> ORGAN RECITALS - a contemporary view ... ... ... Arthur Butterworth December 2001 MusicWeb(UK)

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ORGAN RECITALS - a contemporary view ... ... ... Arthur Butterworth

At the beginning of last century there were, as nowadays, musical performances of many kinds: notably choral and vocal concerts. The larger centres also had orchestral concerts. Even smaller towns would occasionally welcome a professional orchestra, though rarely as frequently as nowadays when we enjoy the existence of permanently established orchestras up and down the country. Of course there were many local amateur orchestral societies, but from what we know, their expertise was nothing like what is now expected of the many excellent and highly competent amateur bodies who can perform virtually anything in the professional repertoire. Popular musical taste was also well catered for by brass bands, of which there were several thousand; far more than now exist. Brass bands brought watered-down versions of great music - operatic, vocal and symphonic - to the masses who would have but rare opportunity to listen to a professional orchestra, or see a full-blown opera in the theatre.

However, there was one other universally popular musical phenomenon: the organ recital. Celebrated organists, and even the not-so-celebrated local organists would give recitals (they were invariably termed ‘recitals’ rather than ‘concerts’) at which could be heard all kinds of musical transcriptions along with original organ music. It perhaps nowadays seems improbable to imagine that on Saturday evenings a hundred years ago, it was not at all unusual for there to be an organ recital in the local town hall, or even a large church; though recitals in churches in those more religious times might have demanded a more devotional reponse from the listener: certainly applause, as is now openly practised at church performances, would not have been tolerated in such hallowed precincts. Many public halls, especially the town hall, would boast a fine organ. Perhaps its purpose was originally to accompany large-scale choral performance when good and reliable orchestral accompaniment was not so easy to come by. But the organ recital existed also on its own account. Such performances in secular halls would, like the brass band concert, include all sorts of transcriptions from the classics. Also like the brass band concert of those times, the transcriptions might not invariably have been in good taste. The organ, after all, has a style of its own and is not really comparable with the orchestra. What sounds effective in orchestral terms does not necessarily work well on the organ. Berlioz remarked on this, when he said that the orchestra and organ do not really go welI together, for "one is Emperor and the other is Pope" thereby implying that the secullar realms of the orchestra and opera house, are quite different from that of the organ, whose metier is the church or cathedral. Nevertheless, there are many occasions when the two disparate kinds of music can combine most majestically: one thinks of Berlioz’s own "Requiem" and similar large—scale musical utterances.

The organ recital ideally seeks to perform its own - some would say rarefied - kind of music. This usually takes place in a church or cathedral, but by no means exclusively so. However, it is perhaps a truism that organ music tends to be a specialist interest these days. Gone are the days when a popular recitalist (such as the northerner David Clegg) would play transcriptions of "The Ride of the Valkyries" complete with flashing lightning effects as the swell-box was opened and closed, or other sensuous operatic excerpts: the overture to Hérold’s "Zampa", or popular things such as "In a Monastery Garden" when the tremulant would be vastly over-used. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the popular organ came into its own in the cinema, and today is still in evidence in the small electronic instruments that enthusiasts have in the home, But this is not real organ music in the sense that the serious musician regards it.

Serious organ music - comparable with the best in chamber music or symphonic music - is indeed something of a specialist taste, but there is evidence that ‘ordinary’ music devotees (i.e. those not especially conversant with organ recital jargon) do attend recitals, especially by distinguished concert performers. The repertoire is primarily based on one composer above all others: Johann Sebastian Bach. It is sometimes said that no organ recital is complete without something by Bach. But this is not by any means the case. Throughout musical history there have been composers who have written well for the organ. Some of them, it is true, have indeed specialise in music for the instrument, much in the same way that Chopin did for the piano. The early German baroque composers prepared the way for Bach: such names as .Buxtehude, Froberger, Pachelbel, along with other baroque composers from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and not least France. French organ music seems to have reached a high point of its own. in the nineteenth century with César Franck, Vierne, Wider, Guilmant, and many others. Such flamboyant style carried over into the twentieth century with Messiaen, Dupré, Alain, and that fine recitalist who died young, Jeanne Demessieux. Most concert-goers have at least heard of the Poulenc Organ Concerto. The German tradition of Bach was followed notably by Liszt, Rheinberger and Max Reger; while in Scandinavia probably the greatest organ work since Buxtehude’s time is Carl Nielsen’s "Commotio", that vast symphonic piece of imaginative musical structure.

British organ music - one could almost say narrowly "English" - organ music has largely been influenced by the cathedral tradition: Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Parry, Stanford, Walter Alcock, Percy Whitlock, Walter Parratt, Hollins and Wolstenholme (the last two being distinguished blind organists) along with other composers more often than not themselves cathedral organists: among organ buffs their names are legion. Sir Edward Bairstow, long the organist of York Minster wrote one of the most effective of concert pieces, although its true setting seems still to be that of a large cathedral, the Organ Sonata in E—flat composed in i937, comparable to Elgar’ s own Organ Sonata in G.

The peculiar thing is that, apart from Bach, hardly any of the truly great composers contributed much at all to the organ repertoire. Handel’s so-called ‘concertos’ are little more than incidental pieces to be played in the interval of operatic occasions, and hardly explore organ technique in the way that Bach does. Mozart wrote virtually only one remarkable piece; Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms almost nothing to speak of. The great romantic composers hardly recognise the organ at all as a solo instrument. Despite the fact that the organ, perhaps like the string quartet, is so often regarded as something apart from the general mainstream of musical interest, there is some fine music waiting to be explored by those who, while being regular patrons of the sympbony concert or opera house, have never been to an organ recital by a celebrated performer of international repute.

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