Playing Guilmant

Introduction

Playing Guilmant is something any serious organist will have to and want to do at some point. Félix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) was an iconic composer in the romantic style for the organ. As a composer, he almost exclusively composed for organ solo or for choir and organ. He did write some larger scale works, like his 8 sonatas, but he’s mostly known for the massive amount of practical music he composed. I say practical to include pieces that can be used for prelude and postlude as well as some better suited for offertory or communion.

A Popular Christmas Piece

The Offertoire sur Deux Noëls, or Offering on Two Christmas Carols, is one of those iconic works. It’s really in three parts, with a long expository introduction that hints at both carols, followed by the French Carol, then the English one. Although the score clearly indicates three manuals and pedal, it can be fairly easily adapted for two manuals and pedal. What you miss is the extra sound color, like the three-eighth-note motives that ornament the melody of Adeste Fideles. It sounds better when you are able to alternate them between the two non-melody manuals.

The Carols

The first one is an old French carol Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris (Between the ox and grey donkey) that dates from the 13th century, making it one of the oldest extant carols. There are vastly different treatments of the melody, but here is a version on YouTube with children’s voices and organ. If you find the church’s Casavant too bright and French, you may want to skip this link! The second carol is Adeste Fidelis, from 18th-century England. Even though it originated in Latin, it was quickly translated to English, and serves as a popular carol in many languages today. It appears to also be Guilmant’s favorite of the two as you can tell from its prominence in both the opening and closing measures.


Between the ox and the grey donkey sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the little son
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim fly around this great God of love.

Between the two arms of Mary sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the fruit of life
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim fly around this great God of love.

—Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris


Difficulty in Playing Guilmant

Although 20th-century composers like Lemare, Vierne, Dupré, and Langlais redefined what the term difficult organ music meant, Guilmant did the same for his generation. He not only wrote difficult organ music, but he was equally famous as a pedagogue. He taught students in Paris and established an organ school at a church near Union Square in New York City in 1899 that ceased operations in the early 1970s.

If there’s one word that describes Guilmant’s music, it’s intricate. You can hear it in much of the passage work of this piece. The difficulty is quite hidden if you’re just listening, and not watching what the hands, and even sometime the feet, have to do to execute the passage work. It’s one of those pieces that must sound simple and straightforward, despite its difficulty. If not, you haven’t performed it well.

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Guilmant with Clarence Eddy at Steinway Hall, Chicago, in 1898. Courtesy Wikipedia France.
Posted 2020-12-22

Chopin Scherzi on YouTube

Introduction

Perhaps you have already listened to my recent performance of the complete Chopin Scherzi on the Weekly Acorn. Despite its billing, that was not a bite-sized concert. The good news is that the Chopin Scherzi on YouTube below are listed separately at plus or minus 10 minutes each. I think they are great inspiration for Music Monday!

My sampling method wasn’t scientific; I had a list in mind of some of my favorite Chopin interpreters, and was lucky enough to find enough decent videos from which to choose. There is one notable omission: Arthur Rubinstein. I recommended several of his Chopin recordings, including a wonderful one of the third scherzo, in a prior Music Monday.

Chopin Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor – Claudio Arrau

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I had to include a recording of my master teacher’s teacher among the batch! Of course, hearing him live during the last years of his life was really special! His legacy of regal playing is sustained by an immense recording library. Plus, he took the time to teach, and thus several generations of students are continuing in his tradition linking back to Liszt and Beethoven.

Chopin Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor – Martha Argerich

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Argerich’s fiery style of playing is on display here. Her way of playing is very different from mine, as was that of her teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Despite her unique style of playing, it’s always a breath of fresh air to hear her play. She gave a free online concert earlier during Covid-19 confinement that is worth finding!

Chopin Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor – Kate Liu

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I only discovered Kate Liu as a result of her numerous performances in the 2015 Chopin Competition. She is a 26-year-old Curtis- and Juilliard-trained American pianist with a very prosperous career ahead! One of the benefits of making it to the final round, and taking third place, is that you generate many recordings!

Chopin Scherzo No. 4 in E Major – Sviatoslav Richter

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There’s really not much I can say about one of the legendary pianists of the 20th century. Perhaps Emil Gilels, his Russian compatriot said it best. When he arrived in America to glowing praise, he mentioned that they should “wait until you hear Richter.” I don’t know that there is a better interpretation by anyone of this scherzo.

Feedback

That’s it for my notes on the Chopin Scherzi on YouTube. Do you like getting occasional recording recommendations like this? Are they helpful in clearing through the morass of recordings out there, to find the artists that really must be heard?

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Posted 2020-09-07

Arthur Rubinstein

A Pianist I Narrowly Missed

When I grew up, there were a certain number of pianists that I idolized. All but one of these were still alive and actively concertizing. That one, Arthur Rubinstein, is who I will first discuss in this series of profiles of my piano idols. Although he died in 1982, when I was still in high school, he stopped concertizing in 1976, so I never got to see him play live.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to choose him, since I am presenting five Chopin Waltzes as postludes in church this month, and getting ready to record all of the Scherzi for the Weekly Acorn starting next week as well.

On the Radio and in the Record Store

The reason I felt that I grew up with him was his legacy, and that his recent retirement and then departure meant he was still played often on the radio and available in record stores. Although he played a wide variety of repertoire far beyond Chopin, he was always mentioned as the go-to pianist for his countryman. Both were born in Poland and emigrated when they became adults.

Curating His Recordings

I think it’s healthy to listen to several different interpretations to get a rounded view of a composer’s music. However, if you don’t have that luxury, or are just looking for the one, I’d say Rubinstein works pretty well even today! Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of video footage, since back in the day audio recordings were primary. Plus, when you search for Rubinstein on YouTube, you’re mostly going to just find audio recordings with pictures of record covers instead of accompanying video. They’re still worth hearing, though their audio quality can be pretty bad. That’s something I’m more willing to forgive when video is included.

Rubinstein’s Chopin Videos on YouTube

Thanks for Sharing This Memory

I hope you enjoyed this very brief look at a very short man who was a giant on the concert stage during most of the 20th century!

photo of Arthur Rubinstein
Uncredited photo of Arthur Rubinstein in 1906 from the Library of Congress. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-08-03

Playing Dupré

Introduction

Playing Dupré is quite difficult. He had the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth from birth, at least in a musical sense. His father Albert was an organist in Rouen and good friends with iconic organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The latter built a house organ for the Dupré family when Marcel was 14. He certainly must have used it, since by the time he was 18 he was studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with three organists/composers of historical importance: Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne, and Charles-Marie Widor. Any musician would be lucky to study with just one of these gods.

Comparisons to J.S. Bach

Of course, one’s education is never a guarantee of success, but Dupré certainly didn’t disappoint. Although few outside of the organist world would consider Dupré worthy of comparison to J.S. Bach, there are some parallels. Both organists are what would we would call extremely well-rounded. They took both composition and performance seriously. In Bach’s day, that meant learning the emerging pianoforte as well as the established harpsichord and clavichord. Dupré only had to contend with the piano since the other two instruments practically vanished a century earlier.

Also, both advanced the technique of the music they wrote to the extent that their contemporaries often couldn’t play their music. One of Bach’s contemporaries, Sorge, wrote that Bach’s chorale preludes were “so difficult and almost unusable by players.” By that, he was talking about most other church musicians of the time. Dupré’s own teacher, Widor, who preceded Dupré as titular organist at Saint-Sulpice, declared the first and last Preludes and Fugues from Op. 7 to be unplayable.

Although the music of both composers evolved over time, their music was always unmistakably theirs, in a style that evolved but never drastically changed. Bach never gave up composing in a contrapuntal style even though most other composers moved to the simplified Rococo style with simple tonic and dominant harmony. Dupré never signed on to neo-classicism or neo-romanticism after atonality became passé.


Listen to the Bach Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, followed by the Dupré Invention in C Major, Op. 50, No. 1. Do you hear the influence of the German master on the French one?

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Playing Dupré: Inventions, Opus 50

Bach wrote two cycles of 24 keyboard works, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which explores every major and minor key. Certainly, Dupré knew and played these works as well. It wasn’t until he was 70 that he published his own cycle of 24 pieces, called the Inventions, Op. 50. In structure, they could be more accurately comparable to Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias. However, Dupré undersold these pieces a bit since his Inventions almost always have three independent voices, counting each of the hands and the feet together.

Playing Dupré takes hours of practice, even for these relatively simple Inventions. There is rarely a time where I spend so much time in study on the bench and feel like I’ve accomplished so little. Many people avoid this composer because playing Dupré isn’t easy.

More to Come

Having only learned the first four of these Op. 50 Inventions, and several of his Op. 18 Antiphons, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point that I feel comfortable and in command of Dupré’s complex textures. Even if I do, will I be a good ambassador of his music towards others, especially given that his music doesn’t appeal widely. Although his music is not as atonal as Schönberg at the height of his career, there is something about the atonal style that makes liking the music difficult. One critic mentioned that the pieces become so involved in the exploration of compositional technique that the music sometimes suffers.

Frame of reverence is also important. This music evokes for me being in a large cathedral filled with all of the symbols and pageantry of high liturgy. If you can put yourself into that space, you may find a way to enjoy his works. If not, that’s okay too. There’s plenty of organ music that is a bit less high brow.

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Unattributed photo of Marcel Dupré at the Grand Orgue of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-12-21 | Originally Posted 2020-07-27