The final recording of an organ recital can only imply the hours of experimentation that go into finding exactly the right sounds for each piece. Mr. Fox's rehearsals consist mostly of pulling out stop-knobs, listening intently to the sounds they make, rejecting some, trying others, and always thinking ahead ten or twenty measures to the ultimate conclusion of each choice. The process resembles a chess game. But a chessboard has only thirty-two pieces, and the organ of the Riverside Church has 182 ranks and is the largest musical instrument in New York City. Even for its master, it is a formidable opponent.
An organ is the ultimate in stereophonic high-fidelity. Its pipes can sound from the front, the back, the right, the left, and from above and below the floor. The artist and the engineer must work together to contrast the sounds artistically as well as acoustically.
In the PRELUDE AND FUGUE IN D, one of Bach's showpieces, brief snatches of dialogue between the reeds and diapason chorus in the prelude foreshadow the brilliant variations of registration for the fugue, in which Mr. Fox blends the ensembles of the choir-positiv and great organs to the left with the swell organ to the right. Short statements and echoes sally hack and forth with ingenious variety until, with the pedal organ, the final statement is madeand answered.
Although the TRIO SONATA NO. VI calls for no more than three notes to sound at any one time, it is one of the most difficult pieces of music known to man. One almost needs three brains to play each voice as if it were completely independent.
Mr. Fox used to teach his students to swing around on the pelvis while practicing the fast movements of this piece. Concentrating on something unrelated to one's hands or feet somehow enables the sub-conscious to respond to three different musical demands at once.
Until Bach's generation, the musician's thumb was considered an "ungainly stump," and Bach was one of the first musicians to advocate its use during the performance of keyboard music. Virgil Fox, too, has broken outmoded conventions in order to perform music more effectively. If you listen carefully, you will hear four different groups of sounds playing simultaneously in certain parts of the FANTASY AND FUGUE IN C MINOR. Mr. Fox has only two hands with which to play three manual keyboards. He therefore plays the extra keyboard with one thumb.
There are organistsand criticswho are only satisfied with a faithful reproduction of old sounds and old techniques. But the worship of the past can be fatal for a serious performing artist. Bach never used some of the sounds heard on this recordbut only because he didn't have them. No one who knows of Bach's great vitality of spirit can say that Bach would refuse to bring the full resources of the modern organ into the service of music.
When one listens to Bach's setting for the Lutheran chorale ALL MEN ARE MORTAL, one recognizes the belief that death serves to reunite us with God. For a moment, art and religion are one in the chorale's motifwhich Mr. Fox has cradled in delicate flute stops. Dr. Schweitzer calls it "a motif of transfigured bliss." And the organ is the only instrument that can fully express this sensitivity of religious feeling.
Although, in the hands of a master, the organ can ebb and flow with the subtlety of a violin, it is still the most mechanical of musical instruments. Its control is not simply a matter of playing several keyboards well. The performer is engaged in a continuous sequence of button-pushing, tablet-tilting, stop-pulling, and pedal-pressingall of which must occur with split-second timing.
At the beginning of the TOCCATA IN F, for example, a single pedal note must build, with imperceptible gradations, until the whole pedal division is employed. Since Mr. Fox's hands are flying all over the keyboards at the time, he must depress three expression pedals, a crescendo pedal, and eight toe studs with his one free foot. And when, at last, he comes to the brilliant pedal solo, one regrets that there was no way for Command to record the gleam in his eyes. For there is probably nothing more fascinating to watch than a musician giving himself entirely to his music. MARSHALL YAEGER