Christopher Herrick takes a break from his series of 'Organ Fireworks' to present an inspiring programme entitled 'Organ Dreams'.
Recorded in The Temple Church in the heart of the City of London, this disc includes works by Walford Davies and Thalben-Ball who consecutively held the post of Organist at the Church earlier this century. The organ itself is a vintage Harrison instrument originally built for a Scottish stately home in the 1920s. After the War it was brought to London by Thalben-Ball.
This is a rare recording of the instrument, and the repertoire chosen by Christopher Herrick is ideally suited to both the organ itself and the acoustic of the church.
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'The organ is thought-provoking. As one touches the organ, the imagination is awakened, and the unforeseen arises from the depths of the unconscious. It is a world of its own, ever new, which will never be seen again, and which comes out of the darkness, as an enchanted isle comes from the sea.' (Saint-Saëns, 1899)
Born in Stuttgart, Sir Julius Benedict had a long and distinguished career as both pianist and conductor. He worked in Vienna and Naples before finally settling in London, where he gradually gained a reputation as a composer – most notably with his opera The Lily of Killarney. He studied with Weber and Hummel but his own music is more Italianate; the influence of Rossini was clearly stronger than that of his birthplace. March of the Templars, with its spiky principal theme and broader second subject, was played in 1887 as Queen Victoria entered Westminster Abbey for her Jubilee Service. This arrangement by W T Best, the celebrated organist of St George’s Hall, Liverpool, is typically flamboyant, reflecting his legendary reputation as a recitalist.
Sir Henry Walford Davies became organist of The Temple Church, London, in 1898 and stayed for the next twenty years. There then followed four years of joint directorship with George Thalben-Ball before he finally handed over the reins in 1923. He studied composition with Parry and received encouragement and practical help from Elgar, but despite early success with the cantata Everyman, he never really fulfilled his early promise. In a wide-ranging career his true fame came as a choir-trainer and, most significantly, as an educationalist and popular broadcaster. Solemn Melody, his most famous composition, was written in 1908 for organ and strings. It is heard here in J E West’s arrangement for organ alone. The repeat of the melody, which develops to a climax for full organ, is enlivened by reharmonization and variations in the part-writing.
William Spark was a colourful character and a prolific composer but it is for his writings, often witty and acerbic, that he is more likely to be remembered today. They paint a fascinating picture of musical life in England in the second half of the nineteenth century. He became an articled pupil of S S Wesley in his home town of Exeter in 1840. When, two years later, Wesley moved to Leeds, Spark went with him. He held several posts, culminating in that of St George’s, Leeds, in 1850. In 1859, with his friend Henry Smart, he designed the organ for the newly built Leeds Town Hall. It was one of the largest instruments in the country at the time, allowing them, during the course of its construction in London, to host a dinner inside its swell box. As the result of a competition held the following year and adjudicated by W T Best, Spark was appointed Municipal Organist. The result of the competition did not please everyone, particularly the residents of nearby Huddersfield – home town of a rival candidate – and accusations of dirty deeds led to heated debates at meetings of the Leeds Town Council. However, Spark kept the job and stayed until his death in 1897. After an introduction and straightforward presentation of the hymn-tune Jerusalem the Golden – this version of the tune has one note different to that in general use today – Spark’s four variations and fugal finale are cast in traditional mould, exploiting the characteristic colours of the Romantic organ. The quiet ending, with its written-out slowing down, is the more effective for being unexpected.
Although his name has all but disappeared from the reference books, in his day Antoine Édouard Batiste enjoyed considerable fame. He held the post of organist at St-Eustache in Paris from 1854 until his death, and as one of the most popular recitalists of his generation was particularly noted for the breadth of his repertoire, as well as for his skill as an accompanist and improviser. Along with that of his contemporary Lefébure-Wély his music quickly went out of fashion, but even if it sometimes smacks more of the salon than the sanctuary, at its best it has great melodic charm and a certain ability to thrill. His most famous composition, the Andante in G, had no fewer than fifty separate English editions, including one for the unlikely combination of two mandolins and piano. William Spark, who thought well enough of Batiste’s organ works to edit them for English publication, was less enamoured of the man, describing him as a ‘fat, podgy, round-faced gentleman, full of glib conversation and anecdote’. The Offertoire in G major is in a lilting 9/8 with a rather more agitated middle section leading to a thunderous reprise of the main tune.
William Lloyd Webber, the father of Andrew and Julian, was a distinguished recitalist and teacher. He was for many years organist of Central Hall, Westminster, and director of the London College of Music. Prelude, the first of Three Recital Pieces dating from 1952, develops its opening theme to a rhapsodic climax and then melts away towards a deliciously bluesy final cadence.
In the triple role of performer, composer and successor to Franck and Tournemire at Ste-Clotilde, Paris, Jean Langlais was the inheritor of a grand tradition. His works of homage to Bach, Rameau and Frescobaldi place him in an even greater lineage. Written in 1951, the eight movements of Hommage à Frescobaldi invoke the spirit of the seventeenth-century Italian master – ‘a giant among organists’ – who inspired not only his own countrymen but also helped to shape the keyboard style of Buxtehude and Bach. The theme is in the bright triple time of Frescobaldi’s variation-form works, but with the modal inflections so characteristic of Langlais. The three variations are playful and skittish with a typically throwaway ending.
César Franck stands as the polar opposite to Batiste and his like. Although even he could enter the knockabout world of his contemporaries when appropriate, his music is generally on a loftier and more spiritual plane. This elevated dimension is nowhere more evident than in the Trois Chorals, his last completed compositions. Written in the country while recuperating after an accident, they form a remarkable trilogy, each with its own distinctive colour and character. Choral No 1 in E major is the most opulent of the three, and probably comes closest to Vierne’s description of Franck’s improvisation: ‘A polyphony of incomparable richness, in which melody, harmony and structure vied with one another in originality and emotional conception, traversed by flashes of manifest genius.’ The opening pages provide the composer with a wealth of melodic material which he then develops, extends and transforms over the course of the three main sections of the work. A brief fantasia-like section links the second and third paragraphs; the third part occupies over half the length of the entire piece. Although at key structural moments the music is firmly anchored in E major, the fluency with which Franck filters his thematic material through the harmonic spectrum is quite breathtaking. The work ends in a triumphant blaze with the chorale-like theme which has ended each of its major divisions.
Described by Parry as ‘the most beautiful tune in the world’, the traditional ‘Londonderry Air’ first appeared in print in the middle of the nineteenth century. The words most often associated with it, ‘O Danny boy’, are the work of Frederick E Weatherly. Paul Spicer has arranged it as Dreams of Derry specially for this recording, giving full range to his harmonic imagination. At one point the score is marked ‘louden lots’ in homage to an earlier arranger, Percy Grainger.
In 1799 Ludwig van Beethoven made the acquaintance of the widow and daughters of the Count of Brunswick and was soon, as the teacher of the two young Countesses, an honoured guest at their country estate. At the instigation of her mother, Countess Josephine married Count Joseph Deym, the owner of the waxworks museum for whom Mozart had written his three pieces for mechanical organ. Beethoven himself was interested in all sorts of musical automata and wrote three pieces especially for the Count’s collection. The composer was particularly concerned with string quartet writing at this time, bringing to fruition the Six String Quartets, Op 18. The arching melodic lines of the Adagio in F major suggest a quartet slow movement, while the high degree of ornamentation betrays it as a work not originally designed for human hands.
Sir George Thalben-Ball’s dedication of his Elegy to Walford Davies demonstrates the esteem and affection in which he held his predecessor at The Temple Church. Originally improvised at the conclusion of a broadcast Evensong, Thalben-Ball’s work takes the outline and characteristic intervals of Solemn Melody, making something quite fresh and affecting from them.
It is hard to imagine just how devastating the chaotic premiere of The Dream of Gerontius in October 1900 was for Edward Elgar, who had poured so much of his spirit into the work. In spite of the encouragement of close friends who could see its true worth, the inadequacies of the performance plunged the composer into the depths of despair. Even when his close friend Ivor Atkins programmed the Prelude in an organ recital at Worcester, barely a week after the Birmingham performance, he was too upset to attend, seeking solace instead on the golf course. Within two years, however, triumphant performances in Germany, Sheffield and at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester had all but expunged the memories of that dreadful day; the rest, as they say, is history. The organ arrangement of the The Angel’s Farewell, which Novello published, is by Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral and another close friend and champion of Elgar’s music. When Elgar’s friend at Novello, A J Jaeger (the subject of the ‘Nimrod’ Variation), first heard the composer play this music he described it as ‘uncanny’ and went on: ‘Its very simplicity is its wonder, for it is a kind of simplicity I have never met with before, so aloof from things mundane, so haunting and strangely fascinating.’
The extraordinarily precocious Charles-Valentin Alkan won a Premier Prix in piano at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven, and went on to take similar awards for harmony and organ. He enjoyed considerable success as a child prodigy and won the admiration of Schumann and Liszt, but for some reason he always felt himself to be in the shadow of the latter. He enjoyed the close friendship of many influential people, including Chopin and George Sand, but became increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to promote himself as either a pianist or a composer. Typical of his idiosyncratic behaviour was his decision to resign the post of organist at the Paris Synagogue before he had even taken it up, thus depriving himself of the use of a brand-new Cavaillé-Coll organ. Although the bulk of his output is for the piano – much of it requiring extremes of dexterity and stamina – he also composed several smaller-scale works for the pedal piano, an instrument for which he had a particular fondness. From the 13 Prières, Op 64, and the 11 Préludes, Op 66, both written around 1866, his friend and admirer César Franck selected ten pieces and arranged them for organ. In general the alterations he made were minor ones, consisting mostly of adjustments to the tessitura and figuration in order to make them lie more idiomatically for the organ. Prière No 11 in E major is pastoral in mood; the broader middle section bears the Nobilmente marking so beloved of Elgar.
Stephen Westrop © 1998
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