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Phoneuma

Elgar Organ Sonata

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Greetings to all and here’s something to mull over which has interested me for many years. It is certainly not meant to be the basis for an argument, rather a discussion and to give me some idea of where my own thoughts lie in the general scheme of things so here goes anyway.

 

Over many years I have had frequent ‘differences of opinion’ with many others regarding the Elgar Organ Sonata. I loathe the thing and consider it a crushing bore from beginning to end and have never seen the point of learning it as a piece of organ music. Is it one of those pieces that is played simply because it is by a famous composer (rather than some of our lesser-known organist composers, some of whose work is infinitely better written for the instrument but let’s leave that aside for now).

 

Yes, I have had the usual rubbish argument that ‘so-and-so gives an account that is very persuasive and brings the piece to life etc’ , and endless recommendations including the Sumsion which is lauded on the grounds that he knew Elgar, as if that really matters anyway. This latter argument is something of dead end quite honestly (based upon the same grounds that ‘so-and-so can make a dreadful instrument sound miraculously good, regardless of the obvious fact that said instrument is a dud by anyone’s standard). In fact, it was probably Sumsion that I heard first on GCOS, those grooves were only ever run through once on the LP and I haven’t even played the GCOS CD on the same grounds.

 

I’ll probably end up being in a minority here (and reported to the Citizenship Czar to boot)but I really can’t see what the fuss about this dreary old drivel is (same applies to the Britten P and F, another one for the bonfire, but shall we stick to Elgar?).

Phoneuma

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Personally, I like the piece and keep meaning to learn it! I guess it's a matter of taste.

 

I agree with you about the Britten though. I love most of the rest of his output, but I have a great deal of trouble getting the P&F to make sense.

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Well, I imagine there are two things that might stand in the way of liking the piece.

 

First, it appears not to be written very organ and organist friendly, and it takes more of an effort than with most other music first to learn the notes and then to make the music come across on a particular instrument.

 

And then, it’s Elgar. His music is always intense, it never wastes energy trying to justify itself or negotiate with the listener’s tastes or predilections. It is never shy of showing off its qualities, peculiarities, extravagances and idiosyncrasies. No other British composer of that era ever managed to sound as personal and as characteristic as Elgar did. In my ears, it’s what makes him great, but it clearly renders him also open to criticism and dislike. I, too, am annoyed with his music sometimes, but not with the sonata. Listening to Elgar is like dealing with a real person (and not a very polite one at that), you just cannot escape him and his ways. If that may not present reason to hate someone, then what does?

 

There are even people living now who still loathe the man – the man, rather than the music – to the marrow.

 

With me, it’s “Ad nos”, by the way. Most of the times sitting through it, I found listening to it an utter waste of time.

 

Best wishes

Friedrich

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There is a recording from sometime ago of the Sonata by Thomas Murray played on the big Hook organ at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston which really convinced me of the merits of the piece. The playing is of course stunning but the organ with its clear choruses, wealth of solo sounds and generally less than romantic tendencies brings a somewhat lighter touch to the music than we often get. There is excitement, thoughtfulness and when necessary momentum but the playing combine with choice of instrument really brings a different perspective to things.

 

A

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"a somewhat lighter touch to the music than we often get."

 

I suppose one of the things about ‘the Elgar’ is that it is very Elgarian. If you don’t like his music, to begin with, then it’s a bit of a no-hoper. You (Phoneuma) don't mention this.

 

It was composed, in one week, for a convention of US organists and premiered in Worcester Cathedral in 1895. This was presumably on the 4-manual Hill of 1874 in the South Transept- the year before Hope Jones’ rebuild and, thus, not as ‘boomy’ as might at first be supposed, in line with AJJ's remarks quoted above. Hence, it was a work of Elgar’s middle years and only four years before Enigma. It is very much a work of its (fin de siècle) time.

 

Elgar was an organist- in the same (Roman Catholic) church as his father- and did not receive a thorough grounding in Anglican organ tradition. This may have been to his (and our) benefit; as was his failure to be able to study in Leipzig, which his father could not afford.

 

Some of its characteristics are not particularly organistic (amusingly, I mistyped this last word, and was offered ‘orgiastic’ as a suggestion !) and it sounds possibly even better (and more Elgarian) in Gordon Jacob’s orchestral arrangement, made after the composer’s death. (There is a Chandos CD of this, conducted by Richard Hickox.) Elgar was a wonderful orchestrator; it would have been great to have had his arrangement of this piece.

 

I believe, finally, that the organ on which this is played must be of the right vintage, played with somewhat of a swagger, when appropriate, and in a sufficiently reverberant acoustic, otherwise it loses its ability to conjure up those wonderful images of the end of Victoria’s reign.

 

 

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Why 'apologies', Colin ? No need, with your meticulously researched article.

 

You have left us with the unanswerable question of wondering what Elgar's ideal organ sound was- though have gone some way towards answering it. (An interesting corollary is that much of Elgar's orchestral music lends itself to transcription/arrangement for the organ.)

 

Also, lamenting the loss of those TWO 1874 instruments (if I've got it right). That couldn't happen now, could it ?

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...it sounds possibly even better (and more Elgarian) in Gordon Jacob’s orchestral arrangement, made after the composer’s death. (There is a Chandos CD of this, conducted by Richard Hickox.) Elgar was a wonderful orchestrator; it would have been great to have had his arrangement of this piece.

 

Intriguingly, two different composers have produced orchestrations of this glorious (am I allowed to revel here?) piece - John Morrison was apparently unaware of Gordon Jacob's version. I've only heard the Jacob version but it is quite magnificent. Given all the crashes, drumrolls and glockenspiels that it invites, and knowing Elgar wrote it for an organ about to be replaced by a Hope-Jonesasurus, I'm surprised noone has recorded the organ version (as far as I can see) on a Wurlitzer ;-)

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'If you don’t like his music, to begin with, then it’s a bit of a no-hoper. You (Phoneuma) don't mention this.'

Very fair point indeed - some of it I couldn't do without (Dream of Gerontius, for instance) and I will most certainly read through Colin's article which might well persuade me to give it another chance (and the recording referred to by AJJ). I do find I have to mentally put aside the Victorian / Edwardian culture (for want of a better word that doesn't come to mind just now) and, that done, yes, I do enjoy quite a fair bit of his other music.

Do keep the replies coming, but you are beginning to, perhaps, make me listen afresh, in which case thanks to all for your powers of persuasion!

Simon Gregory (i'll own up to a name!).

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Thank you for those kind words (#7), firstrees, but it's somewhat embarrassing to direct people to one's own work!

 

This thread is partly about whether one likes Elgar's music. Although it's of little broader consequence, personally I find much of it very beautiful. I have mastered (sort of) the first three movements of the Sonata but the fourth is beyond me. Many years ago I played for the induction of a priest when I was living in Malvern (maybe that's why I like him - he's in the very air there). The priest had asked for the first movement of the Sonata to be played at the end - on a two manual tracker organ! Anyway, I slogged through it as best I could while they were all processing out behind the bishop of - you've guessed it - Worcester. At the end the bishop very kindly came up, dressed back in mufti, and said how much he had enjoyed it, remarking that he had walked as slowly as was decent so he could savour it. He then said I must come and play it to him in his cathedral, though he regretted that the H-J organ was no longer there. Obviously very knowledgeable. That was in Christopher Robinson's day.

 

I find Elgar uses the organ to good effect with the orchestra, for example at the end of the Enigma Variations and Cockaigne. When it enters, I find both these examples incredibly moving and among the most wonderful moments in all music. It's a travesty that so many conductors omit the organ, and it's quite difficult to find recordings which include it just by looking at their sleeves.

 

Unlike Phoneuma (a Hope-Jones stop name by the way, dreamed up by his brother Kenyon who was a classics scholar), I'm not as keen on Gerontius but that's as much the fault (if that's the right word) of Cardinal Newman as Elgar - I'm not a Roman Catholic so I simply don't have the necessary cultural background to understand it properly at a spiritual level. But I've never been at a performance when the hair on my neck doesn't stand up when Praise to the Holiest peals out. Wonderful stuff, quite wonderful, for a country boy with scarcely a music lesson to his name.

 

CEP

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It's John Scott on Priory's Great European Organs that sold it to me. Complete technical mastery, incredible energy and beautifully judged placing and rubato. I'm not always a fan of Elgar, but that recording surmounts all my difficulties.

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Further to what I wrote above, (Colin) have you been able to add to these findings, since 1999 ?

 

And, apologies if this eluded me (but I’m currently suffering from mild concussion), has it ever been confirmed on which of the Worcester instruments the Sonata was premiered ?

 

Phoneuma: if this helps, site yourself in authentic ‘Sunday best’ (GoogleImage, for appropriate dress), in a stuffy, heavily furnished sitting room, with closed thick drapes; have, in the corner of your mind, privilege, trams, steamships and smoky factories.

 

I once had the immense pleasure of playing the organ in ‘The Enigma’; finding the first entry exactly as Colin describes (#10)- and left fervently wishing for 32s (!). I was asked, after the event, if I’d been reading a novel; I was, of course, following the music in a miniature score.

 

AJJ: do you have details of that Murray recording, please ?

 

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AJJ: do you have details of that Murray recording, please ?

 

PM sent

 

A

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As pure music I rather like the Elgar sonata. I think it is a fine expression of late English romanticism. the trouble I have with it is that it isn't organ music. Consciously or not, Elgar's vision was essentially an orchestral one. At least, to put it another way, I am at a loss to envisage how different a piece it would have turned out had Elgar composed it for orchestra rather than organ. The French managed to solve the problem of developing a distinctive organ idiom for the Romantic style. The English didn't, probably because they didn't see any need, but our failure to give the organ a distinctive voice has relegated it to the status of an also-ran alongside that most flexible of all musical media, the symphony orchestra. I'm afraid the organ just isn't that subtle a medium, even in the hands of the most incomparable modern players.

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I think it's established beyond all shadow of doubt that the Sonata was composed for the Hill organ in the transept. The belief that it was written for the Hope-Jones - stated in Clutton & Niland's "The British Organ" - failed to take account of the date.

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Further to what I wrote above, (Colin) have you been able to add to these findings, since 1999 ?

 

 

I haven't done very much more other than on Hope-Jones's work more generally, but that's rather peripheral to the issue here I think.

 

 

has it ever been confirmed on which of the Worcester instruments the Sonata was premiered ?

 

It had to have been the 4 manual Hill in the south transept. The H-J instrument wasn't ready until the following year, and the 3 manual Hill in the quire did not have a wide enough manual compass. Whether this means Elgar composed the work for this organ is a subtly different question, though probably irrelevant. It was definitely intended that Blair should play it for a gathering of American visiting organists, thus Elgar rushed the score to him with only a few days to go, which is probably why Blair made a mess of it (though he was said to have been a dipsomaniac also). Blair was the cathedral organist, and thus the 4 manul Hill was the only organ in the building which could have been used.
CEP

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To Vox Humana's point at #14. I wonder what the piece would sound like on a French instrument? Elgar on a Cavaille-Col? Does anyone know of any recordings?

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Not C-C but the Sonata was concluding voluntary on a R3 Choral Evensong broadcast from New College Oxford some years ago, I don't remember the player. It actually sounded rather fine! Coincidentally also I heard it last month played very effectively by Gary Sieling at Southwark Cathedral, an instrument I had previously not heard 'live'. It worked well here too despite the slightly strange balance of the Swell as heard from the nave. The small solo reeds and great flues came over very effectively and the big choruses and larger reeds bounced merrily around the place without a feeling of being bogged down. The Lewis organ though is uncharacteristic for its time.

 

A

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It's such a pity that the Christopher Kent edition of the Sonata (which has been described to me with varying levels of approval) has - according to learned and academically aware organist friends - only ever been available in the volume of complete organ works in the Novello Complete Elgar Edition. One might hope that one day it might appear published as a performance score on it's own. Something over £80 for the whole volume is a little steep for a Senior Citizen!

 

Malcolm

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To Vox Humana's point at #14. I wonder what the piece would sound like on a French instrument? Elgar on a Cavaille-Col? Does anyone know of any recordings?

There is no finer performance of the Elgar First Sonata than Kynaston's at Ingolstadt (Mitra OSM 16157), on vinyl from 1977. The Elgar Sonata is not organ music, but music played on the organ. (The Second Sonata is Brass Band music played on the organ). An organ, such as Ingolstadt, in a live acoustic, such as Ingolstadt, makes it own demands on the player and the printed score. In this particular case, the player, the organ and the music are as one. The listener is engaged from the first notes to the last, not so much by the musical argument, but by the succession of episodes. You just have to hear what happens next.

 

MF

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I was interested to see the various comments about it not being "organ music". I don't find it any less idiomatic than a lot of stuff from that period.

 

Re the mention of New College, Oxford - it never fails to amaze me how much sounds really good on it. Being really cynical, I suppose one could argue that the only thing it's suited to is baroque music played the way people thought it ought to go in the sixties. I suppose it just bears out the idea that a good organ is a good organ, and it is a fine conception, well carried-out.

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'There is no finer performance of the Elgar First Sonata than Kynaston's at Ingolstadt (Mitra OSM 16157), on vinyl from 1977.'

Now you do have me thinking - I'd completely forgotten about this recording (partly because I don't think they have never issued those Mitra vinyls on CD, do correct me if wrong - I have the Vierne 6 from that series and it is a fantastic sound, and performance of course).

And thanks for the history behind Phoneuma, often wondered about it.

S

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It's such a pity that the Christopher Kent edition of the Sonata (which has been described to me with varying levels of approval) has - according to learned and academically aware organist friends - only ever been available in the volume of complete organ works in the Novello Complete Elgar Edition. One might hope that one day it might appear published as a performance score on it's own. Something over £80 for the whole volume is a little steep for a Senior Citizen!

 

Malcolm

 

It's, in fact, just under £60, and can be ordered here.

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In post #20 mf2701 said:

 

"The Elgar Sonata is not organ music, but music played on the organ"

 

I find this statement curious in that, as far as I am aware, Elgar did compose it explicitly for the organ. Perhaps the statement refers to the perceived idiom of the music, though if so, that aspect is not mentioned in the post.

 

The statement "The Second Sonata is Brass Band music played on the organ" is true. It was transcribed by Ivor Atkins, with Elgar's blessing and active involvement in that they collaborated on aspects of it including registration towards the end of Elgar's life. However the registration could not have been informed in detail by the disposition of the Hope-Jones organ at Worcester. Although Atkins was the organist there for a long time (1897 - 1950) and therefore would have known the H-J organ intimately, it had been rebuilt by Harrison's in the 1920s, though it still retained more than a touch of Hope-Jones's tonalities at the time the transcription was made.

 

CEP

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As another comment on the discography of Elgar's Sonata, there is Roger Fisher's CD from Chester (Motette CD 11501, DDD, 1991). As well as the Sonata in G you also get the transcribed Severn Suite (Sonata no. 2), the Vesper Voluntaries, Cantique and Pomp & Circumstance March no. 1. So good value in terms of content.

 

I find it a most attractive listening experience. The whole thing - performer, organ, acoustic - seems to fit the music so well. Sometimes it seems the miking was a little distant though, resulting in some loss of detail in places, but it was recorded in a cathedral after all.

 

CEP

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