Method of Organ Playing, by Harold Gleason

October 1, 1997

Method of Organ PlayingMethod of Organ Playing, by Harold Gleason. Eighth edition. Ed. Catharine Crozier Gleason. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996. xiv + 369 pp. ISBN 0-13-207531-8.

In its sixty years of existence, Gleason's Method of Organ Playing has become a standard work in American organ pedagogy—a veritable organist's vade mecum, and the most widely-used organ method since Sir John Stainer's The Organ (London, 1877). This new, updated and expanded version, the second one edited by the author's widow and former student, the distinguished recitalist Catharine Crozier Gleason, should please devotees and earn new supporters well into the twenty-first century.

Harold Gleason (1892-1980), like Stainer before him, was a musicologist as well as an organist: and that combination no doubt accounts in part for the Method's perennial success. Mrs. Gleason has again brought to the editor's task not only her broad and deep knowledge of organ repertory, but also an understanding of her husband's approach born of literally living for many years with it and with the often-revised instruction book that embodies it.

The basic format of previous editions has not changed. One begins with a section on the organ itself, with key-action diagrams and explanations of organ tone colors by national tradition. Part 2, new to this edition, is "An Outline of Study for the Beginning Organist." Though brief, it is an attempt to make this comprehensive volume (containing "material that will be used throughout the career of the student and the teacher") more usable as a primer. Parts 3 and 4 deal with manual technique. Part 4 contains example pieces, some of them with early fingering (e.g., those by Cabezon, Attaingnant, Paumann and F. Couperin). Most of the explanations and exercises will be familiar to users of previous editions, but new musical examples have been included. Part 5 is the very thorough section on pedal technique. Beginners must not be intimidated by the final exercises in thirds, sixths, octaves, and three- and four-note chords: material for an entire career, indeed! And Part 6 is a wonderfully diverse collection of studies and compositions for manuals and pedals, even more historically inclusive than the manual music in Part 4. Mrs. Gleason, who had added twenty-six new pieces to the Seventh Edition (1988), continues that practice here. Ranging from Schlick to William Albright, these compositions provide not only a fine introduction to different styles and technical challenges, but a window into the vast variety of organ literature for students beginning to build their own repertories and personal music libraries.

The extensive fifty-page section on performance practice—including ornamentation, fingering, and other historically-informed aspects, is now occurring as Part 7, surely a more logical place for it than its earlier position in Harold Gleason's editions. All of this background makes more sense after one has acquired some feeling for playing the instrument. This material was pacesetting when it first appeared (in less developed form); and it continues to balance and enrich the technical sections.

Part 8, "Service Playing," is now enhanced by the addition of a new list of "Easier Service Music." Although the list is disappointingly shortthe large repertory of manual music, for example, is only touched uponit is a step in the right direction, as long as beginning service players keep looking elsewhere for things to play. Part 9, as in earlier editions, consists of many pages (thirty-two in this format) of scales for manuals and pedals, alone and in conjunction, in octaves, etc. It is heavy going, and seems to reflect the Gleasons' particular concern to develop virtuoso technique. The optimistic Note 10 preceding this maze of scales is scarcely comforting: "The daily practice of scales should continue throughout the career of the organist. The practice should always be meaningful and full of variety."

There are five appendices. Appendix A ("A Graded Course in Organ Playing") must also be geared to the organ major in a conservatory or university school of music, the one described in fact on pages 21 and 55 as practicing the organ a minimum of three hours a day, plus another daily hour of piano. Liberal arts and "nontraditional" (continuing education, part-time, older, etc.) students may or may not find these graded repertory lists helpful. The "Graded Course in Piano Playing" is advertised as new, but has existed at least as far back as the fifth edition (1962). One assumes that it has been reinstated. The list of "Organ Specifications" (Appendix B) now numbers twenty-eight, covering the history of organ building from the early sixteenth to the late twentieth Century. Appendix C lists editions of organ music of the Renaissance and Baroque: oddly, all citations are without date of publication except for the Clark and Peterson edition of Bach's Little Organ Book, which is correctly given as 1984. The date of Corliss Arnold's third edition of Organ Literature (1995) is omitted; and the fourth edition of Leslie Spelman's Organ Plus (ed. Jayson Rod Engquist, American Guild of Organists, 1992) seems to have been overlooked, along with the second and third editions. There are some misspellings in Appendices C and D ("Pidous," "Mays," and "Reidl"); and if Appendix D understandably omits most early music periodicals and essay collectionswhich admittedly do not focus on the organ per seit is less clear why it omits The American Organist and The Diapason, organ periodicals that do customarily carry articles and reviews directly relevant to organ history and performance. Appendix E is a glossary of terms and proper names, with a noble but probably futile attempt (through phonetic spellings) to get organ students to pronounce non-English words correctly.

Despite the rigorous, conservatory-like approach, and even with the dogmatism of certain sections (e.g., that on repeated and tied notes, where the printed rests seem to contradict the more musical statement on page 57, that "the amount of separation between the notes cannot be counted but it can be heard . . ."), the Gleason Method, Eighth Edition, may well be the choice of many organists and organ teachers. There are other options, including at least one method that is comparable to Gleason in scope (and in price), namely George Ritchie and George Stauffer's Organ Technique: Modern and Early (1992), a method notable for its musicality and user-friendly prose, but so thoroughly historical in approach ("modern technique" and "legato style" apply, plainly and simply, to "music composed after 1750") as to give the student a misleadingly segmented picture of the continuum that is the history of organ playing. It would seem that, as the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible effectively and without fanfare solved most exclusive-language problems by literally translating Hebrew and Greek, so the Gleasons have continued to answer the challenge of new research and new/old ways of playing early musicincluding, in our time, Harald Vogel's pervasive (and, one might say, politically correct) "structured legato"simply by incorporating, in each edition including this latest one, the best fruits of musicology into their venerable but ever-evolving Method of Organ Playing. Stainer would approve!

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