Marilyn’s Musings November 2017

Thoughts on articulation


When I was a student in the early 1970’s, scholars from the early music world were beginning to make an impression on the way music by Bach, and before Bach’s time, was played. Treatises such as L’ Art de toucher le Clavecin’ by François Couperin le Grand, published in 1716, and the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by CPE Bach published in 1753, made their way on to student reading lists. The work of the Organ Reform movement in Germany had already begun to reconstruct historic instruments following the loss of some beautiful organs during World Wars. A few British organ students studied in Europe in order to learn some of these techniques. John Wellingham, now in his 80’s and still going strong, was one such English pioneer; he taught the late William Drake, who in turn, learned his organ building trade abroad. In organ playing terms, those in the know began to talk about articulation, toes-only pedalling and early styles of fingering. The idea was to make Bach sound as Bach would have played it, by avoiding endless lyrical legato, a Romantic style of playing deriving from long, soaring melodic lines delivered on allegedly inappropriate Victorian or Edwardian registrations. Those familiar with organs by William Drake, and other builders who do similar work, understand that playing stylistically is an appropriate way to perform the music of Bach and other early composers on such instruments.

What it is:

Articulation is taught to mean that, in the music of Bach and his predecessors, the tiniest, tiniest gap between most notes is desirable, called ‘detaché’. It is not staccato. Gaps that are too long between notes cause the musical line to become disjointed, and the organ pipes don’t get a proper chance to sing. Sometimes, there is not enough awareness of both the left hand and pedal, because attention naturally focuses on the right hand part, where the tune mostly is. Notes in lower parts end up too short, of indeterminate length when the fourth and fifth fingers inadvertently release the key too soon. In such cases, a student will be advised to play the note length as written, such as two full crotchet beats in a minim, or a full crotchet, or a full quaver or semiquaver, ignoring the early music injunction to leave tiny gaps between notes; it is better to have the music right, rather than made artificially unmusical. Short notes, even semiquavers, can be surprisingly long when properly measured. When students discover what their digits are not doing, it is almost a eureka moment. Recordings can be revealing, showing that what one thinks is right, can sound unintentionally inaccurate or bumpy. When this is the case, the ear is only partially engaged.

The bigger picture:

Phrasing is also a part of articulation, meaning, that starts and stops of phrases in all music should be made clear; the listener should be able to discern what is going on. ‘But I thought I was doing it’, is a frequent response to a request to make it properly clear. It may exist in one’s imagination, but reality is different. Musical gestures often need to be made bigger in order to be heard and make an impact. YouTube contains a telling 30 minute masterclass featuring a performance of Sweelinck’s Fantasia Crommatica where an organ scholar is tutored by Dr. Pieter Dirksen, a noted professor and Sweelinck expert from Amsterdam. Advice is given on phrasing and accents. When applied, the result is good to hear.

Composers from Beethoven onwards became increasingly keen to indicate, using slurs, dynamics, and other markings, how their music should be played. We players should follow, whereas Sweelinck’s generation of composers and players knew exactly what to do and how to do it as a result of practice and experience. Publishers and editors will respond to what composers want to communicate by producing clear copies, with good instructions, a good format and at a reasonable price. Many ignore such markings because playing the notes is the primary struggle. If this is the case, attention will not focus readily on how the music should be shaped.

Today’s editions:

Modern, published editions of Bach and his predecessors by Breitkopf and Barenreiter to name but two, are clear, with no extra editorial additions. Advice comes in prefaces and/or footnotes. Novello editions of Bach have been discredited because editors in the past added their own instructions on how this music should sound, rather than leaving the composer’s own markings, if any, to speak for themselves. My generation grew up with such over-edited scores of Bach, yet I personally find it hard to adapt to familiar music looking different in a newer edition. I still use my battered and falling apart Novello scores, but remain aware of newer publications where sections of the score may contain passages with differences in pitch or rhythm, found in the light of continuing academic study. I do not know where to put yet another set of large volumes when space is at a premium, and I am not alone in this respect.


So, what should the present day organist do? Two things:-

1. Listen to what you are doing. Record your playing to hear the effects of your work, and pay special attention to left hand and pedal.
2. Follow all instructions to the letter.

All too often, the eye takes precedence in learning music and the ear takes a back seat. Learning to listen in the moment matters. Recording on a mobile phone is easy, and should be done in short bursts, not waiting until the piece is learned before hearing the results of what might be misguided effort. Such work is time consuming. Many are in a hurry to learn something for next Sunday or for the next lesson. Such pressure is nearly always counterproductive and stressful.

Another pointer to help the cause of good articulation is observing the human body at work when making music. I have noticed that if I sit well, with taut core abdominal muscles, as taught in yoga classes, I sit up and am business like about my work at the console. At a recent funeral, I had the privilege of watching a very good Big Band play two numbers, including ‘Sing Sing Sing’ by Benny Goodman, at the end of the service. I also watched the band rehearse. Every player during rehearsal and performance was completely still, also smartly dressed. The drummer and the double bass player had every excuse to rock around in time to the music, but stayed still apart from movements required to play. It was exciting, energetic, disciplined playing which everyone thoroughly enjoyed. Concentration was at its maximum from players and audience. It meant that every bit of rhythmic articulation had terrific impact. The only person who couldn’t keep still was me, with broad smile and both feet tapping with utter enjoyment. As well as viewing masterclasses on articulation, my YouTube choices now include Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing beautifully to Sing Sing Sing…..

Marilyn Harper