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Thalben-Ball Elegy (in B flat)


Johannes Riponensis
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I have a copy of GTB's piano reduction of this famous piece (which, incidentally, is much harder to play than the organ original!).  It is marked Larghetto (crochet = 72).  To my ears, the organ version also makes sense at the same basic speed, albeit with slight easing at the ends of phrases etc.  This still retains the requisite note of sentimentality without becoming the dirge so often heard these days.

The composer's own recording from St Mark's, Audley Street in 1948 (available on YouTube) begins at about 69 and increases to about 88 at the climax.  This, together with the omission of the first three bars, was presumably to meet the limitations of a single 78 side. The performance lasts 3 mins 27 seconds.  If we assume 3.50 for the complete piece, why is it that some players today take a full 5 minutes?

Does anyone share my views on a slightly brisker speed.?

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I’m probably guilty myself of wallowing a bit in this piece, but yes I think that is probably about the right tempo.

We organists often have in our mind’s ear an orchestra playing this sort of thing, but forget that the tone of orchestral instruments (especially strings) is more dynamic than that of the organ, so a slow tempo still has a certain life about it. To get an equivalent effect on the organ one needs to play a bit faster, or else the line sags and things start to stagnate.

The opposite is true with faster tempi. An orchestra can take music at a tremendous lick that will sound rushed on the organ (to say nothing of pipes not having time to speak properly and actions time to work).

Which is not to say we shouldn’t let the sound and effect of other instruments inform our playing (quite the opposite - organists need to avoid insularity), but a literal “translation” can lead us astray.

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4 hours ago, Johannes Riponensis said:

increases to about 88 at the climax

It used to be normal too to increase the tempo as the music got louder, and slacken as it became softer, whereas nowadays it’s considered a fault.

You hear this a lot in early recordings. Ironically it may be that recordings led to the change of taste. I don’t suppose that before they existed anyone (except metronome fiends??) noticed the tendency, which is a perfectly natural one.

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