A Smoother Pebble


The Organ

I've just got back from playing on one of the best organs in Australia. I've never played on a great organ before. It was exhilarating, tremendous, breathtaking - I'm almost drunk from the experience. I'm sorry, I'm babbling. But it was wonderful.

All right, stop. Deep breath. Start from the beginning.

A neighbour of mine is an organist. He has a miniature pipe-organ (about 12 feet high) in his house, and sometimes invites me over to play it. I was having one of these sessions on Monday when he offered to take me to play on the organ at St. xxxxx’s, where he serves as the organist. Last night I had trouble sleeping from the excitement, like the night before Christmas. It was very kind of him, but then we've got on well ever since they first moved in thirteen years ago. I was hanging out in the street, indifferently watching the furniture-movers unload furniture from the truck into the house, when I saw it. Sitting in the back of the truck was a harpsichord (his wife plays professionally). Ever since I’d discovered Wanda Landowska, I’d had no greater ambition than to play a harpsichord – but they’re not easy to find. The gods had smiled on me.

I waited, my heart pounding, until I was alone in the street, then ran over and started playing. His wife rushed out, fearing that I’d damage it, but listened and realised I was playing the Prelude in C major from Book One of the Well-Tempered Klavier, not ‘Chopsticks’, and stopped. I finished the prelude and played the fugue. Then we got into conversation and made each other’s acquaintance.

Anyway, since Monday I’ve spent all my spare time practicing my piano in preparation for tonight. Sorry for the lack of posting, if it matters to anyone. (Regular posting will start again now.)

A brief note on organs. Pipe organs produce sound by pumping air into metal and wood pipes. A typical organ has three or four keyboards and a pedalboard. A pedalboard is just like a piano’s keyboard, but played with the feet. The keyboards and pedal boards can be connected to different sets or ‘ranks’ of pipes with controls called ‘stops’. For instance if I play middle C with the vox humana stop out, then, inside the organ, the bellows will pump air into the unique pipe that produces middle C in vox humana, causing it to sound. Each rank has a different sound. The ‘trompette a chamade’ rank is brassy, while the ‘diapason’ is smoother and reedier. Some stops (e.g. Grand Orgue) activate several ranks at once, so that playing a single key may make six pipes work simultaneously, all the sounds blending into a single note.

A big organ will have thousands of pipes. Suppose an organ has a range of seventy notes and seventy ranks, and each rank covers all the total range. Then the organ will have 70 times 70 pipes = 4900. These pipes can range from an inch to 64 feet in length, from wooden boxes to the majestic, graceful flue pipes that you’re used to seeing on the outside of organs. Normally the ugly ones are hidden behind them, which is why most people don’t realise they exist. There’s a modern fashion for displaying the ugly ones too, rather like the ridiculous Centre Pompidou in Paris that has the sewage pipes on the outside. But not the organ I played tonight.

[end note on organ structure/] (For more information, go read Wikipedia.)

This evening my host and I went over to St. xxxxx‘s. My host put on his organ shoes and spent a few minutes demonstrating the organ’s features, the stops and couplers (voix celeste, oboe, principal, rohrflote, gamba, bourdon, bombarde, trombone, etc.), the computer, all the bells and whistles.

A pianist playing the organ has to adjust to the organ’s unique features. When you press the piano’s keys softly, the sound is quiet; when you strike firmly, loud. This is why the pianist’s individual touch is so important. However, the intermediate mechanism of the organ means that the sound is identical whatever the touch. Notes can be emphasised only by indirect measures, e.g. slight anticipation and extension on the beat. Also, the organ will sustain sound as long as the key is depressed; on the piano it will die away. Added together, this forces the pianist who wishes to learn the organ to modify this entire hand action and pick up a new mindset.

The greatest hurdle is pedalling. The addition of the pedalboard means that you don’t have to use your hands to play the organ. Like novels written without the letter ‘e’, there are pieces written for the feet alone, but generally the feet and the hands play simultaneously. Mastering this coordination takes years; the occasional sessions I’d had on my host’s home organ haven’t been enough for it to ‘click’ for me.

Nevertheless, I played reasonably - mostly Bach - the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, some chorals, a stab at the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, and a good deal of messing about with disjecta membra from other works.

Then it was my host’s turn. First he played Reger and a bit of Franck. Then Messaien. My host is an uber-Messaienic, and has made valiant attempts to convert me – which have failed. Messaien bores and nauseates me by turns. And I mean physical nausea. If you don’t believe me, go listen to the Turangalila Symphony. Or rather, don’t.

Then my host played two old warhorses, 'the' Widor and 'the' Gigout. Although Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Eugene Gigout (1844-1925) were prolific organist-composers, to organists ‘the’ Widor or ‘the’ Gigout mean the Toccata from the Symphony for solo organ no. 5 op. 42 by Widor, and Gigout's Toccata in b. There are lots of examples of this immortality through a single work- Rodrigo and his Concerto de Aranjuez, for instance.

I hadn't ever heard ‘the’ Widor or ‘the’ Gigout in real life. Heard through speakers they’d left me cold, but now they swept me away. It wasn’t just the immediacy of a live performance, which applies to any music. It’s that the toccatas are show-pieces tailored to the immensity and majesty of an organ. They don’t have the musical depth of Bach, so they suffer when shrunken and reduced to tinniness on an iPod’s speakers. Postcards of a mountain and postcards of a flower are both copies of the real things, but we can still appreciate the flower’s fragile beauty but no longer quite feel the mountain’s epic grandeur.

The organ can be wistful, elegiac and intimate, but only the organ can resound and thunder like a force of nature. Man makes comparisons of scale by the only measure he has – himself. We are ‘bigger’ than the sound of violins, accordions, banjos and even the piano. The organ is bigger than us. It can dwarf us, swamp us like a tidal wave. That’s why, in one of the stock clichés of horror films, the villain plays the organ - only the organ can match the scale of his plans for world domination. The organ is the king of instruments.

My host finished up by playing the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major ‘Saint Anne’ and the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor. Then he gave me a tour of the organ’s inside. And then it was all over….

I’m still on a high, I can’t sleep. I enjoyed it as much as a kid visiting a candy factory. Damn it, I should have screwed up my nerve and asked to go to St. xxxx ’s years ago.

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