SOPP394: Would you please provide your ideas on how to identify a piece of organ literature by level of difficulty
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 394 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Don and he writes:
Would you please provide your ideas on how to "identify a piece of organ literature by level of difficulty" and provide actual titles of pieces so that we, as organists, can make choices on our own when we want to study a new piece of literature.
V: What do you think Ausra, do you think it is easy to identify levels of difficulty?
A: Well I think that’s a nice question. You could write a book about it because it’s sort of what Don wants that you would provide a list of pieces with level marks on them and it takes actually a lot of time.
V: Luckily we have American Guild of Organists (AGO) and if you go to their web site https://www.agohq.org and click on EDUCATION and then click on Educational Resources there you have interesting things. Basically these are lists of all organ compositions that for example Jehan Alain created, Johann Sebastian Bach, Guy Bovet, Maurice Durufle, and others but what I found very interesting is Graded Repertoire Documents and there you have of course not many but a few of them; Bach, Langlais, Messiaen, Rorem, and German music after Bach meaning romantic and classical composers too. For example if we click on Bach and you have this possibility to see a document created by Delbert Disselhorst, who was the professor of our professor Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra at Eastern Michigan University and there he has a list of most or all of Bach’s works arranged into four levels. So for example in level one you have Neumeister Chorales, of course Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, of course today it is thought that a student of Bach created these, not Bach himself, Pedal Exercitium, Pastorale, Alla Breve, Canzona, those are level one pieces. But of course they are not suitable for beginners, right Ausra?
V: Too difficult for beginners. Beginners can only play something like a minuet when both voices move very slowly. What do you think about the smallest rhythmical value in beginner level pieces.
A: I think it might be too hard for some people truly.
V: Quarter-note, occasional eighth notes but with Bach you already have sixteenth notes and we advise to start with something easier before Bach and less voices than normally four. Basically two voices is the best.
A: Yes but sometimes not the number of voices gives difficulty too because there might be some really demanding pieces even written in two voices for example duets for the third part of Clavierubung. I wouldn’t see these pieces for beginners even though they only have two voices.
V: Let’s see if they have those here in the list in which case they should be somewhere towards the end. Clavierubung III is in the fourth level, in the last level but he writes “Many of the manualiter settings may be studied earlier…”, right? So duets could be studied earlier but certainly not at the beginning.
A: Yes, but not number one.
V: So Don and others were wondering about grading their organ pieces should understand one thing that real composers created music not necessarily for pedagogical intent and even if they did in those days, 200 years ago, the pedagogical aspect was different than today. The master would write something to you and the student would play it no matter what and today the student would say “No, no, no, it’s too difficult” and the master would say “Oh you poor baby.”
A: That’s right, everything has changed.
V: So yes, for level one obviously we need two voices and very simple rhythms, then you can either add one more voice and still keep simple rhythms or you can do two voices but with more advanced rhythms like sixteenth notes.
A: True, but again three voices not always will mean the easy composition as we have example by J.S. Bach, his trio sonatas, they are one of the most demanding pieces in the organ repertoire and they have only three voices.
V: I would find this categorization quite helpful for example in terms of how many voices there are one, two, three, four, or more, we have five voices, sometimes even six in the organ repertoire.
A: Sure, double pedal.
V: Right. Imagine six levels and then in each level we could have sub-levels in terms of rhythmical difficulties. What’s the smallest rhythmical unit, most commonly used note. If you sometimes see sixteenth notes it doesn’t mean that the entire composition is moving in sixteenth notes, just occasionally but maybe the most common rhythmical value is in eighth notes so that would mean probably a second level with eighth notes and the first level would be with quarter notes for me.
A: But still you always need to look at the tempo, what tempo the piece is written in because sometimes you could have as small note values as thirty-second for example but it still might be not as hard as it looks on the paper when it is all black because the tempo might be really slow as happens in many ornamented chorales.
V: Right. All those things you have to keep in mind while selecting your new organ piece.
A: And of course look at the pedal part because it still for many people pedal gives most of the trouble.
V: Right. And to be considered level one probably pedal needs to move slower than the hands.
A: Sure, sure, probably in half notes.
V: Half notes, exactly not in quarter notes.
V: And in level two probably in quarter notes, and level three eighth notes and maybe triplets if that’s another disposition of rhythms and meters. So I guess you can get the idea of how to calculate the difficulty of the piece that you are about to study and your own level too.
A: And you also need to keep in mind the coordination problems too because for many beginners it’s easier to play on one manual and on the pedal than for example on two different manuals at the same time and the pedal. This also might make the piece more difficult or more easy or when you have to switch manuals a lot during the performance.
V: Then we didn’t mention the keys and the chromaticisms.
A: Sure because the more accidentals a piece has the harder it is to learn to read music.
V: The same piece in C Major would have lower level of difficulty than the same piece with four sharps for example. Umm-hmm. OK guys, we hope this was useful to you. Please send us your wonderful questions 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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