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Hyperion Records

CDD22029 - Mendelssohn: Music for organ
CDD22029
(Originally issued on CDA66491/2)

Recording details: November 1990
St Paul's Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: September 1997
Total duration: 138 minutes 52 seconds

'Excellent performances. The Hyperion recording engineers have done a marvellous job in capturing the many nuances of the powerful five-manual instrument in the cathedral' (Soundscapes, Australia)

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Like Mozart, Mendelssohn was regarded as one of the finest pianists of his day but also maintained a life-long interest in the organ. In the same year as his first composition for piano (1820) came his first for organ, a sombre, slow-moving chordal Prelude in D minor. While he continued to learn the piano, and acquire early a formidably versatile technique under Ludwig Berger, his chief musical mentor, Carl Zelter, covered wider ground to include two of the formative influences on Mendelssohn’s later writing for the organ—a study of J S Bach and, from its first publication in 1821, the Choralbuch of Michael Gotthardt Fischer (1773–1829). Mendelssohn wrote a conservative set of variations on one of the tunes in this book, and Fischer’s own organ works, too, form a vital ingredient in the development of writing for the instrument in a new, flexible and dramatic yet idiomatic way. He was organist at Erfurt (also a Bach connection) and his virtuoso writing for both pedals and manuals is a hitherto underestimated force in the development of organ-writing in the early Romantic period. A W Bach (only a distant relation to the great Bach family) was another leading organist, and also composer, who directly influenced the young Mendelssohn, this time through a course of formal instruction.

It should be remembered that by 1800 the organ on the mainland of Europe had sunk to perhaps the lowest level of interest and involvement in the general musical scene in its long and distinguished history. The almost continuous military, social, and political upheavals of the second half of the eighteenth century culminated in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the consequences of which reached deep and wide into the fabric of Church and State. Even as late as 1823, Mendelssohn wrote vividly of a visit to Breslau: ‘Then he showed me the inside of the organ itself. Shot and shell have struck many pipes so they are useless.’ From other sources we know that this was not an isolated case. Many formerly notable instruments had large segments which had lapsed into disrepair, and much war damage had remained untended. Another contributory factor to the organ’s isolation was its inability to follow stylistic developments as quickly as they occurred in the mainstream of musical activity. Until the inventiveness of the Industrial Revolution in the early-nineteenth century provided the mechanical means, the organ remained intractible to the demands of flexible dynamics and a rapidly eliding spectrum of colour. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn continued to compose for the organ and the most notable of these early compositions are a soft Andante (9 May 1823), entirely characteristic in manner, and, from three months later, the variations on a chorale from Fischer’s book.

But it was the first of eventually ten visits to England (in 1829) which fused together a number of elements that were to form a lasting influence on Mendelssohn’s development as an organist and composer for the instrument. Fresh from his own revival of the St Matthew Passion earlier that year, he found an active Bach lobby in London led by Samuel Wesley, and an equally active native school of organ playing and composition enriched by a living use of counterpoint fostered by England’s stylistic isolation and the continuing influence of Handel. In Wesley’s large-scale voluntaries in several movements, often starkly contrasted in mood, we can see the formal seeds of Mendelssohn’s Opus 65 Sonatas; certainly he knew at least one of them which Wesley had dedicated (in 1829) to Thomas Attwood, pupil of Mozart, Composer to the Chapel Royal and, from 1796, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was at Attwood’s house in Norwood that Mendelssohn stayed for over two months recovering from a carriage accident in September 1829, and their friendship was to last until the former’s death nine years later. The accident also prevented Mendelssohn from attending his sister Fanny’s wedding in Berlin on 3 October, though he wrote her an organ piece of which we shall hear more later.

Returning home in December, it was scarcely six months before, at Goethe’s suggestion, he set out again—for Italy. The letters from this journey are particularly illuminating of both vocal and instrumental performance practice and, despite Mendelssohn’s tart comments on the tawdry fare served up by Italian organists, he wrote in Rome on 8 March 1831 a Nachspiel (or Prelude and Fugue) in D, ideas from which he was to use again, and on his return journey through Switzerland that August, at Engelberg he noted: ‘I played two new pieces of mine on the organ this afternoon in the church, and they sounded rather good.’ In an important letter (24 August 1831) he describes his accompaniment of a Mass and an improvisation on the Credo: ‘A fantasia on that went rather well; for the first time, I wanted to write such a thing down.’ He details the progress of the piece: ‘… and then in long notes with the continuing arpeggios I brought out the theme on the pedals so that it finished on A. Over this sustained pedal-point I played more arpeggios, also with left hand alone in order to begin the Credo theme in the right hand above.’ His manuscript example confirms that here was, in embryo, the brilliant texture he employed, fourteen years later, at the end of the chorale variations which form the opening of the D minor Sonata, Opus 65 No 6.

In 1832 Mendelssohn was again in England, though primarily as a pianist, and became known to Vincent Novello who not only published his first book of Songs without words, but also asked for some organ music. Mendelssohn complied the following year with a D minor Fugue and a short Andante in G minor. Also in 1833, on the second of two short visits that year, Attwood invited Mendelssohn to play the outgoing voluntary at St Paul’s Cathedral on five successive occasions—a C minor Fugue improvised at one of them was written up the following year and in January 1835 was presented to Attwood (with another in D) ‘arranged … as a duet … as I think you told me once that you wanted something in that way’. (In England where pedal-boards and pedal-playing after the Continental pattern were—considerably due to Mendelssohn’s influence and example—only now being introduced, duet-playing was by no means uncommon; Samuel Wesley had arranged Bach’s Trio Sonatas and ‘St Anne’ Fugue in this way and contributed some original music of his own for the medium.)

Mendelssohn now entered a period of intense contrapuntal creativity, culminating in the publication of Six Preludes and Fugues, Op 35, for piano (into which went a revision of the D major duet for Attwood) and, for issue by both Novello and Breitkopf & Härtel in the spring of 1837, the Three Preludes and Fugues, Op 37, for organ, dedicated to Attwood. At the end of 1836 Mendelssohn revised the C?minor Fugue and wrote on 1 December a new one in G, reflecting certain technical details, for example the opening on the pedals, and the long dominant and tonic pedal-points, from the Rome Nachspiel; between 2 and 6 April 1837 he wrote the three Preludes and revised Novello’s D minor Fugue of 1833 to complete the set. Their masterly fusion of old and new styles was of immense influence on the development of nineteenth-century organ music. The first Prelude recasts in organ terms the contrapuntally active passagework clothed in Romantic harmony found in many early works (the fine but little-known Trumpet Overture for example); the second continues the expansive lyricism of the first Fugue, a style much to be imitated in later English organ music; the third Prelude sets passagework of pianistic virtuosity against a recurring fugal section—a device which was to be developed in the Organ Sonatas, Op 65.

In September 1837 Mendelssohn directed St Paul in Birmingham Town Hall, where he also played Bach’s ‘St Anne’ Prelude and Fugue; he played again at St Paul’s Cathedral and, two days later, performed ‘six extempore fantasias’ and Bach’s great A minor Fugue on the new organ at Christ Church, Newgate Street: ‘His extempore playing is very diversified—the soft movements full of tenderness and expression, exquisitely beautiful and impassioned—and yet so regular and methodical that they appear the production of long thought and meditation … in his loud preludes there are an endless variety of new ideas totally different from those usually in vogue; and the pedal passages so novel and independent, so solemn and impressive, so grand and dignified, as to take his auditor by surprise.’ He played again on each of his visits in 1840 and 1842, and on 25 July 1844 he wrote to his sister: ‘Look out the A major organ piece I composed for your wedding … I have promised an English publisher [Coventry and Hollier] a whole book of organ pieces and as I am writing them out one after another, that old one suddenly occurred to me. I love the beginning, but detest the middle, and am completely rewriting it with another chorale fugue, on Aus tiefer Noth.’ Fanny’s manuscript was not forthcoming so he completed from memory what was to become the first movement of Opus 65 No 3.

On holiday at Soden near Frankfurt in 1844, Mendelssohn wrote seven organ pieces between 21 July and 18 August; he then conducted the Zweibrücken Festival and told Coventry on 29 August that he had ‘been very busy about the organ pieces … and they are nearly finished. I should like to call them Three Sonatas … instead of Voluntaries.’ He resumed work on 9 and 10 September with three more pieces and the revision of an F minor Fugue (which, together with two others, in E minor and C, he had written in 1839) and—amazingly—the next six days saw the completion of the E minor Violin Concerto. At this point Mendelssohn clearly envisaged three organ sonatas in F, D, and A, but other commitments interrupted work until 19 December. By 2 January he had expanded the project by composing two more sequences of pieces, in B flat and C, though none of the by-now five sonatas had reached their definitive form. On 26/7 January 1845 he composed the whole of what was to become Sonata No 6 in D?minor and set about painstakingly sifting, revising, and rejecting the rest of the material.

The Sonata No 1 in F minor (originally Nos 1 and 3 were in reverse order) opens with one of the strongest movements in the whole group, in which the chorale Was mein Gott will gescheh’ allzeit is set in stark contrast against a predominantly fugal movement. After a lyrical Song without words the contrast, this time between quiet questions in recitative and full organ answers, is revived before the final toccata. Mendelssohn ultimately rejected the 1839 F minor Fugue, and also the Andante in F major of 21 July 1844, a gentle trio, which are included here separately.

Only the opening two movements of Sonata No 2 in C minor were new (the Adagio having a particularly subtle texture); the third reworks the opening of the 1831 Nachspiel, and the last is a revision of another of the 1839 fugues. Of the two further C major movements not used, the march-like Allegro maestoso in C major is included here separately. To complete the Sonata No 3 in A major, Mendelssohn added only a short, ruminatively tuneful movement—a revision of the wedding piece from 1829.

Sonata No 4 in B flat major caused the composer much trouble, both the expansive prelude and Andante (the latter originally a march) being rewritten; the energetic and tuneful Allegro in B flat major was composed first but rejected in favour of a fugue on a similar subject to the present finale. This itself was revised (to make the subject more idiomatic to the pedals) and enclosed within its chordal introduction and coda at the same time as the flowing Allegretto was added.

Out of the various movements in D from which Mendelssohn could have compiled Sonata No 5 in D major and Sonata No 6 in D minor, he rejected two which are recorded here. In the Andante in D major a simple theme is followed by four variations of poise and charm, a complete contrast to the powerful Allegro, Chorale and Fugue in D major written two days later. Sonata No 5 had originally a variant of the opening chorale (probably Mendelssohn’s own, but similar to Dir, dir Jehovah, will ich singen) before the finale (then with semiquaver figuration rather than triplets and with many changes of manual), while the lilting second movement was in D (rather than B) minor; unusually with Mendelssohn, it is debatable which is the superior form. Sonata No 6 is permeated by the chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich; it opens with four successively more brilliant variations on it; the succeeding fugue takes the opening phrase for its subject, and in the valedictory finale, the last phrase is found in the pedals.

The Sonatas were published on 15 September 1845 and although Mendelssohn only performed them in private, he witnessed the public success of No 3 in London in 1847. He himself, shattered by both the strain of composing, performing, and revising Elijah, and by the death of his sister, played the organ for the last time that summer at Ringgenberg near Interlaken, improvising a prelude and fugue in C minor. He died the following November, aged thirty-eight.

Robin Langley © 1997

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