Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Lamentabile--the Tempo and Thoughts of the Church Organist


Here's an Aussie who has seen it all.

...after Mass[, s]he asked me if I had been the organist. I admitted that I had been. During the Mass, I’d played various works by Bach, Mendelssohn, César Franck, and other reputable composers. Unfortunately I seem to have irked her by so doing. And she told me, “I wish you’d play something beautiful.”

And to demonstrate that 'thus it has ever been,' he gives a vignette from the life of Saint-Saens:

He had a job at the time, playing the organ in a fashionable part of Paris, and one day the priest complained to him about all this austere music that Saint-Saëns was performing. The priest urged him, as we’d now say, to “lighten up”. He told Saint-Saëns: “Monsieur Saint-Saëns, our congregation doesn’t want all that heavy music you keep performing. They’re upper middle class business types. They like to be entertained. In the evening they enjoy going to the music halls.” To which Saint-Saëns replied, with some asperity: “Monsieur le Curé, when, and only when, you include jokes from the music halls in your sermons, then, and only then, will I include music from the music halls in my organ-playing.”

Umnnnhhh, yeah. I recall a conversation with an erstwhile burgher-resident of Elm Grove in which he castigated the (at-that-time) organist for playing "dark stuff" in the local Parish. The organist in question had more education in the discipline than anyone before or after at that parish...but not enough schmalz, not enough My Fair Lady, for the burgher...

He slips the knife in, where it belongs:

Priests very frequently have a lot of arcane musical knowledge. (This knowledge they invariably lose when they become bishops.)

And a reality-check:

...this seems an appropriate moment to formulate Stove’s Three Laws of Church Choirs:
1.Small is better than big.
2.Young is better than old.
3.Simple is better than complicated.

As to the tendency of choir directors to become Symphony Chorus-leaders in churches:

Yet another problem with numerous choirs is their habit of trying to tackle music which is really too difficult for them. I cannot for the life of me understand their reasons for doing this. One of the most popular Mass settings in the repertoire – no doubt for the simple reason that it’s been in print for years – is also one of the hardest to sing. It’s the O Quam Gloriosum Mass setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the sixteenth-century Spanish composer. Scores of church choirs in the English-speaking world feel obliged to have a crack at it, and I wish I could comprehend why they do. The tenor part is so excruciatingly high that it soars up into the stratosphere. You can’t very well transpose the whole piece down, in order to make the tenors’ job easier, because that pushes the already very low alto part through the floorboards. The result is usually chaos.

Now while this Aussie proposes a Stupid Idea (putting the choir on the side of the church, rather than at the rear where God intended them to be), he does have interesting observations:

Put ’em at the back, and there’s no limit to what troublemaking choristers can achieve. I have been present when a tenor has simply walked out of the choir in the middle of Mass, apparently because he was afraid that if he stood near the sopranos and altos, he would get Girl Germs. I have even been present when a politically extremist goon infiltrated a choir.

He made the fatal assumption here--that 'putting them IN view' of the congregation will actually improve behavior. He will lose that bet, in the long run.

He has more to say here.


Terrence Berres said...

“Monsieur le Curé, when, and only when, you include jokes from the music halls in your sermons, then, and only then, will I include music from the music halls in my organ-playing.”

I've heard a Viagra joke in a homily, and now I know who to blame.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! I laughed and cried all the way through. I'm an organist, and I can tell you that I've seen just about everything mentioned in the article, except for the poker-playing wedding guests! Mind you, it wouldn't surprise me, since one wedding I played for had a dog as ring-bearer. He was very well-behaved, and a lot more reverent than many of the humans, but still .... Thank God he's able to talk about it with such a great sense of humour. I suppose it's true that if we didn't laugh, we'd cry. I wasted a great deal of time/energy being angry about the whole situation, but the article has helped me realize that humour works much better for me -- it's less stressful, for sure.