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Malcolm Kemp

Alain's Litanies- A query

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A discussion ensued between two friends over the "Delcamato - Vivacissimo" bar - the final bar of the third page from the end. There is a pause on the high octave double Bflat.

 

Question: In the following descending octave runs do you play Bflats or B double flats?

 

Malcolm

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Interesting. The accidentals in the new Bärenreiter edition are identical to the Léduc edition I have (1952?); there is no entry for this bar in the Bärenreiter critical commentary. I must admit I had never given it a moment's thought. At the risk of exposing myself as a fool for not knowing of any alternative readings in earlier editions, and taking what I see before me at face value, I guess the issue is whether the lower of the double flats continues its effect throughout the bar, thus affecting the subsequent right-hand B at this pitch and, by analogy, the three other lower Bs in the bar as the run descends. I have to say that extending the strict implication of just that one note to three unmarked notes at lower octaves seems stretching the point too far. That none of the other Bs has a double flat is surely suggestive and a diatonic scale does seem the more logical reading. It is surely far more likely that Alain simply forgot to cancel the lower double flat.

 

Furthermore the whole of the octave passage in this bar is an extension of the declamation that opens the piece and which has just recurred. If you are going to play B double flats in the descending scale then you must also play B double flats two bars earlier and in the opening declamation. Not a very likely reading, I think!

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I have to confess that I have always taken the double flats as referring only to that one octave chord at the start of the bar and have played single flats for the rest of the bar. I was turning for someone playing this piece erlier today and he played double flats throughout saying it seemed more logical to him (a highly qualified practical and academic musician) and hr thought this made it sound more modal. To my ears I was sure I'd never heard it with B double flats throughout before. Like Vox H, I'm very willing to be proved wrong on this and am very interested to hear what the majority of our friends on this forum do. The player concerned is also keen to know what others think.

 

Malcolm

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I have found, in those pieces of Alain's that I've played, that he (the editor?) prefers to add accidentals that are not necessary in order to make his writing clear, rather than the other way around. See, for example. Le Jardin suspendu, second page, 4th system first bar and following bar, where the second sharp on f'-sharp is unnecessary, or in Litanies in the rapid descending chord passage that most of us take hands crossed which has many more accidentals than are required by the rules of music copying. For me, this indicates quite the opposite approach from expecting an accidental in one voice to be read in another and applied to the other b's which don't have a double flat in their octave.

 

In a quick look through of some of his music that I play, I was not able to find an 'apply it in another octave' example that would be analogous to applying b-double flats in the Vivacissimo section. Having said that, I'm sure someone will be motivated to find such an example, so please share it with us.

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I have found, in those pieces of Alain's that I've played, that he (the editor?) prefers to add accidentals that are not necessary in order to make his writing clear, rather than the other way around. See, for example. Le Jardin suspendu, second page, 4th system first bar and following bar, where the second sharp on f'-sharp is unnecessary, or in Litanies in the rapid descending chord passage that most of us take hands crossed which has many more accidentals than are required by the rules of music copying. For me, this indicates quite the opposite approach from expecting an accidental in one voice to be read in another and applied to the other b's which don't have a double flat in their octave.

 

In a quick look through of some of his music that I play, I was not able to find 'apply it in another octave' example that would be analogous to applying b-double flats in the Vivacissimo section. Having said that, I'm sure someone will be motivated to find such an example, so please share it with us.

 

The application of superfluous accidentals is common to a number of French publishers: for example, their re-iteration of accidentals on tied notes in the Messe 'Cum Jubilo', by Duruflé and the cancellation of double-sharps and double-flats, in which the accidentals are treated as cumulative. (That is to say, a natural will be placed immediately before a sharp, when cancelling a double-sharp, for example). Both of these habits seem musically un-grammatical and illogical to me. I suspect that Vox is correct in his explanation of the B double-flat anomaly in Litanies - particularly since, apparently, Marie-Claire Alain plays the piece as Vox describes.

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Does anyone play that rapid succession of chords in the left hand AS written? I'd be interested to know what other contributors do - I've certainly never managed it...

 

VA

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Does anyone play that rapid succession of chords in the left hand AS written? I'd be interested to know what other contributors do - I've certainly never managed it...

 

A 'Google' search shows that this has been discussed on other organ forums in years gone by (2007 and 2009). In one forum, a poster, Vox Humana (the same one as on here?) wrote:

 

According to Marie-Claire, this is actually what Jehan said:

 

"Bernard Gavoty recalls the way Jehan told him the piece should be played:

 

...When you play this piece, you must create the impression of an ardent conjuration. Prayer is not a lament, but an overpowering tornado flattening everything in its way. It's also an obsession: you must fill men's ears with it - and God's ears too! If at the end you don't feel wrung out, it means you've neither understood it nor played it as I want it played. Keep to a tempo as fast as clarity will permit. Don't worry about the rapid chords in the left hand near the end. At the right speed that passage is unplayable. But rubato isn't out of the question, and it's really better to "botch" it a bit than play at a speed which would deform my Litanies."

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A 'Google' search shows that this has been discussed on other organ forums in years gone by (2007 and 2009). In one forum, a poster, Vox Humana (the same one as on here?) wrote:

 

According to Marie-Claire, this is actually what Jehan said:

 

"Bernard Gavoty recalls the way Jehan told him the piece should be played:

 

...When you play this piece, you must create the impression of an ardent conjuration. Prayer is not a lament, but an overpowering tornado flattening everything in its way. It's also an obsession: you must fill men's ears with it - and God's ears too! If at the end you don't feel wrung out, it means you've neither understood it nor played it as I want it played. Keep to a tempo as fast as clarity will permit. Don't worry about the rapid chords in the left hand near the end. At the right speed that passage is unplayable. But rubato isn't out of the question, and it's really better to "botch" it a bit than play at a speed which would deform my Litanies."

 

Thank you, my lord. It was indeed me, but goodness knows where I found this quote; I have been trying to relocate it, but without success.

 

I am quite sure that Effar examiners (to borrow one of Sidney Campbell's quirky spellings) would fully expect the passage to be played accurately. I have heard quite a few people do it perfectly in live performance - and, as far as I can tell, without missing any notes out - but goodness knows how. I have been magnanimous and allowed them to live.

 

I freely admit that I've never quite managed it and I do this without shame as I know I'm in some august company. However much I practise it, there's always one chord near the end of the passage that catches me out. I think it's a fourth finger problem. In fact, I'm damned sure it is, but I've never been able to find a solution. Slow practice isn't much help. It really would be most helpful if those who can play the passage perfectly at speed would tell us how they manage it and what they think might be preventing us mere mortals from achieving the same. Any tips gratefully received.

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but goodness knows where I found this quote; I have been trying to relocate it, but without success.

It appears in Bernard Gavoty : Jehan Alain Musicien Francais pp 82-3 'Au vrai tempo c'est injouable [snip] il vaut franchemant mieux "bousiller" un peu'

 

I wish I'd read that before I spent weeks sweating.....!!

MGP

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It really would be most helpful if those who can play the passage perfectly at speed would tell us how they manage it and what they think might be preventing us mere mortals from achieving the same. Any tips gratefully received.

 

Come on, we can't all be fudging it! Surely someone has some ideas as to where to concentrate the attention? Or is it, after all, just a matter of banging away more earnestly at Hanon and his ilk?

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Come on, we can't all be fudging it! Surely someone has some ideas as to where to concentrate the attention? Or is it, after all, just a matter of banging away more earnestly at Hanon and his ilk?

 

I'm reliably informed by a friend that, in the first edition, no actual (i.e. pitched) notes are shown for this passage - only the semiquaver stems and beams. Perhaps someone could confirm?

 

JS

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I'm reliably informed by a friend that, in the first edition, no actual (i.e. pitched) notes are shown for this passage - only the semiquaver stems and beams. Perhaps someone could confirm?

 

JS

 

Ah yes, the old note cluster myth again. I don't believe a word of it (nor an alternative version that has it that the original manuscript - which does exist, but which I've not seen - specifies clusters, but Alain's publisher insisted on him putting in notes). I guess we'll have to wait for a response from someone who actually has the first edition, but the new Bärenreiter edition lends no credence whatsoever to any of this. Seven manuscript sources for Litanies were consulted as well as the first (1939) edition. The first edition was selected for the copy text and those left-hand passages appear with the familiar notes. Nowhere in the introduction or the critical commentary is there any mention of unspecific notation or note clusters. If such a significant variant existed I think this would have been mentioned, don't you? That no variant readings for those two bars are listed does strongly imply that the first edition reads as in the new edition. Furthermore, if Alain really had intended note clusters to be played here, why did he tell Bernard Gavoty (in the quote that Wolsey dug out above) not to worry if he couldn't play the passages 100% correctly? Why didn't he just tell him to play note clusters?

 

I think this is more likely a case of Chinese whispers, where a licence to make the odd slip in the interests of communicating the required spirit has become magnified out of all proportion.

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I beleive I have played the right notes from time to time, but it's hard to tell. I reckon that a bit of rubato, together with a slow start and stringendo, gives one a better chance of getting to the end without major disasters.

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Bernard Gavoty recalls the way Jehan told him the piece should be played " When you play this piece, you must create the impression of an ardent conjuration. Prayer is not a lament, but an overpowering tornado flattening everything in its way. It's also an obession: you must fill men's ears with it - and God's ears too! If at the end you don't feel wrung out, it means you've neither understood it nor played it as I want it played. Keep to a tempo as fast as clarity will permit. Don't worry about rapid chords in the left hand near the end. At the right speed that passage is unplayable. But rubato isn't out of the question, and it's really better to 'botch' it a bit than play at a speed which would deform my Litanies."

 

I hope this helps those who are grasping for answers/truth.

N

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Thanks to all of you who have turned my original enquiry into such a fascinating, wide and informative debate. I hope we have now convinced my friend that he should not play B double flats throughout the bar in question. While I haven't actually played the piece for several years now (it was once in my very regular repertoire) one of my current party/recital pieces is one that quotes Litanies.

 

This is a personal thing but I find increasingly that prayer works best when I listen rather than indulge in frenzied words! Nevertheless, I still find this a very exciting and worthwhile piece both to hear and play. I must start playing it again!

 

Malcolm

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While I haven't actually played the piece for several years now (it was once in my very regular repertoire) one of my current party/recital pieces is one that quotes Litanies.

 

 

Would that be the Durufle work, Malcolm? That's an equally wonderful work - wish I could get that one under my fingers!

 

VA

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Helga Schauerte's monograph on Alain (p.17 - 18) says that Alain's exceptionally flexible wrist enabled him to master staccato technique at the piano without difficulty. As for the 'Litanies' score, the 'cluster' idea is an urban myth, definitely - there is no known score or sketch with this type of 'free' notation. On the subject of critical reports, the best source for variant readings in all the works is the Critical Notes issued by Leduc to accompany the last reprint edited by MCA in 2001-2003. While the new Barenreiter edition includes some works not available in Leduc (the version of the Intermezzo written for Dupre's house organ, for example) the critical commentary sometimes fails to list all the variant readings, and to get the complete picture you really need to consult both Leduc and Barenreiter. As a bonus Leduc includes numerous facsimiles, from which it's quite possible to play direct.

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Yes it is indeed the Durufle. I find it necessary to identify, isolate and concentrate on the most difficult bits and, of course, what I find difficult may not be the same as everyone else. It is a wonderfully satisfying piece to work on and play. Like the Toccata, by its very technical difficulties and the need to know it very thoroughly, I find I enjoy both the musical and technical challenges and then also find that overcoming those challenges makes learning and playing other pieces so much easier and more rewarding. My motto is that time spent working on the organ music of Durufle is time well spent!

 

Pop down to St Saviour's Eastbourne on Monday 6th August at 1pm if you can. I'm giving a recital there then and am including the Durufle P&F on Alain unless it gets played in the previous recital by someone else.

 

Malcolm

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Pop down to St Saviour's Eastbourne on Monday 6th August at 1pm if you can. I'm giving a recital there then and am including the Durufle P&F on Alain unless it gets played in the previous recital by someone else.

 

Malcolm

 

I shall certainly try!

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I freely admit that I've never quite managed it and I do this without shame as I know I'm in some august company. However much I practise it, there's always one chord near the end of the passage that catches me out. I think it's a fourth finger problem. In fact, I'm damned sure it is, but I've never been able to find a solution. Slow practice isn't much help. It really would be most helpful if those who can play the passage perfectly at speed would tell us how they manage it and what they think might be preventing us mere mortals from achieving the same. Any tips gratefully received.

 

Just where the RH part moves to the Positif? (Assuming you are playing hands swapped.) I am able to apply a stringendo after that quite happily, but would prefer to be playing faster earlier.

 

 

Come on, we can't all be fudging it! Surely someone has some ideas as to where to concentrate the attention? Or is it, after all, just a matter of banging away more earnestly at Hanon and his ilk?

Does anyone play that rapid succession of chords in the left hand AS written? I'd be interested to know what other contributors do - I've certainly never managed it...

 

VA

Normally I'd try rhythmic variants to help a passage like this, dotted, 1 + 3, 4 + 4, 2 + 6 and so on tracking the speed of each variation as I push the tempo.

 

However...

 

The grouping of the quavers in the theme is so ground into my brain from learning the rest of the piece that I can't stick to the rhythmic variant, even though I've been using this approach for years in other pieces and don't normally have to even think about it. The power (?) of the brain sometimes just gets in the way. I've wondered about using Sibelius to type the chords in groups of fours, but seeing I can't stay with the rhythms when practising this section from memory and not using the music, I'm not sure that this will work. So, I admit to just bashing away at it. I'd love to increase my tempo further through this section, so perhaps re typesetting might help.

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Just where the RH part moves to the Positif? (Assuming you are playing hands swapped.) I am able to apply a stringendo after that quite happily, but would prefer to be playing faster earlier.

 

Normally I'd try rhythmic variants to help a passage like this, dotted, 1 + 3, 4 + 4, 2 + 6 and so on tracking the speed of each variation as I push the tempo.

 

Swap hands? Actually that had never occurred to me. I doubt I could do it anyway; I have problems with a fairly solidified trapezius muscle which makes even the last page of the Widor Toccata problematic for me these days - now there's an obvious candidate for swapping hands; has anyone tried that?

 

I had a helpful reply off-forum from "Cynic" about the Alain, which concluded that it's basically down to the time-honoured, methodical, rigorous, slow practice method. I'm sure he's right. I have spent two or three hours on the passage in the last couple of days and I've got it to the stage where I can play it 100% accurately at quaver = 300 about 80% of the time. It probably doesn't need to go much, if any, faster than this, but it does need to be 100% accurate 100% of the time. That, as ever, is going to be the tricky bit.

 

The specific problem for me is the first-inversion B flat chord - the seventh from the start of the LH passage and again in the identical passage an octave lower. It's worse the second time because by then I've increased the speed. I have been using poor fingering, playing the F natural with my second finger when the third would be better. I have to unlearn that. But the problem is getting either finger onto the note cleanly without snagging the F sharp. The solution has got to be to make sure I am bouncing the hand high enough off the keys to give them room to land cleanly on the next chord. Now a new problem is trying to manifest itself with the chords below the RH G major chord - this one is down to thumb control.

 

One trick I am finding helpful is to play every chord in this passage twice in a dotted rhythm, not worrying about the speed of the passage as a whole (in fact, playing it quite slowly to begin with), but concentrating on getting a swift, accurate movement from one chord to the next. To begin with, I allowed the first of each repeated chord to be as long as needed and concentrated on making the repetition and the move to the next chord short, quick and accurate (so I was playing each of the written chords in a double-dotted, or even triple-dotted rhythm). As each change of chord began to feel comfortable I then began to push things a bit by shortening the "dotted" chords. My thinking was that the longer first chord would bed my fingers into that chord and allow me to concentrate better on the very short repetition of that chord and the lightening switch to the next chord. Hopefully this will result in me learning each chord change individually and thoroughly in a way that I have never done by just ploughing continually through the passage as written. Isolating the individual hand movements in this way seems to be paying dividends, but time will tell.

 

I hope all this makes sense.

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The specific problem for me is the first-inversion B flat chord - the seventh from the start of the LH passage and again in the identical passage an octave lower. ... I have been using poor fingering, playing the F natural with my second finger when the third would be better.

 

Having just spent a few more minutes on this passage, I'm not at all sure about this any more. Using the third finger is a marginally more comfortable hand position, but the second finger gives me infinitely more control (possibly because that's the way I've been playing it for the last 45 years). I suppose the fingering to use is the one that best suits me personally, but does anyone have a view on this?

 

And quaver = 300 isn't really quite fast enough, since I like to accelerate towards the end of the phrase. :( But easy does it. The first step is to make sure that at all times I am playing each chord firmly, deliberately and accurately, so that my fingers know exactly where they have to go. There are one or two places where I have become lazy and am allowing muscle memory to aim my fingers in the right general direction while hoping for the best - and that's not good enough. Am I on the right lines?

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