Cumbrian Society of Organists

Review : The Art of Accompaniment : 24 November 2012

Saturday 24 November saw half a dozen CSO members wending their various ways – the prize for most environmentally friendly goes to Jeremy, who came by conveniently timetabled bus from Carlisle – to Cockermouth United Reform Church for a very pleasant afternoon’s workshop on The Art of Accompaniment by John Morris.

From the outset was emphasised the notion that accompaniment should be an enjoyable thing to do and that this is best achieved by being organised and, by extension, prepared for anything and everything that may come your way. Musicianship, it was explained, is only part of the process so John also covered other aspects that make up the work schedule of an effective church organist. The accompanying notes were a trove of experience-based advice on how this may be achieved. Studded with witty insights, these were the very essence of worthwhile instruction to those, like myself, a moderately accomplished pianist, untrained as an organist, who, nevertheless, wants to play as well as he can in the circumstances.

A master class in concision, this was one not to miss. Although invited to prioritise which aspects of accompaniment were of most interest, each of us who attended were quite happy to sit at his feet and receive the steady flow of informed wisdom and advice. Topics covered included accompanying hymns, ancient and not so, plain chant, Anglican and responsorial psalms, Eucharist and Choral settings.

A good accompanist is someone who has to be able to work with others. This was seen as a crucial aspect of the role, without which difficulties may arise. You also have to enjoy playing the organ if you are to get the best out of it. A truism, well worth repeating.

Of modern hymns, it was expressed that these are often/sometimes better accompanied on piano. There is also a tendency for them to have bridges, which have been composed more with keyboard in mind than pipe organ. If they have to be played on organ, John demonstrated how the rhythmic sense of repeated quaver bass notes in tunes such as Shine, Jesus, Shine could be achieved by pedalling or left hand playing minim bass notes and right hand vamping the alto and tenor notes whilst playing the melody line above. At least, that’s what I thought he was doing. Whatever, it sounded very effective to this pair of ears.

Consistency was a key principle in the accompanying of hymns, particularly regards the introduction and the number of beats between verses. If the hymn is well known, running through the last line is a useful way to bring the congregation in. The singing of less familiar hymns may benefit from a first line introduction or, on occasion, the playing through of a whole verse.

For given hymns, different tunes using the same metre can be employed, often to good effect. However, there are some that are forever known by one setting and one setting only. We know which ones they are.

Regards others, In the Bleak Midwinter, for example, there’s no substitute but to know the words of each verse and exactly how they fit the music, or the music fits them. It’s no bad thing to memorise beginnings and endings so that one can look up to see the choir director’s conducting, better still to know the tunes of hymns and psalms, especially, off by heart so that concentration can be focused on musical rendering.

To everyone’s amusement, John quoted someone – who shall remain anonymous, partly because I can’t remember whom he named – describing an organist as a person who plays too loud, too soft, too fast, too slow, etc ad naus..., sorry, ad inf. Howsoever the perception, it seems often the case that the organist will be expected to lead rather than follow, so appeasing all the critics is never going to be easy.

Tempo was discussed and venue was demonstrated to be an influential factor in deciding the speed at which music should be played. A Carlisle Cathedral Voluntary Choir rendition of Walford Davies’ Psalm 23 setting to an accompaniment by Jeremy Suter demonstrated the subtleties of expression that can be invoked to bring out the meaning of psalms. Carefully prepared registration notes in the margins were seen as a must for accomplished psalm accompaniment, exemplar provided. It was interesting to see descant notes written alphabetically above the words for variation in one of the verses.

A Q & A session meant we could all come away knowing that a good lead into the National Anthem was provided by Gordon Jacobs, that St Paul’s sound decay lasted longer than 8 seconds, that it’s better not to conduct congregational hymns unless you’re on Songs of Praise, that there has been a standard RCO pedalboard since the 60s and .... etc. I was also occasioned to look up the meaning of a word I’d only heard once before – anacrucis!

This was a thoroughly excellent afternoon session, an ideal way to spend a few hours on a dark November day. Thanks, John, and thank you, Jeremy, for the refreshments.