On performing ‘intaglio’

I completed intaglio on the 29th of October in 2023. The manuscript exists in a short score which varies significantly from the engraved score, as is often the case. I tend to continue working and refining the music as I hear it rendered in Finale. There was a time when I laboriously worked through sketches to get to a fair copy but, since the intro of Finale in my composing life, those days are long gone… by maybe 25 years now, at least.

Short score for ‘intaglio’ from 25 October 2023

This is one of many pieces in my catalogue inspired by a work of visual art. The piece which served as this work’s inspiration is called ‘Modernist Couple‘ which was created by American artist Lily Michael in 1952. I acquired this etching in 2022 and it hangs in my office next to my desk. Michael’s haunting and beautiful work, an abstraction of which I am so very fond, portrays two humanoid characters in a highly complex line drawing, the creatures standing side by side, hand in hand.

That this work was etched by an embroidery needle on a page of multiple layers of black wax is hardly as interesting as the spectacular precision of hand and eye required to imagine and render it. The shapes are complex but interconnected, sometimes etched in stark black and white strokes, sometimes shaded from light to dark. To me this image conveys beauty, synchronicity, perfection, and even a bit of techno-terror in the midst of what was then a blossoming atomic age.

In my piece, the musical structure takes on a symmetry reminiscent of the Michael print. The form of the works sit on an ABACDA framework. The A section is directly repeated and the B, C, and D sections provide contrast between restatements and forward motion. Each of the sections is built with two distinct parts as the etching is very much about duples. Where the B and C passages can be seen as having a kinship, the D section clearly serves as a bridge to the repeat of A at the close of the work.

While a listener may not hear the patterns of the work as a form, the overall alternation of energy with repose is where the musical dialogue may take them. What I want one to hear in this work is music that responds to Michael’s precision, her elegance of display, and her ability to bring visual order to a chaotic time.  

In performing this work, keep a few things in mind:

Tempi are of course suggestions. This piece is more about contrasts between fast and slow, not precisely obeyed tempi marks. However, the fermatas are really important to the structure so don’t gloss through them. If you are playing this piece in a larger room, let the acoustic have the music for a moment, don’t be afraid of a space during a performance where there is a little silence between musical gestures.

At the keyboard, my performance style tends to lean towards an affinity for the Baroque. By this I don’t mean to say that I’m all about the subtleties of an overthought agogic stress and endless debates about the execution of a tremblement lie, but I do prefer an articulated legato, a clean and tidy line that is not encumbered by gooey-ness. In some of my works, like the larger chorale prelude on Liebster Jesu, a more closed (even gooey) legato is perfectly fine and beautiful, of course.

To register this work, open the piece with a bold 8′ plenum with mixtures, but no reeds. A pedal plenum in balance with and coupled to the manuals is expected. (More about the pedals in a moment…).

At ms 9, section B, draw 8′ fonds and a dark 8’reed, under expression if possible, to make the sound snarl a bit. Allow the fermatas over the long pedal E to have nothing above them for a moment. Stasis is good, do not rush through music that stands still.

At ms 14 on the second quaver of beat two, consider drawing an 8′ Flute Harmonique as a solo stop for the RH. Come ms 18, it should be able to sound over the fonds below in the LH on the original registration. Under expression, strive for a balance that favors the flute.

At ms 20 thru 27, use exactly the same registration scheme as the beginning of the piece. Ms 28 introduces the C section. Here a full cornet over a solo principal 8′ should do the trick. This is intended to be full, not quiet and simpery. For the mordents, remember that the note prior to the ornament, as gathered in the slur, is the note that will be in the shake. These are chromatic and not diatonic ornaments.

Also, one should not feel limited to simply one shake on the mordent. A bit of a roll might be even better especially if it begins slowly, accelerates, and returns to stasis for the duration. Again, from ms 28 thru 34, do not neglect the holds on the lh sustained note… let the cornet sound die out of the room before proceeding each time. The music comes to a stop here for a moment, let it breathe.

At ms 37, section D, we are beginning to close the piece with a passage that has some character connection to the A section which returns at ms. 48. Consider using the initial 8′ plenum registration to start, but leave out the mixture. Add it for ms 48 to the end.

A word about the pedals, as promised…

This is largely a manualiter work, but the use of the pedal is required in a couple spots so the hands can comfortably play all of the notes scored in the manuals. In general, if you see an octave scored in the left hand part, pedal is assumed there, and use the lowest note for the pedal, please. In ms 9-13, the pedal holds the low E, however at beat 2 of ms 13, those notes should be taken with the left hand. A relaxing of the 16′ sound is necessary there before we move to the solo sound in the RH beginning in ms 14. The pedal will then be on standby until ms. 48 where the opening vivo is restated. And most definitely, add the pedal into the last octave of the piece, again use the lowest note for the pedal.

Intaglio is a microcosm study of many of my organ works, particularly those scored on two staves. This music achieves its narrative through the use of contrasts in registration and charater, and an architecture that is defined by momentary stasis or pause. Through registration, articulation, etc. allow the gestures and shapes to gather in the mind as you play, being aware at all times of the music that was before, the music that is now, and the music that will come to be. (uh oh… I’m paraphrasing Josef Albers again…)   

Frederick Frahm
Placitas, NM
All Saints Sunday 2023