Marshmallow and Lemon Juice

Further extracts from a conversation with Gillian Weir

To return to my theme song, the vital point to remember is that everything in an organ affects everything else; to cohere, all its elements must be directed to a specific end. The organbuilder must understand the needs of the music; this is where so many have fallen down. For instance consider polyphony which constitutes, in one form or another, the basis of the repertoire. It needs a balance throughout its bass to treble range just like that expected from a choir or a good string orchestra. A singing treble and balanced underparts are the norm in Britain's dozens of good choirs, yet we tolerate organs so thin and weak in the treble that the melody can sometimes scarcely be deciphered. At times I have been in a service at which I was unable to tell what (well-known) hymn was being played, because the organ's balance was so poor. Not only was the bass too thick but the treble fell off drastically to a thin squeak. In a work like Jongen's Sonata Eroica, where the melody is all the effect is disastrous; the piece becomes a garbled jumble.

I wonder whether the practice may derive from the balance of the English harpsichord, with its prominent bass. This was fine for the music of the period, with its emphasis on bass passagework and flourishes, but not for later styles or for an organ required to play hymns (i.e. polyphony) where an even balance is vital, as it is for all counterpoint. In homophonic Romantic music a singing treble is even more important. The use of a – single and quite fast scaling progression for the chorus ranks seems to have been fairly universal practice in English organbuilding for some centuries, seeming to indicate the lack of any conscious effort to think out the needs of an evolving musical tradition. Discussing this point with one organbuilder, I discovered that he clearly had no idea what I meant; when I mentioned the need for a clear and singing treble, he said “Oh, but you've got your upperwork for that!” This exchange betrayed more than just the simple and obvious misunderstanding of the fact that the internal balance of each rank does matter and, indeed, that the whole balance of the organ is so controlled, it betrayed also the unconscious belief that the organ is simply a collection of multi-hued stops, some loud, some soft, some bright, some dull, and that when ‘brightness’ is wanted one just throws on ‘the upperwork’. Apart from ignoring the fact that widely differing elements do not combine to make a convincing ensemble, this view is completely at odds with the one that admires a great choir or orchestra for its particular composite sound, and which takes pleasure in recognising it. Given the multifarious conditions under which an organ is required to perform (acoustics, size of room, choice of liturgical or secular function, etc.), one might think it even more important that the instrument should, like any other unified work of art, possess a distinctive overall colour or personality.

This idea that basic dullness can be relieved by often acid-toned ‘upperwork’ has unfortunately resulted in many ineffective and ugly instruments, it highlights, in particular, some confusion about the nature of a mixture. A common belief, of which both players and builders are sometimes guilty, is that a mixture is a colour, meant to provide ‘clarity’, glitter or excitement. For example, a student will draw the mixture during a fugue, often in the middle of a phrase, to accompany what he sees as a growing excitement; the unhappy result is often merely to break the line, make the pitch jump an octave, and obscure rather than clarify the texture. This occurs, in part because the mixture has been scaled and voiced as a colour aid rather than to fulfill its functional intent to reinforce the fundamental pitch. Music is basically intended to be heard at unison pitch, after all, and the harmonic series which is mimicked by the mixture strengthens that unison.

The Greeks (and some others, as seen in remnants in Norfolk) used tuned vases to fortify actors' voice projection in their amphitheatres, affecting not simply the general dynamic level but the particular frequencies of the spoken word. The tuned resonators that enhance the bass in the Royal Festival Hall are based on the same idea. When, in addition to the mixtures, the 4ft and 2ft Principals are scaled and voiced with the goal of cleaving to the 8ft fundamental, the chorus becomes an ensemble, paralleling the string section of the orchestra and capable of transmitting inner parts with true clarity and without shrillness. After all, the organ is a mixture; that is how it began, with the Blockwerk. The ability to stop off separate pitches allows a greater refinement in balancing the parts of a chorus as well as providing variety, but the chorus should still be seen as an entity.

The upper ranks will not cohere unless the 8ft retains enough harmonic interest to ‘attract’ them. The reinforcement of the harmonic series means nothing if the harmonics of the foundation barely exist; there is nothing left to ‘marry’ the upperwork to the 8ft. The late Romantic tradition of virtually eliminating harmonics from the 8ft Diapason seems to have led to the use of a much smaller-scaled 4ft and a still smaller 2ft in an attempt, perhaps, to provide an antidote to the blandness of the 8ft; the mixture becomes more piercing still, in a desperate effort to cut through the fog. I think of this as a pyramid-shaped structure, with a drop of lemon juice at the top piercing the marshmallow at its base. The problem is often made worse when a loud reed on a higher pressure is added, obliterating the chorus and depressing the excitement rather than increasing it. The so-called “classical” way is to use almost a parallel relationship through the chorus, albeit with slower or mixed halving ratios to give a fuller and more singing quality towards the treble. This will produce what might be called a column of sound instead of a pyramid, giving a logic in the ensemble that equates with the needs of the music, whether for contrapuntal clarity (the clarity of clear voice-leading, not brilliance) or for the soaring melodic line of later music.

It does seem to me that, in the chorus, a certain amount of harmonic vitality is essential to help the chorus to work together and blend, quite apart from any personal taste in voicing styles. As regards voicing in general, my own preference is for the pipe to be made with maximum precision and then given just enough attention by the voicer to let it speak its natural sound clearly and to interact with the other pipes and ranks as envisaged by the designer of the instrument. I was surprised when a well-known organbuilder told me that when the pipes came up from his pipemaker they should certainly not be on speech – “that's the voicer's job!” I am used to the idea of pipes being made so well that they would speak if inadvertently blown on the way to the voicer. If one might generalise about so-called Classical and Romantic voicing by saying that the one is broadly objective and the other subjective, I would plump for an objectivity that prizes chiefly the blend of each stop with the others with which it is to be combined. A fine voicer is a great artist, but potentially great organs have sometimcs been ruined by a passion for subjective sound that did not know how to defer to the role of  each stop in the total concept.

Many large organs that I play turn out to have a surprisingly limited tonal palette, despite a  huge array of stops. The possibilities for combining colours diminish dramatically when the dynamic range from softest to loudest is too wide. Any difference in tonal quality between handfuls of soft stops is difficult to appreciate, especially in a large building. A smaller organ in which every rank has integrity, planned intelligently to enhance and combine with others, has infinitely more registration potential than one with 130 stops comprising every colour in the tonal rainbow.

I am often surprised by the way in which sound is prevented from emerging from the organ. For some reason the word ‘case’ is used loosely in Britain, often when there is only a façade; heavy and much-decorated façades are a frequent barrier to sound projection, especially when there is no real case to focus and direct the sound. It is a pity that there are relatively few real cases in English organs; apart from the obvious efficiency in projecting sound, a proper case gives each division a special flavour and personality It also keeps out the dust.

One of the biggest hindrances to sound projection is the placement of a line of large rectangular wooden pipes right behind the façade, a wall that blocks and dulls everything that comes from behind it. Often the whole layout is confused; recently I played a small new organ that was so discreet as to be almost inaudible. When I looked inside, I found that many of the pipes were below the impost and were facing the side of the case as though whispering intimately to the woodworm.

Occasionally the fault stems from the architect; this was cited when I queried the extremely tightly-packed façade pipes in the otherwise glorious organ in one of Amsterdam's famous churches. The American Classic style, putting all the bass pipes at the back and the mixtures at the front without casework, is no solution, of course. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to plan the layout to cooperate with acoustical principles; however devoutly it may he wished, sound will not go around corners or through a wall.

Attempts are sometimes made to compensate for the problems of all obstructive layout by raising the windpressure. Forcing the tone may make the instrument louder but cannot restore vibrancy and presence. The objective should surely be to have sound float out free and unfettered, just as we like to hear the human voice. We don't put the choir on stage at the Royal Festival Hall with their backs to the audience and erect screens all round, yet near-equivalent disasters have overtaken many of the organs that I play. For example, in one instrument, the access doors to the Swell organ had been built in the middle of the swell shutters, right in front of the treble pipes; the company wondered why there was so much comment that the sound did not seem to be carrying down the building.

Another way to render the organ ineffective is to make the case too deep; fine for background effects but disastrous for real music because the interplay between divisions is impaired and the sound becomes muffled and buried. The spatial disposition of the instrument is essential. The personality of the divisions should reflect that found in the sections of the music. To place the Great in a commanding and dominant position in the centre of the organ, the pedal preferably flanking it, and with the other divisions clearly delineated on the same plane, not only follows the basic principles of sound projection but gives invaluable opportunities for using registration as part of the structure of the music.

Combining Decani and Cantoris in the Gloria at the end of a psalm not only gives more sound but makes a dramatic and psychological climax, bringing together forces formerly separate, and projecting the music from across the whole of the chancel area. In the same way, coupling the divisions of an organ for the climax makes a real musical and dramatic point when the organ is logically arranged. Romantic music works differently, of course, but an organ conceived with spatially-delineated divisions can be used successfully in all the later repertoire whereas one laid out comparatively randomly, in terms of its eases or internally, cannot faithfully serve the earlier schools with their more precise demands.

A few years ago I listened to the opening concert of a well-known organ and noted that the Swell, placed behind the Great, could hardly be heard in the especially-commissioned concerto. I asked the consultant why it had been put there, since there was ample room above and beside the organ. He said that he thought that the organ ‘looked better’ that way and that, for him, ‘the look of the organ is the most important thing’!

One regrets that the Oxford movement, with its chancel choirs, and other factors such as the presence of cherished windows and the application of electricity have combined over the years to endanger the obviously advantageous position of the organ on the central axis of the building. I only hope that, whenevcr possible it will be placed centrally so that the organ is heard on the same basis as other instruments. Perhaps the omnipresence of ‘musak’, bawling, thumping, screaming and shouting at us from speakers hidden at every turn, has fatally affected our ability to remember how music should be heard when it is also listened to...

Temperament has become a thorny issue. I love to play the right music, in the right keys, on an instrument in the right temperament for those keys and that music. But I am puzzled by some of the muddled thinking that I hear. After a temperature change of more than two degrees, the subtle intervals that make up most unequal temperaments fluctuate to the point where the organ is now simply out of tune; if heating and air conditioning cause major temperature variations tuning subtleties become irrelevant. Nevertheless, many people are fascinated by the subject and ignore glaringly out-of-tune intervals.

I understand that you have published a very important piece of research, based on an average of temperaments taken from old chamber organs, that seems to show that something close to Silbermann's temperament was the standard in this country, at least until after 1800. That is certainly of the greatest interest, but not necessarily a basis on which to decide the temperament for a modern organ. I agree that, given a small organ, I would choose a more interesting tuning than equal temperament, restricting the keys played on it; with my harpsichord, retuning can be accomplished in minutes. Nevertheless, an organ of reasonable size proclaims its intention to play a wide repertoire, moving freely through all the keys; in church we no longer play in alternatim with the choir but accompany it.

Equal temperament is many centuries old and supplies a useful and well-tried way to play nineteenth and twentieth-century music with fidelity, and most earlier music adequately. An unequal temperament will make nonsense of Franck or Howells, let alone the work of freely modulating composers such as Reger or Schönberg, and will still suit only some of the earlier music. I sat in a church in Boston, USA and listened in disbelief to a horribly distorted Bach chorale prelude in G major – hardly a way-out key. I became acutely embarrassed recently, trying to play Stanley and Handel concertos on a new organ, because the orchestra was mystified by the organ's out-of-tuneness in the most basic keys; as soon as the music modulates the temperament is no longer the ‘right’ one.

The level of the debate about temperament highlights a problem of the age; it is depressing for a professional to be faced with the results of an enthusiast who has been seduced by novelty, especially when that enthusiasm has not been supported by sufficient expertise to evaluate it fully. Unfortunately, the standards of scholarship applied to many questions of ‘performance practice' have often been inadequate and would not be taken seriously in a scientific discipline. For debate to be genuinely useful, it is necessary not only to possess the facts but also to have enough background to be able to draw meaningful conclusions from those facts.

The near-isolation of the organ world from the rest of music aggravates imperfect reasoning and dangerous illusions, such as the assumption that an example from the past was necessarily what was desired or even desirable. Recent books by Nicholas Harnoncourt, amongst others, provide an antidote to the tunnel vision that seizes on a ‘fact’ without considering its context and the many factors that govern its practical value. We have, rightly, put to flight the idea of playing Bach with Swells flapping and Tubas trumpeting. But then to embrace, fervently, Franck on an unenclosed chamber organ tuned in an ‘interesting’ temperament is to show the same disregard for the spirit of the music as that deplored in the inflated Bach performances. For some reason, the one is deemed excitingly adventurous and the other merely ‘wrong’ whereas the twist in thinking is really the same in each case. Matters relating to both performance and design so often seem to be discussed in the language of moral argument rather than musical debate. Rationality then flies out of the window and music, the Muse we should be sustaining, is crushed between the words.

Perhaps the biggest change in organbuilding in the UK over the past two or three decades has been the return to mechanical key action. Although the cathedrals have not kept pace, most new instruments are now trackers, and the actions have improved considerably. They are now sometimes thought to be ‘too light’; this is not really a problem, except in very small organs, but rather the controllability of the pluck and the speed of the return. Action, above all, is something that must be considered in context. Wind pressure, voicing, layout, pallet size – all these affect the action, factors which were ignored when mechanical action first became fashionable and was applied fairly indiscriminately. Pipes whose speech was not subtle enough to be controlled through the key; wind pressure too high for a sensitive rcsponse from the action; pallet openings too small and producing bounce; pallet springs too strong, so that the perceived weight of the action is increased beyond any chance of control; a dangerously complex layout; all these were problems. At this level, refinements like lost motion at the top of the key (yes, please, the better to control the pluck) become pointless. Indeed, there is no advantage in using a mechanical linkage at all since all the player's energies will go into trying to play reasonably evenly, rather than with freedom and nuance, or even just to getting the keys down against heavy wind or unstaggered coupling. It is not in big chords, such as the opening of Widor's Sixth symphony, that weight is the problem but in passages of single notes on full organ, as in the last two pages of Messiaen's Transports de Joie, where each finger alone has to exert the necessary force unaided by arm weight.

We need to understand just how much a good action can do to enhance the music and raise levels of performance. My husband [Lawrence Phelps, the organbuilder] used to appear like a genie if I happened to be practising on a new instrument of his. He would ask for endless repetitions of passages on various stops, a cornet, a reed, a flute, another flue-stop, with a different kind of attack each time. He wanted to ensure that the action could be totally controlled and exploited musically, functioning as a tool in the equipment of the artist and never solely as a precise mechanism. This was frustrating if I was studying a new work but fascinating in what it taught me about action! After all, the action is the organist's chief means of interpreting each phrase, his most intimate link with the instrument of his expression. If this degree of sensitivity is not achieved it is pointless to make a mechanical action, especially now that electric actions are so fast, and especially pointless if adopted only as ‘the right thing to do’. I was surprised recently when told that a certain important new organ being planned ‘will be very much in the English Cathedral tradition – but, of course, with tracker action – nowadays one must have that’.

I find it hard to imagine that those features usually considered essential to the ‘English Cathedral’ tradition (turn-of-the-century voicing techniques, high-pressure reeds, multiple 8ft stops, all with consequent heavy wind consumption) can possibly be compatible with a light and sensitive mechanical action. If it is not to be light and sensitive, increasing our control and range of expression, why is it there ?

When Cavaillé-Coll led organbuilding into the symphonic era with an organ with a wider dynamic range and designed to be used as a vast ensemble he abandoned an action intended to provide subtlety and nuance for much smaller forces. He adopted an action that was different in kind but which gave the player control over his battery of forces and helped give the freedom that allows musicality its instantaneous expression.

For years I proselytised in lectures, articles, masterclasses and BBC talks for a return to classical principles in general, and mechanical action in particular. I was delighted when the tide turned so dramatically and we began to acquire organs on which Couperin, Bach or Scheidt could be played so much more effectively. But certainly I did not envisage a mixture of incompatible concepts to pay lip service to an idea – the ‘moral argument’ again – as opposed to musical purpose. An organ made with a single controlling intent to serve the music sets a banquet of delights before us. It is sad when this is reduced to, well – marshmallow and lemon juice.

Gillian Weir's career as one of the world's foremost concert organists includes regular performances with major symphony orchestras and leading conductors. Her vast repertoire ranges from the pre-baroque to first performances of works by Peter Racine Fricker, William Mathias and Olivier Messiaen. Her achievements were recognised in 1989 by the award of the CBE. She is the first woman organist to have been so recognised.

The Organbuilder, Volume 10, June 1992
Contact Search About Links