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

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

Grieg Galore

Introduction

My professor of keyboard harmony at The Juilliard School, Baruch Arnon, suggested that Edvard Grieg was a first-rate composer for the piano. Mr. Arnon was an all-business type of instructor, so when he gave off-topic recommendations it was worth noting. Grieg is one of those composers that a pianist typically knows, but doesn’t know well. As a child, I had played Elfin Dance for a National Piano Guild of Piano Teachers exam. As a young adult, I heard the Holberg Suite played in the string orchestra arrangement played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I knew that some day I had to play that on the piano. The story of Grieg Galore follows.

From Holberg’s Time

The connection between falling in love with that work and learning it took more than 30 years! The five pieces that make up this suite are dances written in a Baroque style to honor the eponymous Dano-Norwegian playwright. Though Grieg wrote the pieces in 1884, they celebrate Holberg’s 200th birthday. Thus the framework of the Baroque, with the unmistakable Norweigan romantic harmonies worked into the dances. Even though the Holberg Suite is much more well-known in its string orchestra arrangement, it was originally written for piano.

I programmed this work as part of my Piano Postludes, which take the place of organ postludes at First Methodist once per quarter. The Chopin Waltzes I played in May worked so well in the online church format that I sought to play more piano music. To listen to each one of the movements, you’d have to fast forward to the end of each church service between May 31st and June 28th. They are available on the Facebook page of First Methodist. While you are welcome to do that, I plan to reprise these pieces. They will appear either on a mini-recital or on my Weekly Acorn series.

Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1

Certainly more famous, but not originally written for the piano, are the orchestral pieces written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. From the smattering of incidental pieces, two suites were extracted, the first of which has best stood the test of time. When most classical aficionados think of Peer Gynt, they are likely thinking of the four individual pieces comprising this suite. Despite being originally written for orchestra, these pieces work really well on piano.

When I originally conceived doing the Holberg Suite as part of Piano Postludes, I thought programming the Peer Gynt on the Weekly Acorn would be the perfect complement for one June program. However, they are a bit trickier to learn than I first assessed, so I will instead debut them in July.

After he died, Grieg’s music quickly came to be regarded as old-fashioned. But his influence was particularly apparent on the French composers of the early 20th century. Ravel said that, other than Debussy, there was ‘no composer to whom I feel a closer affinity’.

Classic FM Website

About Grieg’s Fame

Grieg never attained the fame of other contemporary first-rate composers. I think there are two obvious clues. One, he stuck close to his Norweigan roots, including melodies from traditional music in his compositions. Two, he didn’t like to travel, and only did it begrudgingly. One might say from today’s perspective that he was poor in marketing!

Although Dvorak was very much a composer in the same mold, championing his Bohemian routes, he took a more international approach. He left Prague for a three-year stay in the United States. He cemented fame in the United States that endures to this day by composing his New World Symphony. The piece is filled with American musical and literary references. While Grieg took a different route, his music is wonderful, and deserves to be celebrated! A concise history of Grieg’s life can be found on the Classic FM Website.

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Photo of Edvard Grieg in 1888. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-07-23 | Originally Posted 2020-06-23