For those of you who celebrate the holiday, Merry Christmas!
I wish all of my readers good health, good fortune, and peace in the coming year, and, of course, abundant music.
I hope you have a wonderful day.
For those of you who celebrate the holiday, Merry Christmas!
I wish all of my readers good health, good fortune, and peace in the coming year, and, of course, abundant music.
I hope you have a wonderful day.
Flashing fingers fly
And dance across the keyboard
Weaving their magic.
Feet too join the dance
Executing bass figures,
Sliding as on ice.
The word toccata
Means to touch—fingers, yes, and
Heart and soul and mind.
The toccata is by nature a flashy piece of music. It typically includes fast runs of notes, and can sound like an improvisation. It is a showcase for a musician’s skills. Toccatas are typically written for a keyboard instrument, but that’s not a requirement—toccatas have been written for string instruments, and even for orchestra (the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is a toccata). While the form had its heyday in the Baroque period, with Bach, master improviser, at the summit (Toccata in D Minor, the toccata everyone knows), the form never entirely went away.
Schumann wrote a Toccata in C (Op. 7) which he believed was the most difficult music at the time. In this video, you can follow the sheet music, which will give you an idea of the complexity. Liszt also gave it a whirl (Toccata, S. 197a).
Ravel included a toccata in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes is a toccata as well. One can also look to the finale of Widor’s Symphony No. 5 for a fine example of a toccata. You can find some videos of the finale here, including Widor himself playing the toccata.
And now for the strings! The last movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto contains a toccata, and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 5, a viola concerto, also contains a toccata (he also wrote a Toccata for a Mechanical Piano, meaning a player piano, which you can see here).
If you’re ever having a blah day, and need a quick pick-me-up, try a toccata!
In the late 19th and early 20th century, France produced a cavalcade of composers who were also exceptional organists, including Charles-Marie Widor, César Franck (born in Belgium, lived in France), Gabriel Fauré, and Camille San-Saëns.
While each had their own individual style, the sound of French organ music of that era was defined by one man: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Cavaillé-Coll was an organ builder. In his lifetime, his firm installed or reconstructed around 500 organs in churches in Europe, Great Britain, and Latin America.
Cavaillé-Coll was responsible for a number of technical innovations and for the introduction of organ voices that imitate various instruments in the orchestra. This led to these organs being called “symphonic organs.” Franck said, “My new organ? It’s an orchestra!” and Widor praised the responsiveness of the organ and variety of new orchestral voices.1
The organ builder worked closely with composers, and modified his designs based on their input. One might suggest that organ compositions might also have been influenced by the opportunities provided by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.
The best known of the Cavaillé-Coll organs is at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France. The church has two organs, the main, and the choir organ. It is said that sometimes Widor and Fauré (Saint-Sulpice’s choir director at the time) would improvise at the same time at the two organs and try to confound each other with abrupt key changes.2
Charles-Marie Widor’s most widely-known organ work is his Toccata, which is the final movement of his Organ Symphony No. 5 (he wrote ten). Here is a live recording of Widor’s Toccata played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice by Ethan LaPlaca. While the video was never meant to be a final-cut video (people talking in the background, light distortions, a camera tilt oops), I picked it for the sheer exuberance of playing and the brilliance of the sound. The page turner to the organist’s right is Daniel Roth, the current organist of Saint-Sulpice, the same post Widor and Marcel Dupré held before him.
Here is a recording of Charles Widor playing his Toccata on the Saint-Sulpice organ when he was 88 years old. Fierce debates rage about the tempo—is the tempo Widor used in the recording the one that he intended for the piece, or was it influenced by his advanced age? Do some organists play it too fast? Here is a very fast performance. You be the judge.
There is a documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll, which comes as a box set that includes video from 15 different organs, music CDs, and a book of technical specifications.
A number of Cavaillé-Coll organs have been digitally sampled so that one can reproduce the sound using a virtual pipe organ (an electronic organ using recorded samples of an actual pipe organ via computer software, typically Hauptwerk or the free open-source program GrandOrgue). While it will not be the same as sitting at the console in Saint-Sulpice, it’s a little closer to home. Here is a Cavaillé-Coll virtual pipe organ performance of Henri Mulet’s Carillon Sortie performed by David Lines.
Image attribution: Aristide Cavaille-Coll, heliography by Dujardin, circa 1894, age 83 [Public domain] via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll.jpg.
I did some unintentional time travelling yesterday.
I was testing out a new audio cable, and decided to connect it to my audio receiver.
On a whim, I decided to try it with an LP. I randomly grabbed a record from a section of the shelf I knew would yield some favorite, and put on my headphones.
As the needle settled into the groove, I settled into my armchair. The sound was fine. In fact, it was superb.
I had picked out an album of Bach organ works that I’ve had since I was a teenager. I found myself sitting in the same position I would have been in then: seated diagonally, head nestled in the wing of the armchair, leg draped over the armrest, dangling, foot keeping time. Like then, I closed my eyes and absorbed the sound of what my mother would call “staring into space music.”
Back then the world was still a mostly unknown place to me. Germany, where Bach was from, was a far-off land where they spoke a language I didn’t understand. I was sure I’d never get there. People didn’t just go to Europe. Not the folks I knew, anyway.
Then, and now, the music made me think of the soaring stained-glass windows of cathedrals that I’d seen in books. If I opened my eyes back then, outside my window I saw soaring green trees, or the tracery of bare branches, or autumn leaves forming their own stained-glass pattern. At dusk, the view was marred by the light of a small gas station sign beyond the woods that seemed so far off then, though it was only a mile away.
I wasn’t sure what I’d end up doing, but I was looking forward to stepping out into that great big world and starting the adventure. As there was no internet at the time, and “blogger” would have sounded like some made-up nonsense word, well, how could I have known?
And then, the reverie was broken; an LP side only lasts so long. And I was back to the future, now my present.
And how unexpectedly glorious that future had been. Once I learned to drive, I passed that gas station regularly, though I didn’t recognize it and make the connection at first. The world grew. I learned to speak German, and have been to Germany a couple of times, though not yet to any of Bach’s towns.
And as I had listened to Bach in my current comfortable chair, I realized I understood more of what was happening, there were more “I see what you did there” moments. I now have access to sheet music, to see for myself—and now everyone does. And if you’ve got an internet connection, you can listen online to Bach works for organ, cello and more for free without annoying pops or crackles from the record (though they’re so familiar now I find them somewhat endearing).
I don’t know where Bach will take you, but I believe it will be a wonderful journey.
Here is the Toccata in F Major (BWV 540) played by Diane Bish. Some folks will say this is played too fast, but I love it, it’s exciting!
List of Bach Freebies
Spotify users: someone has made curated playlists for all of Bach’s works. Read about it here.
Spotify users: if you want to hear the Hänssler Classic complete set of Bach recordings (under the direction of Helmuth Rilling), read about it here.
Sheet music and, for some pieces, MIDI or mp3 files http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Bach,_Johann_Sebastian
Open Well-Tempered Clavier https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/sets/openwtc
Open Goldberg Variations https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/goldberg-variations
Image attribution: Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11, Flickr.com, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2.0. Click here for source page.
I’ve been working on an interesting musical construction project I want to tell you about. But first, I want to take you on a detour to give you some background.
When I was still in school, I had a Yamaha Electone organ, one of the home organs that were popular in the 1970s. Here’s a picture from the ad booklet. Check out those sideburns! Does this picture scream 70s or what?
That model is bigger than what you’d normally think of as a “home” model. I didn’t start out with that one though.
It all started with a little air-driven couple-octave reedy toy organ that was not so much musical as LOUD. Like a bad accordion hooked up to an air pump. Not cool.
One Christmas, my father got my mother a fancy (by comparison) Magnus organ with buttons for six of the most popular major and minor chords. Same principle as the first one, but much more sophisticated (wow! volume control!).
I played it more than my mother did, and soon set up the LOUD keyboard next to the Magnus, and played them both at the same time. It was time for a model with two keyboards.
So, I graduated to a Yamaha with two short keyboards and an octave of pedals. Pretty nifty. There was one problem.
I started running out of keys.
Oddly enough, one of my children ran into the same problem with an electric keyboard I had, which prompted me to buy the Piano That Does 11.
Loudness does seem to be a theme here, doesn’t it?
So, a short time later, my parents traded in the little Yamaha for the big Electone. But here was the deal: I could have the Electone, but there would be no lessons.
I worked my way through the home course that was provided, and bumbled my way into reading music and chords and pedaling. It was wonderful. It was loud (yeah, I know…). If I played a certain frequency loud enough, the metal Venetian blinds would rattle. Not optimal concert conditions. See photo for Venetian blinds.
When I moved away, the Electone waited for me at home. My mother polished it every week.
I had planned to get a truck and move it to my current residence. One day, I switched it on and gave it a whirl (literally—it has a spinning Leslie speaker). Suddenly, no sound. An internal fuse had failed. Once I found out which one to replace (with the help of a technician), I would pop one in whenever this occurred.
Unfortunately, it started occurring regularly. I couldn’t play for more than a few minutes before it died. Clearly, there were bigger problems.
I was torn. I hated to let it go. It would probably cost too much to fix (if I could find someone to fix it, if it was fixable). It would cost to move it to my house, and then, how long would it last?
How could I replace it? I have two keyboards (aside from the Piano That Does 11) at my home. But pedalboards are expensive.
So I started researching.
I found webpages showing ways to convert old pedalboards so they can be used with modern technology. Keyboard output can be integrated as well. There is software called Hauptwerk that has samples of the great organs of the cathedrals of the world that you can use as the voices of your keyboards and pedals. So I could play one of the great Cavaillé-Coll organs in my own home! And there are no Venetian blinds to rattle!
Which brings me to my construction project.
I brought the pedalboard and bench to my house. The pedalboard has not been converted yet, but it’s a start. I’ve already set up my keyboards.
I slid onto the bench, powered up both keyboards, selected voices, balanced the volumes (not too loud), and…magic. It’s wonderful, and surprising vestiges of what I once played remain in my memory. But more importantly, my musical world is much larger than it was back then, and I think I see some Bach organ works in my future.
Hmmmm, I wonder if that spinning speaker can be rewired….
Tender, calm, and so peaceful:
A requiem that dwells on
Eternal rest and light, peace,
Mercy and welcome.
Grace and elegance,
Music that soothes and comforts:
The more I have read about Gabriel Fauré, the more I have wanted to read. And the more I have listened to his music, the more I have wanted to hear. What a fascinating fellow!
He was drawn to music at an early age, and was sent to study at a music school in Paris, which in time was headed by Camille Saint-Saëns. At first, Saint-Saëns was Fauré’s teacher, but the two became close friends.
After graduation, Fauré worked as a church organist…until he showed up one Sunday morning in his evening clothes after partying all night. Thereafter, he became the organist at a different church.1
He fought in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 1
After the war, he was choirmaster at Saint-Sulpice, where Charles-Marie Widor was organist. The church had two organs, and the two would improvise together, trying to trick each other with unexpected key changes. Saint-Saëns described Fauré as “a first-class organist when he wanted to be.” 1
As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Fauré taught Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, among others. He later became the school’s director, and modernized procedures and updated the curriculum to include works by Debussy and Wagner. Old-timers were not amused by the inclusion of this newfangled music. However, the group of contemporary composers known as Les Six adored him. 1
Fauré’s music spanned the period between Romanticism and 20th century music. His later music hints at the changes that were occurring at the time, away from a fixed tonality and traditional chord progressions, and toward more amorphous harmonies. His last work was his first string quartet, finished less than two months before he died. 1
An example of Fauré embracing the modern is now a great treasure. He recorded a number of piano rolls, and through them, we can hear him playing his own music. At the links you can hear Fauré play his Pavane (Op. 50), a Valse Caprise from Op. 38, a Valse Caprice from Op. 59, and Nocturne No. 7 (Op. 74).
I would be remiss to omit Fauré’s Requiem. I could write an entire post on it—and I will, because I am currently learning to sing it. But I need to immerse myself in it more first to be able to adequately describe it to you. It is a towering work, a giant, but one that whispers. A deeply emotional work, yet one that Fauré said that he wrote “for nothing—for fun, if I may say so!”2 The Requiem departs from the traditional requiem text, and focuses on eternal rest and perpetual light. In a way, it is reminiscent of the Brahms German Requiem in its comforting tone. It is beautiful, and I look forward to singing it and telling you more about it soon.
It is hard to know what to highlight, there are so many works I could present for you. I’ll pick two. First, his lovely song Aprés Un Rêve, sung here by Pumeza Matshikiza with pianist Simon Lepper.
And, for now, I leave you with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) for orchestra and choir. Fauré wrote this when he was 19 years old, and it took first prize in a composition competition (imagine his competitors!).
Image attribution: Photograph of Gabriel Fauré by De Jongh, Lausanne, 1907 [Public domain in US], original held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faure1907.jpg
Hey, ready to start another fine workweek?
Whether it’s the Monday blahs, a rainy day, or feeling like you didn’t get enough sleep (or all three), sometimes we all need a little kickstart.
You know what we need? Some Bach. Immediately. Better than caffeine.
My first prescription is the Gigue Fugue (Fugue in G Major, BWV 577). You may know I’m a fan of the fugue (see here and here …and here), but this one is special. You see, you get to dance the fugue. Check out Matthias Havinga having a great time with this fugue. His playing is brilliant!
Feel a little better? I hope so.
If you need a little pick-me-up later, here’s the Great Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542) performed by Cameron Carpenter. Ever see someone play three keyboards with two hands? Look for it. And more dancing!
If you’d prefer a more subdued, half-caf version, you can watch this colorful graphical representation of the score, which will help you see how all those notes repeat and interweave.
I hope you have a wonderful day!
After writing about Haydn, and how much of his work remains generally unknown, I got to thinking about other composers whose worthy work has been overlooked. And one name came to mind immediately.
Handel went to visit him (and was offered a job, on the condition that he marry Buxtehude’s daughter—he departed shortly thereafter). He was a distinct influence on Brahms.
Bach walked 250 miles to Lübeck to hear him play, and spent three months there absorbing his music and techniques. Wow. Few modern bands excite that kind of devotion…
Buxtehude is mainly known for his organ works. He also, however, composed numerous works for voice, as well as chamber music. Only the librettos of his oratorios survive.
Here is a fine example of a vocal piece by Buxtehude, Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (BuxWV92).
Chamber music fans will enjoy the Sonata in D Major for viola da gamba, violone, and harpsichord (BuxWV267)
And finally, one of Buxtehude’s better known organ works, the Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne in C Major (BuxWV137), played here much faster than anyone else, but with great verve and precision, by Ton Koopman (side note: the organ pipes used as a background to this video seem very Monty Pythonesque to me).
Those looking for more by Buxtehude will not be disappointed by YouTube.
Need sheet music? Go to the webpage of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society. Its president, Ton Koopman (whom you heard above), has recorded all of Buxtehude’s surviving music, and has made the sheet music available for download. The downloads page also lists other online sources for Buxtehude’s music.
Image attributions: Portrait of Buxtehude, detail from the painting A Musical Party by Johannes Voorhout, 1674, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Imagebuxtehude.jpg
Portrait of J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg, modified by C. Gallant, 2016.
It’s getting toward Halloween here in the US and I got to thinking about spooky music.
Why is it that organ music is always considered mad scientist/evil mastermind music?
I mean, think about it: do these guys have time to be practicing their arpeggios and pedalwork?
Do they really want their hands tied up with massive nasty, gnarly chords?
Is it easy to come up with byzantine evil plans while playing the intricate counterpoint of a fugue?
Can we picture an evil mastermind wearing sensible organist shoes?
I guess we’re stuck with that image though.
So, ok, we’re going with it. What are our options here to make folks think an evil genius lives at your house while you’re handing out candy at Halloween?
Everyone thinks of the Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor first. Recordings of ALL of Bach’s organ music are available for free. Or you can download a subset of more familiar pieces. The pieces were recorded by Dr. James Kibbie on baroque organs in Germany (learn more about the project here).
Also, check out The 13 Scariest Pieces of Classical Music for Halloween (and the readers’ suggestions) for classics like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, and Liszt’s Totentanz, among others.
Here Stockhausen presents his composition Gesang der Jünglige, which is just a little unnerving, and I imagine terrifying in the dark, played at low volume in some obscure corner.
Got 99 cents? Go to Amazon’s MP3 store for The Darkest Classical Piano Pieces, or the Little Box of Horror, or 100 Must-Have Horror Classics. All may not be what you think of as terror-inducing but for 99 cents, one can’t quibble.
And finally, this less terrifying but fascinating mash-up of classical works by Guy Cavill, from The Frankenstein Suite, Movement 3, It’s Alive – The Frankenstein Breathes. I like how the composers’ faces morph into one another in the video, all focused on the eyes.
Do you have any other suggestions for scary music? What’s the most terrifying music you’ve heard?