Beyond the visible and audible: What an organist’s YouTube video can reveal about performance, composition, and academic music

The Cathedral of St Patrick is one of the most recognisable and significant religious sites in New York City. It is also the setting for some of the best organ playing I have ever heard: in this video which showcases the virtuosity of Michael Hey, the Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music and Organist. I was entirely blown away the first time I watched this; it represents everything I love about music.

This is a universal phenomenon. We all see and listen to performances — live or otherwise — which stagger us with their ability to be exactly what we want music to be. Why, then, talk about anything else at all? Why do musicologists and academics (like myself) insist on analysis, discussion, context, and theory, and devote entire blogs, articles, or even books to it? And perhaps more importantly, why do we subject our students to such intellectual exercises when we could simply stand in awe of music?

Performance is often the most visible aspect of music for most people. Other elements of understanding music — context, composition, critical thinking, music theory, cultural theory, and music education, to name a few — these are often seen as areas of inquiry which exist either around music (i.e., its social, cultural, economic, religious, or political context), or form a foundation of sorts (i.e., elements of musicology or composition). 

Such a perspective creates limitations. It situates performance at the centre of this activity called ‘music’, with other aspects of music around or beneath it. Even if we invert the idea, placing performance at the edges of academic-theoretical-sociocultural lines of thinking — like some sort of ‘visible manifestation’ that makes performance the ‘end result’ — the same limitations apply.

What are these limitations? Picture a conservatory student who struggles with the academic aspect of music, preferring to focus on performance and production instead. The struggle is caused by two reasons: firstly, a limited understanding of the interplay between performance, composition, and academia, and secondly, limited resources or support networks for such a student to appreciate and make those connections. Both of these reasons are the result of seeing performance as something far removed from the ostensibly intellectual or academic aspects of music, because performance is either seen as the ‘main thing’, or as the ‘end result’. 

But let’s focus on performance for now; namely, the video in question, and perhaps we can begin to address some of these questions when we understand this performance better. 

This performance is a showpiece; that much is clear. It focuses on the organist; the camera moves to help the audience focus on specific aspects of his playing. The video is titled ‘Hymn Tune Kingsfold | I Heard the voice of Jesus Say | Michael T.C. Hey | Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’ and is from a YouTube channel called pipe-organ, with a target audience which is more than likely made up of organ geeks like me. And it’s a solo organ performance: three verses with an interlude before the third, played in an empty church. 

This is very different from the original context of this piece: an accompaniment to the choir or congregation during Mass. Given that this is likely to be an entrance or recessional hymn, the hymn would also have to be as long or as short as needed. The organist would sit out of the view of the congregation; the ‘audience’, from that perspective, is there to participate in a liturgy. The organist’s skill — while it makes a significant contribution to a religious ritual — may not be the main reason for someone’s presence at the Mass, whereas his skill is likely to be a big reason for someone to watch this video. 

Everything we’ve discussed so far is about performance. But there are important links between the idea of performance and other aspects of music. The nature of the performance in this video means that the compositional structure of the piece is altered somewhat: there’s no introduction to prepare the choir or congregation to come in, meaning that the organist can get straight into the first verse. The organist uses specific stops and registers during the first two verses, moves into an improvised interlude with modulation, and adds an organ descant and countermelody in the final verse. The sheet music on the stand is the basic tune with traditional harmonisation, so it is likely that what we’re seeing and hearing in the performance is the organist’s own arrangement or improvisation. The compositional elements of this performance are constantly in dialogue with the nature and expectations of this specific performance as a solo showcase on a YouTube organ channel, and the decisions made by the performer are a result of this dialogue. Performance, therefore, cannot be removed from the more musicological aspects of composition — the two inform each other, and interact with each other. 

The Kingsfold melody, without harmonisation. Image reference:

The dialogue between performance and composition becomes a conversation when we add a third element: the academic analysis of music. In this case, all we have to ask ourselves is how the significance of this piece of music changes when it’s a solo performance on YouTube as opposed to a hymn sung during Mass. We know there’s a difference, of course, but academic music gives us an effective way to understand this difference.

Does this piece of music retain its functional, social, and cultural significance when it’s performed and improvised in this way? Does it mean anything different when it’s removed from one context and placed in another? What’s the significance of placing the name of the tune, Kingsfold, before the name of the hymn in the title of the video? These questions are addressed by the notion of transferable authenticity, an idea I developed during my doctoral research, in which I examined the Portuguese music genre fado in a similar way. Taking a ‘song of paupers and prostitutes’ sung in a tavern, and placing it on a well-lit stage with a state-of-the-art sound system in front of a ticketed audience, does change the way the meaning of the performance is negotiated — doesn’t it? And how is this meaning, and this significance, affected by the performative and compositional elements of this piece of music?

It isn’t just an abstract notion; these are real and practical decisions that musicians will have to make when defending their choice of instrumentation, their inclusion of a folk motif, their interpretation of a religious work, or even their choice of one edition of a score over another. The academic music element gives performers the confidence to consider these performative and compositional decisions in a more thoughtful manner that‘s grounded in scholarly methodology. 

In turn, both performative and compositional aspects of music interact together and separately with the academic study of music. We therefore see the emergence of three distinct elements — composition, performance, and academia — all equally important when discussing music, and each with their own individual role and set of interactions with the other elements.

Somewhere in midtown Manhattan, a talented organist accompanies a choir and congregation and makes a spiritual experience even more satisfying. The same organist is filmed performing a solo improvised work with remarkable virtuosity, and the video is uploaded on YouTube. In this expression of music, we see performance. We see composition. And we see the academic examination of context, meaning, and significance, not to mention the practical application of theoretical understanding. Every interaction with music, from humming a tune in the shower, to any serious scholarly study, encompasses performance, composition, and academic study, all of which interact in conversation with one another. Discovering these connections makes us more effective musicians, whether we’re performers, scholars, or composers, whether we’re professionals or amateurs.

And none of it takes away the sheer joy of music. Every time I watch this video, even when I’m discussing it in an academic setting, it makes me stop. It astounds me. It has never failed to, and it never will. No student of music, no performer, no enthusiastic music fan, ever need fear that understanding something more deeply will take away its power; if anything, it adds to it. It makes discussions richer and more satisfying. And I encourage every one of you to try it.