People, look east.
The time is near . . .
We’ve done it again. We’ve finished a holiday season replete with performances of Messiah and Nutcracker, carol services, and pageants. We’ve roared through the glorious descants by David Willcocks, the Noël variations of d’Aquin and Balbastre, and we’ve sent choir members home to their families in the wee hours of the morning. We’ve tolerated ten weeks of holiday advertising—the first Christmas displays I saw this year were in Home Depot, two weeks before Halloween—and through it all, we’ve celebrated the holiday with our family and friends.
November and December are busy organ tuning months. In the northeast where I live, we think of these as “cold weather” tunings, adjusting the organs as required by the flow and striation of heated air, or the exposure of one organ chamber to prevailing winds while the other is in the lee. In this neck of the woods, Christmas and Easter are both winter holidays, so it makes more sense to tune in November and May. In the last couple months I’ve tuned more than fifty organs in New York and Boston, shuttling in and out of buildings, greasing the bearings of blower motors, cleaning keyboards, setting temperaments, and regulating reeds.
Of the crowning of the year . . .
I’ve been doing this since the 1970s, and I’ve always thought it’s fun to poke around the choir rooms to see what music is out. It’s also fun to see little packages of goodies that have been left for the organist, sometimes even a bottle or two, and notes on white boards offering thanks for the beautiful music.
Christmas is a holiday of traditions, so each church has a list of pieces that get sung each year. And lots of those pieces are common to hundreds of churches. Carols for Choirs is ubiquitous, in all its volumes. When I was a junior chorister, starting around 1966, Carols for Choirs I was five years old. The Willcocks descant to O Come, All Ye Faithful must be the standard against which all others are judged; how many millions of people know to start “Sing, choirs of angels . . .” on D. And let’s not forget those fantasmagorical chords under “Word of the Father . . .” or the majestic progression in the last phrase of the refrain after verse 7—all those sharps! Wow. Fifty-five years later, it stills gets me every time. Nice work, Sir David.
Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata is another favorite, with its beguiling mix of Renaissance-inspired motives and rhythms, and contemporary harmonies. Choirs love to sing it, and congregations love hearing it. I was at a party with Pinkham where he mentioned that Christmas Cantata paid for his house. Nice work, Daniel.
In the past generation, John Rutter’s music has renewed Christmas for many churches. Shepherd’s Pipe Carol is a peppy little number that makes people smile, and I imagine that Candlelight Carol will be as much a staple as Silent Night, Holy Night in a decade or two. Nice work, John.
Many organists consider the French Noël variations an essential part of Christmas. I know I do. But I had an interesting moment once when a parishioner asked me what was all that French stuff I play at Christmas. He helped me realize that the people in that New England Congregational church had never heard the French carols, as familiar to a French congregation as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is to us, and equally familiar to organists. I had published the titles in the bulletin in French, meaningless to everyone except me. I knew it was Christmas music, but no one else did. Claude Balbastre (1724–99) was one of the most popular musicians in France, a virtuoso for the people. His Noël variations were wildly popular and people thronged to hear him play them, causing such a disturbance in the church that the Archbishop of Paris barred him from playing Christmas services. We should all have such trouble. Nice work, Claude.
Make your house fair as you are able . . .
Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965) was a British writer, best known for the more than eighty books of stories and poems she wrote for children. She won several prestigious literary awards, and the Children’s Book Circle, a society of publishers, authors, and librarians, presents the Eleanor Farjeon Award annually in Great Britain for excellence in children’s literature.
Farjeon’s People Look East is a delightful sprightly poem, familiarly set to the tune of a French carol. It was first published in the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928 and has become a mainstay of traditional Christmas music. I bet the tune is rollicking through your mind’s ears as you read. I love this carol, both for its beguiling singability, and for the marvelous metaphorical allusion it suggests. Obviously, “. . . Make your house fair as you are able . . .” suggests the pleasure of decorating our houses, yards, and church buildings for the sweetest of Christian holidays. Nice work, Eleanor.
But it means so much more. As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ, we pull out the rich heritage of seasonal music. While I know it’s important to take Facebook with a grain of salt, my community of “friends” includes thousands of organists and organbuilders making thoughtful comments that enrich my experience. As we approached Christmas I saw conversations about how to finger tricky passages, how to read composers’ metronome markings, and what people might suggest for new and interesting choral music to offer during this most traditional of celebrations. Working out the slithery fingerings for Dupré’s Variations on a Noël is just another way to “trim the hearth and set the table.”1
To the organ tuner, in addition to oiling blowers and tuning reeds, making the house fair expands to include making sure the Zimbelstern reversible works reliably. And given the usual keys for such carols as Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem, it’s smart to check that B-flat and F in the chimes are sounding their best. The sickening clunk of a chime struck by a faulty hammer can change everything in that magical moment at midnight when everyone is singing with a candle in their hands.
We all love to play the French Noël variations, so it’s important to check the Cornet combinations on each organ. The classic registration is flue pipes at 8′, 4′, 22⁄3′, 2′, and the pesky 13⁄5′. Sometimes the Cornet is created by combining five independent ranks, sometimes it’s independent ranks at 8′, 4′, and 2′, plus the Sesquialtera, which comprises the 22⁄3′ (Nazard) and 13⁄5′ (Tierce) ranks, and sometimes all five pitches pull as one stop. It’s most common for those five ranks to be wider-scale flutes, although some larger organs have Cornets both as flutes and as principals. In any event, those pitches, especially the two mutations, the second and fourth in the overtone series, complement the Cromornes and Trumpets of the organ because they reinforce the predominant overtones that color the reed voices.
If the organs you play have Trumpets, Nazards, and Tierces, you can prove this to yourself. Play a note on the Trumpet and turn the Nazard on and off. When it’s on, it reinforces that pitch hidden in the tone of the Trumpet, and when you turn it off, you can hear the tone linger as a component of the reed’s voice. If you have trouble hearing it, try it with different notes until you find one that’s clearer. It works best in the tenor range. This trick also works with an Oboe, Krummhorn, or Clarinet.
The Tierce is one of the most difficult pitches to hear in any organ. They’re tricky to tune accurately. But the pitch is clearer to your ears against a reed than a flue pipe. Try it. Play the Tierce with the Octave 4′, which is the usual tuning reference stop, then play the Tierce with a reed. I bet you’ll hear the tuning easier. It’s a good trick to tune a Tierce to a reed, as long as the reed has stable pitch and speech, and as long as you check each note as you go.
In French Classic organs, the combination of Cornet was developed to reinforce the treble ranges of the reeds, which were weaker than the tenor and bass ranges. That’s a simple explanation for why there are duets between cornet trebles and reed basses. It’s also the reason for the predominance of the Grand Jeu in French registrations. Those organs have lusty, powerful reeds that sound great with a Cornet added to the treble range. Hmm. Maybe that’s why the five-rank Cornet starts at middle C. Nice work, François (Bédos de Celles).2
Trim the hearth and set
the table . . .
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG) is a spectacular example of community imagination, effort, and achievement. In 1991, a group of about ten families in the area of Boothbay, Maine, founded the original organization. They mortgaged their homes to raise the funds to purchase a 270-acre tract of coastal land, rescuing it from development, and they established the not-for-profit corporation. Corporate and private sponsorship came in at a rapid rate, and in June 2007, the gardens held a grand opening celebration. Less than ten years later, the CMBG comprises a rich collection of theme-based gardens, several public buildings with a café, gift shop, and educational facility. They present chamber music concerts and dozens of public events, and receive more than 100,000 visitors each year.
You might think that plants all grow at a common rate, but as we have visited the gardens several times each year, we wonder what they are using for fertilizer. You can almost hear the garden grow if you stand still. It’s gorgeous, thrilling, informative, and enriching. If you’re ever in the area, about forty miles up the coast from Portland, I recommend you stop in. Take a look at www.mainegardens.org.
Last year, CMBG introduced “Gardens Aglow,” an extensive lighting display festooned about the grounds. This year, with a houseful of family from out of town for Thanksgiving, we convoyed to the Gardens to witness the spectacle. Knowing it would be crowded, we arrived as they opened at 4:00 p.m., just as the sun was setting (Maine is at the extreme eastern end of the eastern time zone, and includes the eastern most point of land in the United States). We were amazed by the number of people. It was the third night of the season, and we learned that they had received more than 10,000 visitors over the previous two nights. That may not seem like much to city dwellers, but considering that the population of Boothbay is under 2,500, and the ten neighboring towns combined have fewer than 12,000 people, this is a big deal. They anticipate more than 100,000 visitors before the exhibit closes on New Year’s Day, effectively doubling the annual attendance at CMBG. Nice work, people.
The “Gardens Aglow” page of the CMBG website mentioned that the exhibit is open Thursdays through Sundays, November 18 through December 31, but closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve—that was the only time I saw or heard the word Christmas connected with the event. The tasteful jazzy music playing through Bluetooth speakers seemed Christmasy, but it was actually just the wintery classics we associate with Christmas: Let it Snow, Jingle Bells, Sleigh Ride, Frosty the Snowman. Rudolph was nowhere to be heard, abolished, no doubt, due to his connection to Santa Claus, even though Jesus makes no appearance in the lyrics. Even the word “holiday” was missing.
It sure felt Christmasy to me, as it did to our Greek Orthodox in-laws. But I thought it was nice that the marvelous event could be freely enjoyed by people of any faith, or by people of no faith.
People, look east and
sing today . . .
The United States has just experienced a painful and nasty presidential election. The amount of abuse suffered by both the candidates and their supporters is unprecedented. Things were said across public media that wouldn’t be tolerated in school playgrounds, and people of all races and ideological backgrounds were savaged and humiliated in public. No matter how we each feel about the results, no matter how we voted, we can’t escape the fact that it was a disgraceful display, a national tantrum displayed to the rest of the world. We should all be mortified. As a nation we are better than that.
While The Diapason is not a place to express or exchange political opinions, this experience must resonate for many readers because so much of the discourse involved interpretations of religious freedom. The idea that the United States was founded on religious principles is at best only partially correct, and according to many historians, it’s patently false. Of course, there was a huge indigenous population here before European settlers arrived in the early seventeenth century. But those European settlers did not arrive with the intention of establishing a religious country, they were escaping persecution because of their beliefs.
The point was to be able to worship freely, not just as Puritans, Anglicans, or Catholics, but as members of any faith. In the age of the Internet and the culture of social media, we express and confirm our opinions through memes, especially photos taken out of context and peppered with clever captions—modern versions of a political cartoon, and the campaign season fertilized many doozies. There was one that said, “If your religion tells you to hate anyone, you’re doing it wrong.” In others it was easy to interpret that “religious freedom” meant denying someone else the freedom to worship or express themselves.
A particularly poignant moment occurred less than a week before the election, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested in front of New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Their message was against the vanity of the arts and included hateful derogatory language directed at the faculty and students. The students responded elegantly. They came out onto the sidewalk with their instruments to play patriotic and religious music, and spoke eloquently about the importance of the arts to our shared human expression. Nice work, Juilliard students.
This was a small protest. Only three members of the Westboro Baptist Church were involved, including the daughter of the church’s founder, and fewer than a hundred students responded. It was not covered by major newspapers. Without social media it wouldn’t have amounted to much. But it was symbolic of how hatred and intolerance allows some people to condemn huge segments of society, justifying that intolerance by excerpting passages from the Bible out of context.According to my quick Google search, Playbill Magazine was the most prominent publication to carry a story with photographs. You can read the article at http://www.playbill.com/article/juilliard-students-greet-westboro-bapti….
Love the Guest is on the way.
A few days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, I was invited to visit Trinity Church Wall Street to inspect the organs there. I lived in Boston then, and while I had seen dozens of hours of television coverage of the attack, I was surprised by the devastation, the misery, and even the smells I encountered. St. Paul’s Chapel, the neighboring church building that is part of the Trinity family, had instantly been converted into an emergency aid station, providing rest, refreshment, medical attention, even massages to the rescue workers. And the iron fence surrounding the property became a poignant memorial, adorned with photos of missing people and lost loved ones and expressions of national loss and unity through poetry, art, music, and memorabilia.
I had a brief encounter with the church’s rector, a tall handsome guy with an enviable white coif, and suggested to him that it seemed a little strange to be thinking about a pipe organ in the midst of that immense tragedy. He responded that the work of the church had never been more important—and he meant all of the work of the church.
Many, if not most of us who read and care about The Diapason, serve the church in at least one capacity. We plan and present the church’s music, maintain and prepare its musical instruments for worship, sharing the message of the church through its music and through all forms of artistic expression. As we work through the next seasons of the Christian year, we should be aware of how bruised we are as a people. Our work has never been more important. Celebrate the talents and gifts you’ve been given, nurture them through study and practice, and return them to the church and to the nation, doing all you can to make this a better world. It matters. And it’s important. Go do it. Good work, people. ν
1. Eleanor Farjeon also wrote the poem, Morning Has Broken, popularly set to the Gaelic tune, Bunessan.
2. François Bédos des Celles (1709–1779), familiarly known to organbuilders as Dom Bédos, was a Benedictine monk and master organbuilder. His treatise, L’art du facteur d’Orgues (The Art of Organ Building), published in 1768, is still central to the education of every modern organbuilder.