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James Goldrick

The Greatest British Organ Work

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I thought I might open this subject for discussion, since I don't believe it has been a thread on this board, as of yet.

 

In your opinion, what is the greatest piece of organ music written by a British composer? This extends from the Robertsbridge Codex to the contrapuntal masterwork that might have been composed last week in a pub in Staffordshire.

 

My choice goes to Elgar's Sonata in G Op.28, which I predict will be a contender in the majority of people's opinions. That said, the often surprising diversity of opinion is one of the most notable charac teristics of the Mander Board community.

 

My second choice goes to Thalben-Ball's incomparable Elegy in B-flat and third place to Howells' Psalm-Prelude Set 2, No.1 'De Profundis".

 

The only difficulty in my choice was whether to consider the Willan Introduction, Passacaglia & Fugue. Willan had only been living in Canada for three years when this work was published, so there is a slight grey area whether this is a Canadian work or a British one.

 

I look forward to further contributions.

 

James Goldrick

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I thought I might open this subject for discussion, since I don't believe it has been a thread on this board, as of yet.

 

In your opinion, what is the greatest piece of organ music written by a British composer? This extends from the Robertsbridge Codex to the contrapuntal masterwork that might have been composed last week in a pub in Staffordshire.

 

My choice goes to Elgar's Sonata in G Op.28, which I predict will be a contender in the majority of people's opinions. That said, the often surprising diversity of opinion is one of the most notable charac teristics of the Mander Board community.

 

My second choice goes to Thalben-Ball's incomparable Elegy in B-flat and third place to Howells' Psalm-Prelude Set 2, No.1 'De Profundis".

 

The only difficulty in my choice was whether to consider the Willan Introduction, Passacaglia & Fugue. Willan had only been living in Canada for three years when this work was published, so there is a slight grey area whether this is a Canadian work or a British one. I've opted in favour of Canada.

 

I look forward to further contributions.

 

James Goldrick

 

 

===========================

 

 

On the basis that Noble in B minor was written by an American?

 

No, I think Willan was every bit an Englishman. He used to say that he was English by extraction, Canadian by adoption and Scots by absorption.

 

I would opt for the Healey-Willan as the greatest English-work; and therein lies a story. I heard that he was motivated to write it after hearing someone say that no Englishman could ever write something as good as Reger, and the I, P & F was the result.

 

It isn't perhaps the greatest piece of writing in many ways, and the Fugue is a bit iffy technically, but it is nevertheless a wonderfully organic work which comes across, rather like Bach's (?) D minor, awfully well. It passes the test for being listenable to and utterly musical, whatever its demerits technically.

 

I don't think the same can be said for the Elgar. Doubtless a fine work, it is nevertheless more idiomatic as being orchestral in concept, and for all the world, sounds like a transcription rather than a dedicated sonata for the instrument. I would certainly consider learning the former (if I was bribed extensively....new car, Villa in Andalusia etc), but for a lottery win, I wouldn't pick up the Elgar. I just don't think it works.

 

I would never discount Bairstow, except that I don't like his music much. Others would doubtless disagree, and I can respect that.

 

Similarly, I would never discount the Toccata, Chorale & Fugue by Francis Jackson, which deserves to be heard more than it is. Perhaps not absolutely top-drawer, it is nevertheless a very fine work, but again (as with many Dr Jackson works) it would always sound right at York, and not quite right anywhere else.

 

Two other works, which Francis Jackson also recorded at York, have always interested me. One is the Fricker Pastorale (prior to him going to America), and the Nares Introduction (?) and Fugue, which always fascinates me for its originality, in spite of it being for manuals only. don't think either would qualify as anywhere near the greatest, but I thought I'd mention them.

 

When all is said and done, I think everyone has rather a soft spot for the Cocker Tuba Tune, but greatness is not the right word I'm looking for. (If we MUST have Tubas, this is what to do with one)

 

MM

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Guest Cynic
===========================

On the basis that Noble in B minor was written by an American?

 

No, I think Willan was every bit an Englishman. He used to say that he was English by extraction, Canadian by adoption and Scots by absorption.

 

I would opt for the Healey-Willan as the greatest English-work; and therein lies a story. I heard that he was motivated to write it after hearing someone say that no Englishman could ever write something as good as Reger, and the I, P & F was the result.

 

It isn't perhaps the greatest piece of writing in many ways, and the Fugue is a bit iffy technically, but it is nevertheless a wonderfully organic work which comes across, rather like Bach's (?) D minor, awfully well. It passes the test for being listenable to and utterly musical, whatever its demerits technically.

 

I don't think the same can be said for the Elgar. Doubtless a fine work, it is nevertheless more idiomatic as being orchestral in concept, and for all the world, sounds like a transcription rather than a dedicated sonata for the instrument. I would certainly consider learning the former (if I was bribed extensively....new car, Villa in Andalusia etc), but for a lottery win, I wouldn't pick up the Elgar. I just don't think it works.

 

I would never discount Bairstow, except that I don't like his music much. Others would doubtless disagree, and I can respect that.

 

Similarly, I would never discount the Toccata, Chorale & Fugue by Francis Jackson, which deserves to be heard more than it is. Perhaps not absolutely top-drawer, it is nevertheless a very fine work, but again (as with many Dr Jackson works) it would always sound right at York, and not quite right anywhere else.

 

Two other works, which Francis Jackson also recorded at York, have always interested me. One is the Fricker Pastorale (prior to him going to America), and the Nares Introduction (?) and Fugue, which always fascinates me for its originality, in spite of it being for manuals only. don't think either would qualify as anywhere near the greatest, but I thought I'd mention them.

 

When all is said and done, I think everyone has rather a soft spot for the Cocker Tuba Tune, but greatness is not the right word I'm looking for. (If we MUST have Tubas, this is what to do with one)

 

MM

 

Everything MM says is correct.

To pin down only one work is difficult - your Elgar, for instance, I realise it's for one player, but it was literally unplayable at the time of its composition, it's really an orchestral conception. I grant you that is is an overwhelmingly impressive creation.

 

I have a soft spot for so many works and regularly ponder why so many recitalists (even famous ones) hardly play any British works - after all, they are usually seated at British organs when they rampage through Vierne 3 or Widor 6. You don't often hear the Bairstow Sonata and you never hear the Ashfield Sonata (which I hope to find time to learn one day) amongst others Gordon Phillips wrote some magnificent and substantial works, particularly before WW2. What about Heathcote Statham's Rhapsody on a Ground? - it's as good as the Willan and far shorter! I just love W.H.Harris' 'Fantasia on Campion's Hymn: Babylon's Streams' As a set, Howells' Six Pieces is a desert island choice, even if I'm not supposed to pick a group of pieces.

Did you know that for a period of several years Novellos discouraged all their composers from writing Sonatas, refusing to publish any. True. [Fruit of unmarried parents, that what I say!!]

 

As to short pieces: Tippet's Preludio al Vespero di Monteverdi is both rare and special

what about Lennox Berkeley?

Not being solo works, Handel's Organ Concertos are out, as is anything substantial by Arne, but these are all world class.

Is Purcell out? Two of his voluntaries are utterly original and amazing for the time.

 

I could go on........so I'd better stop!

 

 

Rejoice, brothers and sisters! Rejoice!!

All these riches can be yours - you don't have to choose.

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Guest Barry Williams

I'll join you on the Willan. It is superb and really not that difficult once the notes have been learned - provided you have a large and well-equipped instrument to play it on.

 

The first movement of the Elgar is excellent, but EE got hung up on Sonata form in the last movement, though that form works better in the first. The Second Sonata is actually better music throughout and goes well on the organ.

 

What about Tertius Noble's Toccata and Fugue in F minor? This is dramatic in the Toccata whilst the Fugue, owing much to Brahms, is well argued and tightly wrought. It is a fine piece.

 

Barry Williams

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I'll join you on the Willan. It is superb and really not that difficult once the notes have been learned - provided you have a large and well-equipped instrument to play it on.

 

The first movement of the Elgar is excellent, but EE got hung up on Sonata form in the last movement, though that form works better in the first. The Second Sonata is actually better music throughout and goes well on the organ.

 

What about Tertius Noble's Toccata and Fugue in F minor? This is dramatic in the Toccata whilst the Fugue, owing much to Brahms, is well argued and tightly wrought. It is a fine piece.

 

Barry Williams

 

I have to agree about the Elgar Sonata first movement, it is extremely effective on its own. Also, Bairstow's 'Toccata Prelude on Pange Lingua' works very well for me, and its unusual structure, ending quietly adds enormously to its effectiveness. But what about earlier works, many of the Stanley Voluntaries, and the Boyce Voluntaries, especially the first. And, even earlier, works by Byrd, Tallis, Cosyn, Tomkins, etc., all really excellent. Back to the 20th Century, how about John Cook's 'Fanfare', and from the 19th Century, Wesley's Fugue from 'Choral Song and Fugue'. They all do it for me. This only leaves me with one thought, I'm glad I don't have to choose only one.

 

Jonathan

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...

In your opinion, what is the greatest piece of organ music written by a British composer? My choice goes to Elgar's Sonata in G Op.28, which I predict will be a contender in the majority of people's opinions. ...

For me, there are three outstanding British compositions to consider here.

 

One is certainly third in rank -- that's the Whitlock sonata (no, really, I like it very much, and didn't know how much I missed it until I found out about it).

 

But then, there are two more, and I can't quite decide which one to place first. The Elgar sonata, of course. And Kenneth Leighton's Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, which by the way I consider a lot more interesting, original, and intense than anything Willan wrote.

 

Fourth would be Frank Bridge's Adagio in E.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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Oh, and since there was some talk about soft spots ...

 

Francis Jackson's Sonata op. 50 is one of mine. (Of course, I depend very much here on what Priory has to offer to us continentals, but still.)

 

Best,

Friedrich

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I suppose its hard to single out one particular work - many of those mentioned: e.g. the Willan, the Statham Rhapsody on a ground, the Elgar op.28 are marvellous pieces- The Elgar Sonata always "comes over" to me as an orchestral work(very successfully) transcribed for the organ (look at the last movement) in contrast to one of my favourites, the Bairstow Sonata of 1937 which is a marvellous 'canvas' conceived & written mostly on the Isle of Arran, and to my mind - in a generous acoustic - akin to a depiction of a great seascape with many atmospheric moments (e.g. the haunting 2nd theme) and then the rollicking waves of the "Scherzo"(Allegro Giocoso) - I rate it very highly, and consider it more idiomatically conceived for the organ than the Elgar - it reads through as one piece ...

 

I'm glad the Noble Tocc & Fugue in Fmin has been mentioned in addition to the very fine Tocc. Chorale & Fugue by FJ

Possibly one might wish to include (in the runner-up category) the Fantasia & Toccata in Dmin by Stanford, particularly for the latter movement!

Best Wishes

PL

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I suppose its hard to single out one particular work - many of those mentioned: e.g. the Willan, the Statham Rhapsody on a ground, the Elgar op.28 are marvellous pieces- The Elgar Sonata always "comes over" to me as an orchestral work(very successfully) transcribed for the organ (look at the last movement) in contrast to one of my favourites, the Bairstow Sonata of 1937 which is a marvellous 'canvas' conceived & written mostly on the Isle of Arran, and to my mind - in a generous acoustic - akin to a depiction of a great seascape with many atmospheric moments (e.g. the haunting 2nd theme) and then the rollicking waves of the "Scherzo"(Allegro Giocoso) - I rate it very highly, and consider it more idiomatically conceived for the organ than the Elgar - it reads through as one piece ...

 

I'm glad the Noble Tocc & Fugue in Fmin has been mentioned in addition to the very fine Tocc. Chorale & Fugue by FJ

Possibly one might wish to include (in the runner-up category) the Fantasia & Toccata in Dmin by Stanford, particularly for the latter movement!

Best Wishes

PL

 

 

=================

 

I knew that the Bairstow would do it for someone, and I have not been disappointed.

 

I really will have to listen to the tape I have, of a certain pupil of his, playing a one-off exhibition organ somewhere not far from W.

 

I have fond memories of the passengers in the car when I first heard it; both now sadly deceased.

 

"The definitive performance," said one.

 

The late Robert Andrews, doing his wonderful impression of FJ, replied, "Oh....how very kind of you."

 

MM

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The Willan is a good piece. I would also propose the Sonata, in A minor, by William H. Harris. The Alcock (Introduction and Passacaglia) is quite good - but I would not put it above the Willan. There are one or two good pieces by Parry - the Fantasia and Fugue, in G minor, for example. However, this one is rather spoiled by a very weak ending; in a recording from Chester Cathedral, by means of some clever registration, Roger Fisher almost redeems it for me.

 

However, for sheer virtuosity, there is also the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (for pedals, with a final toccata, in which the hands take part), by Thalben-Ball. I am not sure that his Elegy rates as a 'best British' composition - particularly since, in one recording by Thalben-Ball himself, he played the piece somewhat differently to the printed version. After all, it was originally an improvisation, during an early BBC broadcast with Sir Walford Davies. However, his Toccata Beorma is a good example of the genre.

 

How about Basil Harwood's Sonata, in C# minor? Admittedly, I have heard this work only once, but I clearly remember liking it.

 

There is also the Concert Overture, in C minor (1899), by Alfred Hollins.

 

The Elgar I would not include, for the reasons given previously.

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Very briefly:

 

Bairstow: Sonata, better as a whole than the Elgar, though nothing to beat the 1st movement of the Elgar

If there has to be a second place, the Hollins C major overture (far better than the C minor)

 

 

Perhaps we need a separate catergory for British minatures (in which members have already voiced preferences for the Thalben-Ball Elegy). Can I start the ball rolling with Leighton's CP on 'Rockingham', much under-rated?

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Very briefly:

 

Bairstow: Sonata, better as a whole than the Elgar, though nothing to beat the 1st movement of the Elgar

If there has to be a second place, the Hollins C major overture (far better than the C minor)

 

Interesting - I do not know this piece by Hollins.

 

However, I would still maintain that the Elgar falls between the parameters given, due to the fact that, regardless of its title, it is (as has previously been stated here) an orchestral work that happens to be (mostly) playable on an organ. In addition, small negative points for me are the endings of the first and last movements - the bare octaves simply do not sound effective on an organ; that of the final movement in particular, I find to be weak and unsatisfying.

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....and third place to Howells' Psalm-Prelude Set 2, No.1 'De Profundis".

I think the anguished build-up to the climax of this piece, and the resolution of the harmonic tension, probably the most moving of any piece of British organ music. I may be a softy, but I can't play this nor listen to a good performance without at least one tear forming. It is truly wonderful.

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My second choice goes to Thalben-Ball's incomparable Elegy in B-flat

 

I played this as the voluntary after evensong at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh this afternoon, mighty fine work if you ask me!

 

Andy

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Interesting consensus about the Elgar. I have to agree. I do think that it is a great piece of music; it just isn't organ music - whatever Elgar may have thought or intended. M Cochereau makes a very valid point about the final bare octaves. One might mention the opening of the slow movement. Those slow chords cry out for the "living" warmth of an orchestra. There is just no way in which the dead-pan organ can make those chords "live". The swell pedal doesn't enter into it.

 

I'm not sure there is a truly great piece of British organ music. Harwood's C# minor sonata already mentioned might be a contender. Friedrich rightly mentioned Leighton's Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia - a really powerful work IMO. I have read through the Ashfield sonata and was very impressed with it, though I did wonder whether it would have "staying power".

 

I wouldn't expect many to agree with me, but I keep finding myself returning to Howells's sixth psalm prelude. The way the tension increases inexorably from the quiet Choir Organ interlude to the unbridled ecstacy of the final pages gets me every time.

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B) B) :blink:

 

-What is an organ ?

 

-What is "great" music ?

 

Pierre

 

This is too profound for me, Pierre!

 

I know the problems with the Elgar (that it is orchestral and so on), but I can't honestly say that they impair my enjoyment of this wonderful work! Mind you, the title is "The greatest" rather than our favourite British organ work, so the Bairstow it is. However, for all that this is a very fine piece of writing and certainly one of the best, using the term "greatest" to describe it still seems odd.

 

I would also like to echo pcnd in speaking up for the Harris sonata

 

As for miniatures/smaller scale works: does anyone know the Parry Elegy?

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Guest Cynic
This is too profound for me, Pierre!

 

I know the problems with the Elgar (that it is orchestral and so on), but I can't honestly say that they impair my enjoyment of this wonderful work! Mind you, the title is "The greatest" rather than our favourite British organ work, so the Bairstow it is. However, for all that this is a very fine piece of writing and certainly one of the best, using the term "greatest" to describe it still seems odd.

 

I would also like to echo pcnd in speaking up for the Harris sonata

 

As for miniatures/smaller scale works: does anyone know the Parry Elegy?

 

 

The one in D flat major?

Yes. Gorgeous!

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I wouldn't expect many to agree with me, but I keep finding myself returning to Howells's sixth psalm prelude. The way the tension increases inexorably from the quiet Choir Organ interlude to the unbridled ecstacy of the final pages gets me every time.

 

============================

 

 

It gets to me too......like a carving knife, just beneath the second rib.

 

If you want unbridled ecstacy, they tell me that there are pills available.

 

B)

 

MM

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If you want unbridled ecstacy, they tell me that there are pills available.

Well, with all that Reger you listen to I can imagine you'd need them.

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"However, I would still maintain Elgar falls between the parameters given, due to the fact that, regardless of its title, it is (as has previously been stated here) an orchestral work that happens to be (mostly) playable on an organ."

 

I have the Gordon Jacob orchestral arrangement by the RLPO under Vernon Handley on CD. For me, it just doesn't work. The grandeur of the opening chords are lost in the effort by the orchestra to sustain the wall of sound at the beginning and I don't feel the piece flows as freely throughout. I guess it's because I'm so used to it on the organ that the orchestral approach to performance sounds odd for the music. I'm sure there are those who having never heard the original organ version would probably not give its origin a moment's thought on hearing it the first time round. Ah well, to each their own.

Oliver.

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