Michael Hey Organ Recital
In his salad days Charles Ives (1874–1954) was reticent about sharing his passion for music; when asked what he played, he typically answered “shortstop.” But there was nothing reticent about his earliest music, including the astonishing 1891 Variations on America, written for a Fourth of July celebration when Ives was just seventeen years old but already into his third year as organist for a local church.
The tune itself may be something of a second American national anthem, but it is known in many countries under many names, probably best in its British incarnation as God Save the King/Queen—in which guise it was the subject for an early set of variations by Beethoven. After an extended introduction, Ives states the old melody with all appropriate solemnity then proceeds to run it through a gauntlet of five variations, two interludes, and a coda, some of the variations virtuosic, some reverent, some exquisitely mangled, and some exquisitely silly. Just for example, an ear-bending bitonal variation (each of the organist’s hands tracing out the theme but in different keys) is followed by a whimsical affair that smacks of ice cream suits, carnival midways, and baseball games.
Is it a satire? Probably not, but Ives noted that his father “didn’t let me do it much, as it made the boys laugh” during the church services.
Virtuosity isn’t just a matter of superbly drilled fingers, a perfectly supple bow arm, or an exquisitely trained vocal apparatus. For the word virtuoso to have any meaning beyond the merely mechanical, it must imply that the innate musical talent is at least equal to, if not superior to, the physical: mind and body must synchronize at the highest levels of artistic aspiration.
Even by such a stringent definition, Marcel Dupré (1876–1971) was a virtuoso’s virtuoso, possessor of limitless technique controlled by a razor-sharp musical mind. As a performer, his energy seemed inexhaustible as he eventually tallied up more than 2,000 concerts worldwide. He taught extensively, both at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau and at the Paris Conservatory. He wrote books on improvisation, music theory, and Gregorian chant. He prepared fine study editions of organ music.
His 1922 Cortège et Litanie, Opus 19, no.2 began life as part of a suite for small orchestra. A friend overheard Dupré playing through it on the piano and exhorted him to repurpose it for organ, which he did shortly thereafter. A third version for organ and orchestra followed, which Dupré premiered on Philadelphia’s giant Wanamaker organ, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Seth Bingham (1882–1972) mirrored Charles Ives in that he grew up in the same environment (small-town Connecticut), worked extensively as a church organist in his youth, and studied with Horatio Parker at Yale. But the similarities end there: unlike Ives, Bingham went on to study in France with Vincent d’Indy and organist-composer Charles-Marie Widor, and he followed an exclusively musical career, whereas Ives made his living in life insurance. Most importantly, Bingham did not share Ives’s restless antinomian spirit; he kept his feet firmly planted in the French organ tradition in which he had been educated. Over his six-decade career Bingham was an active organist, composer, and teacher, holding important faculty positions at both Yale and Columbia University.
Written for David McKinley Williams, organist at New York’s Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Roulade is the third of a suite of six pieces dating from 1923. Cast in a traditional three-part form, it flanks a lyrically beguiling Trio with paired virtuoso toccata-like reprises that luxuriate in the sonic effulgence of the modern organ.
A musical career in mid-nineteenth-century America was no picnic. Opportunities were scarce, there were no conservatories, and audiences were unsophisticated. Connecticut-born Dudley Buck (1839–1909) might well have gone into the shipping business, as his father dictated. But Dudley had his heart set on music, and, in light of his spectacular progress in piano lessons, Buck père relented. A quality musical education being unavailable in America, the nineteen-year-old Buck studied in Leipzig with musical polymaths Ignaz Moscheles and Friedrich Schneider, then followed up in Dresden and Paris. He returned to Hartford during the Civil War and began his long career as organist and composer, working in Chicago, Boston, and eventually New York City.
The erstwhile American musical desert bloomed rapidly in the post-War years as conservatories, orchestras, and opera houses proliferated, European virtuosos began arriving regularly, and audience discernment evolved. Dudley Buck played an important role in that growth, as he established high-class organ and choral music in the United States. It was probably his choral anthems more than anything else that cemented his relationship with American audiences, but he was also an influential teacher and a prolific composer of organ music. He died, showered with honors, in 1909.
Thomas Moore set his sentimental poem The Last Rose of Summer to the tune The Groves of Blarney, itself dating from the late eighteenth century. The lovely melody provided inspiration to numerous composers, including Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Flotow, so it was altogether natural that Buck—trained in Mendelssohn’s own Leipzig Conservatory—would run it through a set of seven Mendelssohnian variations flanked by introduction and coda. The craftsmanship is impeccable and the organ writing is effective; lesser light he may have been, but Dudley Buck nonetheless claims a rightful place of honor in the history of American music.
Edward Elgar (1857–1934) had a difficult career. Always scrambling to make a living, self-made rather than university-trained, and staunchly Catholic, he was the odd man out among English composers, who tended to be well-heeled Protestants with degrees from the best schools. He bounced from sickening failures—such as the disastrous premiere of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius—to glorious triumphs, such as his Symphony No. 1.
But nothing matched the success of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, first heard in Liverpool in 1901 and shortly thereafter at the Proms in London to rapturous acclaim. It’s a cracking good march to be sure, but the hubbub centers around the Trio, now known as “Land of Hope and Glory”—which Elgar re-purposed in his Coronation Ode for King Edward VII, thereby launching the solemn tune on its elevation to unofficial second English national anthem and ubiquitous presence at graduation ceremonies throughout America.
“It’s when I felt the 6,000 pipes of the Saint-Sulpice organ vibrating under my hands and feet that I took to writing my first four organ symphonies,” recalled Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937) in his autobiography. “I didn’t seek any particular style or form. I wrote feeling them deeply, asking myself if they were inspired by Bach or Mendelssohn. No! I was listening to the sonorousness of Saint-Sulpice, and naturally I sought to extract from it a musical fabric—trying to make pieces that, while being free, featured some contrapuntal procedures.”
Saint-Sulpice, second-largest church in Paris, was Widor’s demense, his estate, his empire. There he presided for more than sixty years, and there came his students, his acolytes, and his admirers. The organ, reconstructed and vastly enhanced by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862, has attracted Europe’s finest organists to the present day. But Widor’s spirit hovers above all, the eminent organist-composer-teacher who trained several generations of musicians at the Paris Conservatory and who made Saint-Sulpice into a mecca for organists.
Widor’s compositional legacy is largely focused on the ten organ symphonies that he wrote from the 1870s onwards. Symphony No. 6 in G minor dates from 1878. “Not for small places or shy instruments,” writes Turkish musician Ateş Orga of the Sixth. That assessment is apparent from the get-go, as the opening Allegro movement leaps out of the organ in a full-throated and fortississimo statement of the chorale-like primary theme. The movement blends sonata form, in which a relatively gentle recitative-like passage serves as the secondary theme, with variations, as it sends the chorale melody through an array of fascinating transformations and elaborations, culminating in a peel-the-paint-off-the-walls closing Agitato.
Even if this 2014 commission from Saint Laurence’s Church of Ludlow started out as a contemplation on the martyrdom of Saint Laurence, it quickly morphed into something else. “A little dancing figure occurred to me, and kept demanding my attention. It wasn’t at all what I was looking for, but eventually I gave in and let it have its way . . . It seemed as if the organ pipes themselves wanted to dance, celebrating all the different colors of the instrument” writes British composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), author of popular operas such as Flight and The Adventures of Pinocchio. Partaking partially of American minimalism while including an occasional chant-like underpinning that hints at its original topic, The Dancing Pipes most definitely lives up to its title.
Leo Sowerby’s career bears potent witness to the musical excellence of the American Midwest in the early- to mid-twentieth century. A native of Grand Rapids, MI, Sowerby (1895-1968) studied at Chicago’s American Conservatory and spent much of his professional life in Chicago, after acquiring some finishing touches in Italy as the first American recipient of the Prix de Rome in composition.
Sowerby taught composition at the American Conservatory for almost four decades, serving an equally long term as organist at Chicago’s Saint James Episcopal Cathedral. His lasting legacy has been in organ and choral music, although he wrote voluminously in many genres and received the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for his cantata The Canticle of the Sun Prairie.
In Sowerby’s America the organ was by no means restricted to churches but had become an integral part of everyday life, whether in movie theaters, ballrooms, schools, concert halls, or even on the yachts of high-toned swells. Grand symphonic pipe organs by makers such as Skinner and Austin were very much the order of the day, and Sowerby, a master organist as well as an authentic Midwestern compositional voice, was in a perfect position to carve out a solid niche in a burgeoning new repertory.
Sowerby wrote Pageant in 1931 as a showpiece for the Italian virtuoso Fernando Germani, who upon receiving the score is said to have commented “Now write for me something really difficult!” Actually, the piece is more than difficult enough, designed to challenge Germani’s stunning pedal technique and providing a thorough workout for any organist who cares to engage it. There is nothing churchy about Pageant; consisting of a theme with variations preceded by an introduction on pedals alone, it is an exuberant romp filled with allusions to Tin Pan Alley, exploiting the kaleidoscopic colors of the American symphonic organ to their fullest.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.