Sep. 20, 2015

Widor 5 toccata, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

By taking the time to place a slur over the first 2 of the moving arpeggiated notes in this work, staccato dots (See blog, Touch, Part I) over the remainder, and mark all succeeding moving notes "sempre staccato," broken touch for the arpeggiated notes obviously was what Widor wanted, and nothing else.  When this piece is practiced it's usually suggested that this opening right hand part be practiced agonizingly slowly until each staccato note is given exactly half its written value, and only then begin to increase the speed and take up the left hand part.

The left hand chords falling on each half note beat (photo) are also marked in the score with an accent (>).  This accent can be made using 2 different means:  1) by altering this chord's duration slightly, holding it very slightly longer, just long enough to be noticed by the ear, without a change in tempo (this type of accent is called an agogic accent), or 2) by holding the chord back a barely appreciable trifle before it's struck.

The next left hand chord which follows, being marked staccato, is played on the beat and held exactly half its written value.  These two left hand chords are then repeated on every succeeding half note beat, forming a series of repeating accented/staccato chord pairs throughout the rest of the piece.  Each succeeding chord pair is executed exactly the same way.  Care should be taken to observe these accents but not hold on to the first chord of each pair too long, which creates a marcato touch.  Holding on too long on every half note beat this way runs the risk of making the listener "sea sick."  The idea is to give the first chord of each pair a very subtle accent that's not noticed on the second chord, but with definite, audible separations between them.  This automatically sets certain technical bounds to speed.

Some very capable organists have admitted that they've worked this piece for years and never could get past the first page (photo).  Admittedly, this work on paper looks a little horrific with its torrent of black noteheads that never lets up from beginning to end through 10 daring pages.  The secrets, if secrets they may be called, to developing a convincing interpretation and the requisite endurance for making one's way through this music are 1) first, start with a balanced bench position (see Balance in Organ Playing, I, II, III, What About Bench Position), 2) settle on a good starting tempo and how it will be nuanced (see Part I), 3) practice the staccato notes and chords very slowly at first, in the right hand (this may be done at the piano, always being careful to stop at the first sign of strain or fatigue), getting them to first sound at exactly half their written value (see Touch, I) before bringing the tempo up to speed, 4) raise and lower the wrists as you play to keep tension from setting in (see Touch, IV), 5) develop flexibility in the bridge of the hand, which allows more finger movement from the knuckle down (see Touch, IV, Exercises, I), and then 6) take up the left hand part.  The organist who pays heed to these 6 things, in this order, and goes at practice with determination a little every day, is on track to developing a very fine rendition of this famous work and can be expected to finish the last page fresh as a daisy without fatigue.

There's an infamous "impossible" stretch of a 10th in the reiterated left hand chords on the last beat of measure 8 just before the pedal enters.  Some players can manage this stretch with the left hand, but many cannot.  Whenever fingering and hand division can solve a problem like this, it's generally best to solve it that way than to change the notes the composer wrote.  In this situation the high E in the left hand is taken by the right hand with an adjustment in the right hand fingering.

When the pedal enters right after this, on the high F, there's nothing wrong with taking a quick glance at the pedals to find this key.  It's better to look down than to miss it with the right foot [See blog, Looking Down].  Many performer simply choose to keep their feet poised over the opening pedal notes from the get-go until measure 9 when the pedal enters. 

Widor calls for diminuendos in the middle of the piece, and near the end, by closing the swell shoe, and these dynamic nuances should be observed.  We sometimes observe performers inserting a gap at the end of the first diminuendo which is not specified by the composer; this tends to diminish all the driving energy which preceded it.  With practice is should be possible to jump up to the Swell manual from the Great without any smudging of the notes, but here, some performers find it more comfortable to remain on the Great the entire time and simply retire the Great stops gradually as the box is closed to effect the diminuendo the composer wanted.  These are then added later as the Swell box is opened.

There is an awkward place in the left hand chords on the first beat of measure 63.  It's difficult to get the left hand into proper position from the last beat of measure 62 to hit the chords in measure 63 in correct time.  On this first beat of measure 63 the high F in the left hand chords can be taken by the right hand and resumed by the left hand on the 2nd beat, with an adjustment in fingering.  Here again, fingering and hand division solves this particular problem.

We sometimes observe that the final diminuendo written into the score beginning on measure 65 is ignored by the performer, as if the instrument for which Widor wrote had no enclosed division and only one manual, but this runs contrary to the composer's intentions as well, and the type of instrument for which he wrote.  Widor cleverly wrote this diminuendo into the music in order to widen the crescendo leading into the final chords.  He realized that, for those final, crushing chords to have their greatest dynamic impact, they needed to be preceded by a noticeable reduction in volume.  The way the composer notated this reduction was to assign the left hand part to a secondary enclosed division (viz., the one above the main manual) and to gradually close its swell shades.

The problem with this is that it tends to block the organist's view of the right hand.  Different organists solve this in different ways.  We sometimes observe this closing passage performed entirely on the Great manual, with crossed hands.  We also sometimes observe the left hand chords played one octave lower on the (Choir) manual below the Great with the suboctave stops retired on that (Choir) manual.  Some practice on the instrument at hand will suggest to the organist which way is more comfortable without tying the arms into a pretzel.

Throughout this music it helps to stabilize the positioning of the feet for the octave leaps on the note F.  As soon as the pedal stops playing, it's good to find the next pedal note to be played and keep that foot poised over it until the time for it to sound.  This too, will require some practice, to get comfortable with these leaps to where they become second nature.

These considerations, and there are others, should be sufficient to show that this music, obviously, cannot be interpreted with a Baroque mind set.  The composer of the Art of Fugue would be among the first to promote the idea that interpreters at the organ need to train themselves to approach the entire repertoire with interest, being mindful to adapt one's playing to all existing styles of music.  Sebastian Bach, even in his maturity, made detailed copies of all good organ music he could get his hands on, regardless of country of origin, and made it his business to learn how it was to be peformed.  He happened to be forced, through an accident of birth, to wander through the closing years of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century.  What resulted, in his case, beginning around 1700, was fifty years of white hot creativity.  This, as it turned out, was most fortuitous because it gave the world, among other things, the finest organ fugues in existence.  And, it's probably safe to conclude that there are certain pieces of his that he would not have conceived any differently if he were acquainted with modern organs.

If this man Bach had lived a century and a half later, it's no stretch to say that Bach the organist, with his almost superhuman invention, would have developed his touch at the piano rather than the clavichord (see Touch, Part II), would have written some of the most beautiful Romantic organ music imaginable, and would have performed this music idiomatically, i.e. consistent with the prevailing practices of the time.  Bach the total musician would have been an avid exponent of the 19th century orchestral organ and the additional possibilities it presents.  He would be among the first to say that just because another organ is built in a different style from previous centuries does not mean that it's inferior in any way.  He'd also be among the first to admit that shining Romantic organ music through a Baroque prism can create just as much aberration as Romanticizing Baroque organ music.