Saturday, July 19, 2008

What organists do on Saturdays

They practice, is what. Tomorrow morning is an all-Willan Sunday, with preludes by the late composer on the plainsong melodies "Ecce jam noctis" and "Aeterna Christi munera". A little background: Healey Willan emigrated from Britain to Canada in 1913, where he became organist at the parish of St. Paul's, Bloor Street, a cathedral-sized church with a huge acoustic and an enormous Casavant organ. St. Paul's, however, is a decidedly "low church" parish, and after 8 years of service there Willan jumped ship to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where he had the opportunity to build an Anglo-Catholic music program from the ground up - based primarily on Gregorian chant and his own choral music. It's a sign of Willan's wry sense of humour that he then wrote a set of preludes of plainsong melodies and dedicated them to Charles Peaker, the new organist of St. Paul's - because Peaker's church, unlike Willan's, would never use plainsong in its services. Like Peaker, I serve at a fairly "low church" parish, and so the closest I can get to accompanying an Anglo-Catholic service is performing Willan's music.

Unfortunately, one of the hymns the rector has selected for this week is Marty Haugen's "Bring forth the kingdom", which is about as far from Healey Willan as you can get without dropping a hymnbook on the console. What's worse, the congregation has never sung it before, and there will be no choir this Sunday to pull them along. So during the administration of the Eucharist, I will be improvising a chorale partita on "Bring forth the kingdom", in the hopes that some people will remember the tune when we sing the hymn. On the one hand, my conscience tells me to make the hymn tune as clear as possible so that the congregation will be able to hear it - on the other hand, my aesthetic sense tells me to disguise the tune as much as possible, because it's terrible. Will it work in inversion? Can we transpose it into the octatonic? Would it help the effect if I do drop a hymnal on the console?

Right. What other things do organists do on Saturdays? They donate blood, if they're me. My blood type is O negative, so now that Canadian Blood Services has my contact information, they practically chase me down the street with syringes. The whole experience is somewhat surreal, beginning with filling out a questionnaire asking whether I have ever held a job which involved handling monkeys, whether I have had a brain covering graft (??!!) in the past 12 months, and when my last dental appointment was. Then, when it's all over, you sit at a table and eat cookies, and they give you brochures that explain what your blood type says about you. Turns out that as a type O, I should have been an accountant, a caterer, or a "businessperson"! They also inform me that my blood type makes me more likely to be a talented writer, a hypothesis which is being quickly disproved by this blog post.

What else? They listen to Pierre Fournier play the Bach cello suites, if they're me. Folks, this is some of the best Bach playing I've heard on any instrument. It's too easy to play Bach's pages of running sixteenth notes as though they were just pages of running sixteenth notes. Here, every phrase goes somewhere. Yay.

No comments: