“The Orchestral Organ”: a recital by Matthew Hall

The Orchestral Organ

In the early 18th century, J. S. Bach and his contemporaries explored the way the organ, the “Instrument of Instruments” was a great ensemble unto itself, a one-man orchestra on which organists could play Vivaldi concertos, Corelli chamber sonatas, or verbatim transcriptions of cantata movements for solo voice with obbligato accompaniment. On Friday, October 2nd, at 8:00 PM organist, harpsichordist and Ph. D. candidate in
musicology Matthew Hall will take his lead from those earlier organists and, inspired by the Anabel Taylor organ, will create a program largely made up of his own arrangements and transcriptions. Music-making of this kind, which involves knowledge, skill and nerve a willingness to react to the instrument and to the audience, to improvise and, perhaps even, to bluff a little is crucial to the organist’s art. As Matthew writes in his program notes (read on!), the instrument itself is crucial, and the Cornell Baroque organ could provide no better tool, yet the organist, doing her job wherever it takes her, must be able to make music on much more humble machines; and what matters is that the music, even the works of those great (long-dead) Baroque composers be live, alive, lively: for Matthew “Their music is not the goal but a starting point for me to make music like them, to make music like theirs.”

Matthew Hall writes:

“This concert is an attempt to explore the connection between my two educations as an organist. The first started at the age of twelve at the organ of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Attleboro, MA; the instrument I played for my first several years was a Rodgers Infinity Series 361. Think of it like a suped-up Kia Optima: to a kid of twelve, it is a luxury sports car plain and simple; to a kid of eighteen, who’s learned a thing or two, it’s a sham, a cheap knockoff; to an adult, who’s learned a thing or two more, it’s obviously no Rolls but it does have comfortable bucket seats, a roomy trunk, and good financing options. Having learned on that instrument continues to teach me things now: for example, gratefulness at having been issued a key to the world-class instrument in Anabel Taylor Chapel. Aware of this fantastically good luck, I try not to be
supercilious when it comes to instruments. Obviously I, like everyone, have instruments I love, and instruments that I think are crap; but an organ is an organ. Servus ad serviendum debet.

At the console of the mighty Rodgers I learned to make music really make it, sometimes out of whole cloth, sometimes out of no cloth at all. I learned how to play something, anything at a moment’s notice to fill a gap (e.g. numbnuts acolyte can’t manage to get the candelabra lit); to find my way to a cadential escape hatch from just about anywhere (e.g. the priest is impatiently tapping his foot, nevermind his own thirty minute sermon); to correct, improve, and elaborate the often egregiously unidiomatic not to say hopelessly incompitent organ parts which bedevil so much of modern church music publishing. This training culminated in a year
as an organ scholar at the Cathedral of St. Anne, Leeds, England. I went
thinking I knew how to play the organ; I came back having learned more than I had known there was yet to know. Services were six days a week, usually between two and four services a day. That’s four voluntaries on a light day, plus anthems, hymns, service music, space-fillers, whatever. In short, even if the goal were merely to run through everything one must play in public before playing it in public, (a) there are hardly enough hours in the day, (b) some bits were always going to have to be improvised, and (c) the choirmaster is liable to sabotage whatever preparation one might have been able to do by handing one a new anthem on the way to the organ gallery. It is amusing to remember the number of times that, confronted by the prospect of sightreading a voluntary I had set for
myself and that I had had every intention of practicing, I thought to myself, “You idiot,” and then immediately, “Play now.” To this day the words “Deo gratias” (the last words of the Mass) induce a kind of low-level, reflexive panic.

My other education as an organist was the conservatory one. This was a world of lessons (I had never had one of those on the organ before the age of twenty-two or twenty-three), of repertoire that was meant to be practiced from urtexts and critical editions, of recitals scrutinized by jurors with hearing (as against tone-deaf worshippers attending their screaming babies). By now I learned to discriminate between a great instrument and a Rodgers Infinity Series, and to appreciate the difference for the musical possibilites it affords. Loathfully, I discovered that this
knowledge can also be used as a kind of currency to distinguish (or, rather, to distinace) oneself from ones peers and ingratiate oneself to one’s teachers. While in conservatory, I played the great organs of Boston and loved it, but I was also the parish organist at a local church that had a pile of lovely old nineteenth-century Boston pipework (a hodgepodge of Hook & Hastings and Hutchings), all operated from a 1960s electro-pneumatic console with dodgy switches. It really goaded me when people would smile sympathetically and incline their heads and say “you poor thing” or some such vapid expression when I told them about this instrument, as if to be paid for practicing a craft one loves were a thing to be lamented. I still think that organ sounds lovely, evenif the action is comically sluggish.

One of the most important, indeed hard-won, lessons of this Jekyll-and-Hyde training was that beauty and expediency need not be opposed. It doesn’t have to be difficult to be beautiful; and it doesn’t have to be crap to be doable or accessible. In both tensions, perfection is the enemy. One can make beautiful, worthy music on a humble instrument; long hours of strenuous practice is not per se a moral good; harder is not better; more original is not better; composers do not always know better. What is good now, is best.

So the bridge between these worlds that I’m grappling with, and of which this recital is a product, is the way to reconcile the fear and thrill of “Play now” with a longing to “conserve” (in Alejandro Madrid’s sense; see JAMS 64/3) a tradition of music which I love but which has basically outlived the tradition of music-making from which it arose. I get much more of a kick out of the way I make music at a half-broken organ in a church that is, by the seat of my pants than I do from the way I was trained in conservatory, that hermetic laboratory of endless preparation. Come to think of it, moreover, the former probably has more to do with how a Bach or a Mendelssohn made music than the latter. Yet their music, music of the kind I love, survives mostly in the conservatories, so it is de facto a conservative repertoire and audience for whom I play. So what’s a guy to do? An answer (God help me) I think might be to try to conjure in my performances of stuffy, old, one could say mediatized music something of Auslanders liveness: play repertoire, but also make it up as I go along; practice, but also improvise; know about sources and performance practice, but also play in a way that is easier or sounds better if expiedient to do so. Their music is not the goal but a starting point for me to make music like them, to make music like theirs. My Bach is probably too Gaulic; my Mendelssohn to Bachian; my Handel to Victorian. Too bad; I kind of like it that way.