17 April 2018

Keys to Great Composing

Organists need not read this; they know it already.  For others, especially those who claim to be musicians, it should make salutary reading.

Perhaps these monks were admiring the young Mozart's organ playing skills.
One suspects their modern day counterparts would more likely be wondering what the noise
was and why he wasn't doing something more worshipful like playing the guitar or drums
What do Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as well as Telemann, Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Dvořák have in common, other than being composers whom a majority of music lovers regard as "great"?  They all played the organ.

I would argue that it is no coincidence that most, if not all, of these “great” composers were organists, and in most cases were organists before they were composers.  Living in societies where Christianity was an accepted part of daily life, and the organ having become an entrenched part of Christian worship in both Catholic and Protestant churches, one could suggest that any musician would inevitably gravitate towards the organ, it being the one musical instrument everybody in a single community would have known.  There is certainly a lot of truth in that, and it is certain that in Bach’s, Mozart’s, Haydn’s, Beethoven’s and Schubert’s cases, as well as in many others, their youthful involvement with the organ was brought about by circumstances rather than personal choice.  But even if that is so, it may well have been the very catalyst which set them off on the path to compositional greatness, and that without the organ they would never have produced the bodies of outstanding work they went on to produce.

The church where Schubert was organist - now dubbed the Schubertkirche
A human voice breathes naturally, a violin bow phrases music naturally by virtue of the limitations of its length, a wind instrument is governed by the finite power of a player’s lungs and lips.  All these natural phenomena impose a natural musicality on these instruments.  This needs to be harnessed and adapted, but is still a fact that, at root, there is musicality built into these instruments.  Not so the organ, where the sound has no natural qualities at all; it can be sustained indefinitely, it can be broken at random, it can be an unbroken legato or an unconnected staccato and, perhaps more than anything else, there is no natural variability in the volume or intensity of the sound it produces.  Everything which a singer, violinist or flautist does technically merely improves the natural musicality of their instrument; the organist is obliged to input every single detail to transform the instrument’s unnatural sound into a musical one.

My belief is that the organ is a machine rather than a musical instrument, and that to get it to produce legitimate music, requires a level of trained musicianship no other instrumental discipline requires.  Of course, a vast number of organists do not possess that sort of musicianship and thus so much organ playing and organ music is not just dull, but almost terminally so.  However, the intellectual, artistic and motor skills required in combination to transform that machine which we call an organ into a credible musical instrument are so advanced and demanding that only exceptional people can succeed.  Is it any wonder, then, that these exceptional people have occasionally gone on to become “great” composers?

It is often argued that since most “great” composers (especially those of the so-called “Classical” era), did not write organ music, they did not care for the organ as a serious outlet for their artistic creativity.  However, that flies in the face of every known fact about their involvement with the organ; Mozart even famously described an organ as a “veritable King of instruments”.  The issue lies in the fact that in the Catholic church of the later 18th and early 19th centuries, music was already beginning its decline.  From the Council of Trent to the musically-disastrous Second Vatican Council, music increasingly was devalued by the Catholic Church, and those charged with providing it found little scope for creativity.  Thus it was that virtually all these composers chose not to write instrumental music for the church. (Mozart was a notable exception with his 17 Epistle Sonatas, which are tiny single-movement works which cover the short length of time it took the episcopal procession to move from the sanctuary to that part of the cathedral where the Gospel was read.) Instead, they used the organ to cover those points in the service where non-vocal music was required, and improvised in order to ensure that the music did not overstay its function. 

Improvisation has long been an essential tool in the organist’s armoury, and I would suggest that the obligation to improvise frequently and often at unpredictable lengths builds up a creative and imaginative mind which is unique to organists.  Any organist who has played the organ at a wedding where a bride arrives late will know only too well the feeling of improvising under the shadow of sudden curtailment or extension for interminable minutes.  In the days when the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin was de rigueur among arriving brides, I had trained myself to move from whichever remote key my improvisation was in when the little red light announcing the bride’s arrival at the west door flashed, to B flat major (the opening of the Wagner) in just three chords.  We could do that sort of thing in the late 20th century when rules of harmony were considerably freer than they had been in the 18th and 19th centuries.  What mental processes would have been necessary to organists working in those times in order to shape improvisations without offending ears accustomed to more rigid rules of harmony?  No wonder the organ became a breeding ground for “great” composers.

As if thinking over the implications of tonality, rhythm, and melodic coherence in an improvisation was not demanding enough, the sheer physical properties of an organ require both physical and mental stamina in a way no other musical activity does.  Like a pianist, the organist has to articulate the keys.  Unlike the pianist, the organist also has to articulate – often with almost equal virtuosity – a pedalboard requiring two feet each with three distinct playing parts (heel, toe, side).  Then there are the swell and expression pedals which have to be used to create arterially a level of dynamic shading which must sound perfectly natural; some organs have three, sometimes even more, of these; which have to be operated while the feet are still playing the pedals.  Then there are the stops, the essential knobs and switches which have to be manipulated frequently to create the wide range of tonal colours and effects which, on any other instrument, come naturally, but on the organ need to be artificially activated in order to create a natural-sounding effect.  The skill in choosing and managing these without interrupting the flow of the music is one which taxes many organists so far that they need to call in supernumeraries to undertake this essential aspect of playing the organ.

In short, the mental agility and physical vitality needed to play the organ has no equal in any field of artistic human endeavour.  No wonder organists become “great” composers, and no wonder few “great” composers have ever existed who have not been organists.  So next time some idiot suggests that the organ is beneath contempt (as so many musicians and Christian ministers do) remind them that without the organ, mankind would have been denied the supreme examples of transcendental art which the world recognises as “great” music.


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