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'A treasure chest of sparkling jewels … polished and displayed to perfection' (Organists' Review)
A minor [3'42]
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What are the essential ingredients for a display of musical pyrotechnics? First, the composer must have the desire to write music which will dazzle his listeners; second, there must be a performer who will be able to ignite the pyrotechnic package; and, third, there must be an audience who hunger for such an aural spectacle. Most of the pieces on Fireworks III were written by composers who grew up in the nineteenth century, when the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution were still glowing hot, whilst the flames of political revolution still burned, and when the pyrotechnics of military conquest served the ambitions of imperialism. These composers beheld the sound and technology of the orchestral Romantic organ, and the wizardry of the organists, holding mass audiences spellbound.
Edwin Lemare (1865-1934) was a tragic hero of this era, brought up on the Isle of Wight, which was made popular as a resort by Queen Victoria and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He came to London in his 'teens, first making a name for himself at the International Inventions Exhibition in 1885, where he played works by such composers as Lefébure-Wély, Guilmant, and Bach. He progressed to become the organist of London's most fashionable church, All Saints, Margaret Street, before a new incumbent there, both zealous and jealous, curtailed Lemare's contributions and forced him to forsake a sacred environment for the secular surroundings of the concert hall. Undaunted, he triumphed to the extent of becoming the highest paid organist in the world, holding the civic post in San Francisco.
But from then on his life steadily went downhill, and not even the royalties from the arrangement of his Andantino, which became 'Moonlight and Roses', could prevent him from declining into poverty. The man who had been compared with the pianists Paderewski and Godowsky, and whom the young Sir Malcolm Sargent admired as the virtuoso 'who could make the organ dance', lost his health, his technique, his money, and his fame. He had all but been erased from our cultural memory when his music was rediscovered and revived, notably by Christopher Herrick.
The title of his Marche Héroïque suggests French models, but this piece, written for the blind concert organist Alfred Hollins, has an Elgarian stature as a reminder that Lemare was flourishing in London when the 'Pomp and Circumstance' Marches were being written.
The Italian composer Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) had something of a dual musical personality. He wrote operas and many other forms of music, but he was also a concert organist on the international circuit who died at sea returning from an American tour. Coincidentally, the phrase which establishes itself at the very beginning of his Scherzo has a wave-like motion whose energy gives this piece its impetus as it builds up from quiet flutes to full organ and back in a musical language and texture not too distant from that of Mendelssohn.
Edouard Batiste's (1820-1876) claim to fame was as a teacher of solfeggio, but he was also an 'in vogue' Paris organist who held the post at St Eustache for over twenty years and whose compositions found a ready market in England. He was installed at St Eustache the year before Berlioz's Te Deum was given its premiere there with nine hundred performers including the organ. The Offertoire in D minor is a reminder that for much of the last century, music in French churches aspired to the theatricality of the opera house. Its dramatic curtain-raiser of an opening is followed by a cantilena fit for a coloratura, before another episode of stormy high drama leads the music to a triumphal closing cadence which provides the escape from the dark dungeons of D minor.
The Concert Fantasia on 'Hanover' by Edwin Lemare is based on the famous hymn tune to which the firmament-spanning words of a metrical version of Psalm 104 ('O worship the King') are normally sung. One remarkable quality of Lemare's Fantasia is that even such words as 'O measureless might' do not goad him into an unrelenting diet of full organ. The introduction begins and ends quietly, though the hymn tune enters at its climax in an extended section of double pedalling. The theme and variations are an excuse to explore the quieter stops of the organ. The six variations do not seem to correspond to the six verses of the hymn, except that the fifth variation is in the minor key and the relevant verse begins 'Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail'. The second and sixth variations use Lemare's favourite 'thumbing' technique to bring out the melody, requiring the two hands to play on three manuals at once. After that last variation there is a joyful fugue based on a countersubject to the hymn melody whose familiar lines eventually emerge victorious.
Marcel Dupré (1889-1971) was a masterly executant of the gift for improvisation cultivated by French organists. He also had an intimate knowledge of the organ music of J S Bach, being able to perform it from memory, and producing a performing edition. He was organist at two leading Paris churches, St Sulpice, where he followed Widor, and Notre Dame, where he was organist for about six years while Vierne was absent through illness.
He achieved recognition enough in the French musical establishment to become the Director of the Paris Conservatoire, but he was also a concert organist who was very popular in both Great Britain and the USA. Cortège et Litanie was written in 1921, the year he made his debut in America, and was scored for organ and orchestra. Christopher Herrick plays Dupré's own arrangement for organ solo. It has an opening procession, then the litany is a repetition of snippets of plainchant, as if the accompanying priests are singing the same phrases meditatively over and over again. These gather force and energy as they continue, and combine with the theme of the Cortège to create a spectacular ending.
André Jolivet (1905-1974) was a contemporary of Messiaen, both members in the 'thirties of the same group of composers, who called themselves 'La jeune France', and who were dedicated to cultivating sincerity, generosity, and artistic good faith. The two composers shared a desire to communicate feelings and beliefs through music, and this Hymne à l'Univers is prefaced by a quotation from the visionary theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin whose concern was with man's role in the Universe … 'Rien n'est précieux que ce qui est toi dans les autres, et les autres en toi' — 'The only precious thing is yourself in others, and others in you'.
Jolivet was a pupil of the avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse, but did not share his enthusiasm for serial technique. Even so, this piece, composed in 1961, has a tightly-knit structure. It begins with a combination of rhetorical proclamations with the unfolding of the material from which the piece is built — an angular construction in the pedals and a melody which convolutes itself around a narrow span of notes, rather in the manner of a chanted oriental prayer. It appears first as a dialogue of quiet flutes, and then the trompette starts another dialogue which builds up as the incantatory lines gather clustered chords. Then all is quiet again as the trompette re-adopts the chant,the angular pedal line providing a passacaglia-like repetition. The intensity grows until marching strides are reinforced by rhetoric as the music moves towards an apocalyptic final chord.
Louis-James Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869) was a popular hero of the Parisian organ loft who brought to the house of God the grandeur, the sentimentality and the sensationalism of the opera house. His improvisations were inspired as often as not by topical events and untainted by liturgical relevance. He wrote this Marche as part of a collection called Meditaciones Religiosas, for use in accompanying a procession or as a closing voluntary. It is music which begs an operatic scenario, and which demands just about everything available in terms of registration.
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) was choirmaster at Ste Clotilde, the church which has known Franck, Tournemire and Langlais as its titulaire organists. He later become organist at the fashionable Madeleine church, succeeding Saint-Saëns. His Grand Choeur, from Douze Pièces, is an imposing march but, unlike Lefébure-Wély, his registration instructions do advise the player to leave something in reserve for the ending, which is marked, in disarmingly small print 'Toute la force'. This is a direction which its dedicatee, Henri Dallier, organist at St Eustache at the time, would have had the armoury of pipework to fulfil.
Enrico Bossi borrowed the title Pièce Héroïque from César Franck, and his piece gradually transforms the cautious tread of the beginning into a theme of epic grandeur, though the vast empire in sound it creates suddenly vanishes, leaving only the vestiges of the atmosphere in which the saga opened.
Liszt proclaimed the young Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) 'the greatest organist in the world', one who to his credit tried to stem the popularist tide in French church music, and sought to fashion his compositions with the sense of form and restraint of classical composers. He was in his eighties when he wrote his seven Improvisations, Op.150, of which No.7 ('Allegro giocoso') is a fantasy on a melody which has all the appearances of an old French Noël in dance idiom.
Ian Carson © 1991
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