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Anthony Poole

Voluntaries Or Compulsories?

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This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post, but I've wondered for some time where the term organ voluntary comes from? A church where I occasionally stood in for the organist when he was on holiday had another standby organist who used to describe his playing of organ voluntaries as "organ compulsories". Was it simply something that the organist volunteered at the end of a service, or does it have another origin?

 

Posting this also reminds me of an organ voluntary nightmare. I once played a voluntary on an instrument in need of some real tender loving care, cipher upon cipher ensued, but I managed to coax the organ through until we were all finally put out of our misery when the blower decided to pack-up with only about half a dozen measures to go. But the electric action didn't cut out. Suddenly there was this awful sag in pitch as the bellows were emptied of their wind, without being replenished. The organ gave one last deathly wheeze and rattle and then there was a wonderful, stunned silence, as everyone was convinced the organ had given up the ghost as a result of my playing. What a critic, I thought. This was followed by a lone, solitary, slow hand clap, with the culprit uttering the words, "Nice job Anthony."

 

That dying wheeze was quite an extraordinary noise. I could recount one other nightmare about this particular organ, but enough for now.

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Where I play the (musical) incumbent asks for voluntaries and fill in 'mood music' but the only people who seem to notice what is played (and wait behind to hear the conclusion of whatever I provide after the service) are the other rota organists! The rest enjoy their coffee loudly at the other end of the building. Is this general?

AJJ

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I think so, and I shudder to say this, but.... I am certain if you played (God forbid) some Lefebure-Wely, you would have about sixty people fawning around the organ console, with glazed expressions and sticky piles of drool all over the polished parquet floor....

 

And, no, I am proud to say that I do not possess any L-W in my stock of organ music.

 

Actually, one practical thing that can be done is to install a chamade rank and play the volly on the tutti - that way, they would, at the very least, have to re-locate the tea-urn....

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I seem to remember 'voluntary' implying freeness from the usual treatment of plainsong...

Do you know 'Annum per Annum' by Arvo Pärt? It takes advantage of this blower-off effect (most safely on a mechanical key action), it's a great piece, especiall when the gaps between movements are filled by congregational gawps :D

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Lefébure-Wely's work is coming out of the purgatoire in France today. his music is now frequently played in concert, and nobody laughs.

Ten years ago this would have been totally unimaginable...

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers

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Hmm, OK. But I still object to the fact that I can prepare some Bach or Vierne and play it (hopefully reasonably successfully) after the service and there may be one brave soul listening at the end, yet, when I did play L-W, there were sores (scores??) of people at the console clamouring for more.

 

However sincere L-W may have been, I still cannot rate his music as anything other than inconsequential and insubstantial - sorry! :D

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This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post, but I've wondered for some time where the term organ voluntary comes from? A church where I occasionally stood in for the organist when he was on holiday had another standby organist who used to describe his playing of organ voluntaries as "organ compulsories". Was it simply something that the organist volunteered at the end of a service, or does it have another origin?

And a tongue-in-cheek response, but unfortunately one based in fact. For my part, I always thought of it as being voluntary for the congregation to stay to listen, and for the most part they don't ... And, if they do stay, they quite happily talk, and let their children run riot - a little freedom at the end of the service can be taken a long, long way. I've often thought of the concluding voluntary as being an organist's test of character.

 

Regards,

Malcolm F

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However sincere L-W may have been, I still cannot rate his music as anything other than inconsequential and insubstantial - sorry! :D

One thing the punters can relate to is a bit of oom-pah-pah. And L-W certainly gave them that. On the other hand, I've had people refer to Vierne's chromatic harmonies as "appalling stuff".

 

I suppose it depends on how one views the organist's rôle. Is it to educate the members of the congregation (in a musical sense) as they exit the church? Is it to entertain them? Is it merely to send them away? Or is it perhaps for some higher purpose, to keep them in a reverential mood as they depart?

 

Or, ultimately, do we play for our own benefit?

 

Regards,

Malcolm F

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I do feel strongly that the voluntary should still be considered as part of the service - I try to fit the music to the season/theme etc. but this does not always work!! It just makes one feel rather out of it all when the voluntary just 'happens' with very little attention from anyone else present. After all, thought and work has usually gone into its performance (I try also to get hold of the other service music during the week before I play and if not rehearse in full at least play through to look out for any hidden 'nasties' that I might be required to be involved in.) As to 'educating' and/or 'entertaining' - 'not sure about that one but sometimes one feels a little taken for granted.......maybe 'thought provoking' could be the right term. L-W works though I do not play much of his music - the theme from Star Wars also stopped a few in their tracks after a recent family service but a long rehearsed piece of JSB slipped by unnoticed!!

AJJ

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At the church where we just completed the organ (West Parish at Barnstable on Cape Cod - see the new Portfolio page entry) there is a note in the service sheet which says something like "It is our custom to remain seated for the voluntary". The congregation does just that and it makes for a wonderful peaceful ending to the service. Maybe other churches should follow suit with that idea.

 

John Pike Mander

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Talking of Voluntaries, I once heard the story of how, during his time on the music staff at Clifton College in Bristol, the New Zealand born Dr C S Lang would often play after Morning Chapel the one work he is remembered for, the Trumpet Tune.

 

The senior boys, knowing this was Dr Lang's party piece, instead of filing out with the rest of the school, would pay him the compliment of remaining seated to listen. However, anyone who knows the work will be aware that it runs on a loop and Dr Lang, checking his mirror and seeing boys still in the Chapel, would be encouraged to keep on playing.

 

This state of affairs would usually only last as long as it took the School Marshal (a man feared by all boys) to realise he was missing a Sixth Form. Whereupon he would storm back into Chapel and, without uttering a word but eyes blazing. would extend his arm towards the exit. The effect on the boys was electric. As if of one mind, they would scramble and jostle to avoid catching the Marshal's eye as they sprinted for the exit.

 

Dr Lang was then free to conclude the Trumpet Tune, which by then had long since outstayed its welcome, and return to the Music School, where he was known to spend hour upon hour locked away in a piano practice room practising and refining his scales technique, in the process almost turning them into an art form.

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At the church where we just completed the organ (West Parish at Barnstable on Cape Cod - see the new Portfolio page entry) there is a note in the service sheet which says something like "It is our custom to remain seated for the voluntary". The congregation does just that and it makes for a wonderful peaceful ending to the service. Maybe other churches should follow suit with that idea.

 

John Pike Mander

 

A good idea I think - and maybe also post the details of the piece being played (this would also mean the organist has to be organised enough to get these to the 'sheet person' in time for duplicating!). I will try it out next time I am on duty. A simple but effective solution - thanks!

AJJ

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A good idea I think - and maybe also post the details of the piece being played (this would also mean the organist has to be organised enough to get these to the 'sheet person' in time for duplicating!). I will try it out next time I am on duty. A simple but effective solution - thanks!

AJJ

 

Hi Alistair, I have to say that putting the details of the voluntary (title and composer) on the weekly news sheet at my church does not work. I've been doing this for years and still get people asking me "What was that voluntary you played today?". However, on Good Friday we had a musical service in the evening with the Sanders Reproaches, Leighton's solus ad victimam and Moore's exquisite "It is a thing most wonderful", and I decided to conclude with Bach's "O Mensch bewein". I told the conductor to instruct the choir to remain seated and silent throughout this chorale prelude and then they processed out in silence. It really worked, and the congregation took their cue from the choir!

 

I like John's tip from Cape Cod - I think this is definitely worth persuing. In my experience the only voluntaries that get a clap (and, by extension, any sort of audience attention) are Lefebure-Wely's sortie in E flat and Widor's toccata.

 

TJE

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In my experience the only voluntaries that get a clap (and, by extension, any sort of audience attention) are Lefebure-Wely's sortie in E flat and Widor's toccata.

 

TJE

 

Hi Tim

'Trouble is my 'one manual plus non standard pedals' doesn't do much justice to the Widor or L-W Sortie - a friend down here puts her vountaries up on a board at the back of the church AND has managed to get her congregation to stay quiet till the end. It's probably a matter of training!!

AJJ

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My church used to have about half the congregation who listened, ther rest waddled in to coffee or out the west door, mostly quietly. About 3 months ago the Rector decided to end applause at the end of the voluntary, and told the congregation not to. Since that date the conversation has become noisier...

 

I also play at another, very resonant, church where the organ is high above the chancel on the south side. The console is at the east end of the north aisle. The other end of the south aisle is the main door, about 150 feet away. Usually the Vicar stands there, drowning the organ for the organist with ease. Does anyone have a cure for an overloud Vicar?

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Does anyone have a cure for an overloud Vicar?

 

Win the personality contest against the vicar with the congregation. I know a case when a new organ was built in a church where there was an unpopular vicar (who wanted an electronic and guitars) and a popular organist. The vicar had nothing to do with the organ project and the "revolt" aspect of the project added to the excitement. My vicar and I were astonished when we visited.

 

Failing that, a gun or a hitman. Good old Yellow Pages...

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The problem with overloud vicars is quite common, although luckily not one that I suffer with at present. What annoys me even more though, is when you hear a choir give a wonderful, atmospheric rendition of a beautiful anthem or motet only for the idiot priest to jump in far too soon to announce the next hymn, or "let us pray" or whatever. Often the final chord doesn't even have time to clear the accoustic. It makes you wonder why we bother.

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Maybe the reasons Hope-Jones invented the Diaphones we do

not suspect...

Nowadays I'd go for a Tuba or a Trompette militaire

(The Willis III one in Liverpool Cathedral)

 

Best wishes,

Pierre Lauwers.

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What annoys me even more though, is when you hear a choir give a wonderful, atmospheric rendition of a beautiful anthem or motet only for the idiot priest to jump in far too soon to announce the next hymn, or "let us pray" or whatever. Often the final chord doesn't even have time to clear the accoustic. It makes you wonder why we bother.

 

I think we choirtrainers have to educate the clergy - is there any reason why we should assume not that they should know it all, or indeed anything to do with music. There is lovely passge by CS Lewis, in which he refers to the music framing the silence both before and after it, rather than the other way around. If the person taking the prayers has difficulty in judging a suitable length of time, ask him/her to wait until the choir has sat down - and then make sure that the choir at least understand what they are doing, and why, and that they should savour those wonderful moments at the end of the anthem to the full, quietly and without movement, waiting for the sign from the conductor to sit down. You would have to be insensitve to break into that!

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From the perspective of a listener rather than performer, my view is that a voluntary should take into account to some degree at least, the nature of the service which preceeded the intended voluntary. Some pieces will be fairly safe regardless, whereas others may be considered risky.

 

If by choosing Lefebre-Wely you cause a few smiles then you have at least made contact with your audience or congregation, LW's music is not my choice but can be rather amusing, this can be a welcome break if the service felt more like a community punishment order! On the lighter side of the voluntary you could of course go english, how about;

 

Trumpet Sonata in D - Henry Purcell (nice version of this on CD by Paul Derrett on Bridlington Priory)

 

Festive March - Henry Smart

 

Festal Flourish - G Jacob

 

Fantasia in D Minor - C V Stamford (one for colourful registration!)

 

Suggestion! Why not just say on any notices - 'Organ Voluntary' That way your choice will be a surprise. If you have stated what you are going to play then you are stuck with it even if at the time you don't feel like playing it.

 

Matthew G

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I played the Sousa "Liberty Bell March" last week and got a round of applause at the end of it, whereas a more demanding (and rewarding) piece of Bach passes without comment. That's life I suppose.

 

Its Holzman's "Blaze Away" next week, that should get them going again!

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I sympathize with all of you. This situation is quite disheartening especially for me :( because it is made worse by some factors out of my control:

 

1. It is a college chapel where the average attendance is about 15 to 20 people and even less in the summer (last summer, half the time there are only four in the chapel: the chaplain, his wife, a graduate student and I) and there's seldom anyone who stays until the end of the voluntary.

 

2. The coffee and refreshments area is downstairs and completely isolated from the chapel.

 

3. Sometimes they will just start talking loudly after the last hymn even though they always say what a good job I did when I eventually join them for refreshments, so it does not seem to be an issue of disrespect of unappreciation. How puzzling?

 

As I said, this is especially disappointing for me because I have taken a lot of extra effort for each Sunday. I never had any formal keyboard training but have taught myself using knowledge from eight years of violin lessons, reading materials online and practicing a whole lot. Because of this, I need to practise the hymns for several days before Sunday to play them well. (I usually get notified which hymns are to be used on the Wednesday prior) I play the hymns and the service music (gloria, sanctus and agnus dei) quite well now. I have tried to do the best I can musically including variating the registration of each verse of the hymns to suit the words (I know even some professional organists don't do this), using only a one manual instrument; and also play before and after the service and during communion. It takes quite a bit of prepartion for me even though I am only volunteering my skills.

 

Despite all this, they seem not too receptive of my voluntaries except two: Little Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C by JSB and Prelude to Te Deum by Charpentier. I have tried to play quiet as well as bolder pieces. I think maybe louder pieces are better (perhaps because I can't here the talking in the background). The loudest registration for my modest instrument is the equivalent of Principal 16 8 4 2, Flutes 32 16 8 4, Mixtures, Reed Chorus 16 8 with solo Trumpet 16 8 or solo Obeo 16 8. Usually this seems to overshadow any conversation and at least I can enjoy myself.

 

I will welcome any suggestions from all of you who seem to be much more professional and experienced than I am. Thanks.

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Guest Roffensis
Hmm, OK. But I still object to the fact that I can prepare some Bach or Vierne and play it (hopefully reasonably successfully) after the service and there may be one brave soul listening at the end, yet, when I did play L-W, there were sores (scores??) of people at the console clamouring for more.

 

However sincere L-W may have been, I still cannot rate his music as anything other than inconsequential and insubstantial - sorry! :(

 

Probably what has happened is that with the advent of the modern "praisy" hymns where members of congregation look all dreamy and on their second honeymoon (!) and are full of the uplifting quality of the mdern hymnals, Lefebure Wely now sounds positively like Mahler or Sorabji even!!

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Guest Roffensis
I sympathize with all of you.  This situation is quite disheartening especially for me :( because it is made worse by some factors out of my control:

 

1. It is a college chapel where the average attendance is about 15 to 20 people and even less in the summer (last summer, half the time there are only four in the chapel: the chaplain, his wife, a graduate student and I) and there's seldom anyone who stays until the end of the voluntary.

 

2. The coffee and refreshments area is downstairs and completely isolated from the chapel.

 

3. Sometimes they will just start talking loudly after the last hymn even though they always say what a good job I did when I eventually join them for refreshments, so it does not seem to be an issue of disrespect of unappreciation.  How puzzling?

 

As I said, this is especially disappointing for me because I have taken a lot of extra effort for each Sunday.  I never had any formal keyboard training but have taught myself using knowledge from eight years of violin lessons, reading materials online and practicing a whole lot.  Because of this, I need to practise the hymns for several days before Sunday to play them well.  (I usually get notified which hymns are to be used on the Wednesday prior)  I play the hymns and the service music (gloria, sanctus and agnus dei) quite well now.  I have tried to do the best I can musically including variating the registration of each verse of the hymns to suit the words (I know even some professional organists don't do this), using only a one manual instrument; and also play before and after the service and during communion.  It takes quite a bit of prepartion for me even though I am only volunteering my skills.

 

Despite all this, they seem not too receptive of my voluntaries except two: Little Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C by JSB and Prelude to Te Deum by Charpentier.  I have tried to play quiet as well as bolder pieces.  I think maybe louder pieces are better (perhaps because I can't here the talking in the background).  The loudest registration for my modest instrument is the equivalent of Principal 16 8 4 2, Flutes 32 16 8 4, Mixtures, Reed Chorus 16 8 with solo Trumpet 16 8 or solo Obeo 16 8.  Usually this seems to overshadow any conversation and at least I can enjoy myself.

 

I will welcome any suggestions from all of you who seem to be much more professional and experienced than I am.  Thanks.

 

In my church which is Roman catholic we have no coffee or anything afterwards, and I generally but not always do a voluntary. If i don't no one complains, but the organ being very powerful means it can empty the church very quickly, which is ideal for first communions where you never see the people again anyway. I do a wide sweep, i still play of lot of old stuff, like walond and Blow, right through to French and so on. Some actually do stay and listen, and other often look up with a big smile, sao I know i know my talents are at least appreciated in some quarters. Having regular recitals helps, and also if you have a choir it has a outreach for all music in general. I think its a case of putting work in to raise awareness.

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Guest Roffensis
In my church which is Roman catholic we have no coffee or anything afterwards, and I generally but not always do a voluntary. If i don't no one complains, but the organ being very powerful means it can empty the church very quickly, which is ideal for first communions where you never see the people again anyway. I do a wide sweep, i still play of lot of old stuff, like walond and Blow, right through to French and so on. Some actually do stay and listen, and other often look up with a big smile, sao I know i know my talents are at least appreciated in some quarters. Having regular recitals helps, and also if you have a choir it has a outreach for all music in general. I think its a case of putting work in to raise awareness.

By the way, well done with what you are doing at your church, it is not easy to do, and its great how you are clearly taking it all so seriously and have a good attitude to it all, rather than see it as a chore. You'll find in time that you wont need to practice the hymns so early on, and then you'll also be playing fine from sight! It takes time, but you will do it, and you'll really get better, just hang in there and enjoy it! Organists are few on the ground these days, so keep going and just do the best you can. I bet the church are very pleased to have you, do the best you can, its all any of us can. All best! Richard

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