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 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.
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?
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.
Recommend me to those you know searching a piano or organ teacher
In late 2019, I received approval to start a new concert series at the church where I work, First Methodist of Bella Visa, called the Curious Squirrel. My mascot is Samuel the Squirrel, a critter who attended and wouldn’t leave my recital at Central Methodist in Rogers. Although he was a nuisance during the recital, he was an inspiration towards my new marketing plan! How I got here is the rest of the story!
When I landed my part-time salaried job at First Methodist in 2012, I received the chance to participate in the professional Wesley Series as an added bonus. I performed in concerts including singers, violinists, and woodwinds. It was really the type of opportunity I had wanted my whole life.
A New Focus
When funding for that series ended in early 2017, after 21 years, I no longer had the opportunity to participate in professional chamber music at the church. So, I decided to go solo on organ and piano. During the past two years, I offered 18 events. The few concerts that weren’t solo involved vocal recitals with Chancel Choir members, and even an Irish Sing-A-Long in March 2019 that I hope to make an annual event.
My goal for these recitals was two-fold: For me, it was an opportunity for me to build repertoire and experience in solo performing. There’s nothing like scheduling a recital to force discipline, even if that means spending 12 hours on the organ in one afternoon and evening to learn a piece to be ready for the next day! For the church, the concerts were presented as a gift for the both church members and the Bella Vista community. It’s so rare in our area to have classical events available. I feel an obligation to give them, to the extent that I have the time to do so.
Try Something Different
All the while giving these free events, I was trying to re-establish a professional concert series at the church, but there was no support for that. Zero. I decided to shift my focus to something that few could object to – continuing education. The church has a small continuing education budget for music, which covers my membership in the American Guild of Organists with a little bit of money left over for things like lessons, certifications, and learning materials.
However, this fund makes just a squirrel-sized dent in the cost of an organ convention, whether it be a regional or national one. Nor, does it cover much towards a summer week-long sacred music class. Church musicians are very isolated in their work, and these opportunities are a wonderful shot-in-the-arm to revive and revitalize church musicians for the work we do in our church communities.
How You Can Help
Pre-Covid-19, I purchased a bright red, squirrel proof box, which accepts cash or checks for any gift concert attendees wish to make towards my continuing education. You can write your check to the church, with a memo line mention of the Curious Squirrel. When I need to make a claim against the fund, I’ll do so with the church administrator.
When I switched over to my bite-sized recital project called the Weekly Acorn in May 2020, I established a PayPal link that can be used for contributions. This link goes directly to First UMC of Bella Vista, but I only receive the proceeds into my fund if you put Curious Squirrel or Weekly Acorn in the Add a Note area.
You can learn about future Curious Squirrel concerts and Weekly Acorn events by subscribing to the Curious Squirrel Monthly Newsletter.
Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.
I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.
Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.
Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!
As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2019-05-05
I’m really nervous and excited about my upcoming organ recital, which is less than three weeks away. I had 29 guests for my organ recital earlier this month. I was really pleased to have a mix of people from all three services, as well as guests who heard about the program via a listing in the local newspaper.
December’s 25- to 30-minute program has five pieces, four of which are brand new to me. While browsing through stacks of music I’ve collected over the years, I came to realize a while ago my limits in learning new music. In order to have old favorites, it’s necessary at some point to learn new ones! There are composers whose music I’ve barely touched due to an unfamiliar style or because they write incredibly difficult music. There’s both on this program.
The first two pieces by Dandrieu and Daquin are written in the post-Baroque Galant style. It’s just a glimpse at an almost forgotten era of music composition that connects the Baroque to the Classical eras. My refuge is in the Bach chorale prelude, which I’ve played for many years. The Dupré Magnificat is a soft and flowing piece with delicious modern harmonies. The Langlais is a triumphal piece that you are sure to hear me play again soon, perhaps on Easter Sunday 2019. Explore this new repertoire with me!
What, Where, and When
Organ Recital – First Methodist of Bella Vista, Arkansas
Sunday, December 16, 2018, 12 Noon
Monday, December 24, 2018, 6:55 p.m.
Carillon ou Cloches – Jean-François Dandrieu
Noël X pour Grand Jeu et Duo – Louis-Claude Daquin
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 – J.S. Bach
Magnificat IV – Marcel Dupré
Fête – Jean Langlais
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2018-11-25
It was a typical Sunday morning for me. At around 7:45 a.m., I rushed out of the choir room, having concluded playing for a short choral warm up. Before I got a chance to go into the sanctuary, climb the stairs to the chancel, and approach the organ bench, where I would put on my organ shoes, choir robe, and organize my music, I got stopped in the hallway. It started innocently enough. A person with whom I’ve chatted on occasion jokingly said, “you showed up today.” I playfully retorted, “well I don’t get paid if I don’t show up.” I thought that was it, but then she continued by saying, “I’m sure you have a real job.” Ouch!
Those were the words – a real job. Not: “a day job.” Not: “you must do something else during the week.” Not: “I’m sure we don’t pay you enough that this is the only thing you do.” All of these would have been totally innocuous and I wouldn’t have questioned it further.
So what does that mean? A real job? When I was thinking about careers as a teenager, I didn’t envision what exactly I would do with music, despite getting my first paying church job as a 15-year-old at a country Methodist church, and picking up another one when I was 17 at the Reformed church down the street. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these two churches would eventually merge, and I was in on ground zero of it all!
While I was in music school, I was solely focused on piano. Sure, I got asked to substitute for a church service here or there, or play for a wedding or a memorial service. However, it wasn’t until a Baroque trumpeter, then just a fellow student at Purchase College, wisely said the following: “I predict that you will make more money on the organ than you will ever make playing the piano.” Though that wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to hear, I had a sense he might be right.
I luckily found a really accomplished organist, whose main job was theory professor, who offered to give me lessons for free. Though I had previously known how to turn on the blower and operate the drawknobs or stop tabs on a console, I wasn’t an organist. I played at the organ! While many pianists compete to find pianos on which to practice at music school, I had the pick of several amazing pipe organs in the music building and across the street in the performing arts center. I could practice just by arranging to get a key or making a phone call.
Perhaps you have never seen an organ console. Below is the one I play each week. As a bonus, I took a picture of the organ itself, which correctly termed, is the thing that makes the noise, versus the console, which just instructs the organ what noises to make. While this console is pretty basic compared to many more elaborate ones, there are relatively few people who know how to play one, including most pianists who are either too cool or scared (or both) to do so. While I’d admit that my dashboard is nowhere near as complicated as on larger instruments, it is still somewhat intimidating. Does this help to qualify playing the organ as a real job?
Although there is no minimum degree organists must have, you will find that many accomplished ones have a Master of Music (M.M.) degree like I do. Others typically have a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree, though there are some overachievers, like the music director at First UMC of Bella Vista, Larry Zehring, who has a Ph.D. in Music. That’s a fairly rare degree among musicians, since most who call themselves doctor earn the less academically rigorous and more performance-based Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) degree. I wonder how many people realize that church musicians are typically just as educated as clergy, who to be ordained have to obtain the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, in addition to jumping through a set of hoops decided by denomination. Is that enough education to qualify one for a real job?
To be fair, there are very few people who work just one job in music, including those fortunate enough to land full-time church work or a college professorship, both of which typically come with full benefits. My job is just a part-time one, roughly 12-15 hours per week, without any of those benefits, and unfortunately without a cost of living increase in the past six years. Many churches are struggling, including the one where I work. I get that in some ways I’m lucky to still be paid to be there. However, while I’m at church, either on the organ bench practicing or playing for a service, or on the piano bench playing for the choir or preparing one of my Piano Postludes, I never think about whether what I’m doing is real or not.
It was close to noon on that same Sunday morning in which I spent a lot of time reflecting on what this person said. I was playing the final hymn of the late service, and it happened to be the tune AURELIA, composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. You probably know it by the words The Church is One Foundation. Samuel Sebastian Wesley is one of my favorite 19th-century choral composers. He descended from a line of composers, including his father Samuel, coined the English Mozart, and his grandfather, the hymn writer Charles, who is the brother to the founder of Methodism, John. I found comfort in being a part of this history in my playing, even if I was the only one who sensed the significance. That was real to me!
I’m currently a fellow in a program called Artist INC, being held at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. This is the second year that the program has been offered locally, after being founded a number of years ago in Kansas City, and running in quite a few cities scattered throughout the middle of the country. After just two sessions, with six left to go, I’ve already heard many other artists speak of their struggles. There are all kinds of struggles, but a quite common theme is lack of respect of our chosen profession.
Although the majority of participants in the program are visual artists, we all struggle to make a living through our work, and to convey to those around us that what we do is a real job. But this is no pity party. We come to learn. We need to become better engaged within our artistic circles. That can sometimes be more difficult than addressing our patrons, clients, and fans. A central focus is to look inward, to take some of the same skills we’ve used at becoming disciplined in our art and becoming disciplined in other aspects of our career.
Perhaps Sunday morning’s comment came at the right time. If nothing else, I have a great story to share with my fellows at our next session!
As you might imagine, there is an abundance of wonderful organ music for Lent and Easter. It would be pretty easy for me not to learn any new music for the season, and just recycle what I already have. But that doesn’t serve my goal to learn a lot of new music while I’m still young enough to do so. Plus, there are entire composers whose music I’ve avoided due to the difficulty or strangeness of it. Now is the time to build a few of these pieces into my repertoire.
Certainly, one composer whom I’ve avoided is César Franck. His music is not the most difficult to learn, but his works are long, have lots of tricky sections, and require lots of registration changes to be effective. There are other composers like Edwin Lemare, Marcel Dupré and Jean Langlais who seem to delight in how many notes they can throw on a page. With them, there are no easy pieces, even ones marked at slow or moderate tempos.
I’ve learned to choose only a couple of difficult new pieces a season, so I can do them well. The Pastorale and Prière of Franck are two of these. For everything else, I look at lists from prior years and choose a variety of pieces and difficulties to make sure that I don’t spend too many nights toiling away at the console.
So, as the pensiveness of Lent breaks into the jubilation of Easter, the keys may change from minor to major, but the work continues! In order to document my work, I’m recording and posting some of these recordings to my own Website. However, they are just for my monthly newsletter subscribers. It’s free and easy to subscribe (please do) and unsubscribe (but I hope you don’t).
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2018-03-26