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Friday, 20 February 2009

Hymn Playing

Michael Lawrence on Hymn playing, which, while not the "hardest part" of my existence, is indeed a trial.
As much as I relish the playing of the organ literature and the creativity of the improvisations, these are not the aspects of the playing that get most of my attention. The truth is that the hymn playing is what really grabs me. It is organic (none of this “hold the last chord and count to two-and-a-half” and other pseudo-scientific, pseudo-musical approaches), and he makes it easy for the singers. I have never taken a single, solitary breath out of sync with this organist; it’s as though he’s able to unite the whole room with the power of his genius.

Though some will feel compelled to give some kind of do-gooder answer when it comes to such things, when I get to talking about the hardest aspect of my job, the answer is quite simple: hymn playing. It’s the hardest thing an organist does.

There are so many variables that need to be engaged. Here’s just one: phrasing. I’ve known many singers who have what I like to call a “comma fetish,” i.e., they breathe where there are commas, and they steadfastly refuse to breathe where there are none—even if the musical phrase has come to an end! In retort to this chintzy approach, one of my voice teachers once said, “God made all commas, visible and invisible.” I’m reminded, too, of a masterclass I attended of John Shirley-Quirk, one of the finest baritones in the world, in which he said that in singing there is a constant tension between the word and the music, and that at any given moment one may be more important than the other.

So much for the “comma fetish” hermeneutic of hymn playing. It seems to me that in playing hymns, one must consider a number of peculiarities. Because the music is metrical and large groups of people are singing, one is limited in the amount of verbal expression that will be possible. Sometimes a comma in the middle of a phrase just needs to be ignored. Besides, most of us don’t take conspicuous pauses at every comma when we speak; why should it be any different when we sing? At the same time, it seems to me that the ends of the musical phrases need to be marked with a breath, if for no other reason than that this is exactly how 98.5% of the people in the pews who are singing are going to do it. It is not my job as an organist to be a social engineer, to try to cram down the throats of the congregation gimmicks that replace musicality.

Now this subject, like all other subjects in which organists (and musicians, too) get involved, is controversial. It will not surprise me if I get some feedback saying that I’m stupid and so was my great-great grandfather. But this highlights the mental pretzels in which one can find oneself in the process of preparing a hymn. I have not even begun to discuss registration, tempo, introductions, modulations, etc.

But there it is, my friends. This is the hardest part of my job—not some feel-good trendy liturgical fashion statement (”Minister to the minsterial needs of the music ministers…”) on my job description, but playing hymns. It’s funny how the seemingly simple can be so complicated.

Hmmm... Is Michael part of Aristotle's blog now?

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