Thursday, May 20, 2010

500 Miles

Get a little dose of folk music and some vintage Peter Paul and Mary. You have to admit, there is something classy about this ensemble.


The following comments are from an interview with Baroque specialist Ton Koopman, in which he discusses the use of the fermata in Bach's chorales. This is of particular interest to church musicians or congregational singers who want to know what to do with the fermata in hymns of German origin.

"Take the issue of how to perform fermatas in the chorales - should the note under the fermata be held longer? For a long time the conventional view was not to hold these notes; and then Harnoncourt started to extend them. For years, everybody followed him in not extending the fermatas, and then he reverted to the previous practice. And now everybody is following him again! Nobody is thinking why it's being done. So with these things, I do my own research, and I'm very independent. In the case of the fermatas, I think the earlier practice is the right one - they should not be held. I see no reason to do that. David Schildkret wrote an article about this in the Riemenschneider Bach journal in 1989; after examining many chorale books, he concluded quite clearly that the fermata is just an indication of the transition from one line of the chorale to the next. There's also another indication that you should not slow down at a fermata - and you should be an organist to know that: in the Orgelb├╝chlein, there are lots of fermatas at the end of individual lines of the chorale melody, but there are semiquavers still going on in one of the other parts. You can see something similar in some of the early cantatas - the part with the chorale has a fermata, while at the same time the violin obbligato part is still going on, without a pause. So I think nobody can honestly maintain, after having done research, that you should keep the fermatas. Yes, the fermata does mark a cadenza in some arias. But if you want to make cadenzas at those points in the chorales, you should recall that there's one text about Bach's organ playing, where one of his students - I don't remember who it is, I think it was Agricola but I'm not certain - said that Bach didn't like organists who introduced runs and ornaments at the end of chorale lines. So you have corroborating evidence, from several sides, proving that you should not hold fermatas in chorales."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Martin Baker Improvisation

OK, so this is really off topic, but I'm posting a recording of Martin Baker improvising on the organ at Westminster Abbey. It's off topic because this is an improvisation on the themes of two Christmas Carols: While Shepherd's Watched and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, and the Westminster Chimes thrown in for good measure. (As my Uncle Brian always says, Christmas is coming.) I figured it was about time to post some good organ playing, and I wanted you all to hear some great improvising. Organists are some of the few practitioners who actually cultivate the art of improvisation, which, to be clear, is the art of 'making it up on the spot.' Sometimes improvisations are based on pre-existing tunes (as in this case) and sometimes they are completely wrought in the minds and fingers (and feet!) of the organist.

This recording is was made at the conclusion of a broadcasted choral Evensong in December of 1996 or 1997. Apparently, this was the first improvisation ever made at choral Evensong there (seems hard to believe, but that's what I heard). Somehow, the Radio 3 (BBC) audience was asked to pitch in their suggestions for carol tunes, and Mr. Baker chose the above two.

Martin Baker is currently the Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, a post which he has held since 2000. Before that he served as the Assistant Organist at St. Paul's Cathedral, Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey, and organ scholar at Westminster Cathedral. The organ at Westminster Abbey is a Harrison & Harrison instrument which was originally installed in 1937, and which has subsequently undergone extensive alterations. On a global and historical scale, that makes this instrument quite modern indeed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All my hope on God is founded

Here's a fine rendition of a hymn tune by Herbert Howells. It is entitled Michael after his son Michael Kendrick Howells, who in 1935 died from either meningitis or polio. He was only nine years old.

The lyrics are by Robert Bridges (1844-1930) and are based on a German poem by Joachim Neander (1650-1680).

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God's power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

Still from man to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ, his Son.
Christ doth call
one and all:
ye who follow shall not fall.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Gothic Revolution

Good News! I have found the first episode of the BBC's Sacred Music series posted to a Chinese video hosting service called You may find that the video loads somewhat slowly. If that's the case, you can click on the video, then hit pause, and wait for the video to load completely before watching. Hint: this could take awhile, so I recommend loading the video about an hour before you want to watch it.

I hope you will take the time to watch this first episode. It, like the others, is some of the best TV programming on sacred music I have seen to date.

I've unfortunately had no luck trying to embed the video, so you can watch it at here at

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bach and the Lutheran Legacy

In this final installment of Sacred Music, Simon Russell Beade explores the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and other German Baroque composers in the Lutheran tradition. I appreciated hearing something concrete about J. S. Bach's life and the opportunity to see some of the places in which he worked. One of the things I most enjoyed about this episode is seeing Buxtehude's organ in the Marienkirche. By following the characters as they mount the spiral staircase, negotiate the wooden platforms some 82 feet off of the cathedral floor, walk between mounds of pipes in the interior of the organ, and play from a brightly lit console into a cavernous and dark space, you get to experience what it feels like to visit and play one of these instruments. Additionally, you get to hear one of my favorite qualities in a Baroque organ: their unparalleled warm sound - the kind that matches warm sunlight drifting through tall windows on a lazy summer afternoon. At some point, Simon visits a piano store and plays a snippet of a Bach Two-Part Invention. Briefly one thinks 'My, but that instrument sounds harsh!' Some people think of horror movies and haunted houses when they hear organs; I tend to think of the round, pleasant tones of the principle stops (listen to the section in video 5 starting at 6:00) or the dulcet quality of the flute stops.

Bach remains to us an example of what one person can accomplish when they follow their gifts and work hard. Bach wasn't a celebrity in his lifetime and he pursued anything but a glossy career, but he has attained 'superstar' status in our day because of the quality of his work. This should provide an important lesson to us who live in an age that values celebrity, even in its composers.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sacred Music III: Tallis, Byrd and the Tudors

Here is the third episode of the BBC series Sacred Music. It explores the turbulent beginnings of the Church of England along with an examination of two important Tudor composers, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Today, Tallis and Byrd are considered to be the fathers of English sacred music. I found this program to be as stimulating as the others - in fact, it is kindled a new interest in me for 'Master Tallis's' music. Enjoy.