TANGENT #1: French Classical Organ Touch

I interrupt this journal-like programming to bring you some personal musings on the effect of playing French Classical music on a rebuilt French organ from the 18th century. Please feel free to leave anytime you feel a trance-like state coming on, although that may be welcome since finally going to sleep is always a good part of the day.

First of all, let’s remind ourselves that all we have remaining from most of the 17th century are testimonials about instruments, descriptions, and stoplists. Thus, all we know about those instruments and how they sounded comes from conjecture. So, when I’m talking about French Classical organs/music, I’m talking about organs we know from the 18th century.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 10.14.13 PM
Douglass, Fenner. The Language of the Classical French Organ: A Musical Tradition before 1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 134.

Specifically, I’m talking about the 1752 Lépine organ in Sarlat, on which I was fortunate to spend some time last week. When first playing an organ like this, much of the instinct of how to play comes from the touch. French classical organs, like this one, have suspended action.  Thanks to this handy-dandy drawing in Fenner Douglass’ fantastic book on this subject, you can see how the keyboards are actually suspended, with the pivot point falling on the back of the key instead of in the middle, as would occur with balanced key action. Technical lecture mostly over.

The resulting extremely sensitive response from an organ’s suspended action, which very strongly reflecting harpsichord touch, especially that of instruments from France at this time, really forces you to listen to how each note strike and releases. The point at which the pipe actually begins to sound is very high in the key, so one does not have to fully depress the key in order to have the full sound of the pipe, unless most stops are drawn or when keyboards are coupled. Not only can one play “near the top of the key,” these keys are also exceptionally light (perhaps inviting one to inadvertently add more “trills” than intended). Although the organ does not have the harpsichord’s added challenge of notes occasionally refusing to sound when a key is struck somewhat wrong, achieving the level of clarity and sparkle between notes that makes this music come to life requires an elegant ear and quick fingers. A player really needs to be subtle, which is certainly something for me to work on!

However,, when the positif and grand orgue are coupled, they are heavy. I had to re-finger several movements to take more advantage of arm weight and make up for the resistance of the keys since, for the loudest movements, I had to dig all the way into the bottom of the keys for those brilliant plein jeu and grand jeu colors. Unlike the feather-light touch of the uncoupled manuals, these louder works seem to require an entirely different technique of simply keeping the keys down.

Another challenge when working with the Lépine organ was the flexible wind. Playing on the plein jeu on the grand orgue resulted in automatically playing the lowest notes of the left hand nearly completely legato. When there was a reason to lift the lowest most notes, some other voice had to tie between the space, unless one wanted the aurally “bouncy” effect of wind readjusting to more pipes demanding air. It was a fascinating study in listening to what the organ needed at any given time, instead of simply forging ahead to do what I thought would work. While the score may seem to want a phrase break, giving a “break” through tempo flexibility was the wiser choice upon listening. As Michel Bouvard said: “the pedal’s cantus firmus on the reeds should come like a ray of light through the sea of the plein jeu.” The sea does not have breaks so neither should one’s playing!

Of course, let’s all remember that, although organs like this one seems utterly stunning no matter who plays the keys, style does not come from the pipes! Le bon goût must be practiced and developed in order to truly bring French classical music to life, even on the spectacular instruments that we are fortunate to have so readily available. More than listening to our fingers, we organists really have to listen to the sounds of the instrument. When playing French Classical music, we frequently find ourselves with one hand on the recit’s cornet séparé and the other on the positif’s cromorne. Unfortunately, both call for different touch because of how these very different pipes speak, no matter what the manual may feel like. Really, all that’s left is to spend a few weeks camped out beside the console of some 18th century French organ.

Just another reason to come visit me in France!

Do you have some thoughts about playing this kind of music? Let me know!

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One thought on “TANGENT #1: French Classical Organ Touch

  1. This is a great description of the key touch of French Classical organs. Those instruments are quite a long way from the American organ scene and I do not believe that they could be fully understood without playing them oneself perched on a bench finding one’s musical (and physical!) balance.

    French organs are not machines, they become dancing partners! If you find the right rhythm, What a dance you create!

    Keep writing and keep us enlightened!

    Didier Grassin

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