Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Visit From An Organist

Last night a friend came to visit - he is the organist at the cathedral of a certain midwestern diocese. He comes east once a year or so to see his parents who still live where they did when we were both in high school - back when he was playing the pipe organ and I built one (a story for another posting!)

As usual we had a lot of laughs, and a number of things to catch up on. One of the things I mentioned was a recent web datum reporting how someone had... well, in order to understand the story, I will have to give you some background first.

Back in the long ago days, my organist friend would play a certain rather modern and very mysterious piece called "The Celestial Banquet" by a French organ composer named Olivier Messiaen, who was then living but has since gone on - please God - to the celestial banquet.

Ah, French organs, French organ music... Here, the name Aristide Cavaillé-Coll looms vast in our history... And, as any organ music person will know, there is a extremely awesome piece which is popularly called "THE WIDOR" and is actually the Tocatta - the 5th movement - from Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony. It has 75 measures each with thirty-two 16th notes in arpeggiating chords, totalling 2400 notes (not counting the final chords), and of course is just a fantastic piece, as is the whole Fifth Symphony - and the rest of Widor... And it was things like this which tended to make a young organ-techhie more interested in French organ music.

Then as this organ-tecchie also became a computer-tecchie - so nice that both use the powers of two! - there was an added excitement when my organist friend told me that Messiaen had invented something called "Communicable Language" - a system which mapped all the letters of the alphabet into musical notes. Of course everyone knows we start with C, D, E, F, G, A, B... and that brings us back to Do! Some more Baroque (or German) individuals will know that B is not really B, but B-flat, since the B-natural is written H. (It is this which gave Bach his little chromatic theme, hee hee. Try it and see: B-flat, A, C, B-natural, all next to each other...)

But! Because "Communicable Language" covered the WHOLE alphabet, one could convert other words into music (not just BACH or CAGE or FACE...) And this is what Olivier did. Even more surprising, he very often used liturgical or biblical phrases, and built his works upon them.

OK, so now you know (in a rough, vague fashion) some of the knowledge which my friend and I had in common regarding this organist Messiaen.

So, as I started to say, one of the things I mentioned was a recent web datum reporting how someone had been led to CONVERT to Catholicism through the music of Messiaen - my friend had not heard about this, and of course I was not able to recall anything else about it, nor even where it was that I had read this.

But today, a little research found it, and herewith I include the link for your consideration.


At 25 July, 2005 16:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. T- The baroque considers B-natural "H"... and what we call B-flat is their B-natural?

Is that correct?

At 26 July, 2005 07:44, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Yes - I think this is considered the "German" notation, actually.

At 26 July, 2005 12:31, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Here is the reference:

B The seventh note in the scale of C. It is called Si in France and Italy, and H in Germany. The Germans use the letter B to designate B-flat. As the flat came from the letter B the Germans still call flats "B's."
-- Elson's Music Dictionary 28

The reason why is very interesting and I will explain it in another post - here I will just mention that it is connected with Gregorian Chant!


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