#AskVidasAndAusra 66: How Mendelssohn’s sonatas have to be articulated and registered?
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 66 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And this question was sent by William. And he writes, “My question is I started working on the first sonata of Mendelssohn. How is it to be articulated. Detached or legato? The fast passages are very difficult to keep smooth at tempo. Also who has ideas on how to register this opening movement. I am working from score from 1920's. I think there has to be some thought on playing these great works of Mendelssohn!"
Hmm, interesting question! Have you played a few pieces by Mendelssohn, Ausra?
Ausra: Yes, I definitely have.
Vidas: Me too. So, I think we can talk about articulation first, and then about registration: general ideas about articulation, about registering Mendelssohn’s pieces; because remember, he wrote that preface.
Vidas: Great. So, articulation: Do you think that in the mid-19th century, when Mendelssohn created these pieces, articulate legato was already out of fashion, or…?
Ausra: I think it was getting definitely out of fashion, and I think that legato was the main way to articulate music--to play music.
Vidas: So, yeah, of course, in different places, you would discover some remnants of Baroque articulation, for sure, even in those places; because in even village organs, instruments would have mechanical action and Baroque specification--they would still be tuned in meantone sometimes, right?
Vidas: Meantone temperament. Remember, we recently heard Professor Pieter van Dijk from the Netherlands, play a piece by Romantic Dutch composer Jan Alber van Eycken--who was actually a student of Mendelssohn--
Vidas: --And sometimes he articulated this piece with articulate legato.
Ausra: Yes, that’s true, but still, you know, the main way to play it is legato. You use that “articulate legato” or you know, non legato only to emphasize the structure of a piece, when the score advises it.
Vidas: So...all the notes should be slurred, except in certain places, right?
Ausra: Yes, like repeated notes, of course you have to shorten them.
Vidas: And staccato notes?
Ausra: Yes. And ends of phrases, and the beginning of a new phrase, you have to take a break, to show the structure.
Vidas: Or unison voices, when one voice overlaps with another and makes a unison interval, like C in one voice and C in another voice; you have to shorten the previous note also, so that it would be possible to hear that two voices sounding and not one.
Vidas: And there is an exact amount of rest you have to make, right? In these cases?
Ausra: Yes. Usually you have to shorten it by half of its value.
Vidas: So if the note is an 8th note value, so you make it a 16th note, and 16th note rests.
Ausra: Yes. And it’s fairly hard, especially if you have, for example, more than one voice in one hand; and you have to keep one voice smoothly legato, and another voice detached; so that’s a challenge. You have to make sure you play with the right finger; and, of course, you have to use a lot of finger substitution. That’s the way to do it. It takes time. It’s a really hard thing to do.
Vidas: And then, if you have, for example, triple meter, when the notes don’t divide exactly in half--so then it’s kind of tricky, right? You have to calculate what’s the unit value--what’s the most common, fastest rhythmical value in this piece, right? Maybe 16th note, maybe 8th note if it’s a slower piece. So then, it means that you should make a rest between repeated notes, between staccato notes, with the exact rest that unit value has. In this case, 16th note, or 8th note. So that would be very precise articulation. And your playing would be much, much clearer, this way.
Vidas: So Ausra, now let’s talk about registration. Mendelssohn himself wrote the preface for the six sonatas, and he wrote registration suggestions, right? First of all, do you remember, those pieces should be played with 16’ in the pedal, or not?
Ausra: Yes, they have to have 16’...
Vidas: Always, except when composers notate differently, right?
Ausra: Yes, so always use 16’, except when, you know, it’s written in the score not to do it.
Vidas: Then, Mendelssohn gradually explains the dynamic signs: pianissimo, piano, mezzoforte, forte, and fortissimo, I believe.
Ausra: So basically five levels.
Vidas: Five levels, yes. You can add a couple more, like mezzopiano, if you want; but the general feeling would be the same. So, what is pianissimo? In Mendelssohn’s terms, it would be very very simple, right? Just the softest stop on the organ.
Ausra: Yes. Probably 8’ flute.
Vidas: Or a string.
Ausra: Or a string, yes. Strings became, I think, more and more common in those days.
Vidas: Then piano would be a couple of those soft stops, combined.
Vidas: Then he goes to mezzoforte, right? So...But we could talk about mezzopiano. Mezzopiano probably would mean, maybe, combined few soft stops but not only at the 8’ level but…
Ausra: At the 4’ level.
Vidas: At the 4’ level, too. What else? In mezzoforte, can you engage already some of the louder stops? Maybe principals...
Ausra: I think yes, you could try; it depends on your organ, but yes, you could definitely try.
Vidas: Forte for Mendelssohn means full organ without some of the loudest stops. Basically, this means without reeds?
Ausra: I would say so, yes.
Vidas: Without strong reeds.
Ausra: Because you already have to use mixtures, I guess, for forte; but not reeds.
Vidas: And fortissimo means simply, full organ with reeds.
Vidas: And with couplers, if you want to. So that’s the basic idea, how to register Mendelssohn; but not only Mendelssohn, right?
Ausra: Yes, you can do, I think, the same in Liszt pieces. Schumann probably.
Vidas: To some extent, Brahms.
Vidas: Maybe even Reger, right?
Vidas: Maybe even Reger. Although, Reger requires a special pedal, Walze they call it, like Rollschweller. It’s like a crescendo pedal, basically.
Vidas: You gradually add stops by moving this pedal. That’s a later idea than mechanical action organs that Mendelssohn and Liszt played, right? We talk about, basically, Ladegast organs which were built in the mid-19th century; and maybe, to some extent, the earliest Walker organs, too.
Vidas: Excellent. So guys, please try to adapt those ideas into your situation. Maybe your organ that you have available, it will be different, you have to make compromises; but the general idea will be the same.
Thanks guys, we hope this was useful to you. And please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow as an organist. And...this was Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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