Sunday, January 4, 2009

Music In The Raw

If you have never sat at the keyboard console and pedals of a large pipe organ and felt the beast let rip with its 64 foot bass notes and myriad cascading pipes and voices, then there is something missing in your life. In this perhaps now passing era of extreme sports it cannot quite compare with bungee jumping I suppose, but it's pretty close. In the finale of Widor's Organ Symphony Number Five for instance, you can imagine yourself not merely standing near the Niagara Falls, such is the power of the work, but actually becoming the rushing water itself.

Now the wonderful thing about this experience is that you don't necessarily have to spend twenty years learning to play this complicated instrument, you just have to sit next to someone who can. This was the shortcut method I employed when I sat next to a friend from university as he played an instrument in one of the Oxford colleges. It is true that it made me really wish I could play the organ properly, but given that my inadequate keyboard skills almost cost me my music degree, I was grateful enough for this vicarious pleasure.

The composer of the piece I mentioned, Charles-Marie Widor, born in France in 1844, was a boy prodigy of the sort one seldom hears of today. His father and grandfather were both organ builders and players, and by whatever splendid mix of nature and nurture that took place, Widor was so good that by the age of 11 he was organist at the lycee in Lyons. He then went to study composition in Brussels and became the organist at the imposing if oddly asymmetrical church of St Sulpice in Paris. He remained there for 64 years.

Today, it's relatively easy to get a recording of Widor's work, especially the fifth and most famous of his ten organ symphonies, and that is certainly a fine thing to do. But to understand the full majesty of a large organ and this piece in particular, one really has to be close to the pipes and sense the jets of roaring air being transformed into music and at times raw vibration that shakes the walls. And it's a lot safer than bungee jumping over Niagara Falls.

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