Those of you who follow my blog know that I took a week off from posting. I’m a philosopher, so it definitely was not because I didn’t have anything to say. 😉
Actually, I was celebrating a significant anniversary of excellencifying: This past Sunday was my 36th anniversary as principal organist at a local Lutheran church. That’s a very long tenure, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to engage regularly in making music.
I celebrated by playing some really fun music. For the prelude and postlude, I played two pieces by German Baroque composers known for their compositions for the organ — and really fun to play. I decided for my anniversary to incorporate three of my favorite hymns to play on the organ. Of course, I discharged my professional obligation to use lyrics that did actually reinforce the message of the readings and liturgy for the day, but beyond that, I picked them simply because they are just super fun to play.
What makes a piece of music fun to play on the organ? Actually, that’s a more difficult question to answer than it might seem. Some pieces are fun because of how they are constructed — like the pieces by Walther and Böhm, who were accomplished organists themselves. Their music for organ feels natural to the hands and feet, sort of like speaking your home language.
Some pieces are fun because they give you a chance to do exciting, organy things — like change the registration a bunch of times — as I did for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is one of my favorite hymns to play — or because the hymn accompaniment involves interesting textures, like the tune Hyfrydol, which we sang as the offertory. The opening hymn, to the tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen, is fun to play because, for a hymn, it has a hard-driving pedal part, so the feet get to be the main accompaniment to the tune.
And then there’s Samuel Barber’s Adagio. I made an organ transcription of this very famous piece at the request of a friend — and I’m glad I did, because it was a months-long intellectual and musical challenge. I don’t know how it sounded to those in attendance, but it was actually the most difficult piece of the morning. But here’s the weird thing: It wasn’t the notes, which aren’t that hard. It’s the way the melodic lines have to hold together and cross each other, which means that you have to do things like contrast the way you play one melody with another — which means each hand has to be doing several different things at once. I don’t mean several notes at once: I mean that, for one melody, the hand has to play detached notes while the other fingers play smooth notes. It’s a bit like trying to operate a fork and a knife in the same hand. It’s easy to play the notes, but very tricky to play them well — mostly because the fingering turned out to be diabolical, even after I changed keys from Barber’s original. (Sorry, Sam! It’s an organ thing.) But what a beautiful piece!
Here’s my message — in words — to the people who have supported my musical work all these years:
There are opportunities for excellencifying all around us. Look for yours and live your virtue.
The world will be better for it.