the trap of timing the half-note values into quarter-notes, and whole-note values into halfs.  They may be able to get through it at Olympic sprint speed but that's hardly the point.  Widor knew what he wanted.  It's actually more difficult to play it slower because the articulation, being considerably exposed, has to be much more subtle and intelligent.

It often helps to keep the wrist moving and the rhythmic framework flexible using a mix of two basic tempos:  1) a brisk starting tempo (crotchet = 118, roughly) when the moving notes are in the right hand, and 2) a very slightly slower Tempo II (crotchet = 110, roughly) when the moving notes switch to the left hand, to keep the left hand clear.  This coordinated mix of 2 tempos, along with a liberal use of minute pauses and stretch outs placed where something ends and something else starts, usually succeeds in avoiding this music's chief danger (monotony) because of its unbroken rhythm from beginning to end.  When performed this way, the work occupies something in the neighborhood of 6:00 to 6:15 minutes, depending upon the organ's action and how it breathes in its acoustical environment.  Certain professional organists may want to put me in the pillory for saying so, but a playing time of 5:45 minutes seems to define the speed threshold at which, if played any faster, the majesty of the music seems to be sacrificed.  We therefore have to be careful with this one, as our technique grows and permits us to play it faster, to keep it from sounding like one loud mess with the moving arpeggios all smearing together and the 16th-note chords are barely separated enough to be distinguishable.

(continued in Part II)