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A portrait of the Harrison & Harrison organ of Emmanuel Church, Chestertown, Maryland, U.S.A.


I have tried to chose a programme which will not only be musically varied and satisfying in itself, but will also demonstrate the different facets of the organ as fully as possible. There are bound to be some compromises, and the Romantic repertoire is not as well represented as it might be - though the Allegretto grazioso by Frank Bridge makes it clear that the instrument is quite at home in this period.

The programme opens with a trio of French Classical pieces, the self-explanatory Récit de Chromhorne from the Kyrie of François Couperin’s Messe pour les Proisses  being preceded and followed by movements from Clérambault’s Suite du premier ton. Clérambault was one of the leading Parisian organists of his day; his Dialogue sur les grands jeu, opening in characteristic style on eponymous registration (the grand jeu comprises basically flutes, reeds and Cornet), also includes duet passages for Cornet (RH) and Chromhorne (LH). The Basse es Dessus de Trompette contrasts the Trompette (LH) or the Cornet (RH) with the jeu doux accompaniment in the other hand. In both these pieces, general pistons make possible what would otherwise have required three manuals or a remarkably deft registrant!

Est-ce Mars le grand Dieu des alarmes? was almost certainly intended for the harpsichord; yet Sweelinck’s keyboard works show remarkable stylistic unity wether they bear secular titles, as here, or liturgical ones, Organist of the Oude Kerk at Amsterdam and arguably the greatest keyboard composer of his day, he brought the art of the variation form to new heights.

Giovanni Gabrieli dominated the Venice of his day much as Sweelinck did the Amsterdam of his. His Ricercare del 7° e 8° tono is an apparently frugal work (in fact with little contrapuntal invention, the texture of the accompanying voices often being more or less homophonic) in the Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian tones, which share the final note G and which start on G and D respectively. This piece is preceded by one of the most beautiful of all pre-Bach chorale preludes, a short setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland by Buxtehude, a composer whose reputation and influence in North Germany were immense. Not altogether dissimilar is the charming little setting of Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, Vater whose authorship is uncertain but which has been attributed to J.S. Bach. The chorale melody (which belongs to a hymn of belief in the Holy Trinity) is accompanied by four weaving strands, two parts being given to the left hand and two to the pedal.

Before Wir glauben, however, we hear one of the arrangements made by J.S. Bach of double violin concertos by Antonio Vivialdi; a reminder not only that organ transcriptions are nothing new, but also of Bach’s cosmopolitan knowledge and tastes. The outer movements contrast solo and tutti sections on different manuals both simultaneously and in dialogue in an exciting manner; in the slow movement, the right hand is given a florid solo line, with ostinato accompaniment in the left hand.

Mendelssohn’s six sonatas for organ form a landmark in the repertory. While the forms are often Classical , the language is Romantic, with long, singing lines and luscious modulations, owing as much to emotions as to reason. The debt to Bach, of whom Mendelssohn was an early champion, is often evident; yet we are nevertheless in an altogether different world. The Sonata in D minor takes as its starting point the chorale setting of the Lord’s Prayer from the Lutheran catechism, Vater unser im Himmelreich. A plain but sombre harmonisation (in five parts, thus adding richness) is followed by four variations, the last one freely extended. A fugue, the subject encapsulating part of the chorale melody, is followed by a soft and serene Finale in D major, the only movement not derived from the Vater unser theme.

Guy Bovet is well known equally as recitalist and as composer. Salamanca, the first (though the last to be composed) of the set of Trois Préludes Hambourgeois written between 1970 and 1986, suggests aspects of Spanish life. Like its two companions it started life as an improvisation; in fact the caretakers of the cathedral of Salamanca submitted the theme to Bovet several years in a row for improvisation in concert. The popular local theme (whose subject is not only doubtful but apparently dubious) is put through a series of entertaining convolutions which in turn seem to suggest a shepherd-boy with a drum and a whistle, a church service, a Flamenco dancer and a bull-fight. Listeners will have to work out for themselves by what (perfectly conventional) means the drum effect is obtained, and how (without any editing) both hand appear to be on the Great but on separate registrations at the start of the fugue!

Frank Bridge’s Allegretto grazioso, delightfully normal after such flights of fancy, is the first of a set of Three Organ Pieces (later expanded to six, and not the same set as that which contains the famous Adagio in E) which was published in 1917. Written in September 1905, it is an attractive tone-poem which makes no pretensions to profundity - or still less shows any sign of the near-atonality which was to appear in Bridge’s work after the First World War - but which nevertheless breathes a peaceful charm.

But for L’organo primitivo, the prolific Italian composer and recitalist Pietro Yon would probably be forgotten today. This perennially popular piece, written for a single 8’ flute with 16’ pedal, is a little moto perpetuo broadly in C major but with a series of whimsical digressions.

To what extent whimsy entered the head of S.S. Wesley when he composed The National Anthem is hard to judge at this distance in time. It is an early work, dating from 1829 and therefore from the reign of George IV, and it was composed for and received its first performance at the reopening of the newly-rebuilt 1726 Harris & Byfield organ in St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, in a series of three recitals by the composer’s father, the Bristol-born Samuel Wesley, assisted by Samuel Sebastian, who played duets with his father and also this new work of his own. The Redcliffe organ was a landmark in the history of English organ-building; along with the organ in St Paul’s Cathedral, it had been the first English organ to possess a pedal-board (albeit of one octave only), and it also had the first octave coupler in England (in fact a sub-octave coupler which enable full uses to be made of the long-compass Great, which was chromatic down to 16’ C). The piece as set out is only playable on a full-compass pedalboard (something to which S.S. Wesley was ironically utterly opposed) and it is possible that it was played as a duet on this occasion and rewritten later, possibly by another hand. At the very least, a registrant would have been needed to change stops between variations! Whatever the truth of the matter, the work is nevertheless well ahead of its time in the very full use it makes of the organ's potential, and it bears the hallmark of a work written for an unusually resourceful instrument. A plain statement of the theme in which each half is heard first piano then forte is followed by seven variations and a fugue which, while amusing, nevertheless make considerable demands on the technique of the player and the credulity of the listener; one suspects that a later 19th-century monarch might not have been amused…


© James Lancelot 1996

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A Versatile Organ in Maryland

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Louis-Nicolas Clérambault

(1676-1749)

Dialogue sur les grands jeux

(Suite du premier ton)

François Couperin (1668-1733)

Récit de Chromhorne

(Messe pour les Paroisses)

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault

Basse et Dessus de Trompette

(Suite du premier ton)

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

(1562-1621)

Est-ce Mars le grand Dieu des alarmes?

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612)

Ricercare del 7° e 8° tono

Attrib. Johann Sebastian Bach

Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, Vater

Johann Sebastian Bach

(1685-1750)

Concerto in A minor, BWV 593

after the Concerto in A minor Op 3 No 8 (RV 522) for two violins, strings and basso continuo by Antonio Vivaldi

Allegro

Adagio

Allegro

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Sonata in D minor, Op 65 No 6

Chorale [Vater unser im Himmelreich] and variations

Fugue (Sostenuto e legato)

Finale (Andante)

Guy Bovet

(born 1942)

Salamanca

(Trois Préludes Hambourgeois)

Frank Bridge

(1886-1941)

Allegretto grazioso

(Six Organ Pieces)

Pietro Yon

(1886-1943)

Humoresque “L’organo primitivo”

Samuel Sebastian Wesley

(1810-1876)

The National Anthem