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Mander Organs
Nick Bennett

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The classical organ repertoire contains some of the most sublime music ever written - certainly no less deserving of either merit or attention than any other musical genre.

The fact that most concert organists these days are hard at it playing transcriptions suggests that sublime organ music is actually in rather short supply! If the genuine organ repertoire were that good there simply would be no great will to play transcriptions that often. I am not denying that pianists, for example, sometimes play transcriptions, but they do not feel it necessary to programme them at every opportunity, do they? The truth is that, taken in the round, the organ repertoire after Bach makes a poor showing in the wider musical world. We are probably better off than guitarists though. And harpists.

 

Sorry we weren't supposed to mention the "T" word.

 

Smack handies. :(

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The fact that most concert organists these days are hard at it playing transcriptions suggests that sublime organ music is actually in rather short supply! If the genuine organ repertoire were that good there simply would be no great will to play transcriptions that often. I am not denying that pianists, for example, sometimes play transcriptions, but they do not feel it necessary to programme them at every opportunity, do they? The truth is that, taken in the round, the organ repertoire after Bach makes a poor showing in the wider musical world. We are probably better off than guitarists though. And harpists.

 

Sorry we weren't supposed to mention the "T" word.

 

Smack handies. :(

 

I am sorry, Vox, but I cannot agree with this assessment of the organ repertoire!

 

It may be that in your area, many organists choose (for whatever reason) to play a lot of transcriptions. However, I have seen numerous programmes advertised in which one would be hard-put to find a single transcription.

 

The organ repertoire is both rich and varied. To give only Bach as representation is to ignore much fine music. In the Baroque period, there is also Bruhns, Pachelbel, Buxtehude - not forgetting the French Baroque composers, too. There is the French classical repertoire - and, of course, to the vast ouvre of symphonic works; one must not forget Saint-Saëns, Pierné, Gogout, Mulet - in addition to later composers such as Duruflé. On the Belgian side of things, we have Franck, Jongen, [Albert] Huybrechts and Lemmens. Then there are the Rheinberger sonati (several movements of which are well worth playing), Mendelssohn, with his sonati and preludes and fugues. How about Messiaen and Dupré? One may not like the music of these composers - but this is not to deny that it is valid repertoire - some of us like the music of these composers! And this is just the beginning. No doubt others will be happy to add to this brief list - I suspect that MM, with his knowledge of the Eastern European organ repertoire, will be able to list works by a good number of composers, amongst which there are likely to be some really good pieces.

 

Today's organ recitalist is by far not dependent upon orchestral transcriptions for variety and interest.

 

In any case, I can think of plenty of orchestral works which I regard as pure dross - some of which are held in high regard by my orchestra-loving colleagues - and for no better reason than they forget that they are still looking through their rose-tinted spectacles.

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I thought Healey Willan was a Canadian organist...? :(

 

Yes and no - he was born in Balham, London in 1880 and emigrated to Canada when he was 33 years old.

 

Graham

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I think this is an interesting topic. I'm glad I'm not alone in finding much of Mozart's music trite and nauseatingly syrupy. Much of the preceding discussion simply revolves around taste whose formation in an individual is a complex business. It is true, though, that many organists do insist on being organists first and musicians second, which is rather disappointing given the vast organ repertoire available. I derive much pleasure from playing the organ, but can't really recall too many really moving musical experiences at organ recitals; I certainly have been vastly impressed with a particular peformer, piece or instrument, or indeed all three simultaneoulsy, but those rare revelatory and moving musical experiences have all occurred at orchestral concerts.

 

As for my own sinful confessions, well I do happen to like L-W from time to time. I do have rather a soft spot for Dvorak (sorry couldn't work out how to insert special characters; anyway, you know who I'm talking about) and consider him vastly underrated. Again, though, that's probably just a matter of taste based on nothing objective.

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To give only Bach as representation is to ignore much fine music. In the Baroque period, there is also Bruhns, Pachelbel, Buxtehude - not forgetting the French Baroque composers, too. There is the French classical repertoire -

If you re-read what I wrote, you will see that I was referring specifically to the repertoire after Bach. I am well aware that the quality of Baroque organ music stands up well against the rest of Baroque music. That said, how much of Bach's organ music can stand comparison with his output in other areas - the other clavier music, the cantatas and other choral works, the orchestral suites? Some can, certainly, but I reckon a good 50% falls short.

 

and, of course, to the vast ouvre of symphonic works; one must not forget Saint-Saëns, Pierné, Gogout, Mulet - in addition to later composers such as Duruflé. On the Belgian side of things, we have Franck, Jongen, [Albert] Huybrechts and Lemmens.

Oh, come on! None of these is a great composer by any stretch of the imagination, not even Duruflé, who at least did achieve greatness in his Requiem and, I suggest, in his Three Dances (all IMO, of course). I have tried and tried to love his organ music - I really have - but it comes over as shapeless.* One is minded of the lesson Stanford gave to Howells about windows. As for Saint-Saëns, most of his organ music is rather weak (though the Preludes and Fugues come over well).

 

Then there are the Rheinberger sonati (several movements of which are well worth playing), Mendelssohn, with his sonati and preludes and fugues.

Well, we are getting warmer here, I think. There are some wonderful moments in Rheinberger, but too few to put him up there with the best. I do not know of one sonata that is really first rate all the way through, except possibly no.12. Mendelssohn is probably the high point of the nineteenth century.

 

How about Messiaen and Dupré?

Messiaen I will grant you, at least in his earlier music. I would not like to pass comment on his later works which all sound the same to me in the same way that all masses by Ludford and Fayrfax sound the same. Dupré on the whole fails to hold my interest. I did learn the G minor Prelude and Fugue and enjoyed doing so and there are a couple of other pieces that I would probably play if I could sight-read them (as if!), but by and large I cannot see his music being of much interest to anyone other than organists.

 

So I'll give you Mendelssohn and Messiaen. I'm not saying the other composers you mention are not good. They are very good indeed (except arguably for Lemmens - but I don't know enough of his music to comment - and I know none of Huybrecht's). It's just that they are all second- or third-stream composers.

 

* With the honourable exception of the Suite, which I will allow is superb from beginning to end. The Sicilienne is one of my all-time favourite organ pieces.

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I have to say I don't quite understand the dislike of Mozart. I agree that some of his music is great fun but of no great merit, but surely the last few symphonies are far better than that? Counterpoint? Try the final movement of his 41st. Melody? I'm not as clever as many of you here, but he could and often did write melodies that are of melting beauty - the slow mvt of the Clarinet concerto springs to mind, but there are many others. Beethoven also - the 5th and 7th symphonies are among my favourites; you can keep the 9th, especially the bombastic and overblown final movement. Brahms is one composer that always satisfies - again I don't understand the dislike that some have professed for his music. Liszt wrote some spectacular showpieces for Organ, which I enjoy rather but wouldn't like to have as my entire listening experience. Bach? Most of his P & F's are well worth hearing (wish I could play them all, but alas - not good enough!), but most of his Chorale Preludes defeat me I'm afraid. Even if you know the tune and understand the words I find most (not all of course) simply tedious.

 

What does interest me is the idea behind the topic, that there could even be a list of pieces which we dare not dislike. Who decides such a list? Popular opinion? From the replies it wouldn't seem so. Some coterie of highbrow know-it-alls? Heaven save us from such. The musical world has quite enough snobs without encouraging them. And speaking of musical snobs, I'm not keen on the perpetual silliness of opera either, although it has some nice tunes, nor of the wobbly voices of indeterminate pitch that shriek, hoot, howl and boom while 'singing' them. Give me Emma Kirkby any day over - well, take your pick - there are enough so-called 'great singers' in opera to choose from.

 

The replies we've seen show clearly that we have very different ideas about what we find entertaining, interesting, boring, good, bad, indifferent. Vive la difference!

 

Regards to all

 

John

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Oh dear, did my last post sound a bit belligerent? I do apologise; I was in a hurry to finish it before going out to teach.

 

John, I quite agree. I don't undertstand my dislike of Mozart either! But I think you are being a bit hard on Bach's Chorale Preludes. Sure, a fair few are remarkably unremarkable, especially the early ones. If the Neumeister Chorales really are his would we be any the worse off without them? I doubt it. (From what I have read and heard, the case for them being by Bach seems to be paleographical rather than artistic. More intellectually secure, perhaps, but deep down, you're left with this feeling...) I also feel slightly ambivalent about the Orgelbüchlein. A few well-known gems apart, this collection always strikes me as earnest and competent rather than beautiful, but I am fully prepared to admit that that's my failing. Similarly with "The Sixteen", some of which seem too long for their own good.

 

Yet I also believe Bach's Chorale Preludes contain some of his very best music. Clavierübung III, the 6 little chorale fughettas, the canonic variations on Vom Himmel Hoch (not exactly a chorale prelude, I know): these are up there with the very best of his output. One thing I do remember is wading through them as a spotty teenager and writing tem off as boringly undemonstrative. Then I heard Lionel Rogg's recordings which showed me what music there was in them. Sometimes it pays to take a short cut like that!

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RVW has been mentioned as occasionally inducing boredom (I think 'cowpat' is the term affectionately applied to various English composers of that era) but many of his voice and piano songs contain the most economical, exciting and ascerbic harmonic writing imaginable, beaten only by Peter Warlock. As for the Ten Blake Songs (voice with oboe accompaniment) - such intricacy and richness drawn from only two parts really is quite amazing

Oh yes, yes, yes! A wonderful cycle. I have just replaced by old LP of the incomparable Ian Partridge singing these with the selfsame CD version; it comes with a seminal performance of On Wenlock Edge and, amongst other things, the totally superb songs The Water Mill and The New Ghost. VW's piano writing is often criticised for being unpianistic, but the accompaniment of the former, with its depiction of the spinning water wheel and the striking clock, is just spot on, while the latter shows the same economy as the Blake songs to devastatingly atmospheric effect. One of my desert island discs!

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I'll probably get brained but I like some opera. My3 favouirites:

 

Magic Flute

Lulu

Peter Grimes

 

Thank you (I think) for reminding me of one of my all time least favourite composers,

the deadly dull and vastly over rated Benjamin Britten ...

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I think this is an interesting topic. I'm glad I'm not alone in finding much of Mozart's music trite and nauseatingly syrupy.

 

I said once, and would probably say today, that the Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vespers is the most beautiful melody ever composed. My most enduring musical memory of recent years is my having accompanied it at St David's Hall in Cardiff in front of a congregation of 1500. Magic.

 

Peter

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Thank you (I think) for reminding me of one of my all time least favourite composers,

the deadly dull and vastly over rated Benjamin Britten ...

 

Glad Vox agrees over RVW - my other half and I are just working on The New Ghost and others from that very CD (plus the one of IP and JP doing Warlock and RVW, from which I think they are borrowed in any event).

 

Benjamin Britten. Isn't it all about what you make of it? A New Year Carol, many of the folksong arrangements, solo songs like The Birds, Festival Te Deum and much of Ceremony of Carols can be made turgid, repetetive, uninspired and dull by simply playing the notes on the page. With a little sensitivity and the tiniest of nuances they become completely different creatures. A New Year Carol (it's in CFC2 and I think the white book as well) is the simplest imaginable little piece (as is Waly, waly) but I've witnessed it cause the most flint-hearted souls to well up tears in their eye sockets. It's worth looking up Britten and Pears on YouTube where there are many videos of them performing Schubert and Schumann. Watching Britten accompany is a lesson to us all.

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Benjamin Britten. Isn't it all about what you make of it? A New Year Carol, many of the folksong arrangements, solo songs like The Birds, Festival Te Deum and much of Ceremony of Carols can be made turgid, repetetive, uninspired and dull by simply playing the notes on the page. With a little sensitivity and the tiniest of nuances they become completely different creatures. A New Year Carol (it's in CFC2 and I think the white book as well) is the simplest imaginable little piece (as is Waly, waly) but I've witnessed it cause the most flint-hearted souls to well up tears in their eye sockets. It's worth looking up Britten and Pears on YouTube where there are many videos of them performing Schubert and Schumann. Watching Britten accompany is a lesson to us all.

Couldn't agree more. The recordings of the Britten/Pears recordings of the folk songs are a real treasure. Britten's playing is so alive and Pears, whether you like his tone or not, is a great communicator and consumate musician. I fail to see how Rejoice in the Lamb, or St. Nicolas, could possibly described as "deadly dull". The watchman smiting with his staff never fails to send a shiver down my spine, and the moment when the pickled boys first sing "Alleluia" must be one of the most effective and moving theatrical effects in the entire choral repertoire. The Church Parables I also find very effective, I've long had an ambition to sing Abraham and Issac with my daughter, but I doubt if we ever will.

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Hmm... not sure about threads like these (I know I responded earlier!). Whats seems like a nice, juicy topic at the outset can become quite dispiriting as if left to go on long enough, almost every well-known composer gets rubbished...

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Oh dear, did my last post sound a bit belligerent? I do apologise; I was in a hurry to finish it before going out to teach.

 

Yes it did, Vox - but thanks for the apology!

 

I think that we have both missed the point of our posts. My point was that I wished to challenge your notion of the fact that organists sem to be reliant upon transcriptions for variety. I attempted to show that this was not necessarily the case. Whether or not one would term the composers whom I mentioned 'great' is largely immaterial. The fact remains that there is much worthy (for want of a better descrption) music amongst that which they have written - without recourse to playing (orchestral) transcriptions.

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Couldn't agree more. The recordings of the Britten/Pears recordings of the folk songs are a real treasure. Britten's playing is so alive and Pears, whether you like his tone or not, is a great communicator and consumate musician. I fail to see how Rejoice in the Lamb, or St. Nicolas, could possibly described as "deadly dull". The watchman smiting with his staff never fails to send a shiver down my spine, and the moment when the pickled boys first sing "Alleluia" must be one of the most effective and moving theatrical effects in the entire choral repertoire. The Church Parables I also find very effective, I've long had an ambition to sing Abraham and Issac with my daughter, but I doubt if we ever will.

 

As you say - we all have different tastes. Personally I do not like any of the Britten which I have heard. I have played the organ part for St. Nicolas on several occasions. Each time I am struck by Britten's apparently ineffective organ writing. For example, the harmonisations of the hymns (the 'voicing' of which I always change). He seems not to have understood about sub-unison clavier tone, for one thing. I have also played the reduction of Rejoice in the Lamb on a few occasions - and hate the piece. Aside from the fact that I find the libretto utterly incomprehensible at times, I also dislike the music itself. I cannot decide whether his knowledge of harmony was incomplete - or whether he simply had odd taste. Either way, it does nothing for me.

 

However, I have heard (and seen) archive recordings of him playing the piano and I am aware that, in this regard, he was extremely adept, posessing a wonderful sense of line - and superb tonal colour.

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Ah, now I understand, M'sieur. Your point is perfectly valid, of course. I never meant to imply that I believe that organists need to rely on transcriptions. The big names who give recitals in our city rarely play any (strangely, considering the organ on which they are heard).

 

The trouble is that I was brought up to think of the organ as a serious musical instrument no less worthy of respect than any other musical instrument. Transcriptions tend to compromise that viewpoint by relegating the instrument to the status of an orchestra-substitute. An organ is to an orchestra as a toaster is to an organ, you might say - possibly quite fun, but much less satisfactory than the real thing. I realise that I am being a complete musical snob, but I am afraid can't help it. Ultimately I suppose it all boils down to where you stand on the ladder between purity and decadence! :( The height of decadence is, of course the theatre organist - but some people like being decadent. Transcription players are just a little further up the ladder.

 

The above is not meant to be taken too seriously, by the way!

 

This is though. I have been listening a lot recently to Jeremy Filsell's totally wonderful recordings of the Vierne symphonies. The more I hear them the more I am inclined to think he was a true "heavyweight" composer. Perhaps not of the standard of Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, but he seems at least the equal of the likes of d'Indy, Honegger and Ibert. Am I being OTT?

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I have also played the reduction of Rejoice in the Lamb on a few occasions - and hate the piece. Aside from the fact that I find the libretto utterly incomprehensible at times, I also dislike the music itself. I cannot decide whether his knowledge of harmony was incomplete - or whether he simply had odd taste. Either way, it does nothing for me.

 

Hello

 

Rejoice in the Lamb ain't a reduction - it was written for organ (St Matthew's Northampton, 1943). The libretto is meant to be incomprehensible, and I don't get it either...

 

I know I won't convince you on the musical front, but then you can't stand Bill Bailey either, so must therefore be, like, weird.

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Hello

 

Rejoice in the Lamb ain't a reduction - it was written for organ (St Matthew's Northampton, 1943). The libretto is meant to be incomprehensible, and I don't get it either...

 

I know I won't convince you on the musical front, but then you can't stand Bill Bailey either, so must therefore be, like, weird.

 

Ha!

 

I had forgotten about Rejoice in the Lamb - of course you are correct!!

 

(Sorry, I meant to call you again - I will try tonight.)

 

Bill Bailey.... Hmmm - but then, you probably do not like Ethel Merman.

 

 

 

On the other hand - neither do I.

 

:(

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Hello

 

Rejoice in the Lamb ain't a reduction - it was written for organ (St Matthew's Northampton, 1943). The libretto is meant to be incomprehensible, and I don't get it either...

 

The sections of text that Britten set seem almost normal compared to the rest of it, with things like 'God bless the Cambridge collection of fossils' and 'for the shaving of the beard was an invention of the people of Sodam to make men look like women'

 

!!

 

Paul Walton

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Hello

 

 

I know I won't convince you on the musical front, but then you can't stand Bill Bailey either, so must therefore be, like, weird.

 

 

Bill Bailey - ah yes, excellent. Do you remember his "cockney influence on the great composers" sketch? And the brilliant "Dr Qui!?

 

Peter

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What about Bach? Yes, I know he is the Untouchable of untouchables, but I have two major dislikes:

 

Nothing seems to tolerate mediocrity less than Bach.

Disagree! I'd state that it is just the opposite - no other music does stand so much mistreatment than Bach's - play half-speed, wrong instrumentations, etc etc....

it is (nearly) undestroyable.

 

But try this with any small masters - just lowering the performance input level from 120 to 95% can ruin many compositions into crumbs...

 

I agree on the Beethoven comments, and I had to much Viennese classic during my youth, all Mozat, Schubert and Beethoven mass settings. I admire Mozart's art, but would never place a disk into the player. Beethoven is a choleric guy, but one had to to that job at that period...

 

As a teacher, I will accept to listen to the "Suite gothique" no more - read the music, student, if you like it, and play what is written, it needs not more than that...

 

Best from the Baltic

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As you say - we all have different tastes. Personally I do not like any of the Britten which I have heard. I have played the organ part for St. Nicolas on several occasions. Each time I am struck by Britten's apparently ineffective organ writing. For example, the harmonisations of the hymns (the 'voicing' of which I always change). He seems not to have understood about sub-unison clavier tone, for one thing. I have also played the reduction of Rejoice in the Lamb on a few occasions - and hate the piece. Aside from the fact that I find the libretto utterly incomprehensible at times, I also dislike the music itself. I cannot decide whether his knowledge of harmony was incomplete - or whether he simply had odd taste. Either way, it does nothing for me.

 

However, I have heard (and seen) archive recordings of him playing the piano and I am aware that, in this regard, he was extremely adept, posessing a wonderful sense of line - and superb tonal colour.

I agree. With the exception of the Sea Interludes and bits of War Requiem, I find Britten irritatingly weak and often pretentious. Give me Walton any day. However, Britten's excellent taste in poetry is worth noting - Boris Ford's Benjamin Britten's Poets is an excellent anthology of everything BB set; Ford makes the point that Britten chose poetry of the highest quality and range to set to music, unlike, say, even Monteverdi, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Wolf. Still, that doesn't count for much if the music doesn't match it... :unsure:

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I agree. With the exception of the Sea Interludes and bits of War Requiem, I find Britten irritatingly weak and often pretentious. Give me Walton any day. However, Britten's excellent taste in poetry is worth noting - Boris Ford's Benjamin Britten's Poets is an excellent anthology of everything BB set; Ford makes the point that Britten chose poetry of the highest quality and range to set to music, unlike, say, even Monteverdi, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Wolf. Still, that doesn't count for much the music doesn't match it... :unsure:

 

Absolutely, Ian!

 

Now Walton - wonderful stuff! One of the most exciting concerts in which I took part as a student involved singing second bass in a performance of Belshazzar's Feast, in the RAH, which was conduced (superbly) by our principal. In the same concert, we also performed The Twelve - which was conducted (extremely confusingly) by our chorus-master.

 

In fact, both performances were almost as exciting as standing two rows behind an American student, who appeared to be attired in gownless evening straps.

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Returning to organ music, as a listener. in recent years I have found that Franck bores me more and more, at times it just seems to ramble on. If it appears on a recital programme I know I have to make an effort to stop dropping off. It could just be familiarity since I've heard it so often I can hum along with it. Am I alone in this?

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