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More Organ Music from St. Gertrude’s

A French toccata that makes the organist’s fingers fly

by Rev. Anthony Cekada

Léon Boëllmann

ON THIS DAY after Christmas, we take a break from our usual theological commentary and offer you a little present in the form of some more church music.

Readers will recall that my post last month on the subject, Organ Music and Tradition at St. Gertrude the Great, featured a video of our young (14) organist playing J.S. Bach’s relentless and rather challenging “Gigue” Fugue in G Major.

Afterwards, I told him that he should try something in a completely different musical style, and gave him Léon Boëllmann’s Toccata from the Suite Gothique, a 19th-century French Romantic work. Unlike the sprightly and upbeat Bach work which merrily tosses its dance-like theme from one voice to another, the Boëllmann is dark and foreboding. It reminds me a bit of the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, and would be a good piece to play after Mass on a Sunday when the Gospel speaks of the Last Judgement.

Boëllmann died young in 1897 at the age of 35. He was somewhat of a prodigy and married the niece of another famous French organist and composer, Eugène Gigout. Boëllmann produced a small number of organ works, of which the Suite Gothique is the best known. The dark tone of the Toccata stands in stark contrast to the lilting Prayer to Our Lady which precedes it, and the suite’s second piece, the triumphant and joyous Menuet Gothique, which I played many times as wedding recessional.

A “toccata” is a fast-moving composition for the keyboard that requires a tremendous amount of dexterity, a light touch and speed. The most well known is undoubtedly Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (BWV 562), which in the popular mind is forever associated with the old movie Phantom of the Opera. But this piece is an early Bach work and somewhat easy to play, unlike his later D minor Toccata (the “Dorian”) which is a real knuckle buster. The Boëllmann toccata is technically more demanding than the earlier Bach work, and considered to be “of moderate difficulty but brilliant effect.” The organist is required to play a high-speed succession of arpeggios (broken chords) in the right hand and staccato (detached) chords in the left, both over the doom-laden bass theme in the pedals. (If you’ve had piano training, you should take a look at the score, which we’ve included as part of the titles.) The organist has to pull off several very fast switches between keyboards (if you think that’s easy, try it sometime!), vary the volume levels with the swell pedals, change stop combinations with the toe studs (these control several stops at once), and keep his feet moving to the correct bass notes on the pedal board. And you must keep the piece constantly moving at a somewhat unforgiving tempo, or the effect is lost. It’s what we used to jokingly call a “turn-around postlude” — a composition so striking that the people in church after Mass want to turn around to see who the organist is!

Well, just a month after I suggested to our young organist that he try the Boëllmann Toccata, he was ready to give it a go. Here is his performance after High Mass on December 15, 2013. Judge for yourself whether you’d turn around! Merry Christmas!