Oui will rock you

April 24, 2017 at 2:39 pm

There’s a great hymn, O Filii et Filiae, which is sung in many churches on the Sunday after Easter, because its text mirrors the gospel lesson of the day – the story of doubting Thomas. It is one of those instances of a gripping narrative wed to a simple yet interesting melody which, being roughly 600 years old, has clearly stood the test of time.

For me, it’s a chance to pull out one of my favorite organ pieces, don my beret, and pretend to be French. French organs stand out in that they are jam packed with fiery trumpets and other noisy stops, making them exceedingly loud – necessary to fill the cavern of a massive French cathedral with sound. Before the revolution, the French organ tradition included writing (or improvising) variations on popular chants or sacred melodies. Jean-François Dandrieu did just this when we wrote his Offertoire pour la fête de Pâques – variations on O Filii et Filiae, showcasing the terrifying thunder of French organs.

When I hear that sound, it makes me imagine a peasant from a village, coming into Paris and going into a church – and being petrified and awestruck at the sound of the organ. Our human fascination with loud sound, like the appeal of this hymntune, hasn’t changed.



Two Organs are Better than One

November 20, 2016 at 3:59 pm

How do you fill a massive cathedral with sound? A really loud organ. But, if the organ is too loud, how do you accompany the choir? Easy – build another organ.

Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for large churches to have more than one organ. Even so, there’s not exactly a wealth of music written for two organs. First of all, these organs tend to be placed far apart (there’d be no point in putting two organs next to each other); this means that they two organists would struggle to stay together, musically. Second, these organs tend to be designed with very different things in mind (there’d be no point in building two identical organs in the same building); one will often be the “main” organ for solo repertoire, while the other will be a “choir” organ for accompanying. Or, one will be designed for Baroque repertoire and the other for Romantic, and so the two instruments would sound like oil and water.

There is, however, a unique piece for two organs and choir which makes a strong argument for this instrumentation – the Messe Solemnelle of Louis Vierne, longtime organist of Notre Dame. The choir sings with the softer organ in the chancel, and the loud organ gets the play the fun parts, a football field away, in the west gallery.

French organs are known for their fiery, dark, thunderous sound (they are also known for never, ever being in tune). I often wonder what it was like for a 19th century French farmer to come to the Paris and hear the organ at one of the cathedrals. I imagine they may have needed new underpants after the experience.

Things I love about this video: 1) this is a REAL MASS, not a concert performance; 2) The French mispronunciation of Latin; 3) you can hear the two organs get out of sync with each other if you listen carefully; 4) the last chord is held so long that you can see the singers taking extra breaths to get through it.


All Saints’ Memories

November 6, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Two important Christian celebrations happen at the beginning of November, and are linked with Halloween. All Saints’ Day is November 1st, All Souls’ Day (AKA the Day of the Dead) is the 2nd. Most churches today celebrate these two days together on the first Sunday in November; the resulting combination includes elements of both holidays – the work of the saints are celebrated, and the dead are remembered.

For me, the beginning of November and these celebrations remind me of a young boy I knew who died of a brain tumor before his third birthday. My first child was roughly the same age as the boy, so the events of that year hit me. He became ill around the beginning of November, and his funeral (for which I played the organ) was in June. It was by far the most difficult service I’ve ever had to play.

Ever since then, I’ve played this piece by Louis Vierne on All Saints’ Sunday. “Stele pour un enfant defunt” (memorial for a dead child) tries to emotionally capture the peace that parents seek when they lose a child. Vierne dedicated the piece “to the memory of my little friend”. The sweet, high melody searches for resolution, but the twisted harmony keeps wrenching it away. At the end, the harmony tries to break the melody’s resolution, but fails; peace is attained at last.

Vierne was a marvelous composer who kept late romanticism alive long after it had gone out of style. This was the final piece he played, before he himself died, sitting on the organ bench.