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Organs in musical ensembles

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I wonder how much organs are, or have been, used in small-to-medium sized ensembles. I’m excluding continuo in baroque-era music and use in symphony-sized orchestras. The Britten Church Parables, and the organ-harp-percussion version of Chichester Psalms come to mind immediately. I think there’s a version of the Duruflé Requiem for organ and string quintet (+optional brass and percussion). Many of the older, grander theatres used to have pipe organs 100-150 years ago—were they only used on their own or were they ever part of the theatre orchestra sound? Partly I’m asking as I’m currently playing keyboards for a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and I’m using a [whisper it] digital organ for much of the “meat” of the keyboard sound. It’s working quite well but would be even better with a proper instrument.

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I am immediately reminded of a concert given in Plymouth on 18 September 1925 when Mrs Queenie Spooner, ARCM, organist of St Gabriel's church, played Beethoven's 'Emperor' piano concerto at St Gabriel's. As the Western Morning News reported, "A pianist of evident taste and skill, she gave a brilliant rendering of the work, playing the three movements with a sense of light and shade which was truly delightful. Mrs Spooner was accompanied by a well-balanced orchestra ... while the wind-instrument music was represented by Mr H. E. Dyer-Smith at the organ. The effect was impressive." I would guess that the piano was accompanied by just strings and organ, the latter substituting for both woodwind and brass, but this isn't specifically stated.

 

I had not come across such a compromise before. Is it done much? I could imagine it being really quite acceptable if the horns and trumpets were available and the organ substituted just for woodwind.

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I remember my organ teacher mentioning that she was playing the woodwind parts in an ensemble performance - can't remember what or where at this distance of time! Early theatre organs (and Harmoniums) were often used as part of a small orchestra, and there's some comments on this in instruction books of the period. One for Harmonium covers this exact area (sorry, the title escapes me at present) and George Toothill's book on playing theatre organ also makes mention of the subject. In the reed organ world, such instruments were often part of the palm court orchestras and similar enselmbles of the day. I'd be interested to know how much pipe organs have been (and are) involved in such ensembles.

​In more recent times, some of us use (or have used) pipe organs as part of church music groups, although in all of this, the problem of pipe organ pitch shifting with temperature can be an issue, as can the fact that many older organs are not tuned to A=440Hz.

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While at school in Nottingham I recall the music master (an unforgettable personality called W V Todd) regaling the class with an amusing tale about what had happened the previous evening. He had been engaged to play the organ part in Elgar's Cockaigne overture on the Binns instrument at the (Nottingham) Albert Hall, accompanying the Nottinghamshire County Youth Orchestra (ah, that delicious pedal entry - and how outrageous that so many conductors perform the work minus the organ even though it is ad lib). The occasion in question was the final rehearsal at which an eminent guest conductor appeared for the first time (Muir Mathieson as I recall). As half the players had not turned up when he wanted to begin, he got rather cross and asked Todd to play some of the orchestral parts throughout the piece as well as the organ part at the end. Todd was a fine musician, a professionally qualified organist and exceptionally capable at the keyboard, so he would have been quite in his element doing this. At the end Mathieson apparently said something like "well done Toddy, and at least the right notes were being played as well" - probably a jibe at the missing instrumentalists who no doubt were trickling into the hall by then.

 

But doesn't this just illustrate how the often-invisible organist is called on to come to the rescue in so many ways and with no notice at all, employing skills in sight reading, score reading, transposition - and often improvisation to fill in the gaps. What a pity this is seldom realised and acknowledged by more than a very few. It also illustrates how flexible and useful the instrument itself can be in the hands of a good player.

 

CEP

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I once played the combined strings and organ parts on a Johannus electronic organ in Nigeria for a school production of Handel's Messiah. They did it every year, but the school orchestra didn't really have any string players hence the reliance on the organist to basically play whichever lines they didn't have orchestral instruments for!

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The choir I sing in has used an organ (the Metzler in St Mary's University Church in Oxford, to be precise) to provide wind and trumpet parts alongside strings for a performance of Purcell's King Arthur. It was a compromise that enable us to have the correct instruments for the bulk of the performance while remaining within our budget.

 

Paul

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A number of contemporary choral works exist in such arrangements, and are used by choral societies for whom hiring a full size orchestra would be prohibitively expensive. My choir recently performed John Rutter's Requiem, with the reduced scoring of flute, oboe, harp, 'cello, timpani, glockenspiel and organ; which was surprisingly effective as an ensemble. I believe the arrangement was Rutter's own.

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