Thoughts on Hearing a Westminster Choir Concert

I’ve been thinking about a concert I recently attended given by the Westminster Choir.  This is the elite touring choir that, as the folks at Westminster Choir College of Rider University say (Ugh! I still can’t get used to the idea that Ray Robinson had the insolence to convince the board to negotiate the sale of a first of its class music school to a second rate university after dragging it it down into financial ruin), is the core of the larger and more public Westminster Symphonic Choir, which most people hear as the choir performing large scale works with an orchestra such as the upcoming Gustav Mahler Symphony #8 with the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring.

The Westminster Choir is an excellent choir by most standards of what is currently the current vogue in choral singing.  And that’s what bothers me — the current, or should I say dominant, vogue in choral singing in which choirs, no matter what their make-up or the period/style is, sing with no vibrato, particularly in the women’s voices.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so dogmatic as to insist that straight tone not ever be used — I don’t think Monteverdi should sound like Verdi. Which is why I found the William Byrd Miserere mei, Deus particularly compelling.  The problem lay in the 19th and early 20th Century works specifically the Brahms “An die Heimat” from the Op.64 Three Quartets, the wonderfully lush Aftonen of Hugo Alfven (of Swedish Rhapsody #1 fame) and the Debussy Trois Chansons.   What I find disturbing is when romantic music (yes, including the Debussy since they were written in 1898) such as this is given the English boy choir effect they lose their richness and warmth.  Typically it’s the sopranos which are the primary (but not the only) culprits for the harshness, sometimes brittleness that results from singing in this manner.

Most glaring, however, was the Poulenc Mass in G Major.   Now, the Poulenc Mass is a fiendishly difficult piece.  The tessiturae have a tendency to be high particularly for sopranos and baritones, who seem to be considered more as second or third tenors having to sing E’s and F#’s frequently.  Notwithstanding, the men sounded fine.  For some reason it’s okay for men to sing in full voice but not so much the women.  Even then, since the range for the altos isn’t quite so demanding their vocalism sounded more natural.  Unfortunately, the sopranos have to deal with an uncommonly high tessitura and are therefore more exposed.  And that is my point:  singing this music with an English Renaissance vocalism can come off hard and quite literally tiresome to the listener.  The listener gets this uncomfortable feeling (empathy) during high notes, and is at best just a hard, cold sound.  One doesn’t sense that singers are singing from above the note but are reaching for it.  No matter how well placed their breath the effect is anything but a beautiful sound.  The Mass in G is not a piece to be sung in the “straight tone” manner.  I really don’t care what the justification is, this type of choral singing has its limitations, just as singing in full vibrato does.  A balance must be found.  I’m sure Joe Miller thought that he was achieving this balance; but it’s pretty clear that he reflects the overwhelming prevalence toward straight-tone on most, if not all, choral singing.  The rest of the concert was made up of a lot of inconsequential, highly unmemorable pieces, with possible exception of Ev’ry Time I Fell the Spirit as arranged by William Dawson; which significantly was one of the few moments where the choir had the opportunity to “sing out” so to speak.  But, full throated singing shouldn’t be relegated to just loud pieces.

I really just wanted to concentrate on the choral sound of the Westminster Choir, but this “Angel Band” and “Tapestry of Voices” thing was at best kitschy and more than not, simply obnoxious with all the overtones of the current trend in “pop” style church music.  This whole idea of having people write down what they’re supposedly feeling at that moment and then photographing them for inclusion into some collage back at the WCC campus smacked of not just a little disingenuousness.  I mean, seriously, who is going to write down “irritated” or “depressed” or “pissed off” and then have their photograph taken for public display?  Then there was the “Angel Band” with the “fiddle,” banjo, guitar, and electric bass with its faux Appalachian flavour and the little interludes where members of the choir would take some of these photos and put them into a bowl before the audience; some singing in their pop, soul, or “broadway” style of singing.  I was not impressed with either the singing or the phoney sentiment.  I suppose it was fitting that the setting was a Catholic church.

Back to the choral sound.  Westminster used to represent a unique concept of choral singing.  It’s a type of choral singing which requires a certain physicality; choral singing which requires a particular type of vocalism: one which uses a full vibrato (though not always), and a solid diaphragmatic attack.  It’s the kind of singing that a performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis Op.123 with the full New York Philharmonic only needs a choir of 80 — as opposed to 180 or more voices.  It’s the kind of singing in which the overtone produced makes a piano’s strings ring sympathetically.  It’s the kind of singing in which one soprano can float a pianissimo G over the entire Symphonic Choir with enough overtone to sound like an entire section.  I heard none of that at the concert.  With the rather ironic exception of the Byrd, which, even with the period style had a warm, yet crystalline beauty, and the very delicately handled Stephen Paulus Hymn to the Eternal Flame which bookended the Byrd, that rich tone, that overtone I mentioned earlier, was seriously missing in Poulenc.  The Dawson was closer but still seemed a bit thin compared to when George Lynn would to a spiritual.

This special sound (whether you like it or not) was cultivated, perfected if you will, over many years by WCC’s founder John Finley Williamson; and was maintained its continuity by his students who also made up the majority of the voice faculty and the entire conducting faculty.  A student, whether a voice major or a voice minor (EVERYBODY had to study voice) could go from a choir rehearsal to a voice lesson or class and get the same training; each was an extension of the other.  Such is not the case today.  Beginning with Ray Robinson replacing George Lynn (who presciently resigned in 1971) with Arthur Sjogren as the touring choir conductor, and then hiring Joseph Flummerfelt the following year to head the conducting department, therefore leading both the touring and symphonic choirs, foretold the beginning of the end to the Westminster tradition of choral singing and conducting.   

Today, out what is ostensibly 32 voice teachers (practically, if not all of which are adjunct) only five have had any Westminster training and only two of those from teachers who learnt from a Williamson student.  Of the 5 members of the choral conducting faculty — the foundation upon which WCC was built — NONE are Westminster grads.  Is it any wonder that the Westminster Choirs no longer have the sound that was unique to Westminster Choir College?  In fact, I personally feel Rider U and its little musical toy WCC have made a conscious effort to exclude Westminster grads of more traditional training from the conducting faculty.  Why else would they pass up on a more than qualified and devoted Westminster alumnus with more than sufficient experience and a solid  Westminster background for some one who has had absolutely no prior connection with the school to be the conductor of the Chapel (freshman) Choir, the choir upon which all other Westminster choirs had been (not now) built?

Nevertheless, let me reiterate:  the Westminster Choir I heard at that concert was very good.  Musicianship was superb, intonation was as close to immaculate as a 40 voiced primarily a cappella choir can get, especially in meeting the tonal challenges presented by the Poulenc Mass.  Nevertheless, it could have been better; particularly the sopranos.  Too many times when singing those A’s and B’s the sound was not a beautiful sound, but piercing.  Not shrill or screechy but hard and and lacking warmth.  A little more focussing of the breath with some natural vibrato would have gone a long way to making those fortissimo moments a little less brittle and more sumptuous.

I realise I’m in a decided minority here, the odd man out so to speak.  But, that’s okay with me; as an organ student at WCC (it was still an independent school then), I was essentially the only unabashed Virgil Fox devoteé among a very purist minded organ department.  But now the pendulum has swung back in the organ world where not everything needs to be played on an Arp Schnitger type instrument.  Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon in the choral world, especially at my old Alma Mater.

The Decline of Church Music, Pt. II

I realise that a number of my colleagues (at least those of certain social media groups) might have been a little upset with Part I of my little personal analysis of the dismal state of church music — particularly my opprobrium of of those large numbers people (“masses” if you will) who are more than willing to subjugate the rational to the simplistic answers or dogma of similarly predisposed religious leaders.    Maybe what I say here will help to clarify a few things. Some may have been reluctant to respond, because I’m sure a fair amount of them have perfectly fine working relationships with their bosses.

Notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the clergy bear most of the responsibility for the dismal state of music in the church: if for no other reason the clergy are the leadership in the church.  This includes the supposedly more democratic non-liturgical denominations (Presbyterian, Methodists, Baptists, United Church of Christ, etc.); because, although these denominations have strong committee based governments, it is still the minister who supplies the leadership and steers the ship.  His/her influence over the direction of a church remains considerable.  After all, clergy are supposed to be the experts, and are supposed to know all about this business of running a church.


Nevertheless, clergy cannot be held completely accountable for the deterioration in the quality of church music.  There’s lots of blame to go around.  Even in the Roman Catholic church, in which the laity are quite literally treated as sheep, external societal pressures, both cultural and economic, have had a bearing on the decisions that the hierarchy have made concerning music.


Music is an easy target.  Changing or modifying music in the liturgy doesn’t have the political weight as many of the social and political issues with which the church has been contending. Therefore, the one thing about which the congregation isn’t really going to make too much of a fuss is music. Very few people understand the subliminal effect music has on them; so as a result, they simply don’t care. They don’t realise how important it is until it’s missing. The governing bodies of the church, whether they be the ecclesiastical hierarchy of  the liturgical denominations, or the various lay councils (sessions, trustees, vestries, what-have-you) of the majority of Protestant churches, have often had a deleterious effect on the quality of music in the church simply because they don’t know anything about it; ironically, the one person who does is often treated with — let’s say — um — less than appropriate respect.   With the exception of the occasional church that has an affluent, highly educated, or at least, fairly enlightened lay leadership, the church musician is usually pretty low in the pecking order.


Of course, this low regard for the church musician merely reflects our society’s generally dismissive attitude to the arts, and is extended further to people who instruct or teach, in some fashion, in general.  America has traditionally been a musically, and, more often than not, a culturally, ignorant nation.  Even back “in the day” when we did teach music in the public schools it was always considered as something extraneous, if not down right frivolous.  Music (and art in general) isn’t considered important to American culture because it doesn’t fit well into the concept of an avarice based economy.  That’s not to say you can’t make a lot of money as a musician: it’s just that it is usually accomplished by doing what Americans do best:  appealing to the lowest common denominator.


This is the crux of the matter.  Congregations and clergy come from the general population; they reflect the educational, cultural, and intellectual development of their society.  That culture is, in turn, influenced by those who wield control over the two most important determining facets that direct our society:  the media, and those who own that media.


This, of course, leads me back to the lowest common denominator mentality of an avarice based economic and political structure.  The present state of our culture presents a serious problem for mainstream denominations.   The church’s main message of eternal life, the quintessential deferred reward, directly competes with the speed-of-light instant gratification which permeates popular culture.  Coupled with the absence of historical and cultural education which is endemic in even our supposedly better public and private schools, making the case for serious, deeply spiritual, dare I say, metaphysically provocative music and its associated liturgy, becomes a daunting task in the very least.


All denominations, even the UU’s for all their disingenuous New-Age touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy approach to spirituality (if you call it that), engage in some sort of evangelism.  The dilemma is the form in which that evangelism takes place.  In our present culture — thanks in large part to mass media — evangelism has become synonymous with a kind of unseemly grab for masses, using a blend of highly emotional (to the point of hysteria as in Pentecostal movements) fear mongering (the harps of Heaven or the harpsichords of Hell) and superficial, pop-style entertainment.  Unfortunately, when music falls under this purely commercially based pop form of entertainment, it is, resultantly, ineluctably, trivialised.  When you trivialise something it becomes a throw-away item, easily replaced by the next trivial item which, of course, is hyped as the latest “must have” phenomenon.  Excluding the ubiquitous “mixes” incessantly played in malls and chain stores, when was the last time you heard, much less recalled the title of what was considered a hit song from 15 years ago — even 5 years ago?


Unfortunately, the church has adopted the use of this dismal type of music in a pathetically  frenzied quest for converts and members, new or old (hoping that a more “upbeat,” “happier” service will entice the wayward sheep back to the fold).  Church leadership who engage in this approach to music in the church have become so caught up in this trend they don’t see that it, not unlike much of the theology associated with it, is a house built upon sand.

The Decline of Church Music Pt.I

It’s fairly common knowledge that mainstream Christianity is in decline, at least in western civilisation. Now, by mainstream I mean churches that aren’t the simplistic, backward, literalistic, entertainment oriented, fundamentalist churches which engage in a heavy handed proselytising form of evangelism; rather, mainstream churches take the lessons from the Old & New Testaments and try to have them make sense in our world: that the precepts in the Bible are metaphorically applicable (as opposed to literally) to today’s exigencies, is one of the distinguishing features from its more gratuitously superficial, excessively emotional, reptilian, counterpart.  It’s not unlike comparing the literary talents of Snooki (remember her?) to Iris Murdoch.

Similarly, the more cerebral, spiritual and metaphysically challenging mainstream church can’t compete with the superfluous emotionalism of the  fundamentalists.  Those institutions/enterprises which appeal to the baser aspects of human beings will always have a certain cache among the largely ignorant and emotionally governed masses.  Moreover, as times become more and more complicated and stressful the ardour for quick and easy answers becomes more and more intense — a common trait among the emotionally arrested, intellectually and spiritually vacuous.  Recent political history gives us a very clear example of such behaviour.


Americans (I will stick pretty much exclusively to the USA since that’s the  society I know best) have been politically bouncing around in a desperate quest to find the “Good Congress.”  But, not unlike the inhabitants of Plato’s “The Cave” they only know about the two political “shadows” they see, and are either unaware of any alternatives, or (more likely) are afraid to find out —  denying that such alternatives do, in fact, exist; so, they keep repeating the cycle becoming more and more frustrated each time when they see that nothing has actually changed, much less improved.  The more desperate the situation the more ardent the pursuit for simplistic and instant answers; or, conversely, the greater the inclination to just simply resign to the situation, assuming that the idea of electing politicians who honestly have the public good in mind is at best quixotic.


So it is with the Church, and church music.  The clergy have always begrudged music her part in the liturgy.  Church musicians are in direct competition for the hearts and minds of the congregation.  And usually when it comes to the having the consistently more inspirational message it’s the musician.  Clergy don’t particularly appreciate this fact and are often threatened by it.  This can be, and often is, a source for stifling creativity on the part of the organist.  My experience is the more powerful the clergy person the more easily threatened they are.


Ever since the birth of polyphony in the 12th Century there has been constant tension between the church fathers and the church musician, especially composers.  A large part of this resentment by the clergy stems from the postulation that the level of musical sophistication is directly proportional a person’s level of spiritual consciousness.  And if there is anything the clergy fears, it’s a laity that has a grasp of metaphysics equal to or superior to theirs.  Great music does exactly that.  It transcends any spoken words, whether they be uttered in admonishment or approbation, no matter how emphatic or passive the delivery.  You don’t have to know the text to the Allegri Miserere to experience its profundity.  It is precisely this otherworldly, non-verbal, aspect that unnerves those mostly (not all — mostly) musically callow church leaders.  Great music threatens their claim to spiritual dominion.


Spoken or written language has its roots, and is still primarily based upon, the corporeal, the tangible, the somatic.  Ever since the concept of an invisible, intangible imperceptible “Great Creator” (God, if you will) entered into the psyche of humankind, we have tried to manipulate and engineer language to reflect our nonmaterial thoughts and feelings; even to the point of completely inverting the original meaning, or perception of the meaning, of those words.  A classic example would be Mary Baker Eddy.  Her abuse of the language distorts and subverts words like “science” and “reality”  to such an extent that the meanings become quite literally the opposite of their otherwise universally accepted usage. Those are just two of the more extreme examples of her misguided attempt to permute language with definitions or explanations with concepts beyond the parameters of its function.  Although Mrs. Eddy presents a glaring example, she is by no means alone.  Such great names in metaphysics as Tillich, Augustine, Hegel, Barth, and a host of others are all guilty of endeavouring to squeeze lime juice from an eggplant.


Great music by virtue of its abstract nature surpasses the limitations of spoken or written language. Unlike the representational nature of language, music is nonrepresentational; therefore, what it communicates cannot be coherently or concretely defined or described via the medium of words.  Conversely, one really cannot expect music to describe or define anything specific, such as a sunset, the sea, love, hate or any other specific emotion.  That is why the tone-poem is a bogus concept.  Unless one is told in advance what the subject is a person simply cannot know what the the music is meant to represent.  Really now, could you honestly tell what Debussy’s La Mer is supposed to represent if you didn’t know what the title meant?  What if you discovered  the piece was called La Merde instead?  You really don’t have to know what the piece “is about” in order to enjoy its beauty.  In fact, I contend that knowing the work by its descriptive title compels the listener to limit his listening experience by putting it into some prefabricated box conforming exclusively to images of the sea.  This does the music a disservice by restricting it to the confines of verbal language.


Such is the dilemma of the clergy; most of whom are either musically illiterate or (perhaps worse) marginally knowledgeable of the art form.  Perhaps he plays the guitar or thinks himself a singer.  Nevertheless, in most circumstances (due primarily to the nature of our “culture”) his or her musical “knowledge” is popular music based.  Moreover, as a reflection of the mindset of the general public there’s a growing tendency among clergy to think of traditional — classical if you will — sacred music as stodgy, highbrow, not upbeat enough, too serious.  It’s, like —you know —  it’s like — too hard. Y’know?

Unfortunately, clergy today are in the business of pandering.  They look at their monthly and yearly expenses and the only thing can see is the need for more money.  As a parish’s expenses have grown so has the desperation to attract warm bodies with disposable income.  With a public whose attention span has devolved to the level of a gnat, whose primary function in life has become the endless pursuit of mindless entertainment (the reasons for which can be discussed in another paper), clergy feel that they have to go the expedient route by taking their lessons from the mass market evangelists.  We can see mainstream clergy salivating at these big mega-churches, with their pews brimming with people and their coffers brimming with cash, thinking “I want some of that.” Of course, the cost of pandering is the loss of substance.  But, clergy, being the totally compromised individuals that they are, somehow manage to find a way to rationalise the sacrifice of legitimate spiritual growth for the dream of increased numbers of supposedly saved souls.  And what better way than to advertise to all those “church shoppers” that: Hey, we’re the fun church.  Everybody here has a great time.  No thinking necessary; and that goes for the music.  None of that serious old pipe organ and classical type music.  We have a BAND!

A Merry Christmas Indeed

This Christmas was more special for me:  it’s the first Christmas I can remember in a very, very long time in which I can safely say I’ve enjoyed and fully appreciated the season.  You see, for the past 30 plus years I’ve worked in what is probably the most Scrooge-like, coldblooded, mean spirited business in which a person could work at this time of the year — retailing.   Actually, I’m insulting the Dickens’ character because he, at least, became repentant toward the end.  Retailing on the other hand, especially what are referred to as the “big box” stores, primarily (but not exclusively) department stores has no such scruples.  Moreover, the American consumer has become equally coldblooded in encouraging major retailers’ (and many small ones’) behaviour by gorging themselves in spending and debiting themselves to borderline insolvency in order to slake a need to be accepted by others through a superficial act of materialism.

The problem lies in that this act of buying “things” in voracious quantities has been so conditioned into the American psyche that those who don’t (and even a few that do) work as retail sales clerks — oh, excuse me:  “associates” (as if that reflected that they aren’t considered the low life scum that they are considered) —  don’t even give it a second thought that these stores have to be manned by people during those wee hours of the morning in which these stores insist upon being open.  When stores like Kohl’s are open 24 hours during the week before Christmas I’m sure the people who shop at 3:00 a.m. are so incredibly selfish, or absolutely stupid/clueless to understand that just because they can’t sleep at night, it doesn’t mean that that sales person, who is doing everything he or she can to stay awake, doesn’t want to be at home sleeping next to a partner or spouse.  The thoughtlessness of the American consumer is one of the most telltale examples of our material obsession over life affirming values.  It is significantly indicative of how petty and shoal American society continues to devolve.

We could give a s— about those essentially indentured servants to our beck-and-call to which they must respond (at 4:00 a.m.), and who must deal with the most petty of enquires about those things that are no longer in stock and for which there is no longer a supply and the irate self-entitled behaviour such circumstances engender.  Hey Ms/Mr. shopper, do you think that:  1) what you ask is reasonable? 2) That the person of whom you are demanding your petty concerns actually gives a damn?  Moreover, even if you don’t acknowledge what kind of loathsome creature you are, do you think making some one else’s life miserable just so that you can buy a few trinkets for somebody you wish to impress with your “thoughtfulness” justifies your incorrigible behaviour?

Nevertheless, I still blame retailers for taking Christmas and making it into something so less than the religious and (dare I say?) spiritual holiday that it is supposed to be.  It is simply a reflection, a byproduct, of the materialism as generated by the avarice defined by the nature of Capitalism.  Greed has not only become the dominant force behind this holiday, it has become the expedient tool by which the avaricious have asphyxiated the original concept of Christmas by quite literally eviscerating it.  A recent Wall Street Journal article shows how the season has been co-opted by businesses appealing to recent societal trends by capitalising on trashing Christmas for the politically correct and the monetarily fruitful vomit of “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.”

I, for one, am sick of it.

The lust for profit has driven retailers to take these extraordinary and ultimately unprofitable extremes with little or no consideration for the fiduciary responsibilities to their employees welfare.  The amount of business they do in additional sales relative to the cost of good will and additional expense to their employees (I’m sure there are egregious anecdotal exceptions) much less operating overhead, simply goes against any rational business sense.  But, that’s what we’ve come to expect from these big stores:  desperation over rationality.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m out of it and am in a position to say “no” to working weekends and late nights.  This year I was able to do what little shopping I needed to do with ease and no stress or pressure.  I was able to simply spend quiet evenings listening to REAL Christmas music, watch “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown,” have a simple yet elegant meal by candlelight, and just overall simply relax and absorb the the wonders (again through the true music of the season) and mystery of Christmas with my beloved.  Whether or not one  adheres to precepts of the theology associated with Christmas Day is irrelevant.  There is something much more — a metaphysics if you will — that, if you’re simply willing to give yourself the time and honesty, transcends all the commerce, and avarice that have become such an unfortunate aspect of Christmastide.  Hey folks, there are twelve days in Christmastide, not one; do something more than just buy a present or two for someone.  Find yourself.

Trying Again

I know, I kept promising myself that I was going to post something every day; or, at least nearly every day.  Well, it hasn’t worked out quite, has it.  I suppose a lot of the issues of which I have strong feelings are ones that potentially get me into trouble.  And then there’s the general malaise of me getting in my own way.  I want to express my thoughts, but they’re constantly being crowded out by the other things I feel compelled to do.  I’m easily distracted, that’s a certainty; living with what I sure is undiagnosed ADD doesn’t help.  Moreover, writing words is almost as difficult — maybe even harder — as writing music.  Making sure that I find the right word for the right phrase in a properly constructed, albeit Jamesianly complex sentence, can be quite a challenge.  The last thing I want is for someone to misunderstand my thinking because I didn’t take the time to make fully clear and complete my thought.  Too many writers, especially bloggers and columnists (I’m sure with journalists time constraints via deadlines have much to do with it) often times write things that are not complete, or perfectly clear living themselves open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding.  With my writing I look at it as: if you misunderstood me you 1) didn’t read everything I wrote, or 2) you are not very bright.  In any event I’ll try to do better.

So today, I found myself concentrating on the piano and the 2nd movement to my piano quintet.  I returned to the quintet mainly as a diversion from the choral piece with which I’ve been stalled.  It’s taken me a few days to “get back into the groove” since it’s been a few months since I’ve even looked at the quintet.  But, after playing it through it a few times to remind me what I’ve actually done, and then getting passed the intimidation of trying to live up to what I have written, the ideas gradually began to emanate.  My problem, that is, what makes composing such a chore for me, is I write almost exclusively in a contrapuntal style.  Although I love rich, sumptuous harmonies (I was listening and swooning to Granville Bantock’s harmonically sybaritic song cycle Sappho yesterday on RBTF’s Musiq3), and though I strive for my counterpoint to achieve that level of sensuality, I find it difficult to write notes that aren’t in some way some form of development or statement, full or partial, of the thematic material with which I’ve introduced the piece.  I guess, I look at “writing chords” (either as simultaneities or as arpeggios) as a kind of copout.  If I can’t come up with a line that derives directly from the initial thematic material then I’m just being lazy.  I’ve gotten a little better; my opening to the second movement to the quintet actually is a tune over repeated, ever chromatically changing, chords; but, then after that, when the four strings appear its counterpoint all the way.  Again, not just a melody with countermelodies, but each line is in some form use of the “tune.”  It’s not as simple as one might assume, especially since I compose tonally.  That means all this linear chromaticism and counterpoint has to fit together in such a way so as to not sound, as Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, like “one of those wrong note boys.”  Notwithstanding, I have actually made some serious progress, not allowing myself to be overly distracted.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.  I did find myself going back and forth between my desk and the piano, finding one to be a pleasant distraction from the other.  Primarily, I found playing the piano as a “break” as it were, from composing, sort of clearing my head a little before returning to the task.

As to the piano, it’s not my favourite instrument.  The organ is.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love the organ with an unbridled passion.  Yet, my relationship with instrument has always been somewhat tumultuous.  Not so much the instrument as with organ “world” (without needless repetition allow me to refer those readers unfamiliar with my thoughts on the organ to my earlier columns here).  Nevertheless, being without an organ on which to practise since I moved up to New England, I’m stuck playing the piano.  Fortunately I’ve had the satisfaction of practising accompaniments to art songs which I find most rewarding.  However, today was little different.  Today was sight-reading day.  Something at which I can safely say am woefully substandard.  I’ve never been a good sight-reader; but, years of inadequate practise has definitely left me found wanting in this area.  So, I’ve anew on a campaign to start going through my library and just read through some of this stuff.  Today I started with the complete song cycle by Kathleen Lockhart Manning Sketches of Paris, from which comes her most noted song “In the Luxembourg Gardens.”  I love this music and all the other songs from that group of women from the turn of the 20th Century I like to refer to as Women Composers with Three Names.  So, I read through them a few times and definitely plan to include them with my other songs by Mildred Lund Tyson, Elinor Remick Warren, Mary Turner Salter, and Teresa del Riego.  Now all I have to do is find a singer (preferably high voice since those are usually the original keys) to do these things.  If you singers out there don’t know these composers and their songs, you would be wise to look them up (among others e.g., Clara Edwards, Lily Strickland, Alice Barnett, etc.).  They wrote eminently singable songs with a truly sympathetic ear for the voice.

Then I actually read through some Schubert Moments Musicaux D.780 (Op. 94 #’s 1,2,3 & 5) and #1 from Drei Klavierstücke D.946 (Bärenreiter Edition of course).  Actual piano music!  And guess what?  It was not a displeasurable experience.  They’re easier than I had anticipated.  I might even enjoy some of this stuff if I’m not careful.

Of course a day can’t go by without something to despond me.  And lo it was, of course, an organ work.  Again for the second year now, because of my current circumstances (i.e., without an organ on which to play), I found myself relearning what I think is Jean Langlais’ finest work, La Nativité.  It is a work of such sublime elegance and beauty I find it beyond the dreams of inspiration.  I wish I could describe how its sheer unaffected, delicate beauty moves me.  It is because of that inexplicable beauty I used play it every year on Christmas Eve.  I loved sharing this precious gem of a piece.  So, as I was looking through it again sans pedale, in a futile preparation of the upcoming season,  I became quite depressed when I came to the realisation that, yet, another year will pass without my being able to share this exquisite little masterpiece.  It breaks my heart. It is times like this I wish I had never, NEVER become an organist.  It’s as if you’ve had the love of your life, since you were 12, taken from you and no one — no one who can — will help bring her back to you.

Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt. B

So how should we approach Schubert’s “Ganymed?” First and foremost, take your confounded foot off the damper pedal! As I’ve ranted on before (and will continue to do so in the future I’m sure) keyboard musicians, whether it’s organists and their ceaseless slithering legato, or pianists with their obsessive use of the damper pedal, simply refuse to follow a composer’s phrasing and articulations; that is, unless it’s blatantly obvious. In short, organists play with too much legato, whilst pianists (our subject here) don’t play with enough — at least not legitimately. What do I mean by legitimately? Well, ironically, doing what organists have to do: connect the notes as smoothly as possible without a damper pedal. That sometimes requires some unorthodox fingering; but, so what? You do what you have do in order to get the job done.

OK, let’s start from the beginning. From the onset we see automatically that there are problems when it comes to pedalling. In the left hand it is clearly marked staccato whilst in the right hand plays basically legato with a variety of phrasings. It’s this separation of articulation between hands that makes use of the damper pedal problematic. Utilisation of the damper will immediately kill the staccato in the left hand, which should remain constant up to the third beat of m.6:


Which, is then followed by a measure of all legato:

Pasted Graphic 11

which any pianist should be able to play smoothly without pedal.

The staccato returns at m.8 and continues non-stop until the D minor chord at m.28. Moreover, pedalling can be cumbersome if the right hand is to be articulated according to Schubert’s indications. This is where pianists must learn to play legato with their fingers and not with the pedal.

So, at this point we have to review a basic lesson in articulation: at the end of a phrase one is supposed to cut the note a little short at the terminal point of the slur — sort of a breathing point or a change of bow direction. And that’s what we have here: the first two notes in the right hand have a slur (meaning the second note is clipped) followed by a full valued quarter note chord on beat four:

Meas. 3

In the second measure the melody has a quarter note-dotted-8th-16th — all as one phrase:

Meas. 2

Note: the slur terminates on the the sixteenth NOT the following half note — meaning the sixteenth is cut short not elided into the half note as it is typically played. This is critical as it affects the whole demeanour of the opening to this song. Pedalling, and the blurring it produces between notes, gives us a languid, somewhat blasé sensation, rather than the lighter, even jaunty impression more representative of Ganymede’s buoyant disposition on such a bright, sunny, Spring morning, if played without pedal and the phrasing is followed as the composer calls out. Moreover, playing this passage without pedal also helps achieve the needed stress on the struck suspension at the beginning of the measure.

In m.3 whilst the left hand continues its staccato (although it is no longer indicated, it is implied), but the right hand is phrased legato (beat four being shortened again because of the slur).

Meas. 3

The fourth measure requires two different forms of articulation in the right hand: the C and A are legato to the B and G, whilst the lower voice (C-D-D♮) is an inverted version of the dotted rhythm from before (including the accent); again with the shortened 16th note, meanwhile, all along the left hand maintains a steady staccato.

Meas. 4

These three forms of articulation are really quite impossible to achieve with any kind of use of the damper pedal.

Not dissimilarly, with mm. 19—28 the right hand, again, has two distinctive yet simultaneous forms of articulation: the two upper voices are grouped under a whole measure phrase and should be played at full value (except for the last note, of course); i. e., legato; whilst the lower voice is phrased in couplets, requiring a contrasting technique in the same hand.

Meas. 19

Although discreet pedalling could aid in the right hand’s “double articulation” the bear bug is still the persistent staccato in the left. In order to maintain that staccato one simply cannot pedal this opening section up to and including the D minor chord. Legato can be more easily achieved with the next four chords with the pedal (although I personally recommend trying to utilise one’s best “organ technique” maintaining the abstinence of pedal), just so long as the last chord at the end of the phrase is properly shortened:

Meas. 28

This too is important since the vocal line does’t end for another measure and a half. Moreover, abiding to the phrasing gives the subsequent G♭ chord at m. 30 (with its own alto voice phrase) greater definition as the dominant to the upcoming passage in C♭:

Meas. 30

This next section (mm. 31—45) also gives us no need to use the damper pedal; although it can be used without corrupting the line if the pianist lifts his foot on the second beat of every measure and clips the 16th note at the end of the phrase:

Meas. 31(pedalling added)

However, eschewing the pedal does facilitate the accent on the second beat in the left hand.

When we arrive at mm. 46—49 where he modulates from G (F) to E, it’s important to note that he doesn’t change key signature until the second beat of m. 46:

Meas. 46

Here again avoiding the damper pedal makes perfect sense. It allows enough space for the accents as called out in the score without overdoing it. Moreover, see how the left and right hands are phrased differently. The left hand can be a little confusing since Schubert has two slurs ending and then being on the same note. My approach would be to play the C -B-C as one whole phrase, and in the right hand the C-D as a separate phrase. Of course it should go without saying that the staccato notes should be pedal less.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard “famous” musicians (not the least of whom was Britten) slosh their way through with the damper down, ignoring the composer’s markings completely.

When we come to mm.56—59, with the piano denoting the “Morning wind,” discreet pedalling can actually come in quite handy in creating the necessary effect. The problem, of course, is the threat of overdoing it.

Meas. 56

Again, observe that the slurs terminate on the 16th notes, not played through, which is a clear indication that as where to lift your foot if one is using  the damper pedal here.

Measures 60 — 67 we return to eschewing the need for the use of the damper pedal:

Meas. 60… Meas. 67

if for no other reason than to avoid blurring the phrase that is marked to be cut short at end of the second beat of the measure.

The next section m.68 up through the third beat of m.78 is pretty straightforward: it is all marked staccato with the tempo un poco accel. There’s a cresc. to f and a decresc. Then, in typical Schubertian fashion, he modulates up a half step to F, and by means of numerous upward modulations arrives at the key bb and with a ff dynamic at m.78. But, look what happens in the second half of the measure:

Meas 77

Not only does the composer change mode, (minor to major) and what is in essence a subito piano on the fourth beat, but also makes a radical change from a loud staccato to a very short, legato TWO NOTE phrase! This subito cannot be fully achieved with the damper pedal. Although using the pedal will achieve a noticeable change in articulation and will make for some change in dynamic. it is monumentally more difficult to achieve the level of dynamic contrast indicated, still obtain the legato called for, AND properly articulate a phrase of just two notes. Don’t get me wrong, it possible to achieve all of this with pedalling; but, why go through all of the extra effort? It is so much easier when you avoid any pedalling whatsoever at this junction.

From this point on up to the final cadence there isn’t any need, or purpose, to use the damper pedal at all. In fact (as I’ve preached though out this article), I seriously recommend against the use of any pedalling at all. If you can’t play m.79 (see above) through m.84 and mm.95 — 99 (repeat) smoothly without using the damper pedal, I suggest taking another look at the Bach: 2 Part Inventions. The only place where the pedal assists in maintaining the legato of a progression is m.108:

Meas. 108(pedalling added)

So, let’s say for argument, that what I’ve written is the “correct” way to play this or any other art song. First, when I say correct, I don’t mean interpretation. The interpretation of a work is purely a subjective matter dependent solely upon the performers’ understanding of period style and his/her emotional response to the music; that includes matters of taste.

So, what do I mean by “correct?” Simply follow the composer’s instructions: primarily the phrasing. And that can be most accurately achieved by developing a true and honest legato avoiding use of the damper pedal as much as possible, essentially limiting its application to those points as indicated by the composer, or in the case of most pre-nineteenth century music very sparingly.

Then why don’t other pianists play songs this way? Well, to be absolutely frank — laziness, pure and simple. For all the talk and pontificating about the equal partnership, as most typified by Schubert, between singer and pianist: that the piano is just as important as the voice and the text, we all know it’s the singer that people come to hear who is the “celebrity” of the pair — and the pianist, contrary to Gerald Moore’s protestations, tends to be thought of as background, filler, a little extra colour so as to have more than just the solo voice. As a result there’s a tendency (most likely not a conscious one) to be less than observant to the piano part. Learning the piano part to these songs in this essentially pedal-less manner is considerably more difficult and time consuming; something for which busy musicians often times simply can’t be bothered. As long as they get the notes and the dynamics right they let the singer do all the rest. All those famous pianists I mentioned in the first part to this essay have or had technique far and away superior to mine; and (this may actually be part of the problem) superb sight-reading capabilities; nevertheless, if I can achieve a decent legato line without pedal then any pianist with better technique than mine certainly should. Yes, it’s laziness.

So, if you’re a pianist who accompanies a lot of singers (Mr. Martineau, Mr. Drake, Mr. Vignoles, Mr. Parsons, etc. (hmmm, where are the women, by the way?), and are bothered with what I’ve had to say, what are ya gonna do ‘bout it?

Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt.A

I thought in light of the extended time between this and the Part B, I figured it would be appropriate to repost this

Mostly Music and Curmudgeonry

It came to my attention a little while ago on an online discussion concerning matters on approaching the accompaniment to Schubert’s “Ganymed” D.544. So, not having played the song before I decided to look further into it, and in typical fashion, became obsessed with it. The two main issues of discussion concerned what is essentially a subito piano on the last beat of m.79 (“Es schweben die Wolken…), the other being the possibility of having to pedal the first part of the song; which, if you read my earlier article on this subject, you know I consider this, especially in the case of Schubert, borderline apostate.

As part of my research into this song through the wonders of modern technology I was able examine approximately eighteen different performances, most of which were done with “name” artists — i.e., those who are supposed to be at the top of their game…

View original post 398 more words

Change of Plans

I had planned to publish a diatribe concerning an important art museum—well, not so much as the institution but one of its principle individuals, who has a tendency to be… let’s say… rather petulant and vindictive, who will satisfy that peevishness at any cost, namely on another individual who had no idea that he (me) was a pawn in this little game of vengeance directed (actually misdirected) by this important, albeit unsuccessful, individual toward a previous immediate subordinate.  Taking that into consideration, rather than risk a law suit by this childish, mean spirited individual and his HR flunky I chose not to post my original diatribe.  At leafs I finally got it out of my system and now can hopefully move on.

It’s unfortunate.  I had found a perfect use for floccinaucinihilipilification.

Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt.A

It came to my attention a little while ago on an online discussion concerning matters on approaching the accompaniment to Schubert’s “Ganymed” D.544. So, not having played the song before I decided to look further into it, and in typical fashion, became obsessed with it. The two main issues of discussion concerned what is essentially a subito piano on the last beat of m.79 (“Es schweben die Wolken…), the other being the possibility of having to pedal the first part of the song; which, if you read my earlier article on this subject, you know I consider this, especially in the case of Schubert, borderline apostate.

As part of my research into this song through the wonders of modern technology I was able examine approximately eighteen different performances, most of which were done with “name” artists — i.e., those who are supposed to be at the top of their game, the standard bearers of musicianship, the people the world has counted on to get it right. I’m referring to such couplings as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Edwin Fischer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, Hermann Prey and Gerald Moore, Kathleen Ferrier and Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, Barbara Bonny and Geoffrey Parsons, Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles, plus other singers such as Arleen Auger, Gérard Souzay, Peter Anders and Lucia Popp with their respective, perhaps less famous partners. The one characteristic they had in common was the exquisite singing by the singers and, in every case, allow me to repeat — IN EVERY CASE — the pianist chooses to to ignore most, if not all, of Schubert’s phrase and articulation markings.

Needless to say, I was nonplussed by this revelation. I was particularly disturbed with Britten’s accompanying. One would think that, as a composer and having to deal with performers constantly misunderstanding or ignoring his intentions, he would have had a little more respect for Schubert’s directions; instead, outside of the basic notes and most (not all) of the dynamics Britten pretty much decided he knew better than the composer as to how the piano part was to be played. I can’t determine if it was out of sheer arrogance or simple laziness or — most likely — both.

Gerald Moore, the erstwhile “master” accompanist is not much better. Whereas, his playing is considerably more elegant than Britten’s, and he at least maintains the staccato at mm. 68-78, he still over uses the damper pedal throughout the song. This is especially noticeable, as with the others, at the very opening where the left hand is very clearly marked staccato. The only pianist of the bunch who at least gives some sort of lip service to Schubert’s markings is Graham Johnson, who in light of his monumental Schubert Song Project for Hyperion, I could only hope for at least as much. Notwithstanding, not unlike his colleagues Mr. Johnson still falls short in fidelity to Schubert’s intentions. As for the others, it’s pretty much the same or worse. At least they all had the common courtesy to, for the most part, honour the dynamics.

Therefore, next we’ll take a closer look at the song and see what needs to be done by the accompanist to actually realise the composer’s intentions.

Back in the Saddle Again (maybe)

Wednesday (29/X/14) I actually sat down and practised the piano for the first time in over two months. It feels like a lifetime, and my playing has atrophied so much I feel like I’m starting over from the beginning. Since I don’t have an organ at my disposal (which reminds, I have to contact Peter Krasinski Boston’s new AGO dean for whom I have great hopes), I’m relegated to my little Celviano (Casio’s answer to the Clavinova — except just as good, but cheaper). It feels like I’m starting over (again — for the fourth, fifth or sixth time… I don’t know, I’ve lost count).

Since I don’t do scales, I usually like to warm-up with something like the Gigout Toccata, or the Vierne Carillon de Westminster. It’s a good thing I decided on the Gigout; don’t think I could have finished the Vierne. It’s amazing how much my playing has atrophied.

Anyway, after that I read through a number of art songs. Again, it was like starting all over. Not only relearning some of the notes, but everything was so slow! Have you ever heard Die Forelle Lento? It’s pretty funny. But ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

In any event, I love playing art song. It (and ragtime, of course) is really the only piano music I actually enjoy playing. I would surmise that it’s the collaborative nature of art song/lieder that I find so compelling: the imagery produced by the synthesis of text and music. Truly fine composers like Malcolm Williamson, Roger Quilter, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Mildred Lund Tyson, Clara Edwards, Ralph Vaughan Williams, et al, have that ineffable acumen of what works naturally for the voice in relation to the words whilst maintaining the inherent drama (or melodrama if you wish, in some cases) of the overall text.

I like great art song because of its concision. Like the poetry to which it is set it communicates all those marvellous attributes of the human condition into a short, poignant narrative: the redoubtable horror of the Erlköng, melodramatic angst of Gretchen am Spinnrade, the listless ennui of the dancers in Fauré’s Clair de lune, or the haunting melancholy of his Les berceaux or the phrenetic ecstasy of Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy (I mean really, how much fun can you pack into one song!?), or the deliciously “don’t-leave-a-dry-eye-in-the-house” bathos of Teresa del Riego’s Homing. As I mentioned in a previous essay, sadly, I may never get to collaborate with a singer with these songs; but, that’s okay the pleasure for me is all mine.

Then I’ll move over to my other piano repertoire ragtime. What more can I say? It’s ragtime; what’s there not to love. Notwithstanding, it’s piano practise that is more than piano practise it’s good for the soul.