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Compromising One's Musical Integrity


Guest Echo Gamba
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Guest Echo Gamba

Has anyone ever been given specific instructions (on the basis of "He who pays the piper....") to play, or accompany, in a manner they consider inappropriate or unsuitable?

 

I ask, because before a crem funeral last week, the vicar (whom I know well, and is not unmusical) asked me to accompany "vigorously" and, more specifically, not to drop the volume in the last verse of "Dear Lord and Father" ("...O still small voice of calm.....") nor in "Lord of all hopefulness" ("Lord of all gentleness.......") "in case people stop singing".

 

I have to admit that, whilst I always prefer to err on the side of "overplaying" rather than "underplaying" for a congregation with no choir, so my style could be called "vigorous", I DID register said verses in a way I considered appropriate for the size of the congregation (chapel 3/4 full), the acoustic, and the spec of the toaster - and they didn't stop singing!

 

Was I wrong to choose to ignore an "order", or right to follow my instincts born of musical awareness coupled with many yeras experience?

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As has been said many times before on this forum this situation - and many similar ones - is well known to many people. There really is no hard and fast answer and each indiviual has to make up their own mind, taking everything into account in those particular circumstances.

 

I have to say that I am more inclined to go along with requests that are not to my particular taste when playing at a crematorium than I am in church. You have to try persuasion and reason, putting your point of view across calmly and logically (whilst getting across that you don't take "orders" about how you are to play the organ.)

 

Ultimately, if, for whatever, reason, you are unable to comply with requests and feel your musical or personal integrity is being compromised then you just don't do the job and eventually those who want/need to employ organists discover that there is not a shortage of organists but there is a shortage of organists who are willing to play for services, even if they are paid to do so. There are plenty of organists around here who fall into that category and the number is growing.

 

I really do not think there is an answer which fits all situations.

 

Malcolm

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I agree with Malcolm: you can't generalise. Wherever there are musicians, or people who fancy they are musicians, the poor old organist or choirtrainer is going to get told how pieces should be performed. It's human nature and the only thing to do is to listen politely and give due consideration to the alternative point of view - before doing what you want. And to be fair, sometimes people come up with some good ideas that are worth taking on board. But everyone needs to understand and accept that you are the final authority and what you decide goes.

 

The particular case you cite is an interesting one. What is the primary purpose behind having organists accompany hymns? Is it to interpret the text for the congregation? Or is it to enable and encourage the congregation to sing? I think it is a combination of both, but with the latter very much of primary importance. I tend to be very circumspect about registration changes during hymn verses: they can be overdone and (since anything unexpected can throw a congregation off their stride) can potentially risk actually disrupting the flow of the singing. It should not be beyond the ingenuity of organists to find a registration for "Lord of all gentleness" that is docile, yet still gives adequate support.

 

I have often felt uneasy about the end of "Dear Lord and Father" so can understand entirely where the vicar was coming from. It is hard to deny that the still, small voice of calm speaking through the earthquake, wind and fire requires two distinctly different treatments to point the contrast. Yet it is possible to argue that one should not reduce the organ. I am minded of those Baroque arias in which the composer latches onto a single word and paints it for all it is worth, despite it sometimes being thoroughly incongruous with the rest of the text. I cannot think of any precise examples offhand, but a hero bearing intensely painful sufferings "lightly" (cue skippy rhythms) is the type of thing. Organists would do well to guard against similar dangers and look for the wider message. In the last two lines of this particular hymn the congregation are beseeching the still, small voice to speak through violent natural events. The voice may be still and small, but surely the exhortation is not - probably the contrary, in fact. So why reduce the organ to a whisper?

 

So there is an argument for keeping the volume up, though possibly not a very good one. I have been known to end this hymn fortissimo, specifically with the intention of stirring up some debate, but my personal preference would normally be to reduce the volume to a certain extent, while still providing adequate support for the singers.

 

Of course, if you have a decent choir leading the singing you may be able to devolve some of the responsibility onto them!

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Guest Echo Gamba
I agree with Malcolm: you can't generalise. Wherever there are musicians or people who fancy they are musicians, the poor old organist or choirtrainer is going to get told how pieces should be performed. It's human nature and the only thing to do is to listen politely and give due consideration to the alternative point of view - before doing what you want. And to be fair, sometimes people come up with some good ideas that are worth taking on board. But everyone needs to understand and accept that you are the final authority and what you decide goes.

 

The particular case you cite is an interesting one. What is the primary purpose behind having organists accompany hymns? Is it to interpret the text for the congregation? Or is it to enable and encourage the congregation to sing? I think it is a combination of both, but with the latter very much of primary importance. I tend to be very circumspect about registration changes during hymn verses: they can be overdone and (since anything unexpected can throw a congregation off their stride) can potentially risk actually disrupting the flow of the singing. It should not be beyond the ingenuity of organists to find a registration for "Lord of all gentleness" that is docile, yet still gives adequate support.

 

I have often felt uneasy about the end of "Dear Lord and Father" so can understand entirely where the vicar was coming from. It is hard to deny that the still, small voice of calm speaking through the earthquake, wind and fire requires two distinctly different treatments to point the contrast. Yet it is possible to argue that one should not reduce the organ. I am minded of those Baroque arias in which the composer latches onto a single word and paints it for all it is worth, despite it sometimes being thoroughly incongruous with the rest of the text. I cannot think of any precise examples offhand, but a hero bearing intensely painful sufferings "lightly" (cue skippy rhythms) is the type of thing. Organists would do well to guard against similar dangers and look for the wider message. In the last two lines of this particular hymn the congregation are beseeching the still, small voice to speak through violent natural events. The voice may be still and small, but surely the exhortation is not - probably the contrary, in fact. So why reduce the organ to a whisper?

 

So there is an argument for keeping the volume up, though possibly not a very good one. I have been known to end this hymn fortissimo, specifically with the inention of stirring up some debate, but my personal preference would normally be to reduce the volume to a certain extent, while still providing adequate support for the singers.

 

Of course, if you have a decent choir leading the singing you may be able to devolve some of the responsibility onto them!

 

 

All good points - thank you. What I generally do (and did at the occasion I cited) at the end of DL&F is simply to reduce to Great to Principal with balancing pedal and shut the swellbox. This is easy with hand registration if no pistons, and gives adequate support.

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All good points - thank you. What I generally do (and did at the occasion I cited) at the end of DL&F is simply to reduce to Great to Principal with balancing pedal and shut the swellbox. This is easy with hand registration if no pistons, and gives adequate support.

 

That's interesting. I go for this one like a half-cut symphony orchestra throughout, playing very few of the written notes, improvising all sorts of descants and figures with dropping dews of quietness and resting by Galillee and goodness knows what else. But that can just as easily be a two part invention, the congregation's melody being the third part, as the thick, sulphorous noise you're probably imagining. For the earthquake, wind and fire I crescendo madly, reharmonise on the very brink of sanity and do some rolling, thunderous broken chords upwards by two octaves or so, then reduce to half swell and Gt flutes for the last line (which, being a couple of octaves higher, is therefore more penetrating than it is loud, and still able to support), keeping a nice solo oboe or clarinet handy for the piece de resistance - the opening line of the tune soloed out over the very last still, small voice of calm.

 

With hymns of such a stirring nature I always take the line that the congregation knows the tune perfectly well enough without needing me to remind them, and so long as the beat is kept firmly on track (in this particular case, during the more florid offerings, by playing a staccato beat 4 and beat 1 only on a fairly fundamental pedal), the harmony fits and the texture is appropriate to the words and aiming for illustrative inspiration and beauty, then there is no limit (beyond those imposed by the ability and confidence of those in the room) to what you can do. They were bellowing their heads off last night, that's for sure.

 

In my view, leading a congregation is about 90% about making them want to be a part of it and letting them know that the experience is going to be both safe and rewarding, so they can let go of their inhibitions, and only a small proportion about tune-bashing. But you have to take them with you, and I don't know how to do that - only that sometimes it just happens. I've spent a lot of time in a lot of churches finding out for myself what works, and in that sense every hymn is an experiment in which you constantly modify your approach until you find one which works, and never be afraid to back down. I wouldn't ever spring such a thing on a congregation I didn't know well or who couldn't cope with it (about 99% of crematorium congregations). And perhaps that's where a third party view comes in handy - a priest bringing his regular congregation to the crematorium, for instance, knows what his flock are used to and if he's willing to take the trouble to tell me that they're not very confident then that's useful information, and the fact that a view (perhaps strange at first) is coming forward in the way it is informs us of an experience this other person has had at some point. It's always worth gently enquiring why it is that they think what they think, all the while imagining the sensation egg running down face if you do it YOUR way and their predictions are fulfilled.

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For the earthquake, wind and fire I crescendo madly, reharmonise on the very brink of sanity and do some rolling, thunderous broken chords upwards by two octaves or so

Hmm. You could also prime a churchwarden to play the Widor Toccata on the light switches for added verisimilitude! :lol:

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Guest Echo Gamba
That's interesting. I go for this one like a half-cut symphony orchestra throughout, playing very few of the written notes, improvising all sorts of descants and figures with dropping dews of quietness and resting by Galillee and goodness knows what else. But that can just as easily be a two part invention, the congregation's melody being the third part, as the thick, sulphorous noise you're probably imagining. For the earthquake, wind and fire I crescendo madly, reharmonise on the very brink of sanity and do some rolling, thunderous broken chords upwards by two octaves or so, then reduce to half swell and Gt flutes for the last line (which, being a couple of octaves higher, is therefore more penetrating than it is loud, and still able to support), keeping a nice solo oboe or clarinet handy for the piece de resistance - the opening line of the tune soloed out over the very last still, small voice of calm.

 

With hymns of such a stirring nature I always take the line that the congregation knows the tune perfectly well enough without needing me to remind them, and so long as the beat is kept firmly on track (in this particular case, during the more florid offerings, by playing a staccato beat 4 and beat 1 only on a fairly fundamental pedal), the harmony fits and the texture is appropriate to the words and aiming for illustrative inspiration and beauty, then there is no limit (beyond those imposed by the ability and confidence of those in the room) to what you can do. They were bellowing their heads off last night, that's for sure.

 

In my view, leading a congregation is about 90% about making them want to be a part of it and letting them know that the experience is going to be both safe and rewarding, so they can let go of their inhibitions, and only a small proportion about tune-bashing. But you have to take them with you, and I don't know how to do that - only that sometimes it just happens. I've spent a lot of time in a lot of churches finding out for myself what works, and in that sense every hymn is an experiment in which you constantly modify your approach until you find one which works, and never be afraid to back down. I wouldn't ever spring such a thing on a congregation I didn't know well or who couldn't cope with it (about 99% of crematorium congregations). And perhaps that's where a third party view comes in handy - a priest bringing his regular congregation to the crematorium, for instance, knows what his flock are used to and if he's willing to take the trouble to tell me that they're not very confident then that's useful information, and the fact that a view (perhaps strange at first) is coming forward in the way it is informs us of an experience this other person has had at some point. It's always worth gently enquiring why it is that they think what they think, all the while imagining the sensation egg running down face if you do it YOUR way and their predictions are fulfilled.

 

I'm afraid my humble abilities only run to registration changes! (ok - plus a bit of thickening of he texture) :lol:

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That's interesting. I go for this one like a half-cut symphony orchestra throughout, playing very few of the written notes, improvising all sorts of descants and figures with dropping dews of quietness and resting by Galillee and goodness knows what else. But that can just as easily be a two part invention, the congregation's melody being the third part, as the thick, sulphorous noise you're probably imagining. For the earthquake, wind and fire I crescendo madly, reharmonise on the very brink of sanity and do some rolling, thunderous broken chords upwards by two octaves or so, then reduce to half swell and Gt flutes for the last line (which, being a couple of octaves higher, is therefore more penetrating than it is loud, and still able to support), keeping a nice solo oboe or clarinet handy for the piece de resistance - the opening line of the tune soloed out over the very last still, small voice of calm.

 

The last bit I've been doing for years and I can't remember where I first heard it, though I know I copied someone else and it wasn't my idea!

 

With hymns of such a stirring nature I always take the line that the congregation knows the tune perfectly well enough without needing me to remind them, and so long as the beat is kept firmly on track (in this particular case, during the more florid offerings, by playing a staccato beat 4 and beat 1 only on a fairly fundamental pedal), the harmony fits and the texture is appropriate to the words and aiming for illustrative inspiration and beauty, then there is no limit (beyond those imposed by the ability and confidence of those in the room) to what you can do. They were bellowing their heads off last night, that's for sure.

 

In my view, leading a congregation is about 90% about making them want to be a part of it and letting them know that the experience is going to be both safe and rewarding, so they can let go of their inhibitions, and only a small proportion about tune-bashing. But you have to take them with you, and I don't know how to do that - only that sometimes it just happens. I've spent a lot of time in a lot of churches finding out for myself what works, and in that sense every hymn is an experiment in which you constantly modify your approach until you find one which works, and never be afraid to back down. I wouldn't ever spring such a thing on a congregation I didn't know well or who couldn't cope with it (about 99% of crematorium congregations). And perhaps that's where a third party view comes in handy - a priest bringing his regular congregation to the crematorium, for instance, knows what his flock are used to and if he's willing to take the trouble to tell me that they're not very confident then that's useful information, and the fact that a view (perhaps strange at first) is coming forward in the way it is informs us of an experience this other person has had at some point. It's always worth gently enquiring why it is that they think what they think, all the while imagining the sensation egg running down face if you do it YOUR way and their predictions are fulfilled.

 

Very succinctly put. I particularly agree with the notion that different congregations need different treatments. As a late teenager, I split my organ playing between fairly-high-up-the-candle-Anglicanism (medium sized two manual Walker) and no-sign-of-a-candle-Pentecostal (medium sized two manual Hammond complete with rotating Leslie). Surprisingly, there were more than a few ocasions where the hymns overlapped, but both places required different treatment. One of the most annoying was the necessity fo playing a leading-starting note at the start of all verses (and slowing down at the end of each verse) in the latter venue. You are also right about crematoria, where none of my last verse harmonisations have ever been commented on, good or bad; perhaps they have other things on their mind.

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Hmm. You could also prime a churchwarden to play the Widor Toccata on the light switches for added verisimilitude! :lol:

My choir did that in Exeter College for the earthquake in the last movement of Dubois' Seven Last Words last year. What's more, we now know that a tam-tam at the east end can drown out the very loud JWWalker at the west end!

 

Paul

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My choir did that in Exeter College for the earthquake in the last movement of Dubois' Seven Last Words last year. What's more, we now know that a tam-tam at the east end can drown out the very loud JWWalker at the west end!

James Blades relates in his autobiography how a tam-tam in, I think, the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House caused police to enter the building thinking an explosion was taking place. I think the piece was A Survivor From Warsaw.

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