Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wachet auf, and a YouTube update

Some while back, I posted a rant about Microsoft and the demise of Movie Maker, which made it easy to prepare MP4 files for YouTube. It turns out that in this instance, my steaming about the Evil Powers at Microsoft was unfounded. One can, with slightly more difficulty, get the job done with another Microsoft product: PowerPoint, at least in its 2016 version (which is what is on my computer). PowerPoint is not something I normally use, which may be part of why it has taken me two months for this idea to occur to me.

As a trial run, I prepared this YouTube clip of my piano improvisation from last Sunday. It is mostly based on the chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, which in turn is based on last Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (St. Matthew 25:1-13). Because we were to shortly sing another song based on the same story, I included it as well: “Give me oil in my lamp,” starting at about the 6 minute mark in the video.

As for the PowerPoint procedure, here it is – for, in defense of my slowness of mind, I did not find anything along these lines in a Net search for how to do this. Then again, maybe it is so obvious to everyone else that no one has felt it useful to explain it.

• Run PowerPoint.
• In the headings at the top, choose “Insert”
• From the ribbon below the headings, choose “Pictures” (or other things, such as photo albums, or further to the right, Video)
• At the right end of the ribbon, labeled “Media,” choose “Audio.”
• That gives a little drop-down with two items; choose “Audio on My PC” which opens a File Manager box where you can locate the audio file that you want.
• After some few minutes, one ends up with a PPTX file – that is, a PowerPoint presentation – with your chosen Audio file under the photo(s).
• It needs one more tweak: there is an audio control/volume icon in the middle of the picture, which you don’t want in the YouTube file. Right-click on the icon to select it, and choose “Send to Back.” This puts it behind your picture.
• Now you can save the file. Under the “File” heading, choose “Save As,” and in the box that pops up, find “Save as type.” It has a long drop-down list, which includes what we want: MPEG-4 Video (*.mp4). Choose this, give it a filename (which will appear at the beginning of the video) and hit “Save.”
• After another longish while, you now have an MP4 file, which can be uploaded to YouTube.

Despite finding a way to do it, I do not expect that I will often post to YouTube.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Declaration of Religious Principles

The following was formerly the Declaration of Religious Principles of the American Guild of Organists. The AGO no longer appears to adhere to any religious principles, though many of its members do. This statement is old-fashioned in its language, and perhaps its concepts, and I emphasize that it no longer reflects the “mind and intention” of the AGO in any official way.

I find that this document, at one time available from the AGO as a poster, is not available on the Internet. To remedy that and in hopes that it may be of encouragement to some, here it is:

Soli Deo Gloria
Declaration of Religious Principles

For the greater glory of God, and for the cause of worthy music in this land, we, being severally members of the American Guild of Organists, do declare our mind and intention in the things following:

We believe that the office of music in Divine Worship is a Sacred Oblation before the Most High.

We believe that they who are set as Choir Directors and as Organists in the House of God ought themselves to be people of devout conduct teaching the ways of earnestness to the Choirs committed to their charge.

We believe that the unity of purpose and fellowship of life between Clergy and Choirs should be everywhere established and maintained.

We believe that at all times and in all places it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to work and to pray for the advancement of Divine Worship in the holy gifts of strength and nobleness; to the end that God’s House may be purges of its blemishes, that the minds of all may be instructed, that the honor of that House may be guarded in our time and in the time to come.

Wherefore we do give ourselves with reverence and humility to these endeavors, offering up our works and our lives in the Name of Him, without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Amen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…

One of my Wednesday morning tasks is setting up the choir room for the afternoon’s Youth Choir rehearsal. It is my custom as I put each chair into place to pray for the young person who will sit there. Mostly, I “hold them to the light” as the Friends say.

On this day, I had an impression so strong and vivid that it might be a vision: two of these young people as Saints. Not just any saint: the big-time people, the sort who have their name on the calendar.

Most likely, it is no more than an overactive imagination on All Saints’ Day, after reading the Epistle for Matins (Hebrews 11:32—12:3), about people being stoned and sawn asunder, destitute, afflicted, tormented. Most of the paths that lead to that kind of sanctity are thoroughly unpleasant (as compared to what most people would consider a "good life"), not infrequently including a gruesome and horrible death. I do not wish this upon my young choristers, no more than Saint Mary wished a crucifixion for her Son (and that was her gruesome and horrible death, the sword piercing through her heart as she stood by him on that day when the sun refused to shine).

But I do wish for all of them to be saints, whatever that involves for them. “And I want to be one, too,” as the song says. On this blessed and high feast, my “vision” (or whatever it was) is a good reminder that it is possible. These two children, or some other child in the choir, or one of the adults I work with, may in the end be so glorious as to put the sun and moon to shame with their brightness. They might walk as equals with Francis and Clare, or Martin Luther, or Julian of Norwich, or Bonhoeffer, or J. S. Bach.

I used to think of the “cloud of witnesses” as the saints in glory, looking down upon us, praying for us, cheering us on as we struggle forward. And that is reason enough to “run with patience the race that is set before us.” That is true enough, but increasingly, I am aware that the witnesses are also these children in the choir, their parents, my wife, my friends, the people who hear me play or sing in my rehearsals, indeed all those with whom I come in contact. They, likewise, are reason enough to “run with patience.”

O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP p. 489)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A followup: "If you cannot preach like Peter..."

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say he died for all.
(from the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead”)
I hasten to add a corrective to yesterday’s essay about improvisation in the French manner. Namely:

Just start playing.
Improvise. Have fun with it.
Whatever your skill level, do it.

I was giving the impression (and, I must say, Dupré likewise gives the impression in his course) that if you have not devoted a thousand hours or so to high-speed scales in thirds and sixths in all keys, nor gained effortless fluency with instant arpeggiated harmonization of any note in any key, you shouldn’t attempt to improvise.

That impression is possibly the biggest obstacle to improvisation: like I wrote a couple of times in yesterday’s essay, “I will never ever play like that!” That is, of course, absolutely true. I (and presumably you, the reader) will never improvise like Mr. Latry, or Gerre Hancock, or Peter Planyevsky, or Paul Manz. Or Keith Jarrett, or Bill Evans, or Mike Garson.

Such thoughts must not stop me (and you) from playing. Here, now, with the knowledge and technical equipment that we have. Ultimately, such thoughts (or more precisely, the despair that arises from them) are the work of the Adversary. “You will never get it right. You might as well give up.” Such thoughts come to me at times, especially when I have played badly, or failed as a choral director in rehearsal (I did so this past Wednesday, when I got angry at one of the choral sections and was hurtful to these people, whom I love.)

The Adversary says “You must be perfect, or you are worthless.”
The Holy Paraclete says “You are a beloved child of God, and you shall be perfect, when I have completed My work.”

Someday I should write about the concept of “Words.” I got the idea from Mike Krzyzewski, who coaches a certain well-known collegiate basketball program, and (as he recommended) I developed my own list of Words. They are among the things on my Door, down below the pictures of composers.

The first three are the Cardinal Virtues, and I think of them a lot. They have been a light in the darkness ever since St. Paul wrote them:

Fides (Faith)
Spes (Hope)
Agape (Charity)

Fides gives us confidence that God has given us what we need – indeed, precisely what we need, no more and no less – to do what He desires of us in our place and time. No, I will never improvise like Olivier Latry. But he has to play at the Cathedral of Notre Dame; I don’t. And I think God may have given me some gifts (or trained me by experience, often unwillingly on my part, to where I can do what He wants done here) that Mr. Latry may lack, because he does not need them.

Spes teaches us that we can grow and learn. One day in fact, we shall be fully formed in the image of Christ. That includes being fully formed in the exercise of our musical gifts.

Agape reminds us that all of this is for the benefit of the people around us, our sisters and brothers. Without Agape, all of it is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Cantare amantis est.

Enough of this. Time to practice what I have been preaching.

Friday, October 27, 2017

An improvisation, and a way forward

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a concert by Olivier Latry, organist of Notre Dame de Paris, professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. My respect for him is very great; he is my “go-to” person for his recordings of the complete organ works of Messiaen. Here is one of his Messiaen tracks from YouTube, the final movement of the Livre du Saint-Sacrement. He played no Messiaen in last night’s concert, but there was plenty of other fine music, notably (in my opinion) his playing of Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain.

And an improvisation.

I did not time it, but my estimate is that it ran about twenty minutes. It was based on the chant “Dies irae” plus a cheerful triadic tune often played by the local university marching band, as well as polka bands everywhere:
In heaven there is no beer:
That’s why we drink it here.
The envelope containing the tunes was solemnly presented to Mr. Latry; after some difficulty opening it, he set the tunes on the music rack and played them for the audience. After a few moments, off he went, starting with the “In heaven” tune – dark, in minor, low in the tenor/bass register. That proved to be the main theme of the improvisation, complete with a fine large four-voice fugue before a concluding toccata passage. “Dies irae” was in a decidedly secondary role, though it was present as a dark undertone.

In conversation afterwards, my friend Jean and I wondered how he could do such a thing as this. Both of us have heard many improvisations after the French manner, and they often come across as somewhat formulaic. Latry’s piece on this night did not seem that way at all. It seemed more a creation of the moment rather than random tunes pasted into a form.

Some thoughts, and a way forward:

I admit to a twinge of discouragement as I drove home. I will never, ever play like that!

As I have written elsewhere, “Someone is always better. Don’t let that bother you.” That helped, as did the corollary: “Be the best that you can be.” That thought leads to the organ bench, and perhaps renewed intensity to my work on improvisation. At present I am overwhelmed with repertoire and anthem accompaniments to prepare for the next fortnight of services, but at least there are three piano improvisations in the music list to keep me working at the skill.

“Be the best that you can be” also leads me to think more seriously: How did he do that?

Upon a night’s sleep and consideration, I suggest some possibilities. The improvisation was in essence Theme and Variations; he may have had that form in mind before the evening began, at least as one of several possibilities. The key (though not the mode: lots of movement between major and minor, and probably other modes) was that of the two tunes, and I do not recall any significant modulations from the home key, not in the sense of a sonata-allegro form or even an ABA ternary form (staying in the home key is fully appropriate for Theme and Variations). That covers two of the major decisions the player must make.

There was plenty of variety in color and dynamics, plenty of rise and fall of energy level. At one point I noticed how my heart was racing, my palms sweating as he built to an intermediate climax on full organ, and I was grateful for being swept away by the music (as I was, beginning to end). [I will add that Keith Jarrett does this too, at the piano; it is one of the strengths of his long-form improvisations.]

There were elements that I recognized – the fugue, several passages of toccata figuration with the tune in double pedals, a couple of hymnlike variations in homophonic chords (like the one at the very beginning), some unison lines, one of them taking it down to the slow-speaking bottom note of the keyboard on a reed stop that he seemed to particularly like.

Aside from the unteachable genius of the thing, most of the rest was virtuosity of passagework in hands and feet.

That is why the second volume of Dupré’s improvisation course begins with a “Table of daily exercises at the piano” - pages of scales in thirds, sixths, octaves in all major and minor keys, as well as chromatically (adding fourths and tritones to the other intervals). Then arpeggiated chords – triads, seventh chords of all sorts. Discussion of pedal scales and exercises to attain an equal level of virtuosity with the feet. Dupré titles this first chapter: “The Piano, basis of technique at the Organ.”

My eyes glaze over and despair sets in. But at least I can “see in a glass darkly” how this could be done. Mr. Latry has most certainly done these things, and I would suspect that he continues to work at them regularly. I suspect, also, that he knows the two-volume Dupré course intimately as student, performer and teacher, for it has been the foundation of the French manner of improvisation for decades.

Dupré then turns to Harmony in chapter two. He begins with the observation that the player must have a spontaneous, immediate facility with harmonization, a knowledge of every possible chord that could harmonize each note of a melody [the jazzmen say this too, in their own way]. Pages of exercises follow: triads, chords of the seventh and ninth, modulations, “resolution of polytonal aggregations” (p. 23) – or as Mr. Hancock used to say, “Salvation is just a half-step away.” Again, in all major and minor keys, with the goal of the absolute and effortless harmonic control that someone like Mr. Latry demonstrates.

This is a long path.
But it is the path that, I suspect, has brought Mr. Latry to his present level of skill as an improviser.

Dupré eventually gets around to the treatment of Themes and their analysis as to how they can best be presented rhythmically, harmonically, etc. – and contrapuntally, with canon, imitation, ornamented chorale with contrapuntal accompaniment (e.g., after the manner of Bach), fugue. And then, forms: binary, ternary, symphonic forms, many others.

Some of the finest improvisers, after years of work, reach this level. These are the players that Jean and I have heard who play amazingly, and with great effect, but their work has a hint of the formulaic. They have mastered all of Dupré’s formulas.

Mr. Latry (and a handful of others: among the Frenchmen, I put Daniel Roth in this category, and certainly Messiaen when he was still with us) has gone beyond this. He has made all of this work so natural and automatic that he probably does not need to think about it at all. Like Keith Jarrett at the piano, he simply starts to play, with at most some general ideas as to form – which may, in the execution, turn in quite a different direction than it began.

Again: I will never, ever play like that!

[Edited to add: There is another side to this - see the next essay.]
[See also this, from Glenn Osborne's fine improvisation blog, as to his theory of "how do they do this?" -- deeper study of solfege, harmony and counterpoint in the French system than is typical in the American training of organists and other musicians.]

What brought me back down to earth this morning was my humble little clavichord. After Matins I opened it up and improvised for a while, simple four-bar phrases in G major. The clavichord by its nature works against any thoughts of virtuosic display. It rewards quiet, careful playing – at least for me at my elementary stage as a player of this instrument.

Mr. Latry’s improvisation and its ripples this morning have nonetheless brought me to a revelation. Dupré’s course has been on my shelf for decades, ever since Gerre Hancock named it in a workshop as essential – this was in my first years as an organist, when I was self-taught and working toward my Associate certificate (AAGO), before graduate school. Hancock’s own book on improvisation is probably a better starting place now, but he had not then written it.

Back then, I spent much time on the first, “preparatory” volume of Dupré. This work was what got me through the improvisation requirement for the AAGO (barely, with the minimal passing grade). The second volume frightened me so thoroughly that I have hardly touched it. Not least, it is in French; I do not think that it is available in translation. But as Hancock said all those years ago, “Don’t let that put you off. It is easy French.” And it is, most of it musical terminology.

Paging through the book this morning, all of a sudden, without realizing how I have gotten here, I see that I am ready for it.

I will likely never get far up the path – there are too many weeks when there are other more pressing demands on my practice time. I may never get past the first chapter with all its forbidding pages of exercises in thirds and sixths and arpeggios of every sort. But I think that I must take care not to get stuck there. I think that after some work on these things, I could profit much from the rest of the book.

Jesu, juva.

A YouTube search for “Olivier Latry improvisation” brings many results. Here is one that has not so many views as most of them. I chose this because it shows him at work with something a lot more important than a polka song and a showpiece improvisation in the middle of the U.S. – an improvisation, a defiant statement if you will, for the memorial Mass at Notre Dame for the victims of the three coordinated suicide bombings of November 13, 2015, which killed 128 persons in Paris.

This is why one studies improvisation, or for that matter any kind of music: to have the tools for when it becomes your duty to make a musical statement where no words suffice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bach and Stability of Life

In a conversation with a priest about why Rite One (the traditional Anglican language of prayer) has virtually disappeared, she explained that the theology of the Episcopal Church has moved so far from the Rite One texts that it is no longer appropriate to use them.

Not the language, not the “thees” and “thous” and all the rest: the theology. I believe that she is right as to why Rite One is in disfavor with Episcopal clergy. It is more a matter of the Prayer of Humble Access (BCP p. 337):
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Or the Post-Communion Prayer (BCP p. 339), one of the most magnificent paragraphs in the English language:
Almighty and everlasting God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
I expect that I shall never hear either of these passages again in public worship. Thoroughly Modern Episcopalians do not believe these things.

But I do.

It is a very different church from the one I entered by means of the laying on of hands in the Sacrament of Confirmation in the 1980’s. Back then, the liturgy, the theology (e.g., Richard Hooker), and especially the language of liturgy were compelling reasons to be Episcopal. No longer. If it were not for the music, I would see no reason to remain.

Following a suggestion from Daniel Coyle’s “Talent Code,” I have a “wall” (in my case, a “door”) bearing photos and paintings of musicians whom I humbly seek to emulate (“we feebly struggle, they in glory shine”): Keith Jarrett. Anton Bruckner. Joseph Haydn (I added him this week, for reasons I may describe someday).

And at the top, J. S. Bach.

A non-musician visited my office recently. He commented “All the musicians revere Bach. I don’t understand it.” I tried to explain, failing miserably; the only way to communicate his importance is by playing or singing his music. I am reminded every time I play his music that I must be serious about my work, and do it more diligently. I must always commit all of it to the Lord Christ who helps us, and to the great glory of God. “S.D.G.” he would write on his scores: Soli Deo Gloria.

Because of his picture on my door, Bach had a surprise for me after my conversation with the priest about Rite One: a lesson in Stability of Life.

By the 1730’s and 40’s, the Lutheran Church was not the one into which he was baptized back there in Eisenach in 1685, just downhill from the Wartburg Castle where Luther had translated the Holy Scriptures. The clergy with whom Bach served in Leipzig were full of Enlightenment ideas, totally foreign to Bach’s solid Lutheran orthodoxy.

And he stayed at his post.

He wrote things like the St. Matthew Passion, when there was no one who either desired or expected such a thing. And motets, and cantatas. And the Third Part of the Clavierübung, framing his musical exposition of the Lutheran Catechism with the E flat prelude and fugue. And the Canonic Variations on Luther’s Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel hoch.”

Forgotten now, because the musical scores remain and the people have come and gone, but he taught several generations of choristers and surely influenced them. Just as surely, he must have been a light in the darkness for those in Leipzig who shared Bach’s dismay at the confusing new ideas, so bereft of spiritual substance. He remains a light in our darkness; how can one play or sing his music without believing? At least for a moment, at least as long as the music lasts.

It would be unimaginable for Old Bach to be anything other than a Lutheran. He is the very essence of Lutheranism.

Would that I were such a saint. From now on, when I look at his picture on my door, I will hear him say something I heard recently as a word of prophecy from another source:

“You still have work to do.”

Jesu, juva.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Clavichord

Most people who visit my office at the church think that I have a work table to the left of the computer. Few people know that it is a clavichord.

I built it from a kit which was sold by the Burton Harpsichord company, which I think no longer exists. This was in the late 1970’s, when I lived in my grandfather’s old farm house and for the only time in my life had a fine large workshop. I thought that I would be there for the remainder of this mortal life, and that the clavichord would be a fine addition to the old upright piano that was my other instrument. The kit cost around $200 as I recall, which was a huge sum for me in those days.

I have never played the clavichord as much as I would have liked, partly because I did not stay in that house long. When I left a few years later to go to the Choir College, I packed it into a crate and put it in storage, for I was headed for a dormitory room. After that, I worked in the Caribbean, and left the clavichord and my furniture and most of my books in the storage warehouse until I could get properly settled. It was good that I did, for my path soon took me to Tennessee. At that point, many years after going into storage, I set up the instrument in our basement at home.

I played it some, but we lived across the street from my church, so it was generally more productive to go over there and practice on the piano and organ. It had suffered from its years in storage; the frame warped somewhat (which I gather is common for the instrument), causing the soundboard to develop a large crack, decreasing its already small resonance.

Two moves later, it landed in its current location, even worse in condition from its travels. I soon piled it high with things to be done, most notably the five boxes of single-copy anthem octavos left by my predecessor. It has taken me seventeen years to work through them and finally clear the top of the instrument.

I did play it occasionally, an undertaking that required moving the boxes and piles of music from the clavichord lid to the floor. That was enough resistance to make my playing very occasional, indeed. Sometimes years would pass without the lid being opened.

As mentioned, I finally dealt with the thousands of octavos, quite a few of them finding a home in my own octavo file on the shelves. But there was still resistance to playing the instrument. There was a broken string. Many of the notes did not play properly. It was badly out of tune. I put it on my task list, but I could not justify a high priority; it was a “someday/maybe” task, labeled “low priority” to make it even less likely to be done.

Today, out of the blue, I had the right energy to deal with it. I repaired the string. I adjusted the tangents (see below) so that all of the notes played properly. I tuned it – to B flat equals 440, a half-step low, to protect its forty-year old brass strings from breaking. All told, it was the work of about two hours, a task of such small size that I should have done it years ago – as I should have finished dealing with all the music on top of it.

What, you may ask, is a “tangent”?

The clavichord is not the oldest of keyboard instruments – that honor goes to the pipe organ – but it is the simplest. The keys are simple levers. Towards the back of each key, there is a short piece of brass rod, filed to a dull knife-edge at top – this is the tangent. When the key is pressed, the back end rises and the knife-edged top of the tangent contacts the string, which vibrates and makes a soft sound. When the key is released, the sound stops. That is it. No complicated mechanism as there is for the modern piano, or even the harpsichord – and the organ most of all!

Many of the tangents were out of adjustment because of the case warpage – their relationship to the strings above them was not quite the same as it had been when I built it. When the tangent rose to the string, the string would slip off the front or back of the tangent, or in the worst cases, the tangent would miss the string altogether. The fix is simple: remove the key, bend the tangent (holding it with two pairs of pliers so as not to split the wooden key), put it back in, try it and see if it works properly. If not, repeat until it does.

It is not difficult at all, though it does take some patience.

The result: I think it sounds pretty good. Obviously it would sound better were I to disassemble the whole thing, true up the case framework so it is square, replace the soundboard, and restring it with new wire. Perhaps in my retirement; certainly not before.

I could learn much from playing the clavichord. It demands (and, I suspect, teaches) a most gentle and even touch. The slightest movement of a finger produces a sound, and the slightest difference in pressure from one note to the next is noticeable in the sound. It teaches careful listening to the shaping of phrases, to balance between multiple notes in a chord, or contrapuntal lines.

In a way, I have not been ready to attempt the instrument until now; I needed to make a beginning with improvisation first, for the clavichord is a magnificent instrument for the improvisatory art, perhaps the best of all.

We shall see where this leads. I have made a note in my task management system to improvise at the clavichord at least twice a week – perhaps by candlelight on Wednesday and Sunday nights when my other work is done. I think that this might be the best setting for it.

Here is a YouTube demonstration of a Clavichord by Han Ding, a playing of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations on his modern instrument. I chose it over the other YouTube clips that came up in a quick search because it gives a more realistic impression of the volume – that is, very soft.

My instrument is not so handsome as the one in the clip, but is similar in layout. It is most decidedly inferior in every way to the instrument in the next clip, a playing of the same piece on an historic instrument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a good example of how a clavichord can look – notice that the inside of the lid is a fine oil painting; this was not uncommon in the old days. But for the recording, the instrument is miked very close and loud; you can get a sense of this from how loud the action noise is, such as when he lifts his hands from the keys at the end. It does not give as good of an impression of what it actually sounds like as the previous clip.

Keith Jarrett did an LP recording of improvisations on the clavichord: “The Book of Ways.” I do not think it is his best work (and like most of the clavichord recordings on the Net, it is mastered far too loud!), but I should continue to listen to it for guidance. Some of the LP tracks are on YouTube; here is one that I like.

This sort of playing is what I would like to do with the clavichord. I doubt that I will ever advance sufficiently to play Bach effectively on it, but improvisation at a sufficient level to please myself might be possible. I think that this work may help my playing of the piano and organ and my general musicianship. It may prove worthwhile for its own sake.

Friday, September 15, 2017

James Chisholm, Priest

Fr. Chisholm departed this life on September 15, 1855 and is commemorated today on the current Episcopal Calendar. Until this morning, he was unknown to me, just a name on the calendar.

You may read about him here. Or (mostly) in his own words at considerably more length (200-plus pages) here, in his memoirs.

Chisholm was from Old Virginia, where he served St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, down in the flat Tidewater region of the state, a graduate of the Virginia Theological Seminary. By the accounts that we have, he was not an impressive person: bashful, delicate of constitution, weak.

When the yellow fever came to that part of Virginia in the summer of 1855, most of the clergy and physicians fled, along with the rich planters. But Fr. Chisholm stayed, alongside the Roman Catholic priest, Francis Devlin. The two of them did their best to care for the sick people, all of them poor, many of them Irish immigrants and black slaves, finding food for them, even digging their graves at times. About a quarter of the original population of Portsmouth died by the time it was over, above three thousand persons. That number included Fr. Chisholm, worn out from his work and not quite forty years old.

I have spent a while skimming parts of his daily journal during the fever; near the beginning, as it became clear what was happening and everyone who could fled the town, he wrote “Such a day of mortal panic and flight as today has been, I desire never to see again” (p. 100). It proved to be the last day that anyone was allowed in or out of the town. About this point he abandoned the journal; what remains after that is personal letters. In one of them, he writes:
My present condition surprises myself. I trust that I more than ever realize that ‘Eternal God is my refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ I am in His hands, to do with me what seemeth Him good. (p. 133)
What is most striking to me is that his work is not that of general benevolence, of the somewhat anonymous care for the sick and needy one finds after natural disasters, as important as that is. It is the care of people he knows well by name, children whom he baptized as infants, members of his parish, with “parish” defined in its proper state-church sense to include everyone living in the community, churchgoers or not, including the Roman Catholics. It is especially the suffering and death of the children than is grievous to him, as it would be to any pastor.

It is also striking that it never seems to have occurred to him that leaving his parish was a possibility. Never mind the other clergy doing exactly that; the idea of walking away from his people when they were in need was unthinkable. There is no hint that he felt at all courageous or special for staying in place.
The condition of our town is awful beyond conception. The eye must see; the ear must hear; the fancy can not furnish the deep, dark shadows of the picture. On Sunday, thirty-two deaths in Portsmouth; on Monday, twenty-one; yesterday, thirteen; today, by eleven o’clock, seventeen. The heartless language of the undertaker from whom I obtained this morning’s report, was, almost in a tone of exultation: “Oh! We’ll get it up to twenty before sunset!” (p. 132)
In February of that year, his wife had died, leaving him with two young boys. At the beginning of the pestilence, he had sent them away to stay with his brother, hoping for their safety. It was not to be: September 5 was the darkest of days for Chisholm. In short order that morning he received a letter from his brother with the news that one of the boys was dead. He began writing a letter in response, called away before he could finish to officiate at the burial of a young girl from his parish. While pronouncing the Committal by the open grave of the little girl, he was seized with the sudden chill that was the first sign of the disease. For some people, it proves to be a minor infection, over within a few days. For others, it enters a toxic phase as it did for Chisholm and so many of his parishioners; high fever, bleeding from mouth, eyes and nose, black vomit, severe dehydration, liver failure and jaundice (thus the “yellow” – the Spanish name is Vómito negro, “black vomit.")

In a final letter to his brother, he wrote (p. 145):
I look back upon my past life with sorrow and shame, when I remember how unworthily and unfaithfully it has been spent… my convictions, and emotions, and hopes, in approaching Him, as my refuge against the accusations of conscience, and the fear of death and judgement, find expression in the words of that hymn whose first and final stanzas are these:

‘Just as I am! Without one plea,
Save that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God! I come.

Just as I am! Thy love unknown,
Has broken every barrier down:
Now to be thine, and thine alone,
O Lamb of God! I come.’

Collect from the Common of Saints: Of a Pastor
O heavenly Father, Shepherd of thy people, we give thee thanks for thy servant James Chisholm, who was faithful in the care and nurture of thy flock, even unto death; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by thy grace grow into the stature of the fullness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP p. 196)
I have long revered Constance and her Companions, whose feast day was this past Saturday, September 9. Like Chisholm, they cared for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic, theirs in Memphis, Tennessee (1878). And like Chisholm, they died from the disease.

I do not know it as a fact, but I would suspect that Constance knew of Chisholm’s example. It may be that it strengthened her.

It may be that their examples may strengthen us.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Finish then thy new creation

“Play softly,” they told me. “Quiet background music,” while people prayed. Some for healing, back in the side chapel where a line of people formed; a dozen or so at the baptismal font with the priest, renewing their commitment to Christ. Some, sitting in the church, listening, praying. Many in other parts of the building and outdoors; one-on-one prayer with the bishop, walking a labyrinth, mindful coloring, writing of prayers.

For twenty minutes I was to play. Or twenty-five. Or more. However long it took. I was terrified. I could easily play random soft chords in a new-ageish manner and fill the time. But could I do better than that?

I came to view it as an examination. I have improvised preludes and postludes all summer and devoted all of my practice, such as it was, to this skill; have I made any progress? Sometimes it has gone well this summer; sometimes not so much. Could I now attempt a long-form improvisation in the manner of Mr. Jarrett? Obviously I will never have his virtuosity, but could I do something that would be worthy of the occasion, perhaps a channel of healing and prayer?

Well, I gave it a try. I played variations on Hyfrydol, which was to be the closing hymn a bit later in the service. With that much time, I could go pretty far afield. I consciously tried to avoid any clear statement of the tune, and kept it in minor for much of the piece. I sought to extract motives and work with them.

Always, there was the liturgical constraint: “Quiet background music.” That removed dynamics as a possibility for contrast and development and I had to rein in the ideas several times when they wanted to grow larger than would have been appropriate. The constraint mostly ruled out “fast” as well as “loud.”

I made a recording, but I am not going to post all of it; there is too much noise. That was a clue that I got it right; for most of the first fifteen minutes, the priest speaking quietly with people at the other end of the room from the microphone is louder than my playing. This is a good sign.

There was some good playing in it, and some that was not so good; if it were indeed an examination, I would give myself a C-plus and be content that it was not an F. [Edited 9/13 to add: I listened to the recording two more times; it was not so bad as I thought as I played, nor on first listening. Maybe a B instead of C plus.] (I am grateful to one of the jazzmen who used to work in our choir room, a saxophonist. He told a student: “Any improvisation where you don’t feel like you need to put a bag over your head and sneak out the back door is a success.” He is right about that.) The best part was not me: one of my tasks was to set up the key for the Skipperlings to sing “Long time traveler” after me. That is worth hearing, so I am posting the last eight minutes or so of the improvisation followed by their song. The selection starts softly, just before my return to the improvisation’s tonic of C after a long excursion to G flat and B, but it builds up (finally!) after the bishop returns, my cue that it is time to wrap things up.

And here is the closing hymn, on which the improvisation was based. My intent was for the violinist to play on the final stanza, doubling the descant; instead, he played for all three stanzas. That made the middle stanza, unaccompanied except for the violin, much better than what I had anticipated.

- The summer’s work was not entirely wasted, but there is much still to do. I am unable to convincingly organize twenty-five minutes of improvisation so that it sounds like a unified musical composition. Not for the first time, I am filled with admiration for how Mr. Jarrett can do this so well. The way to get there would be to do many more “practice runs,” with close attention to form. This is not directly useful for my proper duties, so it is unlikely to happen. I am still listening to his four-CD recording “A multitude of angels” and seeking to internalize it.
- There were a few weeks this summer where my organ improvisation was better than my work at the piano; I have posted a couple of these on SoundCloud. This was a goal, and I am happy to have reached it, even if the way I did so was with lame piano playing on said Sundays.
- I survived despair. There was a week when I became convinced that my improvisations were driving people away, keeping them from entering the church from the narthex until my noise-making was done. By “what some would call chance,” that very week I happened on one of Pressfield’s books: “Do the Work,” the sequel to his important book “The War of Art.” I must say that “Do the Work” is not as good of a book, and something of a waste of money – it is short, and mostly repeats material from “War of Art.” But some of the material unique to this book was exactly what I needed to drag me out of the Slough of Despond.
- Possibly the chief benefit of the summer’s work was to my accompaniment of congregational song. Devoting more of my practice time to what I call the “Thelonious Monk method” (play the tune at the organ continuously for an extended period, forty-five minutes or an hour) made me more adventuresome when it came time to sing the hymn on Sunday, and in some cases perhaps more effective.

Now it is back to repertoire and anthem accompaniments. There is much to be done there, too. In fact, this very day I received what I view as a word from the Lord: a trustworthy friend told me that during the service I have been describing, she heard it as a voice: “(my name) has more work to do here.”

I wrote that down and attached it to my door, alongside the pictures of Bach, Bruckner, and Keith Jarrett.
Finish then thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
(Charles Wesley)

Windows Movie Maker: a Rant

I have a more useful essay to post (perhaps tonight, or in the next few days), but first a Rant.

Not so long ago, Microsoft had a useful program called Windows Movie Maker. I used it for all of my YouTube uploads; so did hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other people. It was easy to use, and worked fine.

Microsoft has pulled the plug on it. Their current operating system, Windows 10 (which I am using, unwillingly) does not include it, or any equivalent. Win10 has their version of a digital assistant, Cortana, and supposedly you can say “Hey, Cortana!” and get answers to any question. I have found “her” not so useful in general (Wikipedia is a much better starting place), but often fairly useful for specific Windows-related questions.

But not this one. Many people have asked what to do for a Movie Maker equivalent, and the official Microsoft forums carefully dodge the question. There are a number of “apps” available, but a search for one today led me down a two-hour rathole. I installed EZVid, which some sources consider the top choice. But it will not accept audio in WAV form; it accepts only MP3. All of my tracks are WAV. That led to a search for a WAV to MP3 converter. There are many of those; the free ones all seem to install helpful little toolbars and advertisements. Charming.

I gave up. For the tracks that I wanted to upload to support my essay-in-progress, I will use SoundCloud, which does support WAV files. But I am soon going to bump into their size limit for free accounts, and I do not want to commit to a monthly subscription for the rest of my life.

Clearly, the Powers That Be at Microsoft do not want people to do what I do: create music – mind you, not pirated tracks by others; my own creative work – and post it on the Internet to share freely with others.

I gather that this task would be simple and free on Apple products.