Sep. 20, 2015

Widor 5 toccata, Part I

For the player who knows how to listen, organ music will suggest its own tempo relative to the instrument's action and 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, and how well the majestic powers at work on the page can be delivered clearly to the listener, 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 Bach's "Great" Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the most widely recorded organ work in history.  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.

Organists, especially new organists, sometimes sell themselves short.  Don't let this one scare you.  Granted, it isn't easy -- people have 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 very hardest organ piece to learn, either -- some of the standard repertoire is significantly 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 get it under your fingers, but it will fall in place more quickly than you 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.  This 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.  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, you and me, 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:  Widor specifies the moving arpeggios to be played broken, i.e. articulated, with STACCATO touch, not legato.  He took the time to mark the score accordingly, with staccato dots, because he wanted very minute separations between each of these fast moving notes, NOT slurred together.  These minute separations can be heard, but not counted.  As the tempo is increased more and more, at some point a threshold is reached at which these notes can no longer be articulated at all and have to be slurred, which is not what the composer had in mind.  This is why, in every recording made, where the organist races through this music, the moving arpeggios are slurred.  They have to be, because the speed is making it impossible to play them broken.  At the same time, the 16th-note chords become indistinguishable from the 8th-note patterns because the human hands commanded by voluntary muscles also have limits as to how fast they can attack chords.  To the ears of a crowd of adoring fans standing on their feet offering thunderous applause, the organist who plays insanely fast this way can do no wrong.  They don't realize that many majestic moments were missed because the music they just heard was butchered.  The resulting breeze one is apt to feel is not from thousands of hands clapping together -- it's from Charlie Widor spinning in his grave like a turbine.

Practicing the manual parts of this work on a piano or mechanical action organ will develop the finger strength needed and drive home the point that the instrument itself, and how it breathes in its own acoustical environment, authomatically sets certain technical bounds to speed.  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 where the keys are equipped with springs which rebound more quickly and can accomodate runaway tempos at the expense of serving the music.  It makes one realize that 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.

Recording on the magnificent Aeolian-Skinner organ 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).  Diane Bish has recorded it multiple times on important instruments from around the world, some of which clocked in at 4:30, 4:47, 5:12, and 5:37 minutes.  Some listeners have complained about being bored to death whenever this music is played less fast.  The break neck tempo of 4:30 would have qualified for the Guiness Book of World Records were it not for Jeanne Demessieux who recorded it 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.  That's virtuosity, but not serving the music.   Being able to display tremendous speed like this is a wonderful gift to have, but when someone already 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.

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 is their lack of understanding of the symbol for STACCATO.  Many people, 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.  Then there's the tempo, playing it like a race car driver as so many people do.  Several organists also incorrectly double the tempo in the last 2 bars, falling into the trap of timing the half-note value into a quarter-note one, and whole-note values into halfs.  They can play at Olympic sprint speed but that's hardly the point.  Widor knew what he wanted.  It's actually more difficult playing it slower because the timing of individual notes cannot rely solely on the rebound effect, and 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 6:30 minutes, depending upon the acoustics.  A playing time of 5:40 minutes seems to define the speed threshold at which, if played any faster at all, distinctness is sacrificed and staccato gets steam-rollered out of existence.  We therefore have to be very 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 slurred and 16th-note chords indistinguishable from the 8th-note patterns, which are untrue to the score. 

(continued in Part II)