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.

Save for this notorious Toccata of his, Widor's music remains largely unknown to the general public.  This work however 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 the greatest thrill ride of all time, pure rock and roll, the equivalent of sitting in a Lamborghini Gallardo on the open road, tromping down on the gas pedal, and feeling the G-forces pressing you back into your seat.  This Toccata from Widor's 5th is also the most widely recorded organ work ever, eclipsed only by Bach's ubiquitous Toccata & Fugue in d minor BWV 565.  Because it is 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 extremes 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 has found the groove and 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.  Speed can destroy it.  Many other major works for organ also have been shipwrecked by world class performers who set the starting tempo at breakneck speed.  What the listener gets to hear in such as case is a lot of correct notes, the see a lot of show, but musically it's a dumpster fire.

The use of bat-out-of-hell tempos at the organ causes all short notes played in rapid succession to collapse into each other.  When this blur 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 dying to get to the bathroom, 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; the literal indication of this notation calls for legato touch for the first 2 notes of each group and broken touch (non-legato, at least) for the remaining 6.  The composer took the time to mark the score accordingly because at the slow tempo he preferred and in the soaring acoustics of Saint-Sulpice where he played he wanted very minute separations between each of these last 6 moving notes in each grouping of 8 moving 32nd notes -- separations so short they can be heard, but not counted.  He so notated it this way because in that vast space the tempo had to be slowed down and the touch broken to keep the moving notes from smearing together.  In spaces where there is less reverberation and the sound dies away more quickly, the moving notes can be played, and may have to be played, legato to keep them from sounding too short and "clipped."  This also allows the longer pipes a minute fraction of a second more time to get on speech.

The point 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 with the wrong touch and ignoring accents 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 and often does affect the 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 with electrical assists it isn't always so 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 also a good idea as it will help develop the required finger strength and independence.  Developing finger technique with scales in double thirds and double sixths will make the playing of this piece much easier.  

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.  This evidently results from missing agogic accents, insufficient nuances in rhythm, and too little dynamic change.  Jeanne Demessieux recorded this work at St. Mark's Church in London in a mere 4:24 (crotchet = 156, rougnly), the most extreme tempo of any recording known to this writer.  This is virtuosity, to be sure, but not serving this 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.

NOTE:  While for sure he did not use as much rubato as Franck, it was Widor's habit to use agogic accents in order to interpret the musical text.  Widor's famous student Dupre, on the other hand, played everything in the style of Lemmens with steady rhythm, strict legato in all the parts, half value staccato, and all the rest.  Dupre also played to a lot of worldwide audiences of lay people, and regular tempos are easier for the interpreter to perform and the lay person to listen to.  The interpreter doesn't have to care about what happens behind the notes.  With agogic playing there is always the great danger of making too much of it.  If the rhythm remains steady the player doesn't have to call upon his deeper, more introspective side, but the music also runs the risk of sounding mechanical, page after page.  With Widor his rhythms were regular but not like steel wire, they was some agogic flexibility.  And so, the first things the performer needs to be asking are:  What is the world of the composer?  What is their sounding universe?  What is their art of touch?  What is their world of organ colors?  What is their agogic ideal?  Those performers who treat every piece they play as THEIR music, who ignore the will of the composer and insert their own personality into it front to back, are not being true to the music.  Every composer has a sounding universe and a will that need to be carefully considered when performing their music.  The personality of performers will appear when they have to take the decisions in passages where they cannot find the will of the composer.  

Widor's biggest complaint when hearing others play this work is that they were playing it too fast.  Prestissimo is NOT what he had in mind when he marked this music "Allegro," which means "lively."  When Widor himself recorded it 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 other 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.  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.  This is the opposite extreme.

Some performers decide to 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 this way, but that's hardly the point.  Widor knew what he wanted.  As a practical suggestion, 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 nuances -- minute pauses and stretch outs placed where something ends and something else starts -- usually succeeds in steering the music awat frin its chief danger (monotony) because of the unbroken rhythm from beginning to end.  When performed this way, the work occupies something a bit over 6 minutes, depending upon the organ's action and how it breathes in its acoustical environment.  A really fine performance of this work by Katelyn Emerson has been recorded on the Buzard organ of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania which clocked in at 6:45.  In this recording all of the moving notes are played legato, and the first note in each grouping of 8 notes and its associated chord in the other hand is accented by holding them both a barely appreciable trifle, so little that the agogic accent can be heard but not counted.  Also included in this performance which deserves careful study were masterful observance of diminuendos specified in the score combined with appropriate registration changes.  Certain professional organists may want to put me in the pillory for saying so, but a playing time of 5:45 seems to define the speed threshold at which, if played any faster, a good deal of the majesty baked into this music is 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.

(continued in Part II)

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