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Organ Pieces Which Started Life As Improvisations


Paul Carr
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I'm putting together a recital programme of organ works which were originally improvised by the composer and then later written down, either by the composer or someone else.

 

As a starter, off the top of my head I can think of:

 

Dupré: Symphonie-Passion

Tournemire: Te Deum (Duruflé, I think)

Thalben-Ball: Elegy

Cochereau: Suite de Danses (Briggs)

Briggs: Improvisation on a theme by Holst

 

So, what else is out there?

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I'm putting together a recital programme of organ works which were originally improvised by the composer and then later written down, either by the composer or someone else.

 

As a starter, off the top of my head I can think of:

 

Dupré: Symphonie-Passion

Tournemire: Te Deum (Duruflé, I think)

Thalben-Ball: Elegy

Cochereau: Suite de Danses (Briggs)

Briggs: Improvisation on a theme by Holst

 

So, what else is out there?

 

 

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

 

 

The most obvious, that I can immediately think of, is the "Carillon de Westminster" by Vierne, which was first heard at Westminster Cathedral as an improvisation.

 

MM

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Dupre: In memoriam Op 61

Eben: Job

Guillou: Sagas 2,4,6 (Transcriptions of movements from Visions Cosmiques)

Messiaen: Messe de la Pentecote "A summary of all my improvisations"

Roth: Final Te Deum

 

I'm sure some (?most) Escaich, Hakim and Langlais started out this way

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I'm putting together a recital programme of organ works which were originally improvised by the composer and then later written down, either by the composer or someone else.

 

As a starter, off the top of my head I can think of:

 

Dupré: Symphonie-Passion

Tournemire: Te Deum (Duruflé, I think)

Thalben-Ball: Elegy

Cochereau: Suite de Danses (Briggs)

Briggs: Improvisation on a theme by Holst

 

So, what else is out there?

 

Dupré: Vêpres du Commun de la Sainte-Vierge, Op. 18 (published as Fifteen Pieces). I've used a group of either the Antiphon versets, or those for the Ave Maris Stella in recitals. If you use the Ave Maris Stella versets, the final Toccata ends ff as Dupré himself did in a 1960s recording from St Ouen, Rouen. The diminuendo is for liturgical use when the verset would have been followed by a versicle sung by the lone voice of a cantor.

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Dupré: Vêpres du Commun de la Sainte-Vierge, Op. 18 (published as Fifteen Pieces).......the final Toccata ends ff as Dupré himself did in a 1960s recording from St Ouen, Rouen. The diminuendo is for liturgical use when the verset would have been followed by a versicle sung by the lone voice of a cantor.

 

That's interesting - coincidentally I have just been listening to a recording of these and it occurred to me that the final dim. is always a bit of an anticlimax. Now I know why!

 

 

AJJ

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Guest Barry Williams

Tune in E (In the style of John Stanley) by GTB - he often played four chords before the published version, on Celestes!

 

Barry Williams

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If the stories that I have heard about its first performance are even remotely true

I wonder if the last movement of Francis Jackson's Sonata Giocosa might qualify.

 

The sonata was, of course, commissioned as part of the celebrations surrounding

the completion of the major structural repairs to York Minster and was first

performed by the composer in 1972.

 

The story, as told to me sometime around 1974 or 1975, by someone who was at

the first performance, and claimed to have seen the manuscript, was that the first

movement was a very neat fair copy, the second movement was a fairly rough

draft, and the third movement was either completely blank or had, at most, a

few thematic fragments. According to this same source, Francis made his own

recording of the performance on a cassette tape recorder so that he could transcribe

it for publication later.

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Guest Barry Williams
Which four? It has always felt to me as if it needs a slow introduction.

 

There are several recordings of him doing this, so it can be written down. I took it from a prviate recording of him playing in King's College Cambridge in 1987. Despite the chords being totally out of the period style there are very effective.

 

Barry Williams

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

On the 13th February 1931, Marcel Dupré improvised Le Chemin de la Croix (Stations of the Cross) as the second half of a concert he gave in Belgium on the Cavaillé-Coll of the Bruxelles Conservatoire. First short part was Bach and then there was the reading of a poem by Paul Claudel, Le Chemin de la Croix and Dupré produced a musical commentary upon each Station after it was read. Dupré writes that both he and his wife had the same idea to commit the music to paper and the following year played its première on the organ at the Trocadéro in Paris. I find it strange that such a dramatic and devotional piece should be born in its two manifestations in two secular establishments.

Most of my compositions have 'been around' for ages as improvisations - there never seems enough time to write them unless a deadline appears from some commission. The Toccata (from The Suite) for John Scott and The Organ Club at St Paul's in 2000 began life as an anthem accompaniment when I was at school. It would never be performed as everyone said it was too difficult! Therefore it re-appeared (and saw light of day) in a new and more enlarged guise 34 years later. L'Amour du Christ began life out of adversity. Just before my concert in Odense Cathedral for their Festival on 20th July 1995 everyone had to leave the cathedral because of a fire alarm. When we all went back in the cathedral organist had mislaid all the programmes in the utter confusion. This will come as little surprise to those who know the totally charming Freddy Samsing! A frantic search found nothing and so to get the 'show on the road' I decided to create a complete programme around the vast Triptych that stands behind the High Altar - the masterpiece of Claus Berg which contains nearly 300 carved figures. In other words - a glory of North European Art dating from c. 1520. Therefore, the audience (who could see it) made the musical journey with me through Our Lord's life, passion, resurrection and ascension. Those that couldn't got a poster from the Bookstall. Such was the impact of such a musical canvas that it surfaced again to be recorded for television (on the news!) and CD on 29th January in 1996. It is now made all the more powerful for me as it was dedicated at that time In memoriam Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992.

As an improviser now and again, I would suggest that a vast proportion of music from the pens of others like me started off in this way. Bach of course, as well as Buxtehude, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt. The list is endless. I would strongly argue that the Romanticsm of Beethoven firstly came from his dramatic and stupendous improvisations in the Salon where one had to impress future patrons and present hostesses. I know - I had to 'prostitute' many times in exactly the same way in Italy when I was a student. Looking back, it is just being a musician and existing in any way possible. How one longs for the time and opportunity to write everything down. But family, trials and tribulations always come first!

But back to subject -

I am sure that BWV 546 was 'up his sleeve' for many years before becoming distilled into the magnificent composition we now possess. Why? Well - what better piece to give an organ-builder palpitations. Full organ - held bottom C on the pedals - huge chords - wind - unsteady? And to make matters worse, add strong keyboard triplet figurations over long, strong pedal lines and then have a reprise when the pedals use more wind when octave C's are required. The best for trying the lungs. I used this to try Silbermanns and reconstruction Silbermanns in what was Eastern Germany. I remember (from reading) that Bach also used to 'try the lungs' of new organs first. Crippling stuff. Quite an embarrassment on one occasion. I was thankful that I had played Bach. Had it been my music I would have joined Bach 6ft down I think as I walked back to my hotel through the still gas-lit streets of Dresden.

 

Thanks for making me remember so many things from the past.

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

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

The most obvious, that I can immediately think of, is the "Carillon de Westminster" by Vierne, which was first heard at Westminster Cathedral as an improvisation.

 

MM

 

The first 'performance' of the piece, by Vierne, was actually in Notre Dame de Paris on November 29, 1929.

 

There are various stories about the mis-quoting of the chime tones but the notes in the file shew that HW3 quoted it correctly and therefore it's highly likely that Vierne changed it under license, as it were.

 

Totally different point: I was told many years ago by Dr. Ruth Gipps, that the Westminster Chime is based on Handel's "I know that my redeemer Liveth". Any thoughts on that?

 

DW

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
The first 'performance' of the piece, by Vierne, was actually in Notre Dame de Paris on November 29, 1929.

 

There are various stories about the mis-quoting of the chime tones but the notes in the file shew that HW3 quoted it correctly and therefore it's highly likely that Vierne changed it under license, as it were.

 

Totally different point: I was told many years ago by Dr. Ruth Gipps, that the Westminster Chime is based on Handel's "I know that my redeemer Liveth". Any thoughts on that?

 

DW

There is unsubstantiated writings that the Chime was to start life as a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of "I know that my redeemer liveth" from Handel's Messiah. It was written in 1793 for a new clock in St Mary the Great, the University Church in Cambridge. Nobody exactly knows who composed it but one Revd Dr Joseph Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law, it is said, was given the job, but he was probably assisted by either Dr John Randall (1715-99), who was the Professor of Music from 1755, or his brilliant undergraduate pupil, William Crotch (1775-1847).

"O Lord our God - Be Thou our guide - That by thy help - No foot may slide." BONG!

 

In the mid-19th century the chime was adopted by the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster (where Big Ben hangs striking the hour), whence its fame spread. To capture the harmonics (here's a link I think to another thread!) of Big Ben, might I suggest playing on the piano Bass G E Tenor A? Strange that when you do it with folk they all say Big Ben!

 

As a thought about the 'wrong' note in Vierne - Could it be a slight problem of dictée? Bad line? A braille mistake if Vierne had to hold a telephone receiver and notate?

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

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If the stories that I have heard about its first performance are even remotely true

I wonder if the last movement of Francis Jackson's Sonata Giocosa might qualify.

 

The sonata was, of course, commissioned as part of the celebrations surrounding

the completion of the major structural repairs to York Minster and was first

performed by the composer in 1972.

 

The story, as told to me sometime around 1974 or 1975, by someone who was at

the first performance, and claimed to have seen the manuscript, was that the first

movement was a very neat fair copy, the second movement was a fairly rough

draft, and the third movement was either completely blank or had, at most, a

few thematic fragments. According to this same source, Francis made his own

recording of the performance on a cassette tape recorder so that he could transcribe

it for publication later.

 

 

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

 

 

I wasn't aware of this, but according the the BBC broadcast of the opening of the organ at Balckburn Cathedral, Francis Jackson improvised some of the last movement of the Sonata written for the opening.

 

I shall have to check the details, but the Sonata (buried among my music) is the one with a picture of the Blackburn organ on the cover.

 

Does anyone know which Sonata this is?

 

I don't want to dig around looking for it.

 

MM

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

I wasn't aware of this, but according the the BBC broadcast of the opening of the organ at Balckburn Cathedral, Francis Jackson improvised some of the last movement of the Sonata written for the opening.

 

I shall have to check the details, but the Sonata (buried among my music) is the one with a picture of the Blackburn organ on the cover.

 

Does anyone know which Sonata this is?

 

I don't want to dig around looking for it.

 

MM

 

It's Sonata No.1, which is on the Priory 4-disc set of Jackson's organ music, played at Blackburn. I have tried to order a copy of it - do you remember the publisher?

 

Paul Walton

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As a thought about the 'wrong' note in Vierne - Could it be a slight problem of dictée? Bad line? A braille mistake if Vierne had to hold a telephone receiver and notate?

The theory I first heard back in my schooldays (from Douglas Hopkins, I think) was that Willis sang the theme to Vierne down the telephone and Vierne got it wrong. However, I think it's now accepted that it never happened like that. I shall have to look up details because I might be quite wrong, but the recollection that is flitting around the back of what I fondly imagine to be my mind is that Willis first gave the theme to Vierne as one for improvisation at Westminster Cathedral and that Vierne later asked Wilis to send him a copy.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
The theory I first heard back in my schooldays (from Douglas Hopkins, I think) was that Willis sang the theme to Vierne down the telephone and Vierne got it wrong. However, I think it's now accepted that it never happened like that. I shall have to look up details because I might be quite wrong, but the recollection that is flitting around the back of what I fondly imagine to be my mind is that Willis first gave the theme to Vierne as one for improvisation at Westminster Cathedral and that Vierne later asked Wilis to send him a copy.

 

They both of course could have had a jolly good lunch/déjeuner. Whatever - this will forever remain a delicious mystère. As for the singing - it could of course have been a simple question of voicing.

N

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I was told many years ago by Dr. Ruth Gipps...

Ah, dear old Wid. She was my theory professor at the RCM and such an encouragement and support. I remember once taking her a long motet - a Tudor pastiche on a cantus firmus - in 24-part counterpoint. "Why 24 parts?" she asked. "Because I couldn't find any larger manuscript paper," I replied. She had all her pupils analysing it for the next week, trying to find forbidden consecutives. They did manage to find a couple too. When I eventually brought her one in 72 parts she tactfully suggested I might be more profitably employed writing other things!! But she was so terribly encouraging of my rather pitiful composition efforts, dragooning me into playing celesta in her London Repertoire Orchestra so that I could appreciate orchestration "from the inside" (until I forgot to show up for one concert! :lol: ), and was the one who arranged for me to study with Howells. When she heard that I had decided to pursue a career outside music she wrote me an absolute snorter of a letter, which I still have, tearing me off a strip for wasting my life. Bless her! The last time I saw her was at my wedding - her present to us was a facsimile of the Brandenburgs. A great woman.

 

Her music is well worth getting to know and unjustly neglected. I don't think she wrote anything for organ, but there is a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis which is quite good, but looks as if it might be rather tricky to bring off. I'd love to hear it; I wonder if anyone has ever done it.

 

Apologies for the trip down memory lane.

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Guest Barry Williams

"The theory I first heard back in my schooldays (from Douglas Hopkins, I think) was that Willis sang the theme to Vierne down the telephone and Vierne got it wrong. However, I think it's now accepted that it never happened like that. I shall have to look up details because I might be quite wrong, but the recollection that is flitting around the back of what I fondly imagine to be my mind is that Willis first gave the theme to Vierne as one for improvisation at Westminster Cathedral and that Vierne later asked Wilis to send him a copy."

 

I too had heard that story and from one who got it, allegedly, directly from HW III. But turning to David's comments:

 

 

"There are various stories about the mis-quoting of the chime tones but the notes in the file shew that HW3 quoted it correctly and therefore it's highly likely that Vierne changed it under license, as it were."

 

and looking at the piece, it seems to be more effective harmonically and melodically for the alteration, certainly easier to harmonise.

 

Anyway, whatever the story, folk love it - especially the Brownies at Church Parades, for it is 'Brownie Bells'.

 

Barry Williams

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It's Sonata No.1, which is on the Priory 4-disc set of Jackson's organ music, played at Blackburn. I have tried to order a copy of it - do you remember the publisher?

 

Paul Walton

 

 

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

 

 

Awe shucks!

 

I'll start digging.

 

:lol:

 

MM

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