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Hyperion Records

CDA67197 - Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 4

Recording details: June 2004
Hedvig Eleonora Kyrhan, Stockholm, Sweden
Release date: July 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 58 seconds

'Eben's music is uniformly well constructed and reveals the composer's fecund creativity … the performances here are exemplary. The Norwegian organist Halgeir Schiager is an extremely adept advocate of this repertoire. His playing is precise, colourful, rhythmically alert and sensitive to the structure of the music; above all it is highly virtuosic in its crisp attention to detail … in short, this disc offers a generous tribute to Petr Eben, and will be a 'must' for devotees of his music' (International Record Review)

'Recommended for all organists and afficionados' (Fanfare, USA)

Organ Music, Vol. 4
O Boze veliký  [5'21]
Svatý václave  [4'37]
Fantasia I  [6'07]
Fantasia II  [8'16]
Moto ostinato  [5'42]
Finale  [10'45]

Those who have been following Halgeir Schiager’s pioneering survey of Petr Eben’s extraordinary organ works will find any words of recommendation for this new disc unnecessary; for the newcomer, the twelve Protestant Chorales at the heart of this recital will provide an excellent starting-point—the most literally contemporary (composed in 2000) music in the cycle, and yet reassuringly rooted around the traditional chorale melodies of the Church.

Petr Eben is one of the foremost composers from the Czech Republic. Also known as an organist, he primarily performs his own works, but is also highly sought-after as an improviser on both the piano and the organ. His works for organ are among his most popular.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Petr Eben is one of the foremost composers from the Czech Republic. His reputation extends well beyond his native country and his works are frequently performed. He was born on 22 January 1929 at Zamberk and grew up in Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, where he learned to play both the piano and the organ. During the war he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and once hostilities had ceased he began to study the piano and composition at the Prague Academy of Music. Since 1955 he has taught in the Department of Musical Theory at Charles University in Prague, and since 1990 has been a professor at the Academy. Although composing forms the central focus of his activity, he also gives many concerts – primarily performing his own works – and is much sought-after as an improviser on both the piano and the organ. In this capacity he performs at festivals throughout Europe, America and Australia. Despite his creative diversity, Petr Eben devotes himself to two particular areas of composition: choral and organ music. Petr Eben was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of London’s Royal College of Organists in 2000.

Petr Eben writes …
I wrote A Festive Voluntary (Variations on Good King Wenceslas) in response to a commission from the Southern Cathedrals Festival for the re-opening of the Chichester Cathedral organ. My immediate thoughts as to the main character of this work are clear: it should be festive, joyous and display the richness and diversity of colours of the instrument. Thus I decided to write a continuous set of variations with varying combinations of stops, especially the reeds. Looking for a theme for the variations, I wanted to find something that would connect my country with Great Britain. I found this in the person of our King and national saint and the English medieval tune based on the lovely carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’. I took this tune as the basis for the Voluntary, in the hope that the joyfulness of this melody would be reflected in my variations.

‘Amen, es werde wahr’ was commissioned by the German publishing house of Möseler, to be included in the volume of organ music entitled ‘A Chorale by contemporary composers’. The editor divided the nine verses of ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’ among nine composers, and asked them each to compose a movement, in order to create a powerful Lutheran piece. I was assigned the last verse, beginning with the words ‘Amen, es werde wahr’. I composed a series of variations on the Chorale theme which rounds off the collective work.

The Two Chorale Fantasies were commissioned by the Prague Spring Festival and published in a collection of compositions for organ from which competitors in the 1972 international organ competition could chose a test piece. The purpose for which they were written determined the virtuoso character of the two pieces; this was explicitly required in order to demonstrate the technical ability of the contestants. In spite of this external framework, however, I based my compositions in both cases entirely on the character and content of the chorales.

The Chorale Fantasy I (‘O Boze veliký’) is based on a chorale published in 1659 in the Amsterdam Hymn Book by the bishop and pedagogue Jan Amos Komensky (1592–1670, also know by his Latin name Comenius). He set a new Czech text to an old Polish hymn of repentance (‘Almighty God, all beings obey Thy laws, and must sing Thy praises at all times’). I, however, adhered to the content of the original text, which begins: ‘Mysl, covece, vzdycky, jak smrt bere prec vsecky’ (‘Remember, O man, at all times, that death snatches every man away’).

Thus the introductory forte plunges in two waves down into the low piano regions, in which the theme of the chorale is quoted twice. The sombre, threatening sextuplets lead into a series of variations (as yet without mixtures), which develop into more and more agitated rhythms as the crescendo increases. These rhythms should never be allowed to lose their impetus or develop into a scherzando; the staccati should retain something of the nature of a Dance of Death leading to the strict repetition of the chorale in the final forte–fortissimo.

By way of contrast I chose an entirely different type of chorale of the Chorale Fantasy II (‘Svatý václave’). It is one of the oldest Czech melodies, probably from the thirteenth century, although judging by a comment made by the chronicler Benes Krabice z Weitmile it may well go back to the twelfth century. It is an invocation of the Czech national patron Saint Wenceslaus (‘Saint Wenceslaus, forefather of Bohemia, our prince, intercede for us with God and the Holy Spirit’); the hymn was always sung at the coronations of the Bohemian kings and is still sung in church today. With the exception of the short, quiet trio in the middle section, this piece is full of solemn emotion and majestic in character and can to some extent be registered with festive reed stops; the motifs are similar to fanfares and the rhythms are often reminiscent of the sound of drums.

The second Fantasy was originally an improvisation made for a recording to the memory of Jan Palach after his tragic death in 1968.

The Protestant Chorales explore the art of improvisation – once expected from every musician, now all-but gone from the concert hall, thanks to increasing specialization by both composers and performers. Musical improvisation was once a required part of the training of every musician; this is no longer so. At least in one area, however, improvisation has survived and is still an important factor in both the training and concert practice of musicians for this instrument: the organ. The tradition of improvisation has survived in organ playing while being lost to almost all of the other forms of music performance with the exception of jazz. I think this is particularly regrettable, because improvisation belongs to the most delightful forms of musical diversion. Very little else can compare to the pleasure of sitting at an instrument, laying the music aside, and just carrying on a dialogue with the instrument.

There are, however, three fundamental prerequisites for improvisation, one of which the musician must be born with: harmonic conception. Musicians who don’t have this capability have to resort to theoretical knowledge of harmony to improvise melodies and modulations. The result is usually sluggish improvisation that is too complicated and intellectual. Both of the other prerequisites can be learned. One is technical agility in playing the instrument, and the other is spontaneity of thought processes in relation to the knowledge and mastery of the instrument, the rules of thematic development, the formal construction, the various styles etc., making it possible rapidly to coordinate all of these elements.

The organ is an instrument particularly suited to improvisation, since the player not only has a number of keys available under his hands and feet but also a variety of colours; and the opportunity for the pedal to be able to play an additional melodic line gives scope to enrich the musical expression further.

The Protestant Church of the Bohemian Brothers contacted me in the years after 1960. At that time a new, extensive edition of the protestant hymn book with several hundred chorales was being prepared. Naturally, many of the chorales from earlier editions, which were written exclusively in four-part harmony, were used. Since these were arrangements dating from earlier centuries, the Bohemian Brothers wanted to make a point of including several chorales with newer, more modern accompaniment in the new edition. I was requested to set a series of chorales in a modern but not too dissonant style.

Every chorale is also accompanied by a short improvisation model to demonstrate the technique. These are, of course, not concert improvisations but rather short preludes and interludes for the chorales. When I quote melodies in a concert improvisation, I don’t merely use the melodic material but also employ my own themes. In these chorales, I concentrate exclusively on the themes of the particular piece and always finish in its key so that another verse can be sung.

‘Habent sua fata libelli’ (‘Books have their own fate’) wrote Ovid. And the same certainly applies to music: compositions have their own destinies that can never be anticipated. I wrote Sunday Music for organ between 1957 and 1958 at a time when few people showed any interest in organ music. Indeed, concerts in churches were generally not allowed, and concert halls with an organ were comparatively rare. All my colleagues shook their heads and said it was a nonsense. But I felt deeply that I had to write something for the organ, even though I was aware that the work might languish in the drawer of my desk. But contrary to all expectation, it was not long before the piece received its first performance, was published and soon appeared on record in many different countries – thus becoming, quite unexpectedly, my most frequently performed work.

I intended the title ‘Sunday Music’ – Musica dominicalis – to imply that this was not everyday music but a work of celebration. From a formal point of view, it is an organ symphony in four movements. The first movement adapts in a highly concentrated way a Gregorian theme, ‘Ite, Missa est’, that is played every Sunday of the year and therefore lends itself to Sunday music. I use both motifs of this theme to form a stark contrast: ‘Ite’ is first played tutti, ‘Missa est’ piano; and later in the piece the ‘Ite’ is played on the pedals, and the ‘Missa est’ on the manuals. It goes without saying that I treated the Gregorian themes freely, enabling me to employ quicker rhythms. The movement ends with a bitonal cadence, after which the theme is heard once more, played tutti and with thick chords. The slow and quiet second movement features two themes which, although they are not quotes, resemble Gregorian music. The movement moves to a mighty climax, and after a few chords the theme from the first movement rings out once more like bells.

Just as the two Fantasias are linked by a common theme, so the final two movements are connected through mood. The third movement of a symphony is usually a scherzo. The third movement in this piece is characterized throughout by a pronounced rhythm: the wars and struggles described in the Sermon on the Mount and the Apocalypse wash over humanity. A new theme to the same rhythm is heard alternately in the descant and on the pedals. The Finale is based on a free adaptation of the first subject of sonata form, with its exposition, development and recapitulation. The virtuoso bass figure at the outset depicts the gradually receding noise of battle, which is followed – also on the organ – by a dramatic trumpet fanfare that summons the survivors after the battle. The ‘Kyrie, lux et origo’ from the Easter Mass is heard pianissimo as a secondary theme. Sometimes I adapt a Gregorian theme, increase the intervals and use them in different tonalities.

The distant sound of battle is heard again in the development section, the first theme appears again in the recapitulation, powerfully this time on the manuals and later on the pedals; and a new theme appears in the coda, symbolizing all positive aspects of existence. The beginning of the celebrated Marian antiphon ‘Salve Regina’ brings the work to a hymn-like close. It is nothing less than the victory of good over evil, culminating in a hymn-like praise of the Creator.

Petr Eben © 2005
English: Roland Smithers

Other albums in this series
'Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 1 – Job' (CDA67194)
Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 1 – Job
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67194 
'Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 2 – Faust' (CDA67195)
Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 2 – Faust
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67195 
'Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 3' (CDA67196)
Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 3
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67196 
'Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 5' (CDA67198)
Eben: Organ Music, Vol. 5
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67198 
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