I am fully aware of what may be said against improvisation. There are players who improvise badly and their playing is uninteresting. But many preachers speak badly. That, however, has nothing to do with the real issue. A mediocre improvisation is always endurable, if the organist has grasped the idea that church music should harmonize with the service and aid meditation and prayer. If the organ music is played in this spirit and results in harmonious sounds rather than in precise music which is not worth writing out, it still is comparable with the old glass windows in which the individual figures can hardly be distinguished but which are, nevertheless, more charming than the finest modern windows. Such an improvisation may be better than a fugue by a great master, on the principle that nothing in art is good unless it is in its proper place.
[Illustration: The Madeleine where M. Saint-Saens played the organ for twenty years]
During the twenty years I played the organ at the Madeleine, I improvised constantly, giving my fancy the widest range. That was one of the joys of life.
But there was a tradition that I was a severe, austere musician. The public was led to believe that I played nothing but fugues. So current was this belief that a young woman about to be married begged me to play no fugues at her wedding!
Another young woman asked me to play funeral marches. She wanted to cry at her wedding, and as she had no natural inclination to do so, she counted on the organ to bring tears to her eyes.
But this case was unique. Ordinarily, they were afraid of my severity—although this severity was tempered.
One day one of the parish vicars undertook to instruct me on this point. He told me that the Madeleine audiences were composed in the main of wealthy people who attended the Opera-Comique frequently, and formed musical tastes which ought to be respected.
“Monsieur l’abbe,” I replied, “when I hear from the pulpit the language of opera-comique, I will play music appropriate to it, and not before!”
JOSEPH HAYDN AND THE “SEVEN WORDS”
Joseph Haydn, that great musician, the father of the symphony and of all modern music, has been neglected. We are too prone to forget that concerts are, in a sense, museums in which the older schools of music should be represented. Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music. The same is true of the one who does not prefer the first prelude of the Wohltemperirte Klavier, played without gradations, just as the author wrote it for the harpsichord, to the same prelude embellished with an impassioned melody; or who does not prefer a popular melody of character or a Gregorian chant without any accompaniment to a series of dissonant and pretentious chords.