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The Organ in Oratorio

By H. C. Hamilton

The matter of playing oratorio work on the organ, especially the better known parts of Handel’s “Messiah,” usually performed at the Easter and Christmas seasons, is an occasion on which one may hear some very fine organ playing, or the reverse. The differences between a first-class orchestral accompaniment and what is frequently heard on the organ as a substitute, is too evident to any critical listener to need further comment, other than to offer some suggestions which may prove helpful.

A few months ago the writer attended a performance of the greater part of the “Messiah,” in one of the larger cities of Canada, and one which has made wonderful progress, musically, of late. The chorus numbered somewhere near two hundred, and the work was rendered in one of the largest churches in the city. The organist, well known as a recitalist, and possessing a high degree received in England, had a magnificent instrument at his disposal, and, naturally, some very fine things were expected. But, with the exception of a few numbers, the organ work that night was a disappointment.

The introductory Grave and succeeding Allegro in the overture were too identical in tempo and registration; each movement resembled a Moderato, and the tone-color was deadening in its monotony. In some parts of the development section, where sixths were assigned to the right hand, the absence of legato was painfully evident. With a little care, and the exercise of imagination and taste, these things would have been largely avoided. The solemn Grave would not have been made to appear as something trivial or unimportant, neither would the sprightly fugue have taken on what may be well defined as the “exercise sound.” A few of the printed notes might have had to be sacrificed, to enable the left hand to assist in the passages of sixths; but it would have been worth it. An organist, even with all the resources before him, cannot be expected to duplicate all the multiplicity of the orchestral score, but he will do well to make a study of what he must retain, and what he may sacrifice.

The Pastoral Symphony also was deserving of better treatment. Here, as everyone must recollect, the atmosphere is tranquil, both in tempo and dynamics; anything bizzare or strident to be rigidly excluded. The pervading string tone, which finally is heard muted, and subdued wood-wind, produce a lulling effect impossible to describe, but, once heard, never forgotten. No musician ever dreams that this beautiful, ethereal, and yet at the same time, full mass of tone can be duplicated on the organ. But an organist can confine himself to the stops of decided string quality, and especially remember to avoid a heavy, booming bass.

The String Tone

The quality of string tone in the orchestra is distinct, and yet not at all unpleasant even if long continued, as a pedal-point, by the ‘cellos. (The double-basses verge occasionally on a rough tone.) But a long continued pedal note in the organ will tire the ear much more quickly. In the present instance, and before the selection was finished, the organist had held down for several measures, what gave the impression of low C in the pedal, on a 32 foot stop. It was not a loud sound, certainly, but during that unrelenting holding of the pedal note the atmosphere became charged with a vibration that beat pitilessly on one’s ear-drums, till the longing for relief put all other thoughts to flight. As one knows, a long continued tone of this kind does not appear particularly noticeable if close to the organ, but a short distance away the sound, if long sustained, grows exceedingly unpleasant. Then, too, as its use did not carry out the orchestral idea, it had nothing particularly to commend its use in such a selection.

Such extremes of pitch or color have their uses, of course, but not frequently. One might as well commend the use of the 16 foot trombone as desirable throughout some brilliant selection. But the only effect to a musical ear would be coarseness of the first degree. Such a stop may be used with fine effect in some cadences, or where a finish is upon a unison; a thing in which the organ betrays its weakness very noticeably. However, this is a digression. Suffice it to say that many sections of the Pastoral Symphony and overture were a valuable lesson on what not to do.

Dynamic Contrasts

Of the chorus accompaniment, the first that claimed particular notice was “For unto us.” As everyone knows, the thirds that are played between the words “Wonderful,” “Counsellor,” are in the orchestra just quoted. This creates a dynamic contrast that never fails to thrill the listener. But in the present instance everything was played full organ; the interludes of thirds being every whit as powerful as the looked-for climaxes. Consequently, each entry of the chorus was not particularly inspiring; rather the effect was like a brilliant organ toccata with a rather indifferent ejaculatory chorus accompaniment.

The “Halleluiah” was up to the average; perhaps a little better from the chorus stand-point, where the crescendos and fortissimos were much finer. But the organ betrays its weakness on unison passages such as “For the Lord God Omnipotent.” In the orchestra the brasses enter here with majestic effect; the organ always fails to give the pomp and pageantry the words and music seem to suggest and inspire. Of course, this is a short-coming in the organ itself, as it cannot reproduce exactly the bass effect, the nearest approach being the trumpet and trombone stops. But perhaps a more serious weakness here is the absence of accent which characterizes a flourish of trumpets, and which an instrument like the organ, with its “set” tones, cannot emulate. The writer has found on more than one occasion, that a trombone played with the organ is a splendid combination at such times. This instrument combines especially well with a pipe-organ, and its use can be commended in such selections as “Unfold, ye Portals,” “Nazareth,” “By man came also the resurrection,” as well as the “Halleluiah.”

If one will listen to the best things with the utmost attention, and reflect later in quietude upon what he has heard, it will soon become apparent that anything really fine in music is more than a certain number of notes played or sung within a given space of time, but rather the calling up and presenting in very truth a tone-picture.

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