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Vox Humana

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  1. Just a heads up. Anyone thinking of rolling up to this 'on spec' would be well advised to book. The abbey doesn't seat as many as you might think. The nave seats are sold out and tickets are now available only for the quire and transepts - where you won't be able to see the player. https://www.buckfast.org.uk/music (scroll down for details)
  2. In my city our first Borough Organist, who died in 1899, clocked up over 2,000 pubic recitals, here and there. His successor was so popular that he habitually gave two recitals per week at the city Guildhall (and, in the 1930s, broadcast several from both his church and the Guildhall). But I gather that, even before the war, audiences were falling off. At one point the council decided to abolish his civic post, though the ensuing outcry caused them to relent. But the decline in audiences wasn't just at organ recitals. The audiences at bandstands were also dwindling - and I think this was true around the country. The whole pattern of public entertainment was changing. Maybe it was because, with the rise of the wireless, television and 78 rpm records, people didn't feel the need to go out so much. Maybe that's another factor to consider. Again it doesn't explain why things are different in other countries - unless the English weather has something to do with it!
  3. Not necessarily. There was something of the enfant terrible about the late Prof Peter Williams. He was fond of challenging people to distinguish between what was fact and what they merely assumed was fact. He wrote an article pointing out that one can't trust a word in the phrase "Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ" and then went on to explain how there was no proof that (a) the piece is by Bach, (b) the original title was 'Toccata and Fugue', (c) the original key was D minor, or (d) it was originally written for the organ. Regarding the last point, he merely pointed out that a lot of the figuration and other writing was more idiomatic of a stringed instrument. He suggested the violin, but others since have suggested the violoncello piccolo and even, I think, the lute. Nobody seems to doubt that the title must be later than Bach - such bipartite titles didn't appear until after he was dead - but there's no proof that his points are either right or wrong. His aim wasn't to prove or disprove anything, but just to point out that nothing about the piece was certain.
  4. In the case of Germany, I'm pretty sure that it's because they are very aware of their fine musical heritage and take music education much more seriously than we ever have. I think it must be "in their bones". I may have told this story before, but many years ago I went to Aachen to play harpsichord continuo along with other English musicians in Bach's St John Passion. The harpsichord was borrowed from the local Gymnasium. It was languishing in a cupboard there as the school had never used it. It had been provided when the school was built not many years previously because the government (or whoever) thought it was the sort of thing a school should have. They hoicked it across the road to the church and set it up for the rehearsal. Apart from one note it was perfectly in tune, yet they swore they hadn't tuned it. Can you imagine that happening in Britain? I have no idea about anywhere else.
  5. I can't really comment on that, I'm afraid. It's something you will need to ask mainstream players. They are the ones who need convincing. Maybe I've just known the wrong musicians...
  6. I don't think it's the religious associations particularly. Orchestral players are generally quite relaxed about playing Viennese masses in church, for example. In my experience, players of 'mainstream' instruments simply regard the organ as at best inferior and at worst downright unmusical. The usual objection is to its inexpressiveness -- to the unyielding evenness of its tone and the player's inability to shape phrases with nuances of touch. Rubato and swell pedals simply don't cut it. Compared to their own instruments, the organ lacks subtlety. We organists tend to be a bit sensitive about such comments, but it's no good sweeping them under the carpet by pretending that it's just the player's fault. The fundamental problem is that the organ isn't really a Romantic instrument. It's one that's had Romanticism thrust upon it. Do early music enthusiasts regard it more sympathetically, I wonder?
  7. Oh it certainly can. Friends of mine who went to a recital at Cologne Cathedral were told, "Get there early and bring cushions in case there are no seats left." This was quite a while ago now, but I've since heard of similar reports from others. I think the problem in England is a product of our generally poor attitude as a nation to serious music. Timothy Day's ""I saw Eternity the Other Night", mentioned by Phoneuma in another thread recently, is quite illuminating on this point.. Previously I had always thought that our tendency to sideline classical music was a recent phenomenon resulting from the growth of the pop music industry, its promotion by the broadcasting media and changes in educational policies that, for different reasons on left and right, see it as an undesirable call on resources. Day's book, on the other hand, shows that the fundamental problem goes way back and has been ingrained for at least a couple of centuries. At any rate, it seems that the early Victorians regarded interest in music as somewhat effeminate, unbefitting a gentleman and unworthy of serious attention - hence the very great difficulty in persuading cathedral clergy c.1840 that the abysmal standards of their choirs ought to be improved. While music did eventually become a subject fit for the educated genteel, we have never really managed to change the general attitude of disengagement. That old jibe about Britain being 'Das Land ohne Musik' was really quite justified.
  8. We used to have a local businessman who financed a series of organ recitals each year by well-known players on our city centre four-manual. It was hard work drumming up enthusiasm. If the audience numbered 100 we reckoned we'd done well indeed. Sometimes it was only half that. Usually not much more than 10% would be organists.
  9. Do they? I wasn't aware of this. I would be very interested to see the references. The problem with descriptions like this is that it's always difficult to know exactly what people meant by the words they used. In 1616 Charles Butler described the countertenor voice (by which he meant nothing more than the voice we now call the tenor) as a 'sweet, shrill voice'. Shrill probably isn't how we would describe any tenor today, except perhaps an unpalatable one. It's hard to believe that the voices themselves were significantly different in 1616, but who knows? At least his description of the tenor (i.e. baritone) voice as 'an ordinary voice' rings true enough. For Bach, I'm aware of two contemporary references to his speed. In 1743 Constantin Bellermann described his testing the pedalboard of an organ at Cassel, when 'he ran over the pedals with this same facility, as if his feet had wings'. This means little. I remember a parishioner (who did play the organ a little) once marvelling at the way my feet appeared to fly over the pedalboard, but in fact what I had just finished playing was an unspectacular piece at a pretty ordinary speed. All we learn is that Bach had a very fluent pedal technique - which his music tells us anyway. One should also perhaps bear in mind that Bellermann, like Bach, was a mid-German and mid-German organists were not by and large noted for their spectacular pedal techniques. Simple chorale fughettas with simple pedal parts confined to just the final entry of the theme, or a final dominant pedal + tonic were more their style. There was a good reason why Silbermann's pedal departments were so basic. Bellermann also noted that Bach could, 'with his feet alone ... achieve an admirable, agitated and rapid concord of sounds on the church organ that others would seem unable to imitate it even with their fingers'. This needs to be read with the same caution. I'm sure we have all heard hyperbole dished out to really quite indifferent players (and indeed there's nothing wrong with encouraging people who are trying their best - not that I am suggesting that Bellermann's comments were quite in that league!) The other reference I know is in a letter that Bach's pupil Johann Caspar Vogler wrote to the authorities at Görlitz when applying for the organist's post there. When he stated that, for speed of feet and hands, he was the one who came closest to Bach in Saxony, he was no doubt talking himself up, but he subsequently appeared in person, only to be rejected for upsetting the congregation and playing too fast. Any organist ought to hesitate before laying too much weight upon the views of church members about their organist's speeds, so, again, this report doesn't really amount to anything very definite One can probably put more faith in Mozart's statement that, "I have taken particular care to write andante maestoso upon it, so that it should not be played fast – for if a fugue is not played slowly the ear cannot clearly distinguish the new subject as it is introduced and the effect is missed" - but, again, what exactly did 'slow' mean for Mozart?
  10. I have recently bought a copy and am enjoying it very much. From the impressive number of end notes it is obviously very deeply researched. I haven't got very far into it yet, but what I have read so far does a great deal to explain the lamentable attitude to music in those churches that don't have the determination and resources to support a professional standard of music. Plus ça change!
  11. And don't forget the very considerable benefit of neat, modern, printed scores. Take one of these speed merchants - one who has had to become fluent in reading the soprano clef - give them a life-size facsimile of a Baroque manuscript to sight-read and see how fast they can play then. Perhaps it's my ageing eyes, but some of those Bach P&Fs are almost unreadable at speed, even when you know the piece and have practised with the photograph a while.
  12. I'm just a bit worried about how the pages might behave while the player is struggling with a Sorabji symphony.
  13. Actually that's not true, although I agree that few organists seem to. They are not alone. When I was at the RCM many decades ago, a lot of the students there - maybe most of them - wouldn't have had any time for it. They had arrived at the college already indoctrinated with a blinkered attitude that scholarship was inherently anti-musical and risked compromising their musicianship. For them it just wasn't at all relevant to how they played their instruments and they didn't see much point in understanding any more than the notation in front of them. But of course, none of them could ignore scholarship altogether and they were happy enough to suck it up so long as it came spoon-fed by their teachers in small, preferably unrecognisable doses. Except, that is, for the singer, who once said to me, "I don't see why I should have to analyse the music I sing; it doesn't make me a better singer," but she really was beyond hope. I'm fairly sure that the organists were among the more enlightened students in this respect, but even they had their ostriches. I'd like to think that conservatoire students these days are more enlightened, but are they? At least today's Oxbridge organ scholars must be (and I daresay always were). After all, they'd hardly get their degrees by completely disregarding the whole concept of scholarship. I'm sure we could all name some organists who are very informed scholars indeed. And not only organists. Our concert platforms are full of greatly admired, yet very scholarly performers. Things are very different now compared to fifty years ago. but it's perfectly true that there is very little inclination to embrace 19th-century HIP. I suspect the attitude is, "Would it really make enough difference to be worth the bother?" and, from the couple of examples I've heard, I'm not at all sure it would. Yet, for all that, it's really not true to say that "no one ever seems to discuss 'historically informed' 19th-century performances". If performers aren't interested, that's their business, but there's actually plenty of research and discussion going on.
  14. What a strange claim. The two are inseparable, with any music, of any era. Any notion that the composers' own intentions simply aren't relevant is very bad practice IMO, as is adhering to them unthinkingly at all costs. You are right, though, about performing from memory: it always produces better music. I heard the other day that it was Clara Schumann who started that practice. If more organists did it maybe, just maybe, the instrument might be held in better regard. Then again, who am I kidding?
  15. Liszt wrote the piece in 1850 and sent it to Breitkopf & Härtel, who published it two years later. This edition - which is for organ and piano - is on IMSLP and presumably reflects what Liszt submitted. The only source more authoritative than that would be Liszt's autograph manuscript. Is that online anywhere? In the Breitkopf print the fugue starts on two staves without any indication of whether pedals are to be used, but, from the very quick glance I had, it appears that Liszt used the piano to double the pedal part throughout the whole piece. Since the piano doesn't enter in the fugue until it goes onto three staves on its third page, I think Liszt's intentions are clear enough. Do the differences between the piano part and the organ pedals account for some of the variations in pedalling that you heard? Pfeiffer's edition looks to be much neater and more user-friendly than the 1852 print, so I think I'd be inclined to compare the two minutely and, if Pfeiffer's proves to be a reliable transcript, use that.
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