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The Virgil Fox Phenomenon

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For God's sake the guy is at death's door and all you can do, sjf, is criticize his playing. Call yourself a bloody Christian?  :D

Calm down Lee. If it was supposed to be an example of triumph in the face of adversity that's one thing, as I tried to point out; I also said that I have the very greatest admiration for Fox's technical prowess in general and that I was fully aware of the emotional charge of the occasion. But this performance was being held up as an example of Fox's ability as a serious interpreter of repertoire, and his state of health has nothing to do with it - or with his need to add extra bars to the Sicilienne for no apparent reason. I don't think there's any need to start throwing the Bible at me.

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Sorry but it just confirms my perception that some organists and clergy seem to pontificate from their high organ lofts/pulpits with little compassion or sensitivity...or professionalism for that matter.

I am not pontificating at all Lee. The entity that mainly concerns me in all this is Durufle, not Virgil Fox, and if you find that objectionable or unprofessional then I'm sorry.

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Guest Lee Blick
Calm down Lee. If it was supposed to be an example of triumph in the face of adversity that's one thing, as I tried to point out; I also said that I have the very greatest admiration for Fox's technical prowess in general and that I was fully aware of the emotional charge of the occasion. But this performance was being held up as an example of Fox's ability as a serious interpreter of repertoire, and his state of health has nothing to do with it - or with his need to add extra bars to the Sicilienne for no apparent reason. I don't think there's any need to start throwing the Bible at me.

 

Then maybe it is the fault of the original person who held Fox in that performance up as an example. Sorry, but I found your comments insensitive.

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Then maybe it is the fault of the original person who held Fox in that performance up as an example.  Sorry, but I found your comments insensitive.

Which was the the last thing I wanted to appear. I'm very happy to return to the amazing Jongen performance which is, as MM said, very remarkable indeed.

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Guest Lee Blick
Which was the the last thing I wanted to appear. I'm very happy to return to the amazing Jongen performance which is, as MM said, very remarkable indeed.

 

If I have to restrict myself to one thing it's the start of the Sicilienne. Why does he do it?  I do genuinely admire Fox's technical facility, but this performance embodies for me exactly why I never want to hear him play serious repertoire.

 

Fox did something different at the beginning of the Sicilienne? So what? He wasn't taking liberties on the scale of Arty Nobile, for example. Are organists not allowed to express themselves? I think the comment about not wanting to hear him play serious repertoire is very harsh and a misreprestentation of his ability and talent as an organist. I would by far prefer to listen to someone like Virgil Fox who took risks, pushed boundaries, communicated his art in a charismatic manner than a predictable and dull rendition we all too often see in organ recitals.

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Back to the music.

 

I can't help thinking, every time I hear the prelude to the Op5 suite, how indebted we are to MD for writing such a solemn, profound, beautiful piece of music.

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Fox did something different at the beginning of the Sicilienne?  So what?  He wasn't taking liberties on the scale of Arty Nobile, for example.  Are organists not allowed to express themselves?  I think the comment about not wanting to hear him play serious repertoire is very harsh and a misreprestentation of his ability and talent as an organist.

I'm a bit reluctant to get into this, Lee, given the evident strength of your feelings about the question. We have dramatically different views and had better leave it there.

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This does highlight the interesting question of what constitutes "interpretation". Where is the line between interpreting and simply taking liberties? With no wish to dwell on the specific example presented here, surely adding bars goes beyond interpretation and into rewriting - I mean, if the composer had wished those bars to be there he would have written them. I, too, am against boring and thoughtless renditions, but surely there is a limit to what is "acceptable", and a limit to what can be "excused" on the basis of interpretation?

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But this is typical of the classical organ world. Dare to try something different, do something from the norm and you get shot down. No wonder organ playing is in the backwater and is a dying art.

 

I say get it into the secular arena. Make more use of the organs in concert/town halls and venues. Encourage organ playing at home. People like Fox took the organ away from its ecclesiastical, conservative stuffy image and made it an instrument for all people to enjoy.

 

I mean, if the composer had wished those bars to be there he would have written them. I, too, am against boring and thoughtless renditions, but surely there is a limit to what is "acceptable", and a limit to what can be "excused" on the basis of interpretation?

 

But in musical history composers have allowed for musicians their own interpretation of their pieces. For example in Early Music the performer could embellish passages, opera singers could add cadenzas.

 

I am not saying what Fox did was right but there is more to music than dots on the pages.

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This does highlight the interesting question of what constitutes "interpretation".  Where is the line between interpreting and simply taking liberties?  With no wish to dwell on the specific example presented here, surely adding bars goes beyond interpretation and into rewriting - I mean, if the composer had wished those bars to be there he would have written them.  I, too, am against boring and thoughtless renditions, but surely there is a limit to what is "acceptable", and a limit to what can be "excused" on the basis of interpretation?

I'd tend to the view that a composer as fastidious and self critical as Durufle, who destroyed a lot of pieces because they weren't up to scratch in his eyes, meant exactly what's on the page and nothing else.

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So sjf, because Fox did not hold steadfastly to Durufle in that performance, you would not want to hear him "play serious repertoire"?

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But this is typical of the classical organ world.  Dare to try something different, do something from the norm and you get shot down.  No wonder organ playing is in the backwater and is a dying art.

 

I say get it into the secular arena.  Make more use of the organs in concert/town halls and venues.  Encourage organ playing at home.  People like Fox took the organ away from its ecclesiastical, conservative stuffy image and made it an instrument for all people to enjoy.

But in musical history composers have allowed for musicians their own interpretation of their pieces.  For example in Early Music the performer could embellish passages, opera singers could add cadenzas.

 

I am not saying what Fox did was right but there is more to music than dots on the pages.

Which I think is why Fox's greatest moments tend to be in things which are more convincingly susceptible to that sort of 'recreation'. I'm not sure it's right to use the practice of the 17th and 18th century to justify liberties in the 20th. There is certainly more to music than the dots - but they still have to be respected or something crucial is lost. A pianist who added a couple of extra bars to the start of the Beethoven 'Moonlight' Sonata in order to express him/herself would not last long on the concert platform - why?

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Which I think is why Fox's greatest moments tend to be in things which are more convincingly susceptible to that sort of 'recreation'. I'm not sure it's right to use the practice of the 17th and 18th century to justify liberties in the 20th. There is certainly more to music than the dots - but they still have to be respected or something crucial is lost. A pianist who added a couple of extra bars to the start of the Beethoven 'Moonlight' Sonata in order to express him/herself would not last long on the concert platform - why?

 

But wasn't much of the music composed in centuries past composed for recreation and delight? Listen to a harpsicord fandango by Soler and you can't cant help thinking it was to wow the ladies, rather than as a recital piece. Did Chopin not compose music to entertain?

 

In my opinion recitals can become too clinical, too up it's own arse interpretive arse, organ recitals in particular.

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But wasn't much of the music composed in centuries past composed for recreation and delight?  Listen to a harpsicord fandango by Soler and you can't cant help thinking it was to wow the ladies, rather than as a recital piece. Did Chopin not compose music to entertain?

 

In my opinion recitals can become too clinical, too up it's own arse interpretive arse, organ recitals in particular.

 

Quite so. The composer composes the music using the skills they have chosen to develop. The performer performs the music of the composer using the skills they have chosen to develop, and applying their relevant knowledge of the stylistic practices of the period, to recreate what the composer intended.

 

With the greatest possible respect to VF, that's not what happened here, and I don't think it's in any way offensive or insensitive to say so.

 

You are welcome to your own opinion of recitals and I'm sure you'll find plenty of recitalists who can offer what you are looking for. From where I'm sitting your definition of "up it's own interpretive arse" would seem to mean playing the right notes.

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So sjf, because Fox did not hold steadfastly to Durufle in that performance, you would not want to hear him "play serious repertoire"?

Lee - I think that I'd wonder about any performer on any instrument who was quite so free with the score as Fox is here. I don't have it in for Fox in particular. It implies that somehow the music in itself is not interesting enough to be taken seriously, or listened to closely, without the addition of layers of extraneous material - colouristic tricks, tempo fluctuations, added bars, or whatever. In the end it's a bit of a snub to the composer for any performer, not just Fox, to suggest in this way that the score is somehow deficient without their the benefit of their attentions - that their 'art' adds a missing dimension, rather than realising faithfully the dimensions already supplied by the composer (especially one as good as Durufle). If the piece is so dull that it needs that kind of help, then play something better instead. That doesn't mean the result of fidelity to the score has to be boring - you only have to listen to Carlos Kleiber's conducting to realise that.

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Which I think is why Fox's greatest moments tend to be in things which are more convincingly susceptible to that sort of 'recreation'. I'm not sure it's right to use the practice of the 17th and 18th century to justify liberties in the 20th. There is certainly more to music than the dots - but they still have to be respected or something crucial is lost. A pianist who added a couple of extra bars to the start of the Beethoven 'Moonlight' Sonata in order to express him/herself would not last long on the concert platform - why?

 

 

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

 

 

This really is quite fascinating, for many years after the death of Virgil Fox, the arguments and passionately held views continue to rage.

 

What I must say, is that music really underwent something of a transformation in the 19th century, when the composer rather than the performer, took control. That was not always the case, as we know.

 

The fact that Virgil Fox wrestled back control, is fascinating enough, but then add the larger than life personality of a man who was at the centre of his own musical universe, who was both blessed and equally cursed with an enormous ego devoid of the slightest self-doubt, a technique which remains utterly astounding and a musical memory which included something like 400 major organ-works, and you have an organ-legend of immense proportion.

 

Now concerning the Sicilliene from the Suite Op.5, perhaps we are overlooking something.

 

Everything Fox did was from memory, and being rather gravely ill at the time of the recording, it is actually quite possible that he had a lapse of memory on the day. I personally hadn't noticed it, because it is so long since I heard it, I don't think I could have known; especially since I have never learned it myself, and do not have a suitable instrument on which to play it.

 

Excuses apart, I think we can ALL agree that Fox could certainly deliver the goods, as in the Jongen we listened to.

 

All that stated, Virgil Fox was certainly not averse to using liberal doses of artistic licence, and one is left to wonder what might have been if the great Johann Sebastian Bach had been a contemporary. I get the distinct feeling that Fox would have been quite happy to pay him to sit on a pedestal, and then show him how to play his music properly on a better instrument.

 

Virgil Fox reminds me of the man who would shout to the crowd, "Gather round, I have something to say!" He then sets himself on fire; leaving everyone with a mystery to contemplate.

 

It goes beyond music and art, and strays into different territory.

 

It is as much American as it is performing art; encapsulated in time, like Rockerfeller, Howard Hughes and Andy Warhol all rolled into one. It offends yet tanatlizes, it thrills and appalls (like a tight-rope walker crossing Niagra Falls), but above all, it draws attention to itself.

 

Fox went beyond the acceptable boundaries, and redefined the word licence. This was more Month Python "Life of Brian" than the Cecil B.de Mille's "The ten commandments," where the centurion cries, "Suuuuuuarely, thiiiis waaas the San of Gaaaawd!"

 

It is the psychology of Fox which fascinates me, as if he was so enormously capable and musical, but instead of just being a musician at the cutting edge of virtuosity, he chose to present it as caricature and in the most vivid technicolor.

 

Virgil Fox playing Jongen is impressive enough, but I think that to choose the path of musical selectivity is to choose the path of denial, because the WHOLE phenomenon is probably the art, and the music is merely the means by which it ws delivered.

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...both blessed and equally cursed with an enormous ego

This is the nub of it, isn't it? Performers who seek to "improve" the work of a composer who took the trouble to write exactly what he meant are effectively setting themselves above the composer. This may matter little if the composer is a miserable hack (though it is still discourteous), but to claim to improve on the "greats" is arrogance itself. I doubt that any organists are that great - being a great performer is one thing; being a great composer is something else entirely.

 

This was more Month Python "Life of Brian" than the Cecil B.de Mille's "The ten commandments," where the centurion cries, "Suuuuuuarely, thiiiis waaas the San of Gaaaawd!"

Wasn't that John Wayne? As in:

 

Cecil: "John, John: say it with awe!"

 

John W: "Aw, surely this was the Son of God."

 

Sorry - totally off topic.

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... to claim to improve on the "greats" is arrogance itself. I doubt that any organists are that great - being a great performer is one thing; being a great composer is something else entirely.

 

 

Is this where we use the word "great showman" as opposed to "great performer"? Whenever I see talk of showmanship it rings bells that I'm going to need to excuse lots of wrong notes and highly idiosyncratic performances. On R3 last week there were some glorious performances of transcriptions by Thomas Trotter, from Birmingham Symphony Hall - but, because they were accurate and musical and (I presume) TT wasn't wearing sequins, paying an Einstein lookalike to stand by the console and conduct the audience while he yelled at them, we refer to him as a "great performer".

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This is the nub of it, isn't it? Performers who seek to "improve" the work of a composer who took the trouble to write exactly what he meant are effectively setting themselves above the composer. This may matter little if the composer is a miserable hack (though it is still discourteous), but to claim to improve on the "greats" is arrogance itself. I doubt that any organists are that great - being a great performer is one thing; being a great composer is something else entirely.

 

Wasn't that John Wayne? As in:

 

Cecil: "John, John: say it with awe!"

 

John W: "Aw, surely this was the Son of God."

 

Sorry - totally off topic.

For what it's worth there are no memory lapses in the performance, MM - he makes a cut in the Toccata which I'm pretty sure Durufle sanctioned before disowning the movement completely, but otherwise it's things like tempi and registrations which are at variance with the score. When you say the point of Fox is the art of the performer, not the music, and the latter is the means by which the former is delivered - for me, that's exactly the wrong way round...

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Guest Lee Blick
Quite so.  The composer composes the music using the skills they have chosen to develop.  The performer performs the music of the composer using the skills they have chosen to develop, and applying their relevant knowledge of the stylistic practices of the period, to recreate what the composer intended.

 

With the greatest possible respect to VF, that's not what happened here, and I don't think it's in any way offensive or insensitive to say so.

 

You are welcome to your own opinion of recitals and I'm sure you'll find plenty of recitalists who can offer what you are looking for.  From where I'm sitting your definition of "up it's own interpretive arse" would seem to mean playing the right notes.

 

No, that is not what I meant. I think it is about getting the balance right between achieving a performance as how the composer intended alongside the character and interpretation of the recitalist.

 

I have been to hundreds of organ recitals up and down the country and I have been disappointed how characterless organ playing can be. Technically secure, yes, any sense of the recitalist's character, often no.

 

Mr Fox, may express himself in a somewhat flamboyant (and say egotistical way) but I would rather listen to and be entertained by that rather some sterile and faceless recitalist in some backwater provincial cathedral in my personal opinion.

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

This really is quite fascinating, for many years after the death of Virgil Fox, the arguments and passionately held views continue to rage.

 

What I must say, is that music really underwent something of a transformation in the 19th century, when the composer rather than the performer, took control. That was not always the case, as we know.

 

The fact that Virgil Fox wrestled back control, is fascinating enough, but then add the larger than life personality of a man who was at the centre of his own musical universe, who was both blessed and equally cursed with an enormous ego devoid of the slightest self-doubt, a technique which remains utterly astounding and a musical memory which included something like 400 major organ-works, and you have an organ-legend of immense proportion.

 

Now concerning the Sicilliene from the Suite Op.5, perhaps we are overlooking something.

 

Everything Fox did was from memory, and being rather gravely ill at the time of the recording, it is actually quite possible that he had a lapse of memory on the day. I personally hadn't noticed it, because it is so long since I heard it, I don't think I could have known; especially since I have never learned it myself, and do not have a suitable instrument on which to play it.

 

Excuses apart, I think we can ALL agree that Fox could certainly deliver the goods, as in the Jongen we listened to.

 

All that stated, Virgil Fox was certainly not averse to using liberal doses of artistic licence, and one is left to wonder what might have been if the great Johann Sebastian Bach had been a contemporary. I get the distinct feeling that Fox would have been quite happy to pay him to sit on a pedestal, and then show him how to play his music properly on a better instrument.

 

Virgil Fox reminds me of the man who would shout to the crowd, "Gather round, I have something to say!"  He then sets himself on fire; leaving everyone with a mystery to contemplate.

 

It goes beyond music and art, and strays into different territory.

 

It is as much American as it is performing art; encapsulated in time, like Rockerfeller, Howard Hughes and Andy Warhol all rolled into one. It offends yet tanatlizes, it thrills and appalls (like a tight-rope walker crossing Niagra Falls), but above all, it draws attention to itself.

 

Fox went beyond the acceptable boundaries, and redefined the word licence. This was more Month Python "Life of Brian" than the Cecil B.de Mille's "The ten commandments," where the centurion cries, "Suuuuuuarely, thiiiis waaas the San of Gaaaawd!"

 

It is the psychology of Fox which fascinates me, as if he was so enormously capable and musical, but instead of just being a musician at the cutting edge of virtuosity, he chose to present it as caricature and in the most vivid technicolor.

 

Virgil Fox playing Jongen is impressive enough, but I think that to choose the path of musical selectivity is to choose the path of denial, because the WHOLE phenomenon is probably the art, and the music is merely the means by which it ws delivered.

Totally agree with you. :)

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No, that is not what I meant.  I think it is about getting the balance right between achieving a performance as how the composer intended alongside the character and interpretation of the recitalist.

 

I have been to hundreds of organ recitals up and down the country and I have been disappointed how characterless organ playing can be.  Technically secure, yes, any sense of the recitalist's character, often no.

 

Mr Fox, may express himself in a somewhat flamboyant (and say egotistical way) but I would rather listen to and be entertained by that rather some sterile and faceless recitalist in backwater provincial cathedral.

Yes, quite right. But if some people find that their taste lies at a different point on the composer/perfomer spectrum that's up to them as well. For me, this playing (a pianist, not an organist) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMAIag5IPDg is awesome and gets the balance exactly right between the two. Others may disagree.

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