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The Virgil Fox Phenomenon

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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.

 

 

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

 

 

My favourite quote about Cecil B.de Mille concerns the music for "The Ten Commandments".

 

I want it like Wagner, only BIGGER!!!!!

 

 

:)

 

MM

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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.

 

Absolutely right. However, changing the notes, or even the rhythm surely automatically makes it impossible to achieve the composer's intentions. The notes, or rather symbols indicating pitch and duration of sound, are the tools supplied by the composer with which to create this performance. Assuming one cannot ask the composer directly (most of the time), then this is probably all one has to go on (along with other things such as tempi, dynamic markings, registration etc....though these are all prone to editorial whims/fashions). There are plenty of ways in which one can "interpret" and apply one's individual character to the performance whilst at the same time playing the intended notes. In fact, tinkering with the written notes is probably one of the easiest ways in which to "individualise" a performance. However, one does both the composer and the listener a disservice by doing so.

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Absolutely right.  However, changing the notes, or even the rhythm surely automatically makes it impossible to achieve the composer's intentions.  The notes, or rather symbols indicating pitch and duration of sound, are the tools supplied by the composer with which to create this performance.  Assuming one cannot ask the composer directly (most of the time), then this is probably all one has to go on (along with other things such as tempi, dynamic markings, registration etc....though these are all prone to editorial whims/fashions).  There are plenty of ways in which one can "interpret" and apply one's individual character to the performance whilst at the same time playing the intended notes.  In fact, tinkering with the written notes is probably one of the easiest ways in which to "individualise" a performance.  However, one does both the composer and the listener a disservice by doing so.

 

 

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

 

Well, this reply SOUNDS spot-on, but is it I wonder?

 

We are, of course assuming, that what the composer wrote is what the composer intended!

 

We are of course also assuming, that the organ we play sounds like what the composer intended!

 

We are also assuming that all organs sound the same, whatever the acoustic.

 

We are also assuming that one can separate acoustic, organ and notes, when in fact one cannot.

 

Perhaps the greatest disservice is to assume anything at all, when we should be using our ears.

 

More later....I have to go to work, but we are now getting into the area of discussion I first anticipated, and of which Virgil Fox himself had a lot to say.

 

What fun!

 

:)

 

MM

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Guest Roffensis

My own teacher was very strict on music, and would say to me so and so stop is not asked for, etc etc, as well as labouring himself for ages to get a performance as accurate as he could to what the composer intended to be heard. I wonder what would happen if orchestral works were reworked and offered as performances, such things would be termed as "light" and would accompany us around M and S whilst we pick our not just food, M and S food.

 

So it is with Virgil Fox, I think of him as a performer who had a amazing technique, and who sought to reach the wider public through lightening up on style. His Bach was anything from amazing to in downright bad taste, and the thought of a clapping audience to the Gigue Fugue screeching out "we love you Virgil" sends horrors right up my spine. he was a very gifted organist who used his technique in a largewly unorthodox way. Interesting to hear, but you aren't going to use his style as a milestone in proper performance. Even more odd is the play so fast that you take off style, which he did employ, but which musically is not good. Fast is not always good, and showmanship and musicianship are two different things. Accurate interpretation gains respect, and so does making yourself a servant to the music. How much of that can be said of VF, clever as he was, is open to question. I have not a single recording of him, I threw them all out together with Carlo Curleys, and frankly find them quite laughable.

 

R

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

We are, of course assuming, that what the composer wrote is what the composer intended!

 

We are of course also assuming, that the organ we play sounds like what the composer intended!

 

We are also assuming that all organs sound the same, whatever the acoustic.

 

We are also assuming that one can separate acoustic, organ and notes, when in fact one cannot.

 

Perhaps the greatest disservice is to assume anything at all, when we should be using our ears.

 

What fun!

 

 

I'm dreading you getting back from work. The first statement is surely somewhat daft. So is the second. And the third. As for the fourth, fifth, sixth...

 

It's the reasoning that says Shakespeare loses nothing and gains all by being ad libbed into modern language by a troupe of disadvantaged lesbians. Er, no - it just stops being Shakespeare and becomes a similar story told in a different way. The story's not actually the whole point; it's the manner of its telling that creates the dramatic tension, pathos etc etc and the opportunities for an audience to respond. When directions are given as to what that manner should be, or there are long standing conventions, surely they must be regarded... or else it's Bach with flapping Swells and tubas all over again.

 

Just because we can't be absolutely certain of detailed matters of pronunciation and spelling, and nobody is quite sure what a Warwickshire accent sounded like back then - surely that doesn't mean that we scrap what we DO know and just do what the hell we want instead? If that is what you mean, let's close all the music colleges.

 

In legal terms (an area of which I know absolutely nothing) I suppose you could compare this argument with the letter of the law and the spirit of the law (is upon me?); of course a performance needn't be dry as a bone, exactly metronomically and dynamically as on the printed page, for the very reasons you outline - different organs, acoustics, etc. But capturing the spirit of what is written through basic respect for, and observance of, the letter of what is written - this needs to be a fairly tightly bound relationship if the performance going to go by the same name given by the composer, and not "improvisation on themes of".

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Guest Roffensis
==================

 

Well, this reply SOUNDS spot-on, but is it I wonder?

 

We are, of course assuming, that what the composer wrote is what the composer intended!

 

Well it's the nearest you'll get.

 

We are of course also assuming, that the organ we play sounds like what the composer intended!

 

A bit of historical research will help, and knowing about period instruments, and making qualified judgements accordingly.

 

We are also assuming that all organs sound the same, whatever the acoustic.

 

And there's me thinking they all did!!  :)

 

We are also assuming that one can separate acoustic, organ and notes, when in fact one cannot.

 

No, you take all three into account, and act accordingly.

 

Perhaps the greatest disservice is to assume anything at all, when we should be using our ears.

 

And brains. Not sure how much our Virgil used of either.

 

More later....I have to go to work, but we are now getting into the area of discussion I first anticipated, and of which Virgil Fox himself had a lot to say.

 

Every word doubtless Manna from heaven, which expertise he clearly demonstrates in his lovely rendition of Air on a G string. Delightful.  :)

 

What fun!

 

Isn't it just!!  :)

:)

 

MM

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

 

Well, this reply SOUNDS spot-on, but is it I wonder?

 

We are, of course assuming, that what the composer wrote is what the composer intended!

 

We are of course also assuming, that the organ we play sounds like what the composer intended!

 

We are also assuming that all organs sound the same, whatever the acoustic.

 

We are also assuming that one can separate acoustic, organ and notes, when in fact one cannot.

 

Perhaps the greatest disservice is to assume anything at all, when we should be using our ears.

 

More later....I have to go to work, but we are now getting into the area of discussion I first anticipated, and of which Virgil Fox himself had a lot to say.

 

What fun!

 

:)

 

MM

I think when it comes to Durufle, MM, you can pretty sure of the first - if there was a more craft-conscious composer in this tradition I can't think who it might have been. There's a long list of things to be said relating to your other points, but I'm not inclined to rattle anyone's cage. All I will say is that yes, ears are important - but so are eyes, and we should use them to decipher the information contained in scores about things like duration and tempo before trusting our ears to make all the decisions.

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I think it is not unreasonable to assume that what the composer wrote is what the composer intended - after all, if you can't then this whole discussion, and in fact the whole study of musical performance is entirely superfulous. Of course organs and acoustics and a whole range of other variables differ, but surely then it is even more important to base one's performance on the thing that is constant, ie the written notes.

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

...we are now getting into the area of discussion I first anticipated, and of which Virgil Fox himself had a lot to say.

 

 

Is there anything written by him on this subject? It would be interesting to learn more about what he has to say.

 

(assuming what is written down is what was intended...)

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I wonder what would happen if orchestral works were reworked and offered as performances, such things would be termed as "light" and would accompany us around M and S whilst we pick our not just food, M and S food.

Stokowski was prone to tinkering with composers' orchestration, wasn't he? and history has not been too kind to him as a result.

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Guest Roffensis
Stokowski was prone to tinkering with composers' orchestration, wasn't he? and history has not been too kind to him as a result.

 

 

MIND YOOOOOUUUU.............his Holst is actually very good. Also his Shoonerberger.

 

R

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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.

 

Lee, in the case of Maurice Duruflé, we can say - with absolute confidence - that he would not have wished even one note to be added to his work. Duruflé was fastidious in his compositional technique and spent a great deal of time ensuring that his scores contained exactly what he wished.

 

Your comment regarding an earlier period of time is true - but simply does not apply today.

 

I also find your swearing at one of our own highly-regarded cathedral organists insensitive, hypocritical and un-Christian, Lee. It is unlikely to win you much support here.

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Is there anything written by him on this subject?  It would be interesting to learn more about what he has to say.

 

(assuming what is written down is what was intended...)

 

 

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

 

 

This could end up being like the diary of Adrian Mole.

 

I am now home from work and about to sleep. When I arise, I shall give thought to the matter.

 

However, to tantalize even further, nothing is actually written down (so far as I am aware), but everything is known and can be studied.....and absolutely fascinating it is too.

 

An interesting point to contemplate while I sleep.

 

Did Mendelssohn really HEAR those piled up chords in the Bb Sonata as an organist or a pianist, when he sat down to compose it?

 

More later

 

:)

 

MM

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Guest Lee Blick
Lee, in the case of Maurice Duruflé, we can say - with absolute confidence - that he would not have wished even one note to be added to his work. Duruflé was fastidious in his compositional technique and spent a great deal of time ensuring that his scores contained exactly what he wished.

 

Your comment regarding an earlier period of time is true - but simply does not apply today.

 

I also find your swearing at one of our own highly-regarded cathedral organists insensitive, hypocritical and un-Christian, Lee. It is unlikely to win you much support here.

 

For a start, I am not a Christian. I stand by my views. Whether someone is a cathedral organist or not matters not to me, so pulling rank as some people do in here will not wash with me either. What annoyed me was the apparent insensitivity of the comments by 1) ignoring the fact that the person in question had a terminal illness at the time and 2) seemed to whitewash someone because of some minor indescetions.

 

If this is supposed to be the face of caring, sensitive Christianity then I am glad I am out of it. sjf may be a cathedral organist but with the greatest of respect he should show a bit more professionalism, in my opinion.

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If this is supposed to be the face of caring, sensitive Christianity then I am glad I am out of it. sjf may be a cathedral organist but with the greatest of respect he should show a bit more professionalism, in my opinion.

 

Edited blank because I've got to go out all day and I really, really can't be bothered...

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au Contraire. In my view sjf demonstrated his professionalism in his comments. He rightly pointed out where VF's performance of an important serious work fell short of the composer's intentions.

 

I think MD would have been horrified at the liberties taken by VF. In my view the music of MD demands excellence in it's performance and, like all serious organ music, is ill served by the Liberaces of the organ world.

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What annoyed me was the apparent insensitivity of the comments by 1) ignoring the fact that the person in question had a terminal illness at the time

Actually, I can't see the relevance of his terminal illness in this. Fox clearly felt he was up to playing, and should undoubtedly be admired for that. But the notes he played were surely not affected by his illness; he chose to change what a particularly meticulous composer wrote, and Stephen feels this is beyond the pale. I incline to agree; but none-the-less I enjoy the thoroughly inauthentic disk I have of Fox playing Bach. I don't believe that "caring, sensitive Christianity" relates to an essentially intellectual disagreement of this kind.

 

Paul

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Actually, I can't see the relevance of his terminal illness in this.  Fox clearly felt he was up to playing, and should undoubtedly be admired for that.  But the notes he played were surely not affected by his illness; he chose to change what a particularly meticulous composer wrote, and Stephen feels this is beyond the pale.  I incline to agree; but none-the-less I enjoy the thoroughly inauthentic disk I have of Fox playing Bach.  I don't believe that "caring, sensitive Christianity" relates to an essentially intellectual disagreement of this kind.

 

Paul

I think at this point I had better withdraw from discussions here in the future, if it is going to cause such controversy and unpleasantness.

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And its not just Durufle that suffers at the hands of the showmen. I don't think CC's Bach recording at St Eustache advanced that composer's reputation.

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What annoyed me was the apparent insensitivity of the comments by 1) ignoring the fact that the person in question had a terminal illness at the time and 2) seemed to whitewash someone because of some minor indescetions.

 

 

For the record, to call a contributor 'insensitive', when you have sworn at him in print on a public discussion board is rather gauche.

 

What I object to, is that by doing what he did, Virgil Fox was, in effect, saying "I know better than Duruflé." This is simply crass arrogance.

 

Whilst it may be possible (but not proven) that Fox was a better performer than Maurice Duruflé, in terms of composition, Duruflé wins hands-down. In fact, I am unable to trace any compositions by Virgil Fox - just a handful of arrangements.

 

Incidentally, these are not minor 'indescretions' - they are deliberate additions to major and well-known repertoire. He also did it to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Personally, I find this quite incredible. To think that works by arguably the greatest composer who ever lived need 'improving' is nonsense!

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Guest Roffensis
I think at this point I had better withdraw from discussions here in the future, if it is going to cause such controversy and unpleasantness.

 

No don't, we have standards to maintain! :) So VF had a terminal illness, that of course is sad, and no one would condemn his playing for that I am sure. As to "minor indiscretions" :) , his playing was littered with them, he took the most excessive liberties with scores as anyone possibly could, he was virtually a cinema organist, and he could not have have taken on a proper cathedral post, certainly not in England, he would have been laughed out of the place. Hard words but true. Can you imagine having lessons off him, no discipline, no adherence to the written score, it beggars belief. At best I regard him as a curio, and I could never sit and listen to his recordings, I find them and his playing undisciplined, boring, flabby, overblown, and gratuitous.

 

R

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Guest Lee Blick
he could not have have taken on a proper cathedral post

 

I am quite glad he didn't. He has been spared with the snobbish attitudes of those in their high organ lofts, as displayed here. Call yourselves professional organists when you denegrate your fellow practioners in this way? It is appalling, really.

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He has been spared with the snobbish attitudes of those in their high organ lofts, as displayed here.  Call yourselves professional organists when you denegrate your fellow practioners in this way?  It is appalling, really.

 

There are no 'snobbish' attitudes here, Lee. Read closely and you will see that many here are, if you like, rushing to defend the reputation of a composer who is held in high regard - and who has just as much right for the artistic integrity of his works to be respected as you maintain that Fox does for his performances.

 

It is still not wise to accuse others of 'denigrating' another when you have shown considerable rudeness to someone who spoke, not from a 'snobbish' attitude, but as someone who was genuinely appalled at the extreme licence taken by Fox in his performances of established repertoire by great composers.

 

Nothing that you can possibly write will convince me that this is anything other than crass arrogance.

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
No don't, we have standards to maintain! :D  So VF had a terminal illness, that of course is sad, and no one would condemn his playing for that I am sure. As to "minor indiscretions" :lol: , his playing was littered with them, he took the most excessive liberties with scores as anyone possibly could, he was virtually a cinema organist, and he could not have have taken on a proper cathedral post, certainly not in England, he would have been laughed out of the place. Hard words but true. Can you imagine having lessons off him, no discipline, no adherence to the written score, it beggars belief. At best I regard him as a curio, and I could never sit and listen to his recordings, I find them and his playing undisciplined, boring, flabby, overblown, and gratuitous.

 

R

 

None of us will ever know for certain what Maurice Durufle would have thought about this supposedly rogue performance of his beautiful Sicilienne, but I know a few composers and all opinions expressed to me have been the same: they would rather have their works performed (even rather inadequately at times) than not performed at all. If nothing else, Fox's performances were always vital experiences, even if not ideal entertainment for the purist. We don't need to have this repeated, surely, this was the whole point of the antagonistic stance he took against other (more staid) representatives of the organ establishment.

 

On a different tack: I was fortunate enough to be present when Marcel Dupre gave his last performance at the RAH. He got lost (while playing 'the' Fugue in D minor) - poor old man, or so we thought. Years later it came out that he had tried a piston, it hadn't worked, so he improvised his way back and came round for a second attempt. Knowing more about the RAH instrument now than in 197?, I am convinced that this is a true explanation.

 

It is at least possible that what we sometimes think are deliberate alterations to a well-known work are actually accidents or failures of memory rather than deliberate mutilation of the score. People do change scores, of course.... rarely for the better! When I heard Carlo Curley 'improve' the conclusion of the Saint-Saens E flat Fantaisie on TV some years ago, I was shocked and disgusted. I concede that he must have had his reasons even if I disagreed with the result. I have heard much better, musicianly playing from him since. Can we not relax and stop taking such grave offence? We are all human!

 

In the end, by publishing anything a composer sends out his works like offspring to cope as well as they can with what life will throw at them. The best music survives even crass treatment. If a composer is so sensitive that he or she cannot bear to hear something inadequately or unsympathetically performed the answer is simple - don't publish!

 

This brings us to another question: bearing in mind that Maurice Durufle was (as Stephen said) extremely self-critical and would only publish when he was completely satisfied with a score, what do we think he would say about his executors releasing several less perfect works for publication since his death? This is a more radical departure from his (known) wishes than a rogue performance or two.

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None of us will ever know for certain what Maurice Durufle would have thought about this supposedly rogue performance of his beautiful Sicilienne ... .

 

I am not sure this is the case with Duruflé, Paul - as you implied in your last paragraph, he would probably have been displeased about less-than-perfect compositions being released posthumously. By the same token, it is quite reasonable to make the assumption (based on documentary evidence) that he would not have wished his works to be altered by another.*

 

In addition, this was clearly not an isolated case - the many recordings of live (and 'studio') performances by Fox clearly show that he was in the habit of 'improving' major works by great composers - I am sorry to disagree, but I do not think that there is ever an excuse for this - either in the name of 'art', entertainment or anything else!

 

After all, it would be fairly unusual to have a 'memory lapse' at the beginning of a movement.

 

This brings us to another question: bearing in mind that Maurice Durufle was (as Stephen said) extremely self-critical and would only publish when he was completely satisfied with a score, what do we think he would say about his executors releasing several less perfect works for publication since his death? This is a more radical departure from his (known) wishes than a rogue performance or two.

 

Well, his recordings contain many examples of 'rogue performances'. Take the occasion when he played the Toccata, in F (by JSB) on the organ of Riverside Church and chose to play the Pedal solos on the GO, employing many sub-unison stops - apparently because he could play it much faster that way.

 

Whilst I would not presume to know the mind of Bach, I am not certain that he would have been happy with this, either.

 

:lol:

 

* For instance, he would become quite angry if his wife so much as played the first bar of his Toccata on the piano in their salon. It is well-known that he himself disliked the piece and was dissatisfied with the main theme, finding it awkward and rather angular.

 

Furthermore, after re-writing the ending of the same movement, he was quite unhappy about performers playing the original ending, since he found it weak and unsatisfactory.

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