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Category: Organ repertoire

  1. Mendelssohn's OK

    Posted on

    There's no doubt our attitudes and beliefs can be strongly influenced by our teachers - for better or for worse. When I was at secondary school in the late 60's and early 70's, school life was rather less safe and predictable than it is today. Our music teacher, in particular, was a highly eccentric man with a tendency towards sudden mood changes, and a penchant for corporal punishment. On our very first day at the school, he punished one of our classmates for a very trivial misdemeanour by giving him a spanking in front of the class. No doubt it was done, like the famous execution of a French admiral, pour encourager les autres. He had his lighter moments - he could even be quite entertaining at times - but I never felt able to relax during his lessons. Something as simple as giggling at the wrong moment could land you in serious trouble, as I once discovered to my cost!

    By the time we reached the sixth form we had a new music teacher, but he turned out to be just as eccentric as his predecessor, and he had exactly the same "hands-on" approach to classroom discipline too! Those of us doing science A-levels had a weekly music appreciation lesson with him, part of a strategy to prevent us becoming narrow-minded boffins. We were older and wiser now, if not always impeccably behaved. Fortunately for us, the gym slipper he was in the habit of using on younger boys' bottoms was not considered appropriate for sixth-formers, and our lessons were conducted in a much more relaxed and friendly atmosphere.  There was even a  certain amount of banter.

    I really enjoyed those lessons, and at the time they seemed very informative. Looking back later, I realised that our teacher had a tendency to pass on his own likes and prejudices, rather than presenting us with a more balanced view. I remember one lesson in particular when he played the same chorale theme twice, first as harmonised by J.S.Bach, and second by Felix Mendelssohn. His point was simple and crude: Bach = good, Mendelssohn = bad.

    Being young and impressionable, I took the message on board, and adopted a dismissive attitude towards Mendelssohn for the next few years, but as time went by I could no longer deny the evidence of my ears! I think it was Midsummer Night's Dream which finally won me over. Who could resist its magical atmosphere which complements Shakespeare's fantasy world so perfectly? Apparently, some of Mendelssohn's contemporaries declared the music to be better than the play! The lovely Nocturne is a particular favourite of mine.

    I came to realise that Mendelssohn,  far from being a "bad" composer, was actually a genius, and as I learned more about the history of music, I realised that our teacher's comparison was not only incorrect but also quite pointless, since J.S Bach never had a greater champion that Felix Mendelssohn. In fact, Mendelssohn played a major role in bringing Bach back from the brink of obscurity and placing him in his rightful place as the very heart and soul of Western music.  

    I also realised that our teacher was not alone in his prejudice - quite a few authors seem to feel the need to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, and this applies to his organ works as well. In The Oxford Companion, Percy Scholes says  they are "not of the deepest, but they suit the instrument and sound well." It always seems to be a case of accentuating the negative where Mendelssohn is concerned! Fortunately, the works are more than capable of speaking for themselves.  They are full of a fresh vitality and variety, yet all imbued with the composer's own "voice". To take just one example, the brilliant use of sustained arpeggios in the finale of the 1st Sonata creates a wonderfully sonorous effect on the organ, quite different from playing the same notes on the piano. I love to play it on a "real" pipe organ. As note after note is laid down in succession, you can almost feel the whole instrument flexing its muscles under the strain and having a real work-out! Mendelssohn also had the happy knack of writing fugues which aren't completely beyond the grasp of the less gifted player.

    What some may find off-putting in Mendelssohn's organ works is an occasional tendency towards a sentimental "religiosity" -  a feature very characteristic of the Victorian era, but rather out of step with modern ideas of what is "good" classical music. The same criticism could also be levelled at Cesar Franck in what was once described as his "church worker" style. Two examples of this "hymnal piety" in Mendelssohn would be the Andante Religioso from the 4th Sonata, and the final Andante of the 6th Sonata. Personally, I feel a certain affection for this particular style, but I understand that some people find it a bit of a turn-off, musically speaking.

    If there was a particular low point of anti-Mendelssohn feeling it must surely have been during the Nazi era, when even his statue at Leipzig was torn down. Felix was long dead by then, of course, and no longer around to witness their vicious stupidity, but we can be sure he was no stranger to anti-semitism during his own lifetime. At least when he came to these shores, the British people really took him to their hearts. He was a close friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and when he gave a concert it often took him several minutes to walk to his piano, as so many people flocked forward, eager to shake his hand. And there was a particularly strong bond with our local city of Birmingham. Elijah was premiered at the Town Hall, and Mendelssohn advised on the construction of the Town Hall organ, and gave recitals there on a number of occasions.

  2. Dynamics dilemmas

    Posted on

    Dynamics markings in organ music can be a little perplexing. When a pianist's score is marked crescendo, there's only one way to increase the volume, and that's to press the keys harder. But how exactly should crescendo be interpreted in an organ score? Does it might mean open the swell box? Does it might mean add more stops? Or does it mean a combination of both?

    The only answer which can be given to this question is: it depends. Mostly it depends on the composer, of course. It may take a certain amount of background knowledge about the composer and their musical world to make an informed decision. In the absence of such knowledge, the only advice which can be given to the beginner is to listen to an expert playing the piece and copy what they do! One factor which complicates the issue is that organ composers differ greatly in the extent to which they specify registration for their music. Bach's is (for the most part) just notes on staves, without any additional instructions whatsoever. Felix Mendelssohn declared himself reluctant to give registration instructions because he had found, through playing various organs on his travels, that the effects of same-named stops differed greatly.

    Cesar Franck, on the other hand, gives very detailed instructions regarding registration, perhaps because he travelled less than Mendelssohn, and within his immediate environment the success of the organ builder Cavaille-Coll had imposed a certain standardisation of what organ stops were supposed to sound like. This doesn't necessarily mean that his instructions should be followed slavishly, of course, but we can be fairly sure that when he expects a change of registration he will ask for one explicitly. Conversely, dynamics markings without an explicit change of registration should be accomplished using the swell pedal alone. There's a good example towards the end of the introduction to Grand Piece Symphonique where four bars are marked molto crescendo followed by two bars marked f followed by a further four bars marked dim ending with pp. One could be forgiven for thinking that such a  dramatic effect could only be achieved by adding and subtracting stops, but that was almost certainly not the composer's intention. The f should be interpreted as meaning as loud as possible with the stops currently drawn, and the pp as quiet as possible with the stops currently drawn

    It was at this point that I was planning to illustrate my point with a Youtube clip, such as this one of Doug Marshall at the Organpower! 2004 event:

    The only problem is that Doug does add stops (at 3:06) and he does subtract them (at 3:13). He rides roughshod over the composer's intentions at a number of other places too! No doubt he would claim it as his right as interpreter to make these changes.  I can't deny that I greatly enjoy listening to his spirited performance, but I would still question whether the above registration changes really do represent an improvement. They could be said to disrupt the smooth flow of the musical idea, and also to steal the thunder of the really big crescendo which follows just afterwards.