Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 3 – La Madeleine, Paris
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The Aeolian Hall organ was eminently expressive, all stops except the Open Diapason of Manual I being enclosed. The ten-stop Echo division was installed in its own chamber in an adjoining room at the back of the hall. It contained a second Vox Humana … The chimes on the Aeolian organ were tubular bells, exactly like orchestral bells struck by electrically actioned hammers. Their compass was 20 notes: from A below middle C to E, one and a half octaves above; they sounded an octave higher than the notes played on the keyboard … The Aeolian organ was essentially no different from other instruments of its period either in specification, placement, or mechanical accessories. It did, however, have the advantage of additional control through an automatic player mechanism. This organ for which Saint-Saëns wrote did no more than reproduce the notes as punched on a paper roll … The rolls were perforated by hand by factory workers, euphemistically identified on the labels as The Aeolian Organ guild. All directions for interpretation were printed on the roll with rubber stamps … the swell pedals and the crescendo pedal were operated by the ‘organist’ … The tempo, accelerandi and ritardandi were controlled by the tempo lever.
This instrument is of particular significance in the composition of Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie pour orgue-Aeolian as it seems highly probable that the composer visited and familiarized himself with it when in London for the premiere of his second Cello Sonata, Op 123, at Bechstein Hall on 12 July 1906. At this time he had already received the commission from the Aeolian Company in New York to compose an original work for their automated instruments and it is hard therefore to imagine a man with such capacious curiosity not taking advantage of this happenstance. Although some nineteen transcriptions of Saint-Saëns’ works are to be found in an Orchestrelle catalogue of 1901 they were not made by him and it is unlikely that the composer ever saw one of these instruments. The first draft of the Fantaisie, entitled ‘Morceau écrit pour l’orgue Aeolian’, was almost certainly composed in London, written as it is on manuscript paper manufactured by the London firm of Beale and Chappelle. When he visited New York as part of an American tour in October 1906 Saint-Saëns delivered the finished manuscript in person to Frank Taft, Director of the Aeolian Company, who issued it the following year.
Both the Aeolian Company and Saint-Saëns himself made much of the piece’s prodigious technical demands. In a programme note for their catalogue the Aeolian Company wrote: ‘The Fantaisie was composed especially for the Aeolian pipe organ and in it Saint-Saëns has availed himself of the privileges afforded by the technical facilities of the instrument … [he] has disregarded the limitations of the human performer and has embraced the opportunities of the enormous technique of the Aeolian pipe organ.’ Saint-Saëns confirmed this opinion when he described the work to his secretary and biographer, Jean Bonnerot, as ‘unplayable by the fingers and feet’. This belief, together with the lack of a conventionally notated edition, has condemned the work to obscurity and it was as recently as 1988 that Rollin Smith, working from the first draft and the perforated rolls, reconstructed the work and published it for the first time.
Though written in clearly defined sections, the work flows in a constant stream of invention in which a tripartite introduction is followed by a theme and four variations. The last of these gives way to a more placid central section in F sharp major which introduces a second theme followed by a variation in which the rapid right-hand passagework is designated for the harp. As the Aeolian Hall organ didn’t receive its harp until 1909 it is probable that Saint-Saëns hadn’t heard one by the time of the Fantaisie’s composition, though he was presumably aware that it involved the striking of tuned metal bars. This variation is followed by the introduction of a third theme which is developed, together with the second, towards the finale where the first theme returns in conjunction with the third. Saint-Saëns saved the chimes for this point where Smith has rather splendidly described their use as ‘great clanging orchestral bells pealing in dialogue with the full organ’. On this recording the registration markings of the Aeolian Company rolls have been freely translated to the organ of La Madeleine where ways have been found, with very few exceptions, to play all of the notes written by the composer. The chimes are here performed on a set of orchestral bells.
from notes by Andrew-John Smith © 2012