About this Recording
8.578179 - AWESOME ORGAN - Best Loved Classical Organ Music

Awesome Organ
Best loved classical organ music


Whether referring to the huge, glistening instrument of several thousand pipes that graces the rood screen of a cathedral, or to the ‘mighty Wurlitzer’ rising out of the stage at Blackpool Tower, or to a compact set of table top bellows and pipes attached to a single keyboard of just an octave in length, we use the same term: organ. It is understandable, then, that the etymological root of the word is as widely encompassing as the instruments it describes: the old English organe and old French orgene meaning, simply, ‘musical instrument’.

The earliest notated organ music (c. 1360, England) is likely to have been played on a ‘positive organ’ (so-called because, in contrast to their small, handheld forebears, these instruments were large enough to require depositing in one place). Positive organs typically had a single keyboard (or ‘manual’), with each key operating a single wooden pipe or, in some cases, a group of pipes usually tuned in unison, fifths or octaves.

By the time the great J.S. Bach was writing his extraordinary corpus of organ repertoire in early 18th-century Germany, the instruments had blossomed into those of two or three manuals plus pedalboard, with each division addressing a varied selection of pipe ranks—some wooden, some metal, some using reeds, and all enclosed in magnificent casework. The complexity of the soundboards and actions that allow a single manual to control a large number of different ranks of pipes in any combination is staggering, as anyone who has ever had the privilege of looking inside a mechanical (or ‘tracker’) action instrument will know.

An organist has the unique privilege of acting not just as a faithful recounter of the notes on the page, but also as an orchestrator, deciding which of the organ’s range of timbres (which will be unique to every instrument, if with a number of generally common shared conventions) to use during the course of any given piece. The choice may be specified by the composer (French music from the Baroque era is particularly prescriptive in this regard), guided by historical convention, or may be left entirely to the performer’s discretion.

In 19th-century France, this variety of timbre became particularly well developed, with the mechanics of organ building evolving so as to enable ever greater power and tonal variety. The Cavaillé-Coll organ over which Charles-Marie Widor presided at Saint-Suplice in Paris (and which is largely unchanged today) has five manuals, pedalboard and nearly seven thousand pipes. Innovations such as the Barker lever and tubular-pneumatic action enabled a large number of ranks to be played simultaneously without creating an unfeasibly heavy key action. Some divisions were enclosed within expression boxes, enabling particularly fine-grained dynamic control.

The advent of electricity heralded yet more development and innovation. With the long, complicated labyrinth of wooden levers that relayed the press of a key to the foot of a row of pipes now replaceable by an electromagnetic pulse, an hitherto unimaginable level of flexibility in how the divisions of the organ were physically arranged was made possible. The organ console could also now be separated from the pipes, sometimes at considerable distances.

With a range of pitch that encompasses the entire spectrum of human hearing, a variety of colour far surpassing that of any other (acoustic) instrument, the ability to drown out an entire symphony orchestra, or to make the ground shake with an almost inaudible rumble, is it any wonder that Mozart (and Machaut before him) referred to the organ as ‘the King of Instruments’?

 1  2  Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

As perhaps the most famous piece of organ music ever written, it is ironic that the attribution of this work to Bach is the source of more than a little controversy. With its improvisatory flourishes and abrupt contrasts, the Toccata owes much to the showy stylus phantasticus of the North German tradition. The Fugue is a more formally structured affair but with a few unusual features such as the solo pedal statement of the subject and the multi-sectional coda that closes this dramatic work.

 3  Handel: Organ Concerto in B flat major, Op. 4, No. 6 – I. Andante allegro

Handel wrote his organ concertos to act as incidental music in performances of his oratorios in London, and they were thus designed to be played on a small instrument brought into the theatre. Performed between acts of the 1736 premiere of Alexander’s Feast, the buoyant B flat major Concerto was in fact originally written for harp, but was nonetheless included by the first publisher of the Op. 4 Organ Concertos.

 4  Mendelssohn: Organ Sonata No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 65 – I. Allegro con brio

Mendelssohn was devoted to the music of Bach, and indeed did much to resurrect public interest in it. A superb organist himself (with a particularly renowned pedal technique), Mendelssohn’s devotion to the Baroque repertoire is clear in his six Organ Sonatas, with the flowing lines of this opening movement of the B flat major Sonata also showing Mendelssohn’s more pianistic tendencies.

 5  Organ Concerto in G minor – VI. Tempo de l’Allegro initial
 6  Organ Concerto in G minor – VII. Tempo Introduction. Largo

Poulenc was also a devotee of Bach, and his Organ Concerto is an engaging fusion of the Baroque with Poulenc’s trademark whimsy and harmonic invention. Written at a time when the composer’s Catholic faith was beginning to re-emerge, this Concerto was his first work for organ, and sets the solo instrument against the somewhat unusual combination of strings and timpani.

 7  Widor: Organ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 13, No.1 – V. Marche Pontificale

Charles-Marie Widor presided at the iconic organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris for 64 years. The concept of a symphony for organ was an invention of the French Romantic school of organ composition (driven by composers such as Franck and Guilmant), and aimed to showcase the rich spectrum of timbres and colours produced by these large instruments. The conclusion of Widor’s first Organ Symphony is a grand march reminiscent of a lavish liturgical procession.

 8  Böhm: Prelude and Fugue in C major

Georg Böhm was organist at the Johanniskirche in Lüneburg in Northern Germany between 1698 and 1733, during which time he encountered the young J.S. Bach. Böhm’s music remained a significant influence on the great master, with the C major Prelude and Fugue showing a number of hallmarks of the style that Bach would later perfect: improvisatory flourishes (including an extended pedal solo) alternating with stirring chordal passages introduce a carefully constructed fugue ending with a dramatic toccata-like coda.

 9  Pachelbel: Toccata in E minor

Pachelbel was an exponent of the South German school of organ composition. The instruments in this tradition, influenced by their Italian counterparts, were typically rather smaller than those found further north, often with a less well-stocked pedal division, and so the writing is often focussed more on elaborate manual work. The E minor Toccata is one of several Pachelbel wrote in this style.

 10  Alain: Litanies, AWV 100

Alain belongs to that generation of composers whose lives were cut tragically short by the Second World War. Litanies was written in 1937 when Alain was 26 years old. Just three years later, he was killed in action. His most famous work begins with a statement of a plainsonglike melody, evoking a sense of ritual and of prayer. It soon becomes apparent that this is not a meditative prayer, however, indeed Alain himself wrote that ‘prayer is not a lament but a devastating tornado, flattening everything is its way’ adding—of this piece—that ‘if you get to the end without feeling exhausted you have neither understood nor played it as I would want it’!

 11  Gigout: Scherzo (Dix Pièces, No. 8)

Throughout almost all of Widor’s 64 year tenure at Saint-Suplice, on the other side of the Seine, Eugène Gigout presided over the newly built organ at the church of Saint-Augustin. Alongside his church work, he was also professor of organ and then director of the Paris Conservatoire. As a composer, his work is entirely confined to organ music and the Dix Pièces, first published in 1890, is a varied collection of (mostly short) works. The Scherzo is a light-hearted and energetic concert piece, with the composer asking for frequent changes of manual to create a series of engaging echo effects.

 12  Buxtehude: Prelude in F major, BuxWV 145

Bach famously walked two hundred miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. A major influence on the great master, we recognise in Buxtehude’s music many of the elements of the ‘praeludium’ style that Bach would perfect. The F major Prelude shows the lighter side of Buxtehude’s musical character with a whimsical Fugue subject giving the performer plenty of opportunity for antiphonal effects using different divisions of the organ.

 13  Dupré: Variations sur un Noël, Op. 20 – Theme and Variations I to X

In 1906, Widor appointed a new assistant at Saint-Sulpice, the precociously talented 20-year-old Marcel Dupré, who would later succeed his mentor in 1934, alongside work at the Paris Conservatoire. Dupré was a virtuoso performer, a renowned teacher and hugely inventive composer. His set of variations on the famous traditional French tune Noël nouvelet serve as a good example of this invention, with each variation exploring different colours of the organ, a variety of contrapuntal textures, and ingenious harmonisations.

 14  Widor: Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1 – III. Toccata – Allegro

How many thousands of newly-wed couples have been accompanied down the aisle by the final movement of Widor’s fifth Organ Symphony? This iconically famous work is a prime example of the French organ toccata form: an exuberant repeating pattern in the manuals accompanies a bold melodic line played in the pedals; a quieter development section follows before the original material returns with even more elaborate manual figurations. In musical terms, a relatively simple format, but one that Widor uses to dazzling effect.

Peter Siepmann
© Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

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