Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode #273 of #Secrets of Organ Playing podcast. This question was sent by Paul. He writes:
Would you please rate the top 10 most popular organ toccatas in difficulty? Which is easiest? I'm sure everyone would love to know! Thank you for your blog.
My top 8 organ toccatas that I like are: 1. By Pachelbel D Major (from Toccata and Fugue) 2. BWV 912 3. By Thedore Dubois G Major 4. By Boellmann Suite Gothique 5. BWV 538 D minor Dorian 6. By Gigout in B Minor 7. By Widor 6th symphony 8. Bach's D minor BWV 565. Nine and ten I will leave to you as I'm sure there are many organ toccatas I don't know exist.
Would you please put these in order of difficulty?
Thank you for all you and your wife do.
So Ausra, these are all very famous pieces, right?
A: True. And we could expand this list--probably not to 10, but to a little bit more toccatas, because if we are talking about Bach, we definitely have to add the C Major Toccata, and the F Major Toccata, and E Major Toccata.
V: And then, he writes, d minor Dorian and d minor…
A: Yes, both d minors, yes. And then of course, we need to look at the other toccatas, such as Duruflé toccatas from the Suite.
A: What else would you like to add to this list?
V: He says that are toccata-like, but are not necessarily entitled like toccata. For example, Dieu Parmi Nous, by Messiaen, from La Nativité du Seigneur. What about Henri Mulet--Tu es Petrus?
A: Yes, this also...could be considered a toccata.
V: Of course, they’re really advanced, and probably belong to the ending of this list, too. But from the list that Paul wrote, probably Pachelbel would be suitable for starters.
A: What about Dubois, could be…?
V: Dubois is one of these ones from the French school. Dubois probably is easier even than the Böellmann, I think.
A: I think so, yes. I think so too, I agree.
V: But to me, Gigout is easier than Dorian Toccata.
A: I would say so.
V: Mhm. So maybe I would put Gigout as number 5, and then Dorian as number 6. Would you agree…?
A: Yes, I agree.
V: Of course Bach’s d minor Toccata shouldn’t come after Widor’s Toccata.
V: So maybe...maybe Bach’s d minor Toccata (BWV) 565 would go...Oh, this is with the Fugue, right? So it could go probably…
A: Well, if it’s with a fugue, then it’s much harder. But maybe we just talk about toccatas now, and not necessarily fugues.
V: Before Dorian, here, right? What do you mean?
A: Yes, probably d minor Toccata--the famous d minor Toccata by J. S. Bach--I think is a little bit easier than Dorian Toccata.
A: Because that Dorian Toccata has that motoric drive throughout the entire piece, and it might be difficult especially for a beginner to play.
V: This is an advanced-level piece.
V: Dieu Parmi Nous, by Messiaen, could go maybe...to number 9? Right, and Duruflé’s Toccata could go afterwards.
A: Oh, definitely. I think it’s probably the hardest toccata, or one of the hardest toccatas for organ.
V: Or one of the most. Depending on who’s playing.
A: True, true.
V: Henri Mulet’s “Tu es Petrus” maybe is on the same level, too--on a similar difficulty level. Of course there are toccatas written by Italian masters from Renaissance and early Baroque, but we don’t necessarily need to include them here.
V: And Muffat wrote a lot of Toccatas.
A: That’s right.
A: --That are organized for a church organist, because they are all sectional pieces, so you can finish them whenever you want. So they are very practical for a church service.
V: Although early music toccatas have virtuosic elements, they’re different from French style toccatas, right?
A: That’s right. Very different, very different.
V: In which way?
A: They are actually shorter--have not so many fast passages; and you could have also pieces like “Toccata per l’elevazione,” that are in a completely different character.
V: Very slow.
A: Very slow and meditative.
V: Why is it called Toccata then, if it’s nothing like Widor’s Toccata?
A: I think it’s because “toccata” in general means “to touch”--to touch the keyboard. So there are different ways how you can touch that keyboard.
V: Oh, Italians have 3 terms, right--like toccata, sonata, and cantata. So cantata comes from the word cantare--
V: Right, “sing.” So it’s a singing composition--vocal composition. And sonata comes from the word sonare, which means to sound. And to sound means to play an instrument, in general, right, as opposed to vocal music. But toccata simply means keyboard music composition.
A: Yes, because it comes from the Italian word tocare, which means to touch, and it applies to the keyboard compositions.
V: And in early music up until probably Romantic period, composers created toccatas in sectional ways, right? Free, strict, free, strict, free. By free I mean improvisatory passages where you would improvise on the keyboard instrument, trying out different keys and diminutions and scaler passages in both hands in alternate motion. I think then comes strict section after that. What is “strict”?
A: It usually uses some fugal elements, some imitations.
A: So that’s polyphonic technique.
V: It comes from ricercar.
A: That’s right, or canzona.
A: And if you would think about Buxtehude’s Praeludium, I think you could I think safely call them toccatas, too, because they have all those features that early toccatas have. Strict and free episodes alternating between themselves.
V: Right. And you could have 5 or even 7 episodes like that in stilus fantasticus: free, strict, free, strict, free--that would be 5; and if you add 2 more, you could have a 7-sectional praeludium or toccata, like Buxtehude did with 3 fugues.
A: That’s right. Then don’t you think that most of the final movements let’s say of Vierne’s symphonies could be called Toccatas, too?
V: Obviously, yes. Probably one of the more famous is Finale from the First Symphony; this is also an advanced composition, it should go to the end of the list.
A: But easier than Durufle’s toccata, yes?
V: Easier, yeah, yes. Umm, what about the Third Symphony?
A: That’s right, this also could be called Toccata. Although it’s called Finale, but...but you know, the character is toccata-like; it’s a fast, virtuosic, very effective piece.
V: In my mind, I think the main difference between toccata and finale is the number of themes the composer sometimes uses. In Finale, they use sonata-allegro form, and they need at least 2 themes for that.
A: But Vierne uses it; Widor not necessarily.
A: I think Widor’s forms are written a little bit different forms than Vierne’s. Vierne’s pieces are very classical, in terms of form.
A: And Widor is sort of a little bit more free.
V: Yeah, he experimented more with form, and his forms are less predictable. So it’s no surprise Widor titled his toccata as Toccata, but not as Finale, right, because it’s not in sonata-allegro form. Excellent. Anything else you want to add?
A: Well...We could discuss about toccatas, I think, till the night would come! It’s a very broad topic!
V: “Till the cows come home”!
V: Right? Thank you guys for listening, and enjoy playing those wonderful toccatas, we have some of the scores with fingering and pedaling for you to save a lot of hours and frustrations. And you can pick and choose from that; and as time goes by, we will be creating more scores for you, too. So stay tuned. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start Episode 237 of #AskVidasAndAusra Podcast. This question was sent by Jeremy, and he writes:
I’m trying to speed up the Toccata from the Suite Gothique by Leon Boellmann. I am planning on playing the entire work for church in two or three weeks: Chorale and Minuet for Prelude, Prayer for Offertory, and Toccata as Postlude. I've played the Prayer a couple times as preludes or offertories over the past year.
I've got the Toccata up to 100 to the quarter note. Any tips on speeding it up?
V: So, this is one of the most popular toccatas for organ, right Ausra?
A: It is! And probably one of the least complicated.
V: People who want to start paying French toccatas probably would need to practice this, first.
A: Yes, this is a good good piece for starters. So, how would you speed it up?
V: My classical method of learning the piece, or any type of organ composition, up to speed is this: At first, I learn the music, if I cannot do this all parts together, then I do parts separately and then do combinations of 2 lines, and then three parts all together. How does it sound so far?
A: Yes, it sounds good! The other thing that I’m thinking, is that because as was mentioned in the question, that there is not so much time left, actually. I don’t know if he will be able to push up the tempo a lot. But I’m thinking about the theme of this toccata, and for me, it seems that if he would compare various toccatas, this one is not as fast as some others, I would say. Definitely not as fast as, for example, Duruflé’s toccata from the suite.
V: Right. I remember playing this piece when I was a student in the early stages at the academy of music in Vilnius. So, I presume that Jeremy, by now, can play the piece with all parts together. And he writes that he can do that about 100 beats per minute. So that’s good. So, if you can do, let’s say slowly, but all parts together, then the next stage that I suggest is to start playing at the concert tempo, whatever it is in your opinion, maybe 120, maybe not too fast, I think 120 is probably maximum, I would suggest, for people who have not played for decades, and many many instruments before—with not too much experience.
V: So, play this piece in a concert tempo, but only a shortest fragment imaginable. Maybe one quarter note, one beat, at the concert tempo, and then stop. And then, you have to look and imagine what’s ahead one beat further. And then you prepare for that beat, and then play it also, very very fast. And then stop again at the next beat. And so you do, several times, the entire piece, but while stopping every beat. What do you think, Ausra?
A: Yes! This is exactly your method, how you work. Not exactly my method, but it could work, I think, very well.
V: What would you have suggested, Ausra?
A: As I always have taught, a hundred times, I would work in combinations, I would find the places where I would place accents, correctly, and definitely I would sing the melody in the bass. This would help me.
V: My method is for very patient people, right?
A: True. And I don’t have such patience.
V: Then, I would play a longer fragment—maybe two beats, and then stop. And then four beats, so basically one measure. Then two measures at a time. Then maybe an entire line, then two lines. Then one page, then two pages, then four pages, and then the entire piece, I believe.
A: True. I think that’s also nice if you don’t have access to the organ all the time. If you have access to the piano. For this particular Toccata, it’s nice to play the hand parts, manual part on the piano, and then really to sing that bass.
V: Hmm. Right.
A: It would work, I think, Nicely.
V: What’s the reason people cannot play fast.
A: Well, lack of, probably, muscle strength in the fingers.
V: Finger independence?
A: Finger independence, coordination problem between hand and feet. It could also be some inner problems, like being afraid of a fast tempo, too. Some people are afraid of fast tempos. So, it could also be a little bit psychological. Because a fast tempo, we often think that it’s something very hard, and I think that this thought gives us more of a struggle.
V: I see.
A: Don’t you think so?
V: Right. I agree with you, because speed is a very relative thing.
A: True. And also, I think if you would listen to YouTube recordings, in many of those, there is such a fast tempo, if we are talking about toccatas or some other virtuosic pieces. But not everybody has to play at the same tempo, because if you are technically very capable, then yes, play it very fast—as fast as you can. But if you are making mistakes, if you are not ready yet, then you would sound comic, and you will just make people laugh at you.
V: So, I think Jeremy can play 100 beats per minute in a stable tempo without making too many mistakes.
A: Because, you know, sometimes when an organist is not ready to play in as fast a tempo as he or she wants, and he or she tries to do it, it sounds comic.
A: So, you need to take such a tempo that you could still be able to control things.
V: Also, people who can’t play fast usually don’t practice much on the piano. Maybe I’m wrong, but it could be that Jeremy has an electronic organ at home.
A: Could be also. You know, electronic organ doesn’t help so much.
V: Unless they have some keyboard with resistance, Right?
V: Which is quite rare. A recent innovation, I think.
A: Because it’s hard to develop your finger muscles while playing electronic keyboard.
V: Remember our friend Paulus, who works in St. Joseph’s parish, here in Vilnius? He actually complains sometimes that he has to play an Allen digital organ.
A: Isn’t this Johannus?
V: Yeah, Johannus, Yeah. But still, digital and very easy to depress keys, and then he has to play sometimes on mechanical action organs like at Saint John’s church or the cathedral. And whenever he comes over, he is very much stressed out about the strength needed. Right? So a real organ with real resistance is, I think, a beautiful thing. So I think people should spend as much time as possible playing on real instruments plus piano, too, because it’s a real thing.
A: Yes. I agree.
V: And then their technique will develop much faster, and getting up to speed will not be that big of a problem. Yeah?
V: So, guys, please apply our tips in your practice. We certainly know they work for us, and we hope it will work for you, too. And please send more of your questions. We love helping you grow. This was Vidas,
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember. When you practice,
A: 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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