Organist Nathan Laube Performs Bach and More

Organist Nathan Laube Performs Bach and More 

Jongen: Sonata Eroica, Opus 94
Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses, Opus 54, transcribed by Nathan Laube
J.S. Bach: Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582
Roger-Ducasse: Pastorale
Duruflé: Suite for Organ, Opus 5
 

Jongen: Sonata Eroica, Opus 94

Belgium’s leading twentieth-century composer Joseph Jongen (1873–1953) owes what little posthumous recognition his music has achieved to two sources: organists, for whom his music is a treasure trove, and audiophiles, who have seized on every new release of Jongen’s glittering Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra with delight. (Michael Murray’s supercharged 1984 performance with Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, on Telarc, knocks it out of the park both musically and sonically.)

Lord Berners, writing in 1922, described Jongen’s music as having “remarkable lyric charm and dramatic power.” That’s an accurate assessment, yet Jongen’s prolific output remains all but untapped by subsequent generations. His music for piano—there’s a lot of it—languishes undiscovered; three string quartets, in addition to numerous other chamber works, await rebirth; bouquets of songs go unsavored; a thick pile of orchestral music silently gathers dust. Had Jongen been a mediocrity such neglect might be understandable or even warranted, but he was nothing of the sort.

Jongen’s training proceeded along the usual channels for a first-class talent, albeit Belgium-style: the Liège Conservatory, the Prix de Rome, then organist at several important Belgian churches. Experience-garnering stays in Bayreuth, Munich, and Rome followed. He spent World War I in England, then returned to Belgium and became the director of the Brussels Conservatory. Commissions poured in—including one from Rodman Wanamaker in Philadelphia that resulted in the aforesaid Symphonie concertante. His career proceeded smoothly for the most part, marked by considerable successes and relatively few disappointments.

Jongen originally titled the Sonata Eroica, Opus 94 as Variations, but renamed the work shortly before playing the first performance on November 6, 1930 on a new organ in the concert hall of Brussels’s Palais des Beaux Arts. By labelling the work a “sonata” Jongen was perhaps recognizing its affinity with the B minor Sonata of Franz Liszt, who like Jongen was both pianist and organist. Like the Liszt Sonata, the Sonata Eroica is in a single movement and focuses its energy on a single theme, in this case a folk-like melody that is introduced after a nobly Bachian introduction played unison on manuals and pedals. Gradually the melody acquires increasingly complex variations, finally culminating in a mighty fugue that resolves the sonata’s pervasive minor mode into a radiant sunburst of C-sharp major. 

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Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses, Opus 54, transcribed by Nathan Laube

Composer, conductor, pianist, musicologist, and chronic overachiever, Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47) had little patience for halfway measures. Therefore it makes perfect sense for Mendelssohn to have also been the ranking organ virtuoso of his age. He probably would not have even considered playing organ recitals if the slightest whiff of mediocrity was in the air. His primacy is clearly evidenced by student Charles Edward Horsely’s gushy, if syntactically mangled, appraisal: “I have heard most of the greatest organists of my time, both [sic] English, German and French, but in no respect have I ever known Mendelssohn excelled either in creative or executive ability.”

Therefore it also makes perfect sense for Nathan Laube to fashion an organ transcription of a Mendelssohn piano masterwork, the Variations sérieuses, Opus 54. Written during an era in which variations tended to be frothy crowd pleasers whipped up by nimble-fingered, empty-headed salonistas trotting from one recital hall to another, Mendelssohn’s D minor Variations dwell in an altogether loftier realm: they were intended for an album to aid the creation of a Beethoven monument in Bonn. As such, the theme itself is almost a chorale in its elegant, grave purity; the seventeen variations that follow are structured carefully along dramatic and musical arcs. To be sure, virtuosity is not shunned: Variations 16 and 17 sprint along with all proper effervescence, as does the hell-for-leather coda. But the D minor Variations stand far apart from their flashier, flimsier contemporaries, superb examples of the mid-Romantic at its most accomplished and aspirational.

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J.S. Bach: Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582                            

As instrumental music began its slow rise during the seventeenth century, composers were faced with a troubling challenge: how, in the absence of an overall guiding text, to provide music sans voice with a coherent narrative structure. Nowadays we take it for granted that Beethoven could sustain intelligibility throughout the entire fifteen minutes of the Eroica Symphony’s opening movement, but the sophisticated formal technologies at his disposal had required several centuries to mature. Early and mid-Baroque composers typically strung their instrumental works out of short movements, some in a simple two-part structure, some mimicking the interleaved polyphonic lines of choral music.

Variations provided yet another handy option, in particular variations not of a tune, but consisting of freely-changing musical materials over a clear-cut and repetitive bass line, what Baroque composers called either a passacaglia or chaconne.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), capstone composer of the Baroque era, can be viewed as the nexus of several centuries’ worth of developmental strands. In the case of the Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 those strands included not only the passacaglia, but also the grand improvisatory art of Lutheran church organists and the highly evolved polyphony of the fugue.  

BWV 582 is Bach’s sole organ composition to bear the title Passacaglia. Its depth, maturity, and sweeping majesty would seem to require it to be the work of an appropriately gray-haired master, but the evidence speaks loudly that Bach could not have been more than twenty-seven years old when he wrote it, sometime between 1708 and 1712.

The eight-bar passacaglia theme is harmonically closed (i.e., it ends in a clear cadence) and is maintained scrupulously throughout the work, although it does not always remain in the bass. The initial statement is followed by twenty variations that lead directly into a fugue with its subject derived from the passacaglia theme. Those variations, described by Robert Schumann as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed,” have repeatedly challenged analysts and scholars to find an underlying unifying structure. Theories abound. (Bach scholar Christoph Wolff makes a compelling case for a symmetrical layout.)

The fugue employs the first half of the passacaglia theme for its subject, combining that with several faster-moving countersubjects. Eventually a heaven-rattling chord breaks in with the authority of a thundering Old Testament prophet and brings this altogether titanic composition to an altogether titanic close.

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Roger-Ducasse: Pastorale

Somebody very wise once said: if you create only a single instance of something, make it a good one. Jean Jules Aimable Roger-Ducasse (1873–1954) made it a good one. Unlike Jongen, Dupré, or Vierne, Roger-Ducasse was neither organist nor composer for the instrument; his bailiwick was orchestral music requiring utterly gigantic forces. Consider his 1937 symphonic poem Ulysse et les Sirènes, which outdoes even Mahler in the everything-but-the-kitchen sink department. His 1909 Pastorale might be his sole foray into organ music, but it’s a gem. Perhaps reflecting the influence of Roger-Ducasse’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré, the Pastorale manages to maintain a sense of gossamer lightness despite its daunting technical challenges. It’s worth noting that Roger-Ducasse was implacable about destroying those of his scores he considered second-rate; that the Pastorale survived all that intense self-criticism is testament to its superb quality.

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Duruflé: Suite for Organ, Opus 5

French organist-composers typically develop long-term identifications with a particular church—consider Widor, then Dupré at Saint-Sulpice, Messiaen at Sainte-Trinité, and Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine. For Maurice Duruflé (1902–86) the church was Saint-Étienne du Mont, a strikingly unusual edifice near the Panthéon in the 5th arrondissement, where Duruflé served as organist from 1929 until his death in 1986.

Duruflé was a perfectionist who released works for publishing only with the greatest reluctance, always concerned about shortcomings and/or imperfections. (He may have destroyed as much as 90% of his output.) Even after publication he was inclined to revise, never altogether satisfied with the finished form of his creations. Not surprisingly, his output is small, with his exquisite Requiem, Opus 9 as his best-known legacy.

Duruflé’s solo organ catalog contains just six entries, each a meticulously honed and crafted jewel. Only two are large-scale, multi-movement works, with the Suite for Organ, Opus 5 the clear standout in terms of both popularity and overall scale. Its three movements trace out an emotional arc from somber gravitas through gentle lyricism to unabashed extroversion.

That gravitas is the domain of the first-place Prélude, in E minor. Duruflé tells us about it as follows: “The Prélude, which is somber in character, is composed in the form of a diptych. A single theme, presented in three successive expositions, gradually accumulates the power of the organ. The second part consists of a recitative, developing the first notes of the theme.” What Duruflé does not mention is the sheer accumulative majesty of the movement, as its initial simplicity gradually accretes an imposing bulk of pure sound, all based around the tonal center of E, and making use of the sharply dissonant interval of a tritone—i.e., the diabolus in musica so associated with darkness and angst.

If the first movement echoes the sonic world of Duruflé’s teacher Paul Dukas, the second-place Sicilienne is distinctly Ravellian in its melodies, harmonies, and even overall mood. (This is the movement that will remind listeners most vividly of Duruflé’s beloved Requiem.) Duruflé writes: “The Sicilienne is of classic construction, comprising three statements of the main theme and two episodes. The contrasting of timbres and a quest for color were the composer’s aim, as well putting into relief the evocative character of this genre.” All rather the understatement, given the main theme’s exquisitely shaded contours, the bewitching harmonies, and the breathtaking kaleidoscope of shifting, shimmering colors.

The finale is a Toccata—i.e. “touch” piece—in the grand tradition of virtuoso keyboard writing from Bach through Widor and beyond. As such it is sometimes extracted from the Suite and used as a flashy encore or the like, but it really comes into its own as the capstone of the full suite. Organists may be thankful that Duruflé’s wife Marie-Madeleine (an accomplished organist herself) was devoted to the Toccata and made a few welcome edits to boost players over the piece’s exceptionally large reaches. Over time Duruflé developed a marked aversion to this popular piece, even going so far as to revise it many years after publication, providing an entirely different ending. “Yes, the sauce is there,” he said to Marie-Madeleine, “but there’s no beefsteak, and beefsteak is the main thing.”

Steak and sizzle notwithstanding, Duruflé provided a succinct description, telling us that the Toccata “begins with a short introduction, preparatory to the entry of the rhythmic and vigorous principal theme, given to the pedals. In the middle section, a second theme appears and is later combined with the first. Finally a return to the opening measures, and a brilliant conclusion with the second theme.”

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.