Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Conducting Hänsel und Gretel

When I was in Austria recently, I picked up Peter Planyavsky's rather disturbing book about his 35 years as organist of the Stephansdom in Vienna. The book is quite appropriately called Gerettet vom Stephansdom (Saved from St. Stephen's). You wonder how Planyavsky managed to spend such a long time in a outrageously difficult working place. The book is full of horror stories: lots of mediocrity, of course (and this is the big cathedral of the music capital of the world!), lots of utterly hypocritical priests (not all of them, thank God). That Planyavsky—who is one of the very best improvisers alive—was nevertheless able to bring lots of great music to the church is a miracle. Anyway, if you read German and you have some kind of connection with church music, by all means read the book.

I feel a bit of a connection with Planyavsky, and funnily enough, I've just retired from church music myself after some 35 years of professional involvement in it (though thank goodness I've not been a cathedral organist for 35 years). Like Planyavsky—he calls himself an agnostic—I don't feel particularly religious in the narrow sense of the word, and I've been increasingly aware that that made it impossible to function well as a church musician. Plany sees this differently: to him, agnosticism is not in the least an objection to being a good church musician: "You don't need to believe in witches to conduct Hänsel und Gretel," he writes with his wonderfully dry sense of humor.

"But one has to know what a fairy tale is, what a witch is, and what the story wants to bring across. Most of all, however, one needs to try and understand what went on in Humperdinck's mind as he set the text to music exactly the way he did."

I have thought about Plany's comparison for days and spoken to a number of people about it. My initial reaction was: "Of course, he's completely right." In fact, I thought, it would be a real problem for a Hänsel und Gretel conductor to believe in witches. I mean, how the heck are you going to conduct Hänsel und Gretel if you believe that witches actually exist?!

And so I mulled things over for a long time until, finally, I came to a different conclusion. Here's the problem: If I—and I confess to not believing in witches—were to conduct H & G, I surely don't have to deal with a stage director, singers, and an audience who—at least allegedly—all believe in witches. In fact, if after the show I met a five-year-old who was really scared of the witch in the opera, I would surely tell her that, look, witches don't exist for real, you know.

Now try working in a church, especially in America, and not believing in the virgin birth, the resurrection, water turning into wine and all that jazz in a literal sense. I once worked for a minister who objected to the song "We three kings of Orient are." "Look here," she said. "They were not kings, but magi, and it doesn't say there were three of them." So much for her analysis of one of the better stories in Christian mythology, but how was I ever going to tell her that, well, this was of course mythology? To another minister, with whom I thought I had a really good working relationship, I once mentioned a bestselling author of books on early Christianity He simply dismissed the whole author with a "We don't do that sort of thing." Huh? An advanced degree in theology and no interest in a middle-of-the-road scholarly book on what happened in the early church? I once had a choir member who went to a seminar at some church where the free-thinking presenter had had the chutzpah to suggest that the physical reality of the virgin birth was, perhaps, not so crucial to Christianity in today's world. "If that's not true," she said disdainfully, "the whole fundament of my belief is gone."

Now imagine the whole opera company plus the audience all believing—or telling themselves they're believing—in witches. "But you know, the conductor doesn't believe in witches!" "What?! He doesn't believe in witches?!" "No—he thinks it's all just a fairy tale!" "O my... But how can someone conduct H & G without believing in witches?!" "You're right—we had better get someone who believes in witches."

In dulci jubilo

The other day, a colleague asked me about a well-known Bach organ piece, the chorale prelude on the medieval German Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo" from the Orgel-Büchlein, BWV 608:

"What's the current interpretation of Bach's In dulci jubilo in canone all'ottava—the one with quarters in the left hand and 9/8 in the right (3/2 in the pedal)? Can I play the quarters in dotted rhythm, is that a cop-out, or is it considered stylistically correct? My mother played it the other way, and it's a nice challenge, but I'm thinking it's probably out of date."

The colleague asked a bunch of colleagues about this and I think the results will be published in the newsletter of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (of which I am, still, a member). But I thought I might put what I wrote here as well. (When playing the piece again the other day I was reminded of some tricky passages and I want to write something about fingerings some time soon—but for now, this is it.) So, here we go.

I don't know what the current interpretation is—that probably depends on the country one lives in, one's teacher, and one's religious views (in matters of performance practice, I mean). To me the question is, What is gained by playing two-against-three? In terms of actual hearing experience, not much, IMHO. In fact, I think a listener in 1715 would have been bewildered by the incomprehensible, "shaky" rhythm and by the de facto strangely arpeggiated chords. It is true that Bach's writing could be unconventional, but he was not an eighteenth-century kind of Stockhausen or Carter.

That two-against-three is hard to play may sound trivial in itself; the real point is not that it's difficult but absurdly difficult in the context of Bach's music (not to mention his contemporaries). In fact, it would make this piece rhythmically the hardest Bach organ piece by far—more so, than, say, the hypercomplex five-part Vater unser from Clavier-Übung III. Bearing in mind that the Orgel-Büchlein was intended (according to Bach's title page) for beginning organists, I simply don't buy that level of complexity. All in all, my best judgement is that it's best to adjust those evenly notated quarters to the triplet movement, taking Bach's hints in mm. 25, 26, 28, 30 (I am aware that one can also use this as evidence to the contrary).

The pedal cantus firmus, BTW, was surely intended to be played an octave lower using a 4-ft. stop; no organ would have had a high F-sharp in Bach's time—in fact, very few European organs do today. The facsimile I have in front of me is to small to see if there's any indication, but I personally think it's quite possible to play the extra tenor voice in the last two measures (dare I call it the quinta vox) in the pedal as well—of course with the same 4-ft. stop and therefore also an octave lower, obviously with the left foot (and yes, I think toe-toe-toe-toe will do fine). Remember that the piece—as almost all of Bach's organ music—was written on two, not three, staves; the separate staff for the pedal is largely a later invention. In any event, the double pedal ending feels very idiomatic to me.