Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Widor - Organ Symphony No. 5 In F Minor, Opus 42

The meaning of a word or phrase can change over time, with the word symphony being an example.  A word with Greek roots, the meaning within ancient music referred to sounds that were consonant, that is, sounds that were pleasing to the ear. This meaning also went through many changes, with one being used to describe a musical instrument, especially one that could make more than one sound at the same time.  In the eighteenth century the word became to define a form of music that was written for an ensemble of many instruments, as Classical era composers lead by Haydn and Mozart codified what became to be known as a symphony.

But the changing of the definition did not remain static. Beethoven expanded the symphony to include more movements and even voices within the form.  Symphonies that more or less follow the basic principles of the form are still written, but there is much more freedom in form. 

The symphony for solo instrument is a style of writing that gives the impression of many instruments. Charles Alkan, French pianist and composer of the 19th century wrote what must be one of the first symphonies for solo instrument, in this case the piano, in 1857. Alkan's symphony is in his set of 12 Etudes In All The Minor Keys and is comprised of etudes 4-7, and while the composer wrote very much in a symphonic style, it takes a little effort on the listener's part to imagine the piano as an orchestra. 

Leading the renaissance of organ building in France in the 19th century was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose family had been organ builders. He was an innovator that worked with composers to create a new type of Romantic organ that was capable of new sonorities and mixtures of sound. These organs with new designs and voices inspired French composers of the time to write music that would take advantage of them.

Widor was the composer that was the most prolific in the writing of oprgan symphonies as he wrote ten from 1872 until 1900. He was the organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris that has Cavaillé-Coll's masterpiece, an instrument with five keyboards, 100 stops and 66,000 pipes. Cavaillé-Coll renovated and added to an existing organ that was built in the 18th century.

The impact of the French Romantic symphonic organ on composers was tremendous. Many French composers were also organists such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, César Franck,, and many others. The organs of Cavaillé-Coll were subject to the changes of taste in the 20th century as a return to the sonorities of the Baroque style organ brought about by the organ reform movement in Germany. Some of his organs were changed to reflect this change, but the grand organ of St. Suplice in Paris remains essentially as the builder left it, as it had many qualities of the Baroque style organ retained during its makeover.

Organ Symphony No. 5 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace -  In the preface to one of the editions of the organ symphonies, Widor wrote:
Such is the modern organ, essentially symphonic. A new instrument requires a new language, another ideal rather than scholastic polyphony...It is when I felt the vibrations of the 6,000 pipes of the St. Suplice organ under my hands and feet that I began my first organ symphonies.
So it was Widor's intention from the start to create something new. And it was also Cavaillé-Coll's intent to have Widor become the organist at St. Suplice. The builder used his influence to help Widor get the training he needed so he could become the organist to realize the potential of his masterwork organ. As Widor's family were also organ builders that knew Cavaillé-Coll, it appears it was preordained for Widor to get the position. And once he had it, he kept it from 1870-1933.

Widor begins the symphony with a theme and variations movement instead of one in sonata form. There are a few variations on this theme, followed by a section with different material somewhat in contrast to the main theme. The next section develops the main theme, and leads to a restatement of the main theme with the full organ.

II. Allegro cantabile - A gentle accompaniment plays to the solo of an oboe stop that is joined a little later by a flute. The theme is repeated and slightly varied as the flute continues its commentary. A middle section is in different registration and mood until the oboe and the main theme return.

III. Andantino quasi allegretto -  The pedal begins the movement and plays an important part in keeping the music moving forward. The music has crescendo marks in the score, something that the symphonic organ could do by the aid of shutters that closed and opened around the pipes to decrease or increase the volume.  This feature, as well as the overall quality of sound and variety of stops, makes Romantic pipe organ music mostly unplayable on older organs. The important pedal part plays itself out and reverts to a simple accompaniment at the end.

IV. Adagio - Written in C major, this movement is the shortest of the five and travels in a slow mood and in a few keys before it ends in C major as it began.

V. Toccata - Widor wrote in many other genres besides organ music, and was an accomplished orchestrator, having written a book on instrumentation. But this is the piece that he is most well known. It is a favorite encore for organists and is used as a ceremonial piece, as in royal weddings. It consists of staccato sixteenth notes in the right hand throughout, with accent chords in the left hand. The theme itself, more like a motive than a melody, is in the pedals and played by the feet. it is in triple forte for most of its length, although effective use is made of volume variances in the middle of the piece when the music shifts from F major to D major. It has been recorded countless times, all too often at too fast of a tempo. The score calls for quarter note = 118, and since the music is in 4/2 time, the tempo is brisk to be sure, but shouldn't be excessive. But it makes an impression as a showoff piece at a rapid tempo, although the harmonic progression can be blurred because of that.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Alkan - 25 Preludes, Opus 31

As the word implies, the musical prelude began as a extemporized piece that acted as an introduction to another work, most of them for keyboard or lute. This was done to check the tuning of the instrument as well as to limber up the fingers of the player. They set the key and tempo of the piece to come as well. They became a part of set music practice in the 16th century into the middle of the 18th century.

Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes for organ and the set of 48 preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier became the model for other composers, and as the fugue grew out of fashion, the prelude came into its own. They retained the name, but no longer were an introduction to a fugue or other piece, but a work by themselves.

Writing a set of preludes in all the major and minor keys became a tradition that many composers followed. While Chopin's opus 28 set of preludes published in 1839 were not the first set of preludes without fugues, the quality and variety contained within the set rapidly made them the standard.

The opus 31 set by Charles Alkan was published in 1847 and contain an additional 25th prelude that serves as an ending. Alkan's preludes have similarities as well as differences with Chopin's set. Both sets are a collection of short pieces that are not complex in form. Some of Chopin's preludes are more harmonically adventurous, while Alkan opts for descriptive titles for some of his, something which Chopin never did.

Alkan's preludes are separated into three books:

Book I
1. Lentement (Slowly), C major - The first prelude is not complex and is but one page long. The melody moves between octaves played in the right hand. Performer indications are few, and the preformer needs to bring out the inner melody and follow what indications there are and bring feeling to what can be a mundane piece.

2. Assez lentement (quite slowly), F minor - The first section is in 6/8 time and plays out in the key of F minor. The music is marked cantabile with short statements for the right hand while the left hand plays a one chord accompaniment. The next section shifts the music to cut time, the key to F major, while the tempo increases. The music moves back and forth between these two sections until it ends in F major.

3. Dans le genre ancien (In the ancient genre), D-flat major - The ancient genre being the late Baroque era of Bach, the printed music shows how these preludes can be played on the organ or pedal piano as well as the regular piano. Alkan was a virtuoso of the pedal piano, which had a keyboard at the bottom of the piano like an organ pedal board.

4. Prière du soir (Evening prayer) , F-sharp minor - Alkan was Jewish, and this prelude brings some of the feeling of his Jewishness to the set. A prelude simple in form, marked to be played con devozione (with devotion).

5. Psaume 150me (Psalm 150), D major - Written in 3 staves, one of them being a part for pedal board. Inspired by Psalm 150:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
6. Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue (Ancient melody of the synagogue), G minor - Another piece reflecting Alkan's Jewishness, the voice of the cantor of the synagogue. The tempo indication is Andante flebile (moderately and mournfully).

7. Librement mais sans secousses (Freely but without bumps), E-flat major - Light in mood and in execution 'without bumps'.

8. Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (The song of the insane woman by the sea), A-flat minor - While there are few recordings of the complete preludes, this one turns up as an addition to recordings of other works. It is a strange work, an early example of French music impressionism. It begins with the depiction of waves with large chords at the lower end of the keyboard. The song enters at the other extreme high up on the keyboard. The middle section has the tempo and volume increase as the waves get more pronounced and the song more frantic until a climax is reached. The music retreats back to the nearly catatonic as the song becomes quiet and more fragmented until the end is reached.

9. Placiditas (Gently), E major - Marked Tranquillo in tempo molto independente (tranquil with a much independent tempo) this is the emotional opposite to the previous prelude and brings the first book to a close.

Book II
10. Dans le style fugué (In the fugue style), A minor - A two-page fugue played molto presto. 

11. Un petit rien (A little nothing), F major - As the name implies, a simple prelude to be played rather fast but gently.

12. Le temps qui n'est plus (Times that are no more), B-flat minor - A melancholy prelude, lamenting the loss of treasured times of the past.

13. J'étais endormie, mais mon cœur veillait (I was asleep, but my heart was awake), G-flat major - Written throughout in cut time (equivilent to 2/2 time) each half note beat is subdivided into 5 eighth note quintuplets, essentially making this a prelude in 10/8 time, a novelty for the era. The title refers to a passage from the Old Testament book Song Of Solomon. Alkan was a scholar of the Old Testament.

14. Rapidement (Quickly), B minor - To be played rapidly. It has a contrasting middle section.

15. Dans le genre gothique (In the gothic genre), G major - I do not know what Alkan meant by 'gothic', but this gentle prelude represents the key of G major well.

16 Assez lentement (Very slowly), C minor - A prelude that begins sadly, with each voice entering in counterpoint. The middle section has a few moments when light enters into the music, but it mostly stays in a melancholy mood until a Picardy third ends the piece in C major.

17. Rêve d'amour (Dream of love), A-flat major - The prelude begins in A-flat major, with a middle section that shifts to A major. Another section shifts the key to E minor, and a impassioned chromatic section leads back to the ending section marked palpitant in A-flat major.

Book III

18. Sans trop de mouvement (Without too much movement), C-sharp minor - The indication at the beginning of the prelude refers to only the 4-bar introduction. The actual prelude is a romance that shifts between C-sharp minor and C-sharp major. It ends in C-sharp major.

19. Prière du matin (Morning prayer), A major - Another spiritual prelude that looks simple on the page, but needs the proper feeling and attention to the melody.

20. Modérement vite et bien caracterise (Moderately fast and with spirit), D minor - Octaves and thick, heavily accented chords bring out the aggressive nature of this prelude.

21. Doucement (Gently), B-flat major - The alternating B-flat notes are all that are heard in the left hand and lend a simple, bell-like accompaniment to the shifting chords in the right.

22. Anniversaire (Anniversary), E-flat minor - The music plods along in the home key with deep bass notes giving the accompaniment. The music lightens in the final section as the key shifts to E-flat major.

23. Assez vite (Quite fast), B major - A prelude of grace, to be played fast.

24. Étude de velocite (Velocity study), E minor - The only prelude with the overt attention to technique, rapid finger technique to be precise. This prelude resembles the style of Chopin in his Etudes.

25. Prière (Prayer) , C major - The longest in performance length, this prelude moves at a very slow tempo in mostly block chords. It is a hymn of harmonic richness, reverence, and ends the set as it had began, in the key of C major.