Magazine article Musical Times

Pedal Power

Magazine article Musical Times

Pedal Power

Article excerpt

Pedal power


The Cambridge companion to the organ Edited by Nicholas Thistlethwaite & Geoffrey Webber Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1998); xiv, 340pp; L37.50 / L13.95 pbk. ISBN 0 521 57309 2 / 0 521 57584 2.

In spite of recent surges of interest, no instrument suffers more misrepresentation in the musical world at large than the organ, and the perspectives offered by this authoritative new compendium are sorely needed. Not only should it dispel much of the backlog of misunderstanding, but it will ensure that the younger generation starts out with a much better view of this vast subject. The book has three sections, dealing with the instrument itself, the player, and the major areas of repertory. Most of the 17 contributors are renowned experts in their particular fields, and almost all of them succeed in encapsulating, in a mere dozen pages or so, the essentials of their very considerable specialist experience. In fact, the demand for brevity has not been a drawback, but has often engendered creative and perceptive summarisation. Deft editing has ensured a fair consensus of literary style; the result is never less than readable, and sometimes positively compelling.

The first section starts with an excellent overview of the organ's ethos and evolution. Stephen Bicknell then explains clearly the workings of its mechanism (though more comment on the implications of slider chests might have been welcome); whilst John Mainstone tackles the question of sound production in pipes. This was the only chapter that came near to being a turnoff for me, but it is worth persevering, since useful information emerges from its scientific angle. Christopher Kent's lucid account of temperament and pitch should be required reading for everyone who plays music from before 1800, even if the obvious is nowhere stated - that the more sustaining power an instrument possesses, the more crucial the issue of temperament becomes. Organ cases are an important topic, and many fascinating architectural concepts emerge: the gothic organ-case representing a turreted city (perhaps even the City of God?), the Italian case a Roman triumphal arch, and so on. The lack of integrity in later developments - screens of nonfunctional pipes, 'open' and caseless layouts, the divorce of console and pipework - are trenchantly spelt out, and recur briefly in Bicknell's summary of present-day organ-building trends.

Two of the chapters in the next section are absolutely outstanding: Kimberley Marshall's penetrating exposition of the fundamentals of touch and articulation in organ-playing, and Edward Higginbottom's account of the interdependence of organ music and the liturgy. These could hardly be bettered, and should be required reading for all students of any age. Higginbottom is too tactful to rub it in, but the reader is made amply aware of how recent liturgical trends have cut us off from the roots of our organ culture. Marshall's survey of the vast tracts of historical performance practice struck me as a less satisfactory chapter, though she realistically acknowledges its patchiness. She is best on ornamentation and the French classical school; less helpful (though lengthy) on 16th-century Spanish and Italian fingering. Her aim was probably to let the principles of historical performance emerge from such details, but most students need them more explicitly set forth, and the attendant problems should at least be mentioned. …

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