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Congregational Reaction


Peter Clark
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Many years ago, and having discussed it with the officiating priest, I played the Entree from Messe de la Pentecote during ther Offertoty on Pentecost Sunday. I provided the priest with an explanatory note saying that the descent of the tongues of fire was illustrated by a descending pedal motif and that anyway Messiaen waa a devout Cahlioc who always attempted to express his faith through his music, hoping thus to arouse some interest in Messiaen. The result? An anonymous leter denouncing the use of this modern (1951?!) music in church. The parish priest told me, rightly, that we don't take any notice of anonymous letters. A few years later we sang Leighton's Solus ad Victimam on Good Friday. The resulting reaction was that it was felt to be a bit "morbid". Oh, and this reaction was not from a member of the congregation but the choir! One member of the cong said she never wanted to hea it again (though she did, about three years later, but this time said nothing probably because her husband was in the choir!).

 

This got me thinking about appreciation of art or indeed entertainment in general. I love as much as many Colombo and Morse but the basic premise is that two hours of entertainment are provided by the fact that possibly the most ghastly thing one person can do to another - kill them - has been done. Yes I know it is fiction but the concept (or idea if you want to go all Platonic) of murder is the same. Yet we lap it up. Murder mysteries, horror stories and so on arwe nearly always on the best seller list. And I can remember thiose horrendously bloodthirsty bubble gum cards of the American Civil War I used to collect as a child.

 

Look at visual art - probably one of the most painted secenes is that of the Crucifixion. A man dying in agony, taunted by the onlookers, blood everywhere - oh yes, what a beautiful, painting,we say. (Or some of us do.)

 

Disparate examples, I realise.

 

So is it just uncomfortable music (rather than art or literature) that attracts so much oprobrium? I think it boils down to the fact that for many people pleasant music = good music and unpleasant (or uncomfortable) music = bad music. Am I alone in thinking this?

 

Anyway, they're getting Messiaen again this year on Pentecost!

 

Peter

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Many years ago, and having discussed it with the officiating priest, I played the Entree from Messe de la Pentecote during ther Offertoty on Pentecost Sunday. I provided the priest with an explanatory note saying that the descent of the tongues of fire was illustrated by a descending pedal motif

 

I apologise that I'm not expanding on your question, but this motif has always had me slightly flummoxed. I once thought it might be a phrase of Gregorian chant, because Naji Hakim uses the same motif as the basis of the third movement of his Hommage a Igor Stravinsky triptych.

Is this a reference to his predecessor at Trinite or is there a common root to both compositions?

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I enjoyed quite the reverse reaction recently, when I played the organ for a Mass at another church.

 

Probably because I hadn't really thought things out, I decided to play Alain's "Le Jardin Suspendu," which for many people, probably sounds "modern" rather than "old". (I'd banked on the possibility that no-one would know it and would not know the title).

 

Afterwards, a chap came up and said, "That was a fascinating piece you played before Mass. I enjoyed it very much."

 

So perhaps it isn't all doom and gloom.

 

I must confess that I am a bit reluctant to play modern or contemporary music on the organ for fear of confusing people, but I do find that people tend to relate to very rhythmic music; no matter how dissonant it may get. Perahps it is how people react to things they do not know......either melody or rhythm or both.

 

MM

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I enjoyed quite the reverse reaction recently, when I played the organ for a Mass at another church.

I've had the same positive reaction to quieter pieces by Alain and Mathias (as examples) but a negative reaction to Langlais played fortissimo. Maybe loud and modern is too much to take in one sitting, but quiet and modern is a little more approachable.

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I think the great unwashed simply need something they can latch onto easily, whether it's a tune or (as in the case of Le Jardin suspendu) atmosphere.

 

But sometimes you just can't win. When I was young I spent a while in digs with a landlady who just wasn't into classical music at all. Her invariable reaction, even to Haydn at his jolliest was, "It's a bit of a dirge, isn't it?" At first I though she was just winding me up, but no, she really meant it. :)

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Here in the States I have heard it said that certain composers simply cannot be performed more than a few hours outside New York. Although clearly a gross simplification, it is not without a kernel of truth.

 

I grew up about an hour outside New York in a church where we received a steady and wholesome diet of Messiaen, Alain, Langlais, Tournemire, and similarly aventurous fare. I distinctly recall Duruflé's Suite being very well received, and even Hakim's The Embrace of Fire made a welcome appearance one Sunday.

 

On the other hand, here in the South I have heard some extraordinarily snippy things said of mainstream works by Franck, Vierne, and others. Some people I knew left in the middle of a recital by a visiting concert organist several months ago. When next I saw them, they explained they were put off by Dupré's Prelude and Fugue in g minor and could not understand why anybody would want to listen to it. Similarly, one church member said (to my face!) that he thought the Carillon de Westminster sounded like circus music. Sigh...

 

I don't wish to give the impression that this part of the country lacks taste or culture. Good music abounds! And last year I received such appreciative compliments on the Langlais Chant de Paix as to make up for the (considerable) cost of Neuf Pièces. Still, one must tread very carefully.

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This ultimately depends on the church you are at i think. If you are somewhere that is comparitivly, musically uneducated they will often appreciate a piece of music with a 'nice tune' be that a trumpet voluntary, or a piece of Bach that has a 'hummable' bit. Play more post WW2 music, especially the modern stuff based on plaintchant by Messiaen, Hakim and the like and people cannot identitfy the tune.

 

Maybe it is a cultural reason for this... the ultimately rythymless 'soaring' beauty of plainchant is quite alien to the musical aspirations of a congregation brought up on the four-in-a-bar of so many hymns, or indeed the rythmic regularity of a Bach fugue.

 

Equally, do these people sit and truely listen? is a church even the right place to 'truely listen', in an objective sense? If someone played one of us, a new piece by Hakim or the like, and we only half listened whilst having a conversation about something irrelevant, would we see this as a nasty noise? Is it better to pander to the tastes of these people, or to play music for the few who do listen to more challenging repertoire, and enjoy doing so? For myself it is certainly the latter that i target my music at (Whilst making sure that i haven't overdosed on modern music... one sunday morning a month of it i deem sufficient.)

 

Do i get negative comments? This is only natural when playing outside of some peoples comfort zones, but over time i think it has become accepted that I will play it, but that it is strictly regulated. Perhaps this is the way to introduce people to this repertoire, which is definitely not as easy to understand as Bach. or is that just because Bach has become fully accepted in our culture?

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Many years ago, and having discussed it with the officiating priest, I played the Entree from Messe de la Pentecote during ther Offertoty on Pentecost Sunday. .... The result? An anonymous leter denouncing the use of this modern (1951?!) music in church.

That's what comes from casting artificial pearls before real swine.

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Well... Much as I like Messiaen's early music, I'm afraid I couldn't give a toss about his last two cycles. All the movements sound much the same to me. I find little in them to hold my interest for any length of time. I think I part company with him after Les Corps Glorieux.

 

Recently I accidentally acquired the Priory CD of Charles Matthews at La Madeleine, It has a few pieces by André Jolivet on it - someone who had previously been only a name to me. Good stuff. Very good, actually, and well played too, but the overriding impression it left on me was that Messiaen had done it all before and it really wasn't distinctive enough to be worth the bother. A pity one should have to feel like that about a decent composer.

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This thread makes me give thanks for my good fortune. In over two years in my current church position I can't remember a negative comment from a congregant. On the contrary they have appreciated Le Jardin Suspendu and anything French in addition to recognizing some Hanns Eisler! Mind you Messe de la Pentecôte is beyond me technically.

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Very true, Davidb! I have often said that organ music is underappreciated because it relies on the unlikely nexus of three elements: A good instrument, a good performer, and good choice of music. (My goal is to bring 2 out of 3 together.) But as you have pointed out, good (informed, experienced) listeners are the fourth component.

 

Sometimes there is a bit of blank space in our service bulletins. Has anyone on this forum written notes on the music for the congregation? For example, I can't imagine the reaction to something like Combat de la Mort et de la Vie from Les Corps Glorieux without some preparation (or warning). A few words explaining its imagery, the transformation of the theme of Death to that of Life, could change it from an oppressive to a sublime experience for many listeners.

 

Vox, I was thinking of that very recording (PRCD 772) while writing this post. Even after reading about Jolivet's Hymne à l'Univers I still couldn't get into it. Maybe in time... I'm certainly willing to keep an open mind.

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It has a few pieces by André Jolivet on it - someone who had previously been only a name to me. ...

Has anyone heard works by Thierry Escaich? I've only heard a couple, on a disc from S. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris played by Vincent Warnier, but they are superb - modern, unapologetic, but very focussed and hugely satisfying. (They are 'Eaux natales' and 'Vers l'espérance' from 'Poèmes', for those taking notes.) I've sought more on disc, but without success thus far. I wonder about the technical standard needed to carry them off, but I'd love to play the two movements mentioned as voluntaries, and I wonder about the reaction.

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Nachthorn - there's a CD on the Calliope label (CAL 9937) Escaich plays Escaich. "This CD covers most of my organ works and also the Motets for 12 voices and organ. The programme begins and ends with a short improvisation .........." Recorded at St Etienne du Mont where I believe he is organist. As you say, modern and unapologetic, which is probably why it is not heard very often (if at all). Nevetheless I recommend the CD if you want to hear him.

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Nachthorn - there's a CD on the Calliope label (CAL 9937) Escaich plays Escaich. "This CD covers most of my organ works and also the Motets for 12 voices and organ. The programme begins and ends with a short improvisation .........." Recorded at St Etienne du Mont where I believe he is organist. As you say, modern and unapologetic, which is probably why it is not heard very often (if at all). Nevetheless I recommend the CD if you want to hear him.

 

Olivier Latry played some Escaich at Birmingham Symphony Hall in November - it's great stuff, but very difficult... the audience seemed to like it though.

Yes you're right, Warnier and Escaich are joint Titulaire organists at St Etienne du Mont.

P.

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Has anyone heard works by Thierry Escaich? I've only heard a couple, on a disc from S. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris played by Vincent Warnier, but they are superb - modern, unapologetic, but very focussed and hugely satisfying. (They are 'Eaux natales' and 'Vers l'espérance' from 'Poèmes', for those taking notes.) I've sought more on disc, but without success thus far. I wonder about the technical standard needed to carry them off, but I'd love to play the two movements mentioned as voluntaries, and I wonder about the reaction.

Wow! You must have a very sophisticated congregation if you believe they would appreciate those pieces as voluntaries. I agree they are superb but, without having seen the score, I suspect they are quite difficult. Of all the performances on this disc though, the Alain 2ème Fantaisie is the one that moves me most. Absolutely heart-rending.

JC

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  • 2 weeks later...
Nachthorn - there's a CD on the Calliope label (CAL 9937) Escaich plays Escaich. "This CD covers most of my organ works and also the Motets for 12 voices and organ. The programme begins and ends with a short improvisation .........." Recorded at St Etienne du Mont where I believe he is organist. As you say, modern and unapologetic, which is probably why it is not heard very often (if at all). Nevetheless I recommend the CD if you want to hear him.

Thanks Jim. Will look it out.

 

John - I'm currently Organist Without Congregation, but in any case I never said that they'd necessarily enjoy the Escaich :lol:

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Organ music wise, my congregation (well, some of them) have now cottoned on that the opening impro will be based on the collect (and likewise the gospel procession will have some sort of word-painted reference to what has gone before.

 

The most spectacular reaction I've had to date was after the Midnight Mass where my other half sang Bethlehem Down (in Warlock's original accompanied version, even more sumptuous in harmony than the choral one and possibly one of the most extreme songs harmonically). Owing to the lack of post-service coffee it took a couple of weeks for the comments to start filtering back, along the lines of "What on EARTH was your fiance playing while you were singing Bethlehem Down so beautifully? I could murder him!" I had to produce the score and show it to one (very knowledgable) lady who was genuinely furious thinking I'd reharmonised and ruined it.

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Organ music wise, my congregation (well, some of them) have now cottoned on that the opening impro will be based on the collect (and likewise the gospel procession will have some sort of word-painted reference to what has gone before.

 

The most spectacular reaction I've had to date was after the Midnight Mass where my other half sang Bethlehem Down (in Warlock's original accompanied version, even more sumptuous in harmony than the choral one and possibly one of the most extreme songs harmonically). Owing to the lack of post-service coffee it took a couple of weeks for the comments to start filtering back, along the lines of "What on EARTH was your fiance playing while you were singing Bethlehem Down so beautifully? I could murder him!" I had to produce the score and show it to one (very knowledgable) lady who was genuinely furious thinking I'd reharmonised and ruined it.

 

I never get any reaction to any voluntary, but yesterday I dumbed-down: "Sortie" (Michel) (from one of the "Jazz Inspirations books). It's a very jolly, jazzy piece in an updated Lefebre-Wely mould. To a man (and woman) the congregation loved it (one of the choir girls wants it on a CD so she can do her homework to it!) I didn't know whether to be pleased or annoyed.

 

Stephen Barber

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