The link at the foot of this page will take you to the SoundCloud page of Dr Michael Spacie. Michael has recorded some music on the organ using the Rodgers 928 Trillium Masterpiece 3-Manual Digital Organ installed in 2009 in Rotherham Minster, South Yorkshire, UK. Michael has been organist-in-association and has occasionally played the Rotherham Minster Organ since December 2011 until the Covid-19 outbreak when only the resident organist was permitted to play the digital instrument. Throughout the years Michael has played for his own amusement and for the benefit of any members of the general public who have happened to be in the Minster when he has had playing sessions throughout past years. (Thank you to all those many members of the public who came up to the organ and gave encouraging, thoughtful and positive comments to Michael – some listeners evidently quite touched by the music.) It is open to considerable rumination as to whether Michael could be described (using terminology of the Anglican church) as a ‘Liturgical Organist’ particularly considering his skill, understanding and playing ability in styles and genres other than church music. That said, he has excellent skill in the playing of hymnody, psalm and response accompaniment, improvisation, choir leading and vocal training, congregational accompaniment and musical presentation/playing of voluntaries of which he has an extensive repertoire for all seasons of the church year.
One school of thought claims congregations possibly listen more intently and are more engaged with the music when organists improvise. The old original 1777 John (Johann) Snetzler organ, now defunct and not working, is still in situ in Rotherham Minster with keyboard and case and pipe work still visible – the latter can be seen in the accompanying image to this blog. Improvisation in the 18th-century (i.e. at the time of the Rotherham Minster Snetzler organ) was the foundation of keyboard training and this training was rooted in improvisatory skills that enabled a complete understanding of harmonic language. The organist/s of the old Snetzler organ in Rotherham Minster contemporary of the time (then known as The Parish Church of All Saints in Rotherham) would have been trained in the art of improvisation, particularly with 18th-century styles such as prelude, toccata, dance suite and bass figuration. The organist/s of the time would have been familiar with bass line movements whether stepwise, falling fifths, alternating thirds, parallel thirds or tenths with the bass and chromatic inclusion and manipulation. Organists contemporary of the time of the Snetzler 1777 organ would practise and learn variations on each possibility of the bass movement thus building fluency. They would also be fluent in passagework, ornaments, shifting of inner lines (‘voices’) and improvising extensively on the perfect cadence of the falling 5th bass line and also of the connecting notes between the main structural pitch contours that help determine direction and shape voice leading in the upper parts as well as skill in the language of the stepwise diatonic bass line and realisation of figured bass. This, in addition to tempo, pulse, meter, thematic unity as a whole and modulation (change of key) where bass notes have to be conceived and re-interpreted in the changed/new tonality with perhaps chords of the tonic and dominant in root position with each of the other bass notes taking a possible first inversion chord (or chord of the sixth as the figuring was ‘6’). Also true sequences where all parts move in exact and identical patterns. The importance of a bass line in harmonic consruction was evident until the late 19th-century. As increased virtuosity became apparent in organ playing and composition, particularly the French organ school in the latter half of the 19th-century and thus a move away from the thoroughly functional musicianship took place in favour of reading exact the composer’s work as it was printed on the page and this became a performance obligation along with non-improvisatory teaching methods of the time and attending concerts where all the notes of a piece were written out and where any improvising performed could be perceived as trivial or even disrespectful. The idea of virtuosity was also emphasized in the late 19th-century with the advent of Conservatoires (Music Colleges) and the abandoning of improvisation and thus improvisation became separated from performance; examination boards also establishing themselves in the late 19th-century similarly insisting on the realising of the written page or the playing of a piece was marked as ‘wrong’. All this was a trend which has continued to this day – a trend that would not be recognised by the 18th-century organists of Rotherham Minster playing the original Snetzler organ. Furthermore, in the 18th-century, performance, composition and improvisation were interwined and every organist was simultaneously composer, improvisor and performer including W. A. Mozart, J. S. Bach and many others. Performances were often partially improvised and almost no keyboard accompaniment anywhere was fully scored (written out) but derived from figured bass and improvised live in a church service. Thus the organist playing the Snetzler 1777 organ would have a remarkable fluency which was common-practice for musicians and organists of the day. Their command of the musical language of their time was thoroughly understood and complete. Many compositions for organ at the time were mostly written-down improvisations. Many a composition would have been improvised and created during 18th-century services at the Parish Church of All Saints in Rotherham. Improvisation is enveloped in music theory and history.
In conclusion, the skill of the 18th-century organist can be recreated and used on the current Rogers 928 Trillium Masterpiece Digital Organ in Rotherham Minster using some of the improvisatory techniques from the 18th-century era, whether through a traditional contemporary 18th-century piece or using a more modern piece showing the two can be fused. An unusual experience occurred when a few years ago Michael was playing the powerfully emotive indigenous folk tune of “Russian Gypsy Dance/Song ‘Dark Eyes'” on the digital organ at Rotherham Minster when several members of the general public from different parties simultaneously heard what was thought to be the movement of the old tracker rods and ‘mechanics’ of the 18th-century defunct Snetzler organ going in exact time with the music Michael was playing on the modern digital instrument. This went on for some time during the playing of the piece and was originating from the Snetzler instrument itself. Whilst this was strangely not picked up by the audio recording microphone on the digital organ console (only occasional feedback of the digital organ keys being depressed or stop changes), certainly an interesting experience given the fact several independent parties simultaneously heard and witnessed the same thing at the same time and only during this one piece and on this one occasion. The rendition of “Russian Gypsy Dance/Song ‘Dark Eyes'” was an improvised version by Michael specifically using some 18th-century vocabulary such as an array of structured bass movements along with upper-voice harmonisations and elaborated small connective notes between main structural pitches of melody that shape ‘voice’ leading (direction of melodic line) which can transform into a florid line. All infused with a modern twist, particularly in the use of meter and tonal colour. All this which seemingly some ‘energy form’ or some ‘spiritual form’ somewhere appreciated: a harmonious polarity, symmetrically complementary – a hidden relationship of music as an art with unity between detail and entirety, of space and time dimension: a musical connection, combination and merging of past and present, and of wider spirituality rather than solely religion per se.
Michael has intentionally recorded music in various styles to suit most musical tastes, interests and persuasions – all of which can be heard in the Cloud on the link below. Michael can lift over-familiar music off the page and create real energy, characterisation and vibrancy with enthusiasm with lots of admirable and delightfully surprising musical moments.
Michael has also recorded some piano music using the piano in his home teaching studio. Each item digitally recorded, both organ and piano, was done in one ‘take’ without any technological tweaking.
Generally speaking, it is good to have a working knowledge of the piano and organ and also the historic fortepiano, harpsichord and clavichord, especially for playing the music of different composers; however, playing the organ is really great for the development of musicianship. ‘Listening to the building’ is important when performing – particularly in a large building, and for the performer, using, for instance, such techniques as when to release the keys after they have been played – a sense of ‘legato’ (joining and smooth) and ‘staccato’ (short and detached) help to punctuate phrases in a large building and thus articulate sound and, along with tonal colours of registration, communicate convincingly and excitingly with character and musicality and with a sense of humour, enjoyment and fully energised playing that is very much individual in character and musical sense and, which most of all, is alive.
When Michael plays the organ, depending on the style of the music, he often uses both precise written music notation and for some pieces where the style permits, advanced improvisational skills; both sets of musical skill are handy to have as an organist and are the hallmark of a creative artist to produce a desired musical result of tonal colour along with energy and vibrancy which can be appreciated both emotionally and intellectually. Knowing how notes and phrases fit together is paramount, along with knowing the scientific rules of music and pattern making with regard to pulse, metre, rhythm, syncopation, motif, variation, development etc.. When improvising, it is important to have some kind of structure, and ideally, a grasp of melodic shape and direction, and also good rhythmic ideas which can be repeated as necessary. This is a good test of musicianship. It is also essential to have an ability to engage and communicate, where music is played with relish, enthusiasm, and is warmly presented for the enjoyment of both the player and the listeners – whatever the context of performance.
As an organist, there is always opportunity to demonstrate some vigour, flair and personal style rather than an inflexible approach and attitude (as there are always different approaches and opinions in matters of sound production with true artists willing to appreciate and understand unusual interpretations etc.). It is good to try and reignite the image of the organist as a musician that is fashionable and fun and an independent-minded individual with performances that reflect experience, professional distinction and creative passion with versatility. After all, it is exciting coordinating all four limbs on the organ in order to communicate the broad emotional picture rather than constantly being hung up on technique and minutiae. ‘Performance’ is as important as ‘technique’ and devotion and motion derive from emotion where others may feel what the performer feels.
Dr Michael Spacie specializes in piano and organ playing, theory of music, composition and singing.