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David Drinkell

Non-Organist composers, especially Britten

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I pulled out the Britten Prelude and Fugue on a Theme by Vittoria yet again a few days ago. I've played it once or twice, but I've never really felt that it came off. Is it just me, or do others feel the same way? Are there any points which might be helpful?

 

It's odd, because in general I find Britten's organ accompaniments to be well fitted to the instrument - Rejoice in the Lamb, Jubilate in C, etc. I'm also mindful of the fact that Britten was a genius and could sometimes find possibilities in an instrument that players had hitherto failed to realise.

 

How about other (presumed) non-organist composers? Hindemith seemed to be able to catch the idiom for every instrument. Tippett's Prelude for the Monteverdi Vespers takes a bit of thought, but can sound effective. I think Rubbra's Meditation has the potential to sound good, but the manual changes seem more complicated than they ought. There's a piece by Copland, the name of which escapes me. I've never been able to make much sense of that either.

 

I'm assuming that Benjamin Britten wasn't an organist, but his mother used to play the organ at Kirkley, Lowestoft, and he went to Gresham's School, which has an organ (a different one now - the one from BB's time went to a URC in Cheam), so maybe he had more than a little hands-on experience.

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Britten had lessons on the organ of St John's Church, Lowestoft and was a member of the choir. The church was just along the road from Britten's childhood home, but is is now demolished. The fairly substantial organ was removed to St Andrew's Church in nearby Gorleston. Somewhere I have a photo of Britten at this organ. I have heard that he played the organ for services in Aldeburgh church once or twice - now that would have been worth hearing!

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I pulled out the Britten Prelude and Fugue on a Theme by Vittoria yet again a few days ago. I've played it once or twice, but I've never really felt that it came off. Is it just me, or do others feel the same way? Are there any points which might be helpful?

 

It's odd, because in general I find Britten's organ accompaniments to be well fitted to the instrument - Rejoice in the Lamb, Jubilate in C, etc. I'm also mindful of the fact that Britten was a genius and could sometimes find possibilities in an instrument that players had hitherto failed to realise.

 

Interesting - my opinion is exactly the opposite.

 

Having played Rejoice in the Lamb and the Jubilate Deo, in C an a number of occasions, I regard both as being somewhat awkward on the organ *. For example: the middle part of the Jubilate, where both hands and feet are busy (playing chords which make little harmonic sense to me) - and then Britten asks for a crescendo. Whilst it could be argued that he wished to stretch the player's technique, I suspect that he simply did not realise that this was almost impossible to accomplish at that point.

 

Then there are his odd harmonies in the congregational hymns (for example) in his cantata Saint Nicholas. Again, I suspect that he did not understand the idea of sub-unison ranks on the claviers. His turgid, low, oddly-spaced layout I find most unsatisfactory. To be honest, the last time I played for a performance of this I re-arranged them, added one or two quiet-ish 16ft stops (on the G.O. and Swell) - and no-one was any the wiser.

 

In case it is not already obvious, I have no great liking for those works of Britten which I have heard or played - including the War Requiem (which I found anything but moving).

 

I do not know whether or not he was a genius - but I wonder if it was not just as much a case that he decided that he wanted a particular thing - whether it was possible or not. †

 

It is also possible that my intense dislike for his music has resulted in my inability to recognise the genius behind the music.

 

 

 

* I greatly prefer playing the organ (only) part to the Duruflé Requiem. Now this is a piece which I find intensely moving. Personally, I find it much easier to believe in the genius of Duruflé than of Britten.

 

† I cannot comment on the (possibly) virtuoso writing for the harp in A Ceremony of Carols - nor of its suitability for that instrument.

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Interesting - my opinion is exactly the opposite.

 

Having played Rejoice in the Lamb and the Jubilate Deo, in C an a number of occasions, I regard both as being somewhat awkward on the organ *. For example: the middle part of the Jubilate, where both hands and feet are busy (playing chords which make little harmonic sense to me) - and then Britten asks for a crescendo. Whilst it could be argued that he wished to stretch the player's technique, I suspect that he simply did not realise that this was almost impossible to accomplish at that point.

 

Then there are his odd harmonies in the congregational hymns (for example) in his cantata Saint Nicholas. Again, I suspect that he did not understand the idea of sub-unison ranks on the claviers. His turgid, low, oddly-spaced layout I find most unsatisfactory. To be honest, the last time I played for a performance of this I re-arranged them, added one or two quiet-ish 16ft stops (on the G.O. and Swell) - and no-one was any the wiser.

 

In case it is not already obvious, I have no great liking for those works of Britten which I have heard or played - including the War Requiem (which I found anything but moving).

 

I do not know whether or not he was a genius - but I wonder if it was not just as much a case that he decided that he wanted a particular thing - whether it was possible or not. †

 

It is also possible that my intense dislike for his music has resulted in my inability to recognise the genius behind the music.

 

 

 

* I greatly prefer playing the organ (only) part to the Duruflé Requiem. Now this is a piece which I find intensely moving. Personally, I find it much easier to believe in the genius of Duruflé than of Britten.

 

† I cannot comment on the (possibly) virtuoso writing for the harp in A Ceremony of Carols - nor of its suitability for that instrument.

 

Thanks, Blackadder, for the information about Britten and St. John's, Lowestoft. I know the organ. It was headed for the RC Cathedral in Norwich but was never installed there. I also remember the old organ at Gorleston - a very mediocre machine by Fitton & Haley. I hadn't heard that Britten ever played at Aldeburgh, but Peter Maxwell Davies used to play the harmonium in the Hoy Kirk on a regular basis!

 

pcnd: Thank-you for your input. Each one of us is different! I've always marvelled at how well the organ parts of Rejoice in the Lamb and the Jubilate fall under the hands, and I regard it as a sign of Britten's genius that he could get such marvellous effects from such simple material. I agree that the passage to which you refer in the Jubilate is tricky, but I find that Britten allows the player just enough time to tap the Swell pedal in between pedal notes. A lesser composer might have demanded the impossible, but I think Britten knew what was possible. (I wouldn't like to try it with a trigger swell, though!). Again, the vocal effect of these two works, and so much else of Britten's is (to me) far greater than the degree of difficulty. Lesser composers would have written much more complicated lines with no more effect.

 

I remember, when I took over at St. Magnus Cathedral, inheriting a commission from a young Scottish composer. He claimed to have modelled the difficulty on Maxwell Davies's 'Solstice of Light', which had been premiered by the choir a few years previously, but Max was clever in that the vocal parts were relatively straightforward while the organ part was played by a very accomplished organist (the late Richard Hughes). The piece I had to bring off was shockingly difficult as far as the vocal parts were concerned (the choir was an amateur one. They were well-disposed to new music, but it made no sense in any way to spend so much time on something so complex which would be no use in the future). The next time a St. Magnus Festival Commission came up, I insisted on a 'proper' composer, and we got William Mathias's 'Thus saith God the Lord', which was challenging but approachable for the choir and showed excellent understanding of what could reasonably be expected of them. The premiere was broadcast on Radio 4 and Mathias was kind enough to send me a nice letter saying how much he'd enjoyed it, (which is more than the other guy did!).

 

I'm inclined to think that the harmonies to which you refer were a deliberate effect, possibly with a certain instrument in mind, and require care. You may well have been right to adjust them. 'St. Nicholas' is not my favourite Britten work, but the organ part in 'Noyes Fludde' is tremendously effective, despite some unlikely looking passages.

 

When is comes to the harp, Ossian Ellis is on record as saying that he once suggested to Britten that certain passages in a new work were not idiomatic for the instrument. Britten said, 'Try them', and Ellis was astonished to find that they worked. I think that's generally true of most of Britten's output.

 

I regard the Durufle Requiem as the hairiest piece of accompaniment I've ever had to tackle. BUT, it's also among the most rewarding. You feel that every note is just right and couldn't be anything other than it is. I don't mind sweating blood over something like that, but I get annoyed when I have to do the same for something that is unnecessarily difficult. Thus, I admire music which is as difficult as it needs to be, and I think the works of truly great composers bear this out.

 

I still get scared by the opening of Stanford in A...... :rolleyes:

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... I regard the Durufle Requiem as the hairiest piece of accompaniment I've ever had to tackle. BUT, it's also among the most rewarding. You feel that every note is just right and couldn't be anything other than it is. I don't mind sweating blood over something like that, but I get annoyed when I have to do the same for something that is unnecessarily difficult. Thus, I admire music which is as difficult as it needs to be, and I think the works of truly great composers bear this out.

 

I still get scared by the opening of Stanford in A...... :rolleyes:

David, thank you too for your thoughts.

 

As you say, each of us has different tastes and likes. I appreciate your further thoughts with regard to Britten; I shall give these pieces another try at some point. I am still not convinced by the layout of his harmonies (already mentioned), but you may well be right. I had not heard the story of the harpist - although I recall reading the explanation at the front of the copy of A Ceremony of Carols, where I believe that it mentioned that Britten read a couple of books on writing for (or perhaps playing) the harp - and also talked to the harpist. I can see your point. However, I still wonder if he was not simply set on what he had written - however awkward it made it.

 

With regard to the Jubilate; it is not just a trigger pedal which makes this well-nigh impossible, but also if one has a detached console with a mechanical swell pedal. The resulting weight (whilst moving all the rods and traces, etc) means that tapping the swell pedal between notes on my own church instrument results in the pedal just sitting there looking at the player.

 

Stanford, in A. I love playing this setting. For me, it is not the first page, which holds few terrors, it is the second page, top line, near the end, where there is a very quick clavier change to the Choir (or in my case, Positive) Organ, with a high pedal E. Now that part always makes me nervous.

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I haven't played these pieces for ages but I remember always finding Rejoice In The Lamb and the Jubilate in C not quite idiomatic but, as has already been suggested, they actually work. I grew up with the George Malcolm/Westminster Cathedral recording of the Missa Brevis and always loved the organ writing but was surprised by some of the registration suggestions when I came to play it. I don't have the score to hand but doesn't the Sanctus begin with a tied chord marked successively p - mp - f - ff and at the ff is marked +4'? I have a feeling the +4' marking appears elsewhere in Britten organ writing to denote full power! Actually, on the 1912 Norman & Beard in my first church adding the Great 4' flute was the only way of increasing the volume once the Gt Open was in use.

 

I love the sensitive and effective organ writing in the Church Parables. I wonder what happened to the organ that was commissioned for the original performances of these and played by Philip Ledger - is it in NPOR?

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Some interesting thoughts here.

 

Personally, I've never been sold on Britten. I find Rejoice in the Lamb rather tedious, and don't think all that much of the aforementioned Jubilate either. The one piece I am sold on is the Hymn to the Virgin, but then thats early Britten and he hadn't really developed his own style so much at that stage.

 

On non-organist composers, Mathias is worthy of mention. Alright, his organ music isn't on the same scale as many others but he's written some quite effective pieces in his time (the Processional and Recessional are both decent enough).

 

Even Rutter has written a couple of organ pieces - Toccata in Seven and the Easter duet piece. Of course, his choral accompaniments are designed for piano rather than organ for the most part.

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I love the sensitive and effective organ writing in the Church Parables. I wonder what happened to the organ that was commissioned for the original performances of these and played by Philip Ledger - is it in NPOR?

 

Hi

 

You'd need to search for address. If it's was a portable organ, if it's in NPOR, it will be listed under the address of the owner. If it was a temporary organ (i.e. in place for less than 3 years, it's unlikely that there's an NPOR listing, but there might be a note in the survey(s) for other organs in the building.

 

If you're doing an address search, put in just the minimum information - and beware of county names! In many cases, the name of the town is all that's needed.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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I don't have the score to hand but doesn't the Sanctus begin with a tied chord marked successively p - mp - f - ff and at the ff is marked +4'? I have a feeling the +4' marking appears elsewhere in Britten organ writing to denote full power! Actually, on the 1912 Norman & Beard in my first church adding the Great 4' flute was the only way of increasing the volume once the Gt Open was in use.

This leaves me wondering whether Britten was taught the organ by one of those old-school organists who didn't believe in upperwork.

 

I share the misgivings about the Prelude and Fugue. I have only ever heard one performance where the piece came off and that was over 40 years ago when Simon Preston played it on the Flentrop in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He also managed the nigh impossible feat of conveying the correct rhythm of the fugue subject (i.e. avoiding it sounding as if it begins with an anacrusis). He's the only person I've heard manage that.

 

I was also distinctly underwhelmed by the Voluntary on "Tallis' Lamentation" when it was premiered at the Proms a few years ago.

 

On the other hand, the Prelude to "They Walk Alone" is an absolute gem: just a peaceful, chordal accompaniment with a quiet, wistful solo over the top. The writing isn't especially organistic and could just as effectively be orchestrated (the solo requires a dynamic range from "pp dolciss." to "f" which leaves you wondering whether that BB had violins in mind), but is simple enough that it works well. It's a great shame that this is only available in an overpriced volume of all four organ works because it's eminently suitable for less experienced organists of grade 4 standard (the only hurdles being 5/4 time and legato LH chords).

 

As for other non-organist composers, Dvorak's preludes are hardly worth the bother. His D major fugue has something, but all of his organ works are student stuff without the characteristic traits of the mature composer. The rather dull fugue by Debussy fares even worse - he was just writing a contrapuntal exercise. The same probably goes for Beethoven's short fugue and Schubert's three examples. Beethoven's two preludes through all the keys really aren't worth bothering with either.

 

Shostakovich's Passacaglia is a decent piece, though.

 

Vagn Holmboe's Contrasti and Fabula II are both very well worthwhile, even if the former especially could have done with some practical advice from an organist. I did learn Contrasti up to concert standard once, but then promptly gave up playing the organ for several years, so never played it in a recital. I'd love to see Fabula I, but it's long been out of print.

 

Milhaud's preludes? Never understood them.

 

d'Indy's pieces: Very effective, especially the Prélude in E flat minor. Mind you, he was an organist, so perhaps doesn't count.

 

Chausson's Les Vêpres du Commun des Saints: Ably written, if mostly too functional and brief to be of much practical use to British organists (the same could be said for d'Indy's set). Prudentes virgines is worth trotting out though.

 

Ibert's Trois Pièces: Wonderful stuff: should be in everyone's repertoire (and one day I'll follow my own advice and learn nos. 2 and 3).

 

Honegger's Two Pieces: Good pieces, idiomatically written, but just fall short of grabbing me enough to want to learn them. I can see why they went out of print.

 

Massenet's Prelude in C: Short, but pleasant.

 

Satie's Messe des pauvres. Are we meant to take this seriously?

 

Scarlatti: A small handful of decent sonatas for organ, if not on the level of his best harpsichord ones.

 

Glazunov: All excellent stuff.

 

Kodaly: Why don't more people play the organ version of the Ita missa est from the Missa Brevis? It's effective enough and doesn't take much effort.

 

Leos Janacek: Don't quite know what to think - as I don't about the rest of his output either. John Scott Whiteley makes the two Adagios sound well.

 

César Cui: His two harmonium pieces are quite pleasant, but he obviously didn't know the first thing about the instrument and was writing with a piano in mind.

 

Glière: So it's a fugue...

 

Schönberg: Well, we all know about that one.

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Leos Janacek: Don't quite know what to think - as I don't about the rest of his output either. John Scott Whiteley makes the two Adagios sound well.

Maybe he doesn't count either, because he actually presided an organists' school for some time.

 

I often found organ music from non-organist composers to be lacking on the emotional side – as if only experienced organists had the means to create emotional depth in this instrument. Ginastera's Toccata, Villancico y Fuga just goes in the one ear and leaves by the other, touching nothing in between (well, that may be due to a lack of what's there, of course, but hopefully …). More often than not, I feel like that with Liszt, "Weinen, klagen" being the single exception. I am still struggling with finding a way into Novák's triptych.

 

If this was a rule, then there were at least two important exceptions: Brahms as a non-organist composer on the one hand, whose organ music I find highly emotional; and on the other hand, Nowowiejski as an organist-composer, whose extensive organic essays never fail to leave me utterly bored.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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With regard to the Jubilate; it is not just a trigger pedal which makes this well-nigh impossible, but also if one has a detached console with a mechanincal swell pedal. The resulting weight (whilst moving all the rods and traces, etc) means that tapping the swell pedal between notes on my own church instrument results in the pedal just sitting there looking at the player.

 

This inspires in me a bowel-chilling train of thought:

 

Wasn't the Britten Jubilate written for St. George's Chapel, Windsor?

 

Pre-Harrison?

 

Therefore the Rothwell?

 

http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/PSearch.cgi...D02818&no=1

 

Ooer!!! :rolleyes:

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I do not know whether or not he was a genius - but I wonder if it was not just as much a case that he decided that he wanted a particular thing - whether it was possible or not. †

 

I have always had a fairly strong feeling that Britten's 'religious' works did not seem to stem from any 'religiosity' on his part. I could be doing him a disservice of course - connected with this (and seemingly agreed with by others here) his organ writing never seemed particularly 'organic' - mind you I have always been on the singing end of things rather than the playing.

 

 

 

 

I greatly prefer playing the organ (only) part to the Duruflé Requiem. Now this is a piece which I find intensely moving. Personally, I find it much easier to believe in the genius of Duruflé than of Britten.

 

Me too - but again as a singer or listener - or even page turner once!

 

A

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I have always had a fairly strong feeling that Britten's 'religious' works did not seem to stem from any 'religiosity' on his part.

 

I'm quite convinced that church music is much, much richer for the contributions from those who, for want of a better phrase, were not blessed with the gift of conventional belief, although they may have had an intensely spiritual nature.

 

Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Herbert Sumsion, David Willcocks, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Rutter, etc......

 

(Handel, Haydn and Schubert?).

 

Such people often breath fresh life into the genre, and perhaps they have the advantage of a certain detachment.

 

Of course, there's a whole lot of really awful music written by believers, too.

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Commotio by Carl Nielsen. A very late work, written after the six symphonies. Not often performed - perhaps it frightens the horses.

 

Dunno about the horses - I've just had a look and it frightens me! Looks as though it might be impressive in performance, though.

 

http://petrucci.mus.auth.gr/imglnks/usimg/...LP71096-nielsen

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I'm quite convinced that church music is much, much richer for the contributions from those who, for want of a better phrase, were not blessed with the gift of conventional belief, although they may have had an intensely spiritual nature.

 

Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Herbert Sumsion, David Willcocks, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Rutter, etc......

 

(Handel, Haydn and Schubert?).

 

Such people often breath fresh life into the genre, and perhaps they have the advantage of a certain detachment.

 

Of course, there's a whole lot of really awful music written by believers, too.

 

 

I agree - but I often feel a sort of detachedness (?) in Britten's 'churchy' music - possible that the fundamental words/music/sentiments connection was not always as present as in others' music. Not that he didn't do the tasks asked of him extremely well though - the Jubilate in C is a good little piece as are the 'Hymns to ...' various entities. Compared to the Grimes Sea Interludes, String Quartets etc. there is no comparison IMHO.

 

A

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Even Rutter has written a couple of organ pieces - Toccata in Seven and the Easter duet piece.

 

Plus a rather enjoyable Prelude on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - it's in the OUP book of Christmas organ music.

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Going back to one of the original subjects of this topic, I trust we are all well versed with the writings of Dr. David Wright on the subject of Britten (and other composers and musicians)?

 

http://www.wrightmusic.net/pdfs/benjamin-britten.pdf

http://www.wrightmusic.net/pdfs/britten-more-thoughts.pdf

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Good grief! So the War Requiem is evil for having a boys choir, and Auden addressing him in a letter as "Dearest Ben" is the very depth of depravity? I even wondered if those documents were a spoof, but looking at the man's site, I suppose not.

 

Paul

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I even wondered if those documents were a spoof, but looking at the man's site, I suppose not.

Likewise. There seems to be a great deal of bitterness in the writing, and far too many exclamation marks for comfort - I get the impression that the author isn't exactly an unbiased observer.

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You should look at some of his own compositions on his website.

www.wrightmusic.net

The biography at this link is very oddly written. And the second of the two earlier links to Wright's articles has no validity whatsoever without the names of the musicians who are claimed to have written it.

 

If I weren't concerned about the effect of a take-down notice on the owners of this forum I would say more.

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