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Registrating French Romantics On English Organs


Jeremy Jones
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A few years ago one of our most eminent senior organists gave a recital of French Romantic works, principally Franck, on the organ at Westminster Abbey. It proved to be a bit of a stinker, really, principally because he tried to make this quintessentially English organ sound like a Cavaille-Coll. The Abbey organ has some good continental sounding stops on the Choir courtesy of the Simon Preston inspired rebuild in 1982, and of course the battery of Bombarde reeds in the North Triforium, added in 1987, but otherwise the tutti is as English as you get.

 

My question is this: what should an organist do in such a situation where French Romantic music has been programmed on an echt-English instrument. Should you even try to come up with some authentic sounding registrations?

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A few years ago one of our most eminent senior organists gave a recital of French Romantic works, principally Franck, on the organ at Westminster Abbey. It proved to be a bit of a stinker, really, principally because he tried to make this quintessentially English organ sound like a Cavaille-Coll. The Abbey organ has some good continental sounding stops on the Choir courtesy of the Simon Preston inspired rebuild in 1982, and of course the battery of Bombarde reeds in the North Triforium, added in 1987, but otherwise the tutti is as English as you get.

 

My question is this: what should an organist do in such a situation where French Romantic music has been programmed on an echt-English instrument. Should you even try to come up with some authentic sounding registrations?

 

====================

 

 

I'm not sure it is possible to get anything remotely French-sounding on English organs, but perhaps a good Fr.Willis fares better than an Arthur Harrison instrument.

 

I personally think that Blackburn probably sounds better than most Cavaille-Coll organs, whilst Coventry can give a good account of French repertoire of course.

 

However, the music "transcribes" quite well to English instruments.

 

Not really connected with the question, many people are taken-a-back by the very French sounds which are possible on a large Wurlitzer theatre organ when the stops are carefully selected and the Trems turned off.

 

MM

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In his book on the Sydney Town Hall organ, Robert Ampt wrote that musically convincing performances will sound sufficiently authentic. I think that there's a lot of good sense in this.

 

Now, there's no point in trying to play Franck on a neo-baroque instrument. But French romantics can come across well on English-tradition instruments. To me, it's not a matter of attempting the impossible - to make them sound like they were built by Cavaillé-Coll - but using the available resources sympathetically. Then once the music is under way, let the performance carry the listener rather than worrying whether the registrations are sufficiently exact.

 

Rgds,

MJF

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To me, it's not a matter of attempting the impossible - to make them sound like they were built by Cavaillé-Coll - but using the available resources sympathetically.  Then once the music is under way, let the performance carry the listener rather than worrying whether the registrations are sufficiently exact
I agree, though personally I think it's important to try to respect the composer's intentions as far as practical - not trying to reproduce his sounds slavishly, but reinterpreting them in terms of the English organ. So I generally take the French registrations and, as a starting point, use the organ in the equivalent, English way, tweaking as necessary. A lot of the time I find the French registrations can be can be transplanted pretty much as is, but sometimes it is necessary to re-register. The use of the Positif is a case in point. English Choir Organs rarely do the job as well as French ones; on occasion I find it more effective simply to reduce the Gt to quieter 8ft tone. A typical French build-up from Récit p through RP to GPR fff will usually need rethinking, the obvious solution being simply to build up the organ in the typical English way. A Récit solo of Fonds 8ft + Hautbois + Trompette usually sounds pretty ghastly if taken literally on an English organ; mostly I tend to end up opting for just the Trumpet/Cornopean on its own.

 

To my mind the only insurmountable problem comes when you don't have a Vox Humana. I don't much like the things (despite my username), but there really is no satisfactory alternative. There's nothing worse than hearing a passage intended for Voix humaine + tremblant played on Voix célestes - the mood is so radically different - but on many (most?) English organs it may nonetheless be the best alternative.

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One tricky part is when Franck says "fonds et hautbois". On a Cavaillé-Coll, an hautbois blends very well with the foundation stops (it almost sounds like a gamba). On another instrument, the oboe will probably be too strong - but when you don't draw it, you may run into another problem: Franck also uses the hautbois to make the swell action more effective (especially at his organ at Ste-Clotilde, where the Positif was unusually well endowed with 8' foundation stops (five of 'em!)). So if your Swell division is small, it may require some thinking before reaching a reasonable balance between divisions while still ensuring an effective swell box action even when you play from the Great.

 

As for a pp-->fff crescendo, such as in the outer mouvements of most Widor or Vierne symphonies, one point to keep in mind is that they usually keep a tutti in the Récit division from start to finish, so that opening the swell box followed by adding "anches Positif" and then "anches Grand-Orgue" will change the intensity of the sound, but not so much its colour (besides the purpose, again, to keep the swell box action as effective as possible). Even if you can't follow the letter of a Cavaillé-Coll sound, you might still try to follow the spirit of not changing tone colour too much during a crescendo.

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As for a pp-->fff crescendo, such as in the outer mouvements of most Widor or Vierne symphonies, one point to keep in mind is that they usually keep a tutti in the Récit division from start to finish
Oh, absolutely. The classic example - because so many people play it - must be Franck's A minor Chorale. Nowhere does it tell you to subtract the Récit reeds until you get to the Adagio (the S. Clotilde Récit didn't have a 16' reed).
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I recently acquired Martin Jean's recordings of the 6 Vierne Symphonies on the Skinner Organ in Woolsey Memorial Hall, Yale University. They are superbly done, but he sensibly doesn't try and make the instrument sound like a Cavaille-Coll. The sensible approach must surely be to take whatever instrument you are playing on its own terms, and not to try and make it into something it isnt.

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As a starting point, you may use

 

http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~oneskull/3.6.03.htm

 

Stephen Bicknell's article on "Cavaillé-Coll's four fonds" has been refered to on this forum repreatedly, I am sure, but it still is a brilliant read and tells, at least, a lot about what can not be achieved on any other organ but a Cavaillé-Coll.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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Gerard Brook's article in the latest edition of Organists Review about how to play a Cavaille-Coll organ is very telling. The ventil system and the way the organist can use them on each manual to gradully increase the power is fascinating, but also somewhat worrying, when I thought organists had enough to worry about with manual, pedals, stops, swell pedals, pistons etc.

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In his book on the Sydney Town Hall organ, Robert Ampt wrote that musically convincing performances will sound sufficiently authentic.  I think that there's a lot of good sense in this.

 

Now, there's no point in trying to play Franck on a neo-baroque instrument.  But French romantics can come across well on English-tradition instruments.  To me, it's not a matter of attempting the impossible - to make them sound like they were built by Cavaillé-Coll - but using the available resources sympathetically.  Then once the music is under way, let the performance carry the listener rather than worrying whether the registrations are sufficiently exact.

 

Rgds,

MJF

 

=====================

 

Well, I reckon Franck would sound superb at Blackburn and probably also at Gloucester, but even the lack of swell-boxes at St.Bavo is seen only as a minor handicap.

 

Another "neo-classic" instrument which works well for French music, is the interestingly different instrument at the St.Paul's Hall, University of Huddersfield.

 

I suspect that any organ, neo-classical or not, will usually work well for much French music if the instrument has a certain homegeneity of tone.

 

You just know it doesn't work when someone says, "I'd never thought of Tournemire as a contrapuntal composer before to-day!"

 

:P

 

MM

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Gerard Brook's article in the latest edition of Organists Review about how to play a Cavaille-Coll organ is very telling. The ventil system and the way the organist can use them on each manual to gradully increase the power is fascinating, but also somewhat worrying, when I thought organists had enough to worry about with manual, pedals, stops, swell pedals, pistons etc.

 

The point is that on a Cavaillé-Coll, you have ventil-controling spoons instead of pistons, and that in a typical symphonic crescendo/decrescendo, you only operate those spoons (and the swell box) without drawing or removing individual stops. This "terraced" dynamics ("terraces" not unlike Nepalese rice plantations) is in stark contrast to, say, a German romantic crescendo as in Reger, where one starts sometimes even with only one soft flue stop and goes up to a tutti through a continuous crescendo, based on adding individual stops (or, if all else fails, using the general crescendo, which Widor abhorred).

 

Moreover, if you look at Widor's scores, you'll see that most of the time, he arranges for the pedal part to leave enough comfort to the player to operate both the swell box and the ventil spoons by himself. Obviously, this needs to be mastered, like any other aspect of playing a musical instrument, but it almost never becomes acrobatic (Vierne and Dupré are already another story!).

 

So I'd be less worried playing Widor on a Cavaillé-Coll than playing Reger on a Walcker or a Sauer. :P

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"or, if all else fails, using the general crescendo, which Widor abhorred"

(Quote)

 

The general crescendo -I would rather tell the "normal" crescendo- was established with the voicers.

Each stop has its carefully choosen place in the crescendo, actually, the whole organ is build "round the crescendo".

In Belgium the romantic organ was conceived both ways; take a Van Bever for example, the "appels des anches" pedals are there, but the crescendo as well -intended to be used with the reeds pedals on of course-.

All the stations of these crescendo Pedals are to be found in Jean-Pierre Félix inventory of the Van Bever archives -we noted them carefully!-

Now of course an organist may try another crescendo, beginning with this instead of that, but the normal crescendo, the one which will give the best results, will remain the one done with/by the voicer himself.

Pierre

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"or, if all else fails, using the general crescendo, which Widor abhorred"

(Quote)

 

The general crescendo -I would rather tell the "normal" crescendo- was established with the voicers.

Each stop has its carefully choosen place in the crescendo, actually, the whole organ is build "round the crescendo". [...]

Now of course an organist may try another crescendo, beginning with this instead of that, but the normal crescendo, the one which will give the best results, will remain the one done with/by the voicer himself.

Pierre

 

Actually, the main reason Widor didn't like the "general crescendo" is not so much the way it's designed, but rather that a crescendo pedal is difficult to operate accurately: you can't control it well enough to pass from, say, stage 4 to stage 5 at the precise moment you want it to (e.g. on a strong beat, or when a new voice enters).

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Actually, the main reason Widor didn't like the "general crescendo" is not so much the way it's designed, but rather that a crescendo pedal is difficult to operate accurately: you can't control it well enough to pass from, say, stage 4 to stage 5 at the precise moment you want it to (e.g. on a strong beat, or when a new voice enters).

 

The crescendo is of course a means of dynamic control, not a registration device; for this there are the pistons.

Pierre

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The crescendo is of course a means of dynamic control, not a registration device; for this there are the pistons.

Pierre

 

Yes, but Widor considered that even when a change has a dynamical purpose, it ought to occur at a precise (and meaningful) moment, his rationale being that adding/removing stops in a work for organ should proceed from the same logic (i.e. phrases and other elements of the musical content) as adding/removing instruments in a work for orchestra.

 

Of course, his views were most certainly biased (like everybody else's), and his knowledge of German instruments and their concept of a continuous crescendo (including among flue stops) may have been somewhat superficial. But from a purely musical perspective, I do think he has a point.

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The crescendo is of course a means of dynamic control, not a registration device; for this there are the pistons.

Pierre

One might argue that it is neither -- "crescendo" is a musical term, and it means "growing".

 

To remember this sometimes helps if one struggles with all the different means of realizing it -- e. g. stop-by-stop build-up, or terraced as in a Cavaillé-Coll, or in a mixture of both ways.

 

I have heard players who managed to arrive at that same "growing" effect without moving a single shade or stop-knob -- just by subtle phrasing.

 

You can even get a Crescendo out of articulation -- on the organ, a sound usually, and within certain limits, appears the louder the longer it lasts. Try it with your heavy 16-foot pedal reed.

 

Best,

Friedrich

 

P. S.

I have heard the C-C terraced crescendo described like a six-layer cream cake. Pedal, G. O. and Pos., plus and minus "anches", form six "fondants" of bisquit dough, while the full Récit adds the cream to even out the steps. I thought the description was delicious.

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Here is an example of "normal crescendo", by Heinz Wunderlich on the

Sauer organ of Berlin Cathedral:

 

http://www.gewalcker.de/gewalcker.de/Wunde...Reger_Cresc.mp3

 

An here the descrescendo:

 

http://www.gewalcker.de/gewalcker.de/Wunde...ger_Decresc.mp3

 

Note there are no gaps nor changes in tone, and how important the String

stops are to realize that.

 

Pierre

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Beautiful!

How many steps does the crescendo have?

It is a 22-step crescendo, starting with Harmonika 8' (I), Dulziana 8' (II), Dolce 8' (III), Aeoline 8' (IV), Liebl. Gedackt 16' (P), II/I, III/I, IV/I. The last ranks coming in are the chorus reeds 16-8-4 on I, the open 32' and the 32-foot reed on the pedal, and the Tuba on II.

 

A stoplist and some pictures are on

http://www.sauerorgelbau.de/berlinerdom.pdf

 

(See Hermann J. Busch, Die Wilhelm-Sauer-Orgel des Berliner Domes, in: Ars Organi 44 (1993), p.231-238, here: p.236; and corrigenda in Ars Organi 45).

 

Best,

Friedrich

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It is a 22-step crescendo, starting with Harmonika 8' (I), Dulziana 8' (II), Dolce 8' (III), Aeoline 8' (IV), Liebl. Gedackt 16' (P), II/I, III/I, IV/I. The last ranks coming in are the chorus reeds 16-8-4 on I, the open 32' and the 32-foot reed on the pedal, and the Tuba on II.

 

A stoplist and some pictures are on

http://www.sauerorgelbau.de/berlinerdom.pdf

 

(See Hermann J. Busch, Die Wilhelm-Sauer-Orgel des Berliner Domes, in: Ars Organi 44 (1993), p.231-238, here: p.236; and corrigenda in Ars Organi 45).

 

Best,

Friedrich

 

====================

 

It is wonderful to see restoration on such a grand-scale as this.

 

The Sauer sounds wonderful and looks superb.

 

MM

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"It is wonderful to see restoration on such a grand-scale as this."

(Quote)

 

Indeed!

And for an organ that was considered "just good enough for scrapping" not

so long time ago.

(Any resemblance with any other place is purely accidental) :P

 

Pierre

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