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Creator of the starry height [4'46]
Here is some really rare music, virtually unknown for a hundred years or more even to organists. The CD brings together organ voluntaries and concert pieces from the Victorian period. Graham Barber has thoroughly scrutinized the large surviving repertoire of the nineteenth century and selected these works as being fully worthy of resurrection. Apart from one transcription they are all original organ compositions, based on hymns, chorales and psalm tunes.
Edward Silas’s Fantasia on ‘St Ann’s Hymn’ unfolds in the manuals above a gently ruminating statement of the hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’, while Oliver King’s Prelude for Lent is a deeply-felt meditation on the first chorale in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The two major works are William Spark’s Theme, Variations and Fugue on ‘The Ancient Vesper Hymn’, and Charles William Pearce’s symphonic poem ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ (Of the Father sole begotten).
The music is played on the organ of Tewkesbury Abbey.
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Whereas the early nineteenth century witnessed a revival of interest in organ chorales in Germany, for example the chorale preludes of J C H Rinck (1770-1846), English composers had no prior tradition on which to build. Where organs existed in English churches – by no means a foregone conclusion – their liturgical use was limited to accompanying the psalm. The practice of playing over or ‘giving-out’ the psalm tune did offer an opportunity for organists to embellish the melody, though they were frequently censured for their lack of taste:
But now the notes are played with such a rattle and hurry instead of method, with such a difference in the length of equal notes, to spoil the time and displease a musician, and so many whimseys instead of graces, to confound the ignorant, that the design is lost, and the congregation takes their tune not from the organ, since they do not understand it, but from the parish clerk, or from one another; which they could better have done, if there was no organ at all. (A Bedford: The Great Abuse of Music, London, 1711).
Only isolated examples of distinct organ compositions based on psalm tunes are known, such as John Blow’s ‘Old 100th’ setting, though, as the eighteenth century wore on, psalm publications began to contain more elaborate organ accompaniments, including independent preludes and interludes. By the nineteenth century, the settings contained in collections by S S Wesley (1834/1842) and Henry Smart (1855) resemble brief sets of hymn variations. While the metrical psalm was an enduring feature of Anglican worship, the eighteenth century saw an explosion in the production of new hymns by writers such as Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Cowper, Augustus Toplady and others. This process continued into the nineteenth century when, additionally, versified forms of plainsong hymns and translations of Lutheran chorales were introduced, along with their traditional melodies.
In addition to its accompanimental role, the organ was required to provide appropriate music before, during and after Divine Service. In the eighteenth century a host of composers published sets of voluntaries to meet this need. Typically these began with a slow, subdued section on the Diapasons, followed by a faster section which might be played on a solo stop such as a Cornet or Trumpet. Various continental influences eventually impacted on this pattern: first the Viennese classical style, notably in the organ works of William Russell (1717-1813) and Samuel Wesley (1766-1837); second, the discovery of the keyboard works of J S Bach, including the great organ preludes and fugues, or ‘Grand Studies’ as they were known; and finally the works of the early Romantics, especially Mendelssohn, who visited England ten times between 1829 and 1847 and whose advocacy of the works of Bach is well documented. Significantly, he edited from original sources four volumes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Organ Compositions on Corales (Psalm Tunes), published simultaneously in Germany, by Breitkopf & Härtel, and in England, by Coventry and Hillier, in around 1845/6.
Most nineteenth-century organ compositions either had abstract titles – voluntary, fugue, sonata, prelude, postlude and so on – or took their names from their Italian tempo marking – Andante (in G), Allegretto (in F) etc. From about 1850 onwards, English composers started to use hymn-tunes in their organ works as thematic material as Mendelssohn had done in his sonatas published in 1845. The idea of using ancient melodies in this way reflected one of the traits of early romanticism – looking to the past for inspiration, the past being seen to represent the natural order of things. A dedicated anglophile and frequent guest of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Mendelssohn was a dominant influence on the Victorian musical scene. An arrangement for organ of his Overture to the Oratorio ‘St Paul’ (premièred in Düsseldorf in 1836 ten years before Elijah in Birmingham) was included in volume No 42 of W T Best’s hundred-volume series of transcriptions for Novello which he produced between 1850 and 1872. Neither Wesley nor Smart pursued technical accomplishment on the organ in a systematic way, as Best did. Being slightly younger, he had the advantage in his formative years of an instrument to practice on, at Pembroke Road Baptist Chapel in Liverpool, boasting the new ‘German’ compass pedal-board that was by then in vogue. Before the 1840s most English organs had no pedal-board, or a rudimentary one, or one which had a non-standard compass. By the date of the Great Exhibition in 1851 Best had become the undisputed champion of the modern organ, and in 1855 he was appointed to the prestigious post of organist at St George’s Hall in Liverpool. Mendelssohn’s cleverly constructed overture, with its prominent use of the chorale Wachet auf, is an ideal vehicle for Best to show off the capabilities of the modern instrument.
In addition to transcriptions, the nineteenth century saw a rapid expansion in the publication of original works for organ, particulary by Novello and Ewer, Ashdown, Coventry and Hillier, and Augener. Novello’s series of Original Organ Compositions started in the 1860s and had reached 450 numbers by 1912. These included the works by Steggall and King recorded here. Charles Steggall was a pupil of William Sterndale Bennett at The Royal Academy of Music, later becoming a professor there. Sterndale Bennett had been hailed by Mendelssohn as one of the most important composers of the time. His songs, piano music and chamber music are certainly compelling and show a strong grasp of romanticism while maintaining a classical purity of style. Some of Sterndale Bennett’s style rubbed off on Steggall who dedicated three early preludes and fugues to his master. Later, as well as being one of the founding members of the College of Organists, he was on the editorial board of Hymns Ancient and Modern, contributing many new tunes himself, including ‘Christ Church’ with words by S Crossman:
Jerusalem on High,
My song and city is,
My home whene’er I die,
The centre of my bliss.
Contemplation of an afterlife where all things would be happily resolved was a recurrent theme in Victorian hymnody. Steggall’s response is to write an optimistic theme beginning with an ascending chord of C major, an exact inversion of the gesture found in the chorale Jerusalem, du hochgebaute Stadt, popular in Germany, which starts with a descending chord of C major. In Steggall’s Postlude, the restless mood of the introduction and ensuing ‘Allegro moderato’ gives way to calm assurance as the hymn melody emerges, played on the Cremona stop. After further musical rhetoric, the hymn eventually reappears triumphant at the end.
Oliver King (1855-1923) belonged to a younger generation of Victorian composers. He was a chorister at St Andrew’s, Wells Street, under Joseph Barnby (later Sir Joseph, Principal of The Guildhall School of Music). In 1874 he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, studying piano and composition, and on his return to London established himself as a concert pianist and professor at The Royal Academy of Music, as well as precentor at St Marylebone Parish Church. His output included songs, a piano concerto and church music. In Leipzig he would have become familiar with the latest German trends in organ composition exemplified in the works of Liszt, J G Töpfer, A G Ritter, G Merkel, Julius Reubke and Josef Rheinberger. Several of his organ compositions employ chorale melodies, including the Prelude for Lent Op 10 No 2, which is a deeply-felt meditation on the first chorale in Bach’s St Matthew Passion: Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen?
Another publishing venture began on 1st January 1869 with the first issue of William Spark’s Organist’s Quarterly Journal. Announcing the series, Spark (born in Exeter, 28 October 1823; died Leeds, 16 June 1897) proclaimed: ‘The Organist’s Quarterly Journal will consist of loud and soft voluntaries, Preludes, Postludes, Fantasias, Offertories, Symphonies, Fugues and other Organ Pieces of different degrees of difficulty and length, and in various styles ancient and modern…’ His enterprise was rewarded by a steady flow of new compositions by English and continental composers, including the works by Silas and Macfarren recorded here.
After study in Frankfurt and Paris, the Amsterdam-born musician Edward Silas (1827-1909) came to England, making his home and career in London from 1852 until his death. He composed many piano, stage and orchestral works, but his most enduring contribution was his œuvre for organ which ran to some thirty-eight works, published between 1868 and 1905. Of all the Victorian organist-composers his style is the most cosmopolitan, encompassing German fantasy, English religiosity, Italian melody and French sensibility in about equal measure. He has the ability to spin a wonderful melody, for example in the opening section of his Fantasia on St Ann’s Hymn where it unfolds in the manuals above a gently ruminating statement of the hymn theme in the pedals (‘O God, our help in ages past’). The second section, ‘Allegro con spirito’, shows that he, like Best, was capable of virtuoso writing for both manuals and pedals.
The prolific composer and Scotsman, George Alexander Macfarren (1813-1887), composed eight symphonies as well as overtures, oratorios and operas, including Robin Hood. A pupil of Cipriani Potter he founded the Society of British Musicians (1834) and the Handel Society (1844). In 1845 he became conductor at Covent Garden, and from 1875 he was principal of the Royal Academy of Music and professor of music at Cambridge, both in succession to Sterndale Bennett. His overture Chevy Chase was conducted by Mendelssohn and Wagner. (It is recorded in a collection of Victorian concert overtures on). His ambition to be a successful opera composer was not fulfilled, though he showed genuine promise in dramatic writing. Most of his small corpus of organ works appeared in the Organist’s Quarterly Journal, the best of these being his Variations on the Psalm Tune ‘Windsor’.
Spark also used the OQJ volumes to publish his own works, including the Ancient Vesper Hymn (Theme, Variations and Fugue). The tune can be found in The Bristol Tune Book (No 215). In 1861 Spark became the first Borough Organist at Leeds Town Hall where a large instrument of 93 stops on five manuals and pedals had been installed in 1859 by Gray and Davison. It was one of the most innovative concert organs of its time, offering opportunities for a great variety of colour, as well as mechanisms for swift execution of passagework and rapid changes of registration. Spark exploits such resources to the full in this set of seven variations, of which the last is a fugal finale.
While most composers found inspiration in post-Reformation hymns, Charles William Pearce (1858-1928) became fascinated by the legacy of plainsong. In the early nineteenth century, members of The Oxford Movement, a grouping associated with high churchmanship, had sought to reform Anglican church worship by reviving past traditions. Pearce saw the possibilities for organ literature, as in the two compositions included here: Creator of the Starry Height (Conditor alme siderum), one of Three Hymn-Studies on Ancient Sarum Melodies Op 25 (1884); and Corde natus ex parentis (Of the Father sole begotten), Op 27 (1885). The first of these is a gentle meditation, the second a wide-ranging fantasia which Pearce calls a ‘Symphonic Poem for Organ’. Describing the melody of the latter, he writes: ‘Around such a theme, florid contrapuntal devices entwine themselves as naturally and as gracefully as do the wreaths of holly and ivy around a Gothic pillar at Christmastide’. The classic image of the typical Victorian Christmas is embodied in this piece – ruddy faces, muffler and fur, picturesque village scenes, festive cheer, church steeple topped with snow and so on. It has very little to do with Gregorian chant, and everything to do with the Victorians’ re-interpretation of the past and their desire, in Nicholas Temperley’s words, ‘to restore through symbolism a sense of wonder and majesty in God’s presence’.
Graham Barber © 2003
Graham Barber © 2003