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Thread: Widor's toccata

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    Seaman, Mezzoforte Wunderhorn's Avatar
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    Widor's toccata

    I'm not a knowledgable person when it comes to the organ. I remember cramming my ears with Bach fugues as a teenager. I only popped in to make a comment on Widor's toccata from the 5th, (the only peice in know from Widor). It's amazing how he brings out the theme with various methods. Truth be told, if you wished to study development of a theme, Widor's toccata is paramount!

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    Administrator Frederik Magle's Avatar
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    Well, Widor wrote many great works for organ, but of course the Toccata from the 5th symphony is the most famous. And not without reason - it's a blast! Also to play. The piece is so immediately accessible, almost like "pop" (one of the occasions where I mean that as a positive ) and yet the structure and thematical development (as you mention) is fine art.

    Anyhow, I once heard a recording of Widor playing the Toccata himself. Of course the recording is old, and he makes many (charming) little errors, yet the sheer musicality of his playing would be almost impossible to exceed. Anyone performing the Toccata should listen to Widor's own rendering at least once.

    This also made me think about thread Is the skill of performers declining? in the classical music forum. Certainly I have heard many rendititions that were "better" from a purely technical point of view but none I can think of from a "musical" point of view.

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    Captain of Water Music Art Rock's Avatar
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    I always find it a pity that the Toccata is so often played on its own out of context - it sounds even better as the end to the gorgeous 5th symphony (for organ). Barber's Adagio is another case in point - it works much better as one of the movements of his string quartet IMO.

    I have heard only two versions of the Widor toccata (Kaunzinger on the CD I have of the 5th and 6th symphony; and Peter Hurford on a compilation organ CD in my father's collection). Bith are breathtaking, and I would love to hear Widor himself tackle it.

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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    I have not heard the recording that Frederik is talking about (well, actually I think someone played it for me when I was a teenager. . .oh boy, about 30 years ago!) I do have the recording of Marcel Dupre playing it at St. Sulpice. I find this recording interesting because Dupre studied these symphonies with Widor himself, and his approach to this piece is more conservative than some of his other playing. It seems to me that Dupre was one of the first to play French music "too fast," going with the trend of many Americans to play this music WAYYYYYYY too fast, completely missing the music in favor of showing off technical prowess. Dupre did not seem (from what I understand and have heard) to go to quite the same extreme, but he did seem to be a bit more flashy than other French organists. Widor was very much on the conservative side, and emphasized over and over that the Toccata from the 5th should not be played too fast, and perhaps Dupre heeded his teacher when playing his pieces. I can't say I'm any kind of Dupre expert, so I may have this wrong, but this is how I understand it right now.

    As to the quality of performance idea which Frederik brought up, my own opinion is that a good performance strikes a balance between technical perfection and musical expression. Different people put different emphasis on these two aspects. I, myself, put major importance on musical expression and can tolerate some note slips. Others (and of course I disagree with this completely, but that's me) will tolerate some musical "boringness" as long as the notes are completely accurate. My opinion is that modern performance has moved too much in the direction of overemphasizing note perfection, and I believe this is because of the recording industry. Nowadays we hear too many recordings and not enough live performances. Recordings are almost always edited, producing an unnaturally perfect performance, but often lacking in musical continuity. Only someone who has actually recorded can appreciate the pressure involved and how that can obliterate musical flexibility. There is also the problem that a musical nuance might sound good in a particular performance, but way overdone when you listen to a recording of that actual performance. So recordings need to be kind of middle-of-the-road in terms of musical nuance, or they tend to get on your nerves with repeated listenings. But in real performance, a good performer is sensitive to a given audience and will do things he might not do on a recording. This, as well as the unnatural perfection of recordings, puts too much pressure on performers to sacrifice musicality in favor of note perfection, in my opinion. I listen to old recordings of musicians from earlier in the 20th century and I hear more mistakes, but often I hear exquisite musicianship and communication that is sorely lacking in modern performances.

    I think we all need to ask ourselves what is the real purpose of performance, anyhow! Is it to communicate and move the audience, or is it to show off and wow the audience with superhuman, computerlike perfection? Which of these is about benefitting others, and which seems to focus more on drawing adulation from the audience?

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    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    It's interesting to me how France somehow tied a social need to an artistic one. What I mean is this connection between a school for the blind and not only playing the organ but composing as well. I do not have at my disposal all the names but surely people on this forum will recognize more than one blind French composer who made his artistic mark both as an excellent performer and as a composer. Langlais is one of them, and I do intend to say a few words about his life on the "anniversary" thread, if I can. He took the same position that had previously been held by Franck and by Tournemire. Was not Vierne also blind? In any case, it's amazing! The other point I wanted to convey is this tradition (is it mostly French/Belgian?) of writing "symphonies" for the organ. It makes a lot of sense, considering how the instrument offers a whole series of instrumental sounds. Perhaps these topics have been visited before but I look forward to your comments (I think they are relevant here) on how an instrument such as the organ might have been socially and culturally "used" differently from one country to another. Is it not an amazing twist of musical conventions for a Tournemire to write full-fledged symphonies in preparation for a more ambitious work at the organ?!
    Last edited by Ouled Nails; Jan-06-2007 at 01:08.

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    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    Yes. Louis Vierne also was blind (or almost completely blind). The school responsible for this interesting social/cultural tradition and organ music in France is called l'Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles. Quite a number of organ players and composers graduated from this old school which dates back to the late eighteenth century. Many are identified on this interesting site, written in French but, I gather, translateable. L'Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles

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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    My comment on forms and the organ would be that sensitive composers use forms that are suited to the instruments that have available. The French Romantic organ has lots of colors, and while not the same as an American orchestral organ, it does use colors in a different way than, for instance, a German Baroque instrument, which is so well suited to bringing out the intricacies of a fugue. . . I'd say that the French organ symphonies were a response to the kinds of tonal resources available to them, as well as the existing forms for orchestra. By this time, the traditional symphonic form, as used by Haydn (sonata form 1st movement, etc) had changed a lot, and the symphonies of Widor, for instance, are not symphonies in the sense of Haydn symphonies, but an extension or development of the Romantic symphony. Everything kind of works together in a given musical era, and the tonal resources of organs change from era to era, as well as the music written for them.

    I don't know much about the Institute you mention, but the website looks interesting and not too difficult to read (haven't had the time to sit and read it through yet.) I had a teacher years ago who used to remark on how many blind musicians tended to be organists. Interesting.

  8. #8
    Commodore con Forza
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    Quote Originally Posted by Frederik Magle View Post
    Anyhow, I once heard a recording of Widor playing the Toccata himself. Of course the recording is old, and he makes many (charming) little errors, yet the sheer musicality of his playing would be almost impossible to exceed. Anyone performing the Toccata should listen to Widor's own rendering at least once.
    Indeed! True, Widor was already 88 years old when he made that recording, but despite the little errors and weaknesses, there are still a number of clues one can get from it.

    In particular, he ties the first two of each group of eight 16th's together from start to finish, whereas the score only says so for 2 or 3 pages, then indicates a pure staccato. Together with his way of accentuating thos left hand chords that fall on a beat, this way of articulating puts a tremendous amount of rythmical impetus into the playing, which yields a much better contrast with the pedal melody, particularly during its second exposition in oactaves.

    The modern recording that, in my opinion, renders this spirit in the most faithful way - and this time played flawlessly - is that by Ben van Oosten at St-Ouen, Rouen. So much so that he makes that 32' Contrabombarde actually sing!


    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Dressler View Post
    Widor was very much on the conservative side, and emphasized over and over that the Toccata from the 5th should not be played too fast
    Actually, that becomes even more evident when one looks at the different tempo indications in different editions: in the first edition, Widor puts a quarter note at 118, but he subsequently changed it to a quarter at 100. What happened in between was that he got a few talented students (mainly Vierne and Dupré) who were able to play his works while he listened from down the nave.


    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Dressler View Post
    I'd say that the French organ symphonies were a response to the kinds of tonal resources available to them
    That's right on the spot. In the introduction to his first four symphonies, Widor says: "À l'instrument nouveau, il faut une langue nouvelle." It is no wonder that he published his first organ works in 1872 shortly after becoming organist at St-Sulpice (just like César Franck before him: be became organist of Ste-Clotilde in 1859 and composed his Six Pièces around 1862-63).

  9. #9
    Lieutenant, Associate Concertmaster
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    toccata

    Hi to the forum I hav'nt heard the recording by Ben van Oosten,but I do have a recording by Herman van Vliet at St. Ouen which in my view is an example of how the toccata should be played.Some recordings are too fast,have ineffective stop composition and ineffective pedal combinations plus occasional timing glitches.Some organists in my veiw try to do too much with the piece and end up playing the piece in an irratic fashion. I also have a question wether any chromaticism was used by Dupre in the St.Suplice recording?

  10. #10
    Commodore con Forza
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    Hi Caddis,

    I'd say van Herman van Vliet's intentions are very good, but the way he transforms them into actual playing is not absolutely perfect. He also seems to run out of steam before the end of the piece. Ben van Oosten, while having similar musical intentions, realizes them much more immaculately, keeping his rythm and his articulation solid as a rock, from start to finish. Registration and control of combination pedals are also perfect.

    Anyway, that's my opinion. Here's a link to sound samples of van Vliet and van Oosten that may be of interest to those who don't have both recordings already.

  11. #11
    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Caddis, what do you mean by using chromaticism? I'll get out my record and listen to it again. Widor revised and revised his works, so there are considerable differences between early and late versions of the Toccata from the 5th.

    It's a funny thing that a lot of people seem to play Widor "erratically." I've heard performance after performance of the 1st movement of the 5th with really strange tempo changes. I've always been struck by how steady Dupre's interpretation is.

  12. #12
    Commodore con Forza
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    Well, towards the end of mouvement #1, Widor does indicate a "con brio", at which most performers accelerate their pace somewhat, while Dupré doesn't (neither does van Oosten, actually). Maybe that's what has been striking you.

    My personal feeling is one of rigidity, rather than steadiness. The Toccata is also somewhat disappointing, with too many missing semiquavers (and an unfortunate mix-up of beats towards the end). The Symphonie Gothique on the LP's flip side, on the other hand, has some quite awesome moments, especially the first mouvement.

  13. #13
    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    I think the key should be [I]somewhat[I]. I have come to some fairly interesting conclusions about REAL romantic performing practices based on writings from the time as well as old recordings. (I collect Victrolas and have a lot of old 78s dating from the early 20th century. Some performers were still using old techniques at that point. . .) I do think there needs to be flexibility of tempo, as in CHANGING tempo, not just rubato; however I think it needs to be subtle and it needs to come out of the structure of the music itself. What I object to in the 1st movement of the Widor 5th is the many performances I have heard where the performer speeds up the tempo every time the unadorned A theme makes a statement. That to me is completely wrong. I don't really feel the Dupre recording is rigid, I think it's just subtle and direct. I do like that recording. I do, though, feel that when [I]con brio[I] is marked, there could sometimes be an increase in tempo, but not always necessarily.

    I would quote an English translation of Widor's preface:

    "How often the composer hesitates and abstains at the moment of writing on his score the [I]poco ritenuto[I] that he has in his thought! He does not dare, from fear that the exaggeration of the performer may weaken or break the flow of the piece. We do not have the graphic means for emphasizing the end of a period, or reinforcing a chord by a type of pause of unnoticeable duration. . ." [not my translation--I can't lay my fingers on the French version]

    I take this to mean that he wants subtle rubato that does not call attention to itself.

  14. #14
    Commodore con Forza
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    Hi Tom,

    Your citation of Widor is a very relevant one. Here's the original in French:

    «Que de fois le compositeur hésite et s'abstient, au moment d'inscrire sur son texte le poco ritenuto qu'il a dans la pensée ! Il ne l'ose, de peur que l'exagération de l'interprète n'amollisse ou ne brise l'essor du morceau. Le signe manque. Nous n'avons pas de moyen graphique pour souligner une fin de période, ou renforcer un accord par une façon de point d'orgue d'inappréciable durée.»

    Widor, from Preface to Symphonies I-IV
    Actually, it is intersting to compare the writings of Widor and Dupré on these matters - their ideas are actually not quite the same! I'll start a new thread with some interesting citations of each.

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    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    Acc, thanks for posting the French. This was not a bad translation, even if it does leave a little out. ("Le signe manque.")

    I'm very much looking forward to your further posts on this. While I have done a fair amount of research related to Brahms, Wagner, and even some Franck, I know very little about Dupre's views on performance. I have felt that he was less conservative than Widor, and I remember someone telling me that he weighed in heavily in favor of not so much rubato in Franck. (I tend to fall in the middle on that. I use more than on the Dupre recordings, but less or at least differently than, say, Marchal; I have violent disagreements with the way Marchal uses rubato in Franck.) At any rate, I would love to learn more real facts (opinions, too, if they are based on facts--and I am sure yours and many others' are. . .)

    You know what, I think it would be very interesting to pursue the thread you mentioned and perhaps let it expand into romantic performance practices in general. This is an area that really needs to be discussed.

    What do you all think? Perhaps we could have a Franck/Widor/Dupre thread, and maybe a Wagner/Brahms/Franck (yes, I did that on purpose--Franck was a real Wagnerphile and you need to understand Wagner's practices to understand how to do Franck, I think) and maybe some others.

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