Sep. 20, 2015

Widor 5 toccata, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

Widor, like many other composers throughout history, revised some of his works since their original publication, and this organ Toccata was one of them.  The final chords, as revised, were different from the original and included an inverted pedal point in the right hand.  The original articulation the composer specified for the moving 32nd notes in the first 8 measures was also altered, possibly by editors, to render all of them staccato as we find in many editions these days.  The composer however placed a slur over the first 2 of the moving arpeggiated notes in these opening measures (photo) and staccato dots over all the others in the measures which followed adding the term "sempre staccato" [See blog, Touch, Part I].

The left hand chord falling on each half note beat was originally marked in the score with an accent (>) but does not always appear in the edition being used (photo).  This original 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 effecting any real change in tempo (this type of accent is called an agogic accent), or 2) by holding back the chord a barely appreciable trifle before it's struck (this latter type of accent seems to be the French tradition of accenting these notes in this work).

The next left hand chord which follows is 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 agogic 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.  The hold should be long enough to be heard but not counted.  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 agogic 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 which never let 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 lively but not insanely fast starting tempo and how it will be nuanced (see Part I), 3) practice the notes and chords legato and 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) 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 with average size hands cannot.  Whenever fingering and hand division can solve a problem with a wide stretch for a single hand it's generally best to solve it that way than to change the notes in a composer's score, but each situation for each player is unique.  In this case the high E in the left hand can either be taken by the right hand with an very quick adjustment made in the right hand fingering ... OR (as so many performers prefer to do) the E will be omitted and the left thumb will take the C below it, thereby doubling the root of the dominant 7th chord.

When the pedal enters right after this, on the high F, the left foot must remain poised on low F two octaves away which invites a groin pull.  There's nothing wrong with taking a quick glance at the pedals to find this high F key.  It's better to look down at it than to miss it with the right foot [See blog, Looking Down].  Another double octave stretch occurs soon thereafter on the note C.  This needs to be practiced many times for the player to get used to working the groin muscles and hip joints to manage these orchestral-styled double octave stretches for the feet.  Some younger performers, still risking a groin pull, simply choose to keep their feet poised over the opening pedal notes from the get-go until measure 9 when the pedal enters.  This habit, widely adopted for all types of playing, of keeping the feet poised over the next pedal note to be played is termed "pedal preparation."  

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.  This can be accentuated by skillful use of the combination action to reduce the number of stops and couplers to a less assertive layer of sound.  Some organists prefer to keep both hands on the main manual during these volume changes and effect them using pistons or ventils in addition to working the swell shoe.  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, again, some performers find it more practical to remain on the Great the entire time save for the last page and simply retire a few stops and couplers gradually as the box is closed to effect the diminuendo the composer wanted.  These stops and couplers 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 can work together to help smooth the execution.

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 denies the type of instrument for which he wrote.  Widor cleverly wrote this diminuendo into the music in order to effect a 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 the 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 the left hand chords played one octave lower on the (Choir) manual below the Great with the suboctave stops retired on that (Choir) manual.  The idea is to be able to play it comfortably 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 helpful to find the next pedal note to be played and keep that foot poised over it until the time for it to sound.  This is called "pedal preparation," but it still requires 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, needs to be interpreted keeping mind the sound-universe and performance practices known to the composer.  Sebastian Bach, were he alive today, 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 use stops, touch, and tempo to reflect the sound world and performing practices known to the composer.  Even in his maturity Bach made detailed copies of all good organ music that he could get his hands on regardless of country of origin, and he made it his business to learn how it should sound.  If he 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), he would have written some of the most beautiful Romantic organ music imaginable, and would have performed this music idiomatically.  It's probably also safe to say that Bach the total musician would have been an avid exponent of the application of electricity to organ building with the additional possibilities such instruments present.  At the same time it's likely that 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 it's inferior in any way and that shining Romantic organ music through a neo-Baroque prism can create just as much aberration as overly Romanticizing Baroque organ music.