14: So How Fast Does the Toccata in F, from Symphony No. 5, Op. 42, No. 1… Go?
At long last, and with thirteen blah-gs behind us, it is now time for me to “come clean” and state my conclusions as to how fast Widor’s famous Toccata should go. In so doing, I will be making a statement about who I am as a musician, how I think, my values artistically, etc. Should I be nervous? Maybe…
This entire exercise began (as told in the first blah-g) as a result of an opportunity I had to play the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and how a short video of my attempt to navigate an “excerpted” version of the Widor Toccata was made, and how I was surprised at the tempo at which I played it. I then considered what would be judged “too” fast, and why, and who should be making those decisions – whether it’s “too fast or “too slow” - in the first place. This led me to a consideration of what parameters we should be examining to reach a decision on tempo, and how that decision – and how we arrive at it – represents a defining moment for who we are as individual artists and musicians.
We have examined a host of parameters, and we now have a matrix of ideas and possibilities floating in our mind’s eye. But the one thing we haven’t done yet, as regards the Widor Toccata, is to ask the same question we’ve asked several times before in the course of these blah-gs: “What is this music about?” When we examine the actual melodic material, we find the following hinted at and outlined as part of the perpetual motion ostinato figure played in the manuals, and then stated in its entirety in the pedals:
This, frankly, is not particularly profound material, and actually seems more like a cantus firmus than an authentic melody. Although we may recognize it, it is not sufficiently compelling – at least in my opinion – to sing on one’s way out of the organ recital, or be particularly memorable.
What is memorable about the Widor Toccata? I would suggest that it’s the figuration in the manuals that is instantly recognizable and unique. In fact, as the piece unfolds, I believe that the actual melody in the bass is almost superfluous except to inform that figuration: the bass register remains unexplored, so something must happen to fulfill that register at some point -and it does, when the pedals enter with the material shown above.
So here we are, faced with this Quantum-like matrix of ideas suspended in possibility, pulsating with potential as the performer weighs all the factors in choosing the tempo. Only when that decision is made and the relationship between the first two notes becomes clear (and establishes the tempo) does the “wave form” collapse into reality (please see my earlier blah-g on hermeneutics and quantum physics). And even then, the process of recreation does not end, for music happens through time. Unlike a particle – which is, or is not, at a specific point at a specific time – music is perceived. We anticipate what is coming, but it is not yet upon us; we believe we know what has come before but cannot observe it – perceive it – again except in memory. All the elements to consider when choosing a tempo – indeed, when crafting a performance of any sort – exist as a balanced lattice of interconnected thought and idea, floating in the realm of possibility, only manifesting into reality when the performer – the “I AM” re-creator – brings it to life.
So where do we stand?
We have examined first hand evidence, and find it only mildly compelling: Widor’s recording was made late in life and on an instrument that is less technologically advanced than those we have today. How fast could one play with five manuals coupled together? Here is a modern video of the very same organ and the very same work that Widor recorded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQaXh28tzyo. It certainly seems as if there’s some inertia with which this young man is contending! Yet on the other hand, here is a performance of the same work on a different organ, but one that is actually completely mechanical in action (albeit quite modern in construction): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmFane5N-Ss. We also note the composer’s complaint that the work is frequently played “too fast.”
We have considered textual evidence, and observe that the composer changed the original published metronome marking down to a slower tempo (as well as changing the articulation in the first few bars).
We considered historical context, stylistic context, and the personal context the work holds in the composer’s own oeuvre.
We have looked for clues and evidence to tempo in the music itself, and have examined some of the technical aspects of the instruments available to the composer at the time the work was composed (see above).
We are accounting for the actual development of instrumental technique, give a nod to tradition, and have considered the work in the greater context of its influence, its familiarity, its iconic nature, and its groundbreaking style.
Finally, we have even embraced contrasting philosophies of how we communicate (hermeneutics) to see if the work has a life of its own beyond that which the composer might have been aware.
So here we go.
In my opinion, the Widor Toccata no longer belongs to Widor, but to the world. It is one of the most recognizable works for the instrument ever written, not because of the melodic content or “tune” but because of the filigree and figuration. To play it at a slow tempo places the emphasis on harmonic and melodic structure, whereas a faster rendition places that figuration into relief. The spirit of the work itself inspired many others of similar type (the “perpetual motion” style) that are meant to be played at quick and virtuosic tempi. And finally, we ask the hermeneutic question of whether this work can exist and be meaningful, expressive and communicative at a fast tempo, and the answer is a resounding “yes!”
So my answer to “How Fast Does It Go” is in two parts. The first you may already suspect, but I confess the second defines me.
So “How Fast Does It Go?”
As fast as you can play it… and then…
Just the tiniest bit faster…
Thank you for joining on this journey of exploration, and for reading my blah-gs. In the near future we’ll be exploring philosophies and aspects of conducting technique, as well as exploring the musical tastes of specific and iconic non-musical figures from history and literature. I look forward to seeing you there!