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Seeing things differently


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Of all the periods of organ music history, none seems to have suffered a decline in its reputation as much as that of the late 19th/ early 20th century, especially as regards English organ music and interpretation. Yet with the increasing availability of both music and theoretical works of the period on the internet, we can perhaps begin a long waited re-assessment of the period.


Recently, whilst trying to find out more about the musical background of George Oldroyd, I came across the name of his teacher A.E. Hull, whose life was cut short in tragic circumstances in 1928. Amongst his many works is an extensive manual on organ playing entitled: “Organ Playing: Its Technique and Expression” (Augener 1911). After downloading this work, a quick reading made it apparent that Hull had a very wide knowledge of “early” organ music and technique. He was aware of registration and keyboard fingering in Bach’s time and refers to use of toes only as the “old method” of pedalling. His views on phrasing may not be to the taste of many of today’s organists, but the treatise gives excellent insights into how he and his contemporaries approached the subject.


At the end of the book Hull reproduces a number of organ recital programmes from the first decade of the 20th century verbatim, including programme notes. These give us the opportunity to compare the recital programmes with those given today (there is a surprising amount of “early” organ music), as well as read assessments of contemporary pieces. I was interested to read the note about Dr A. Lister Peace’s recital given at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool on January 13th 1909. The programme note regarding several movements from Widor’s 5th Symphony has this to say about the last movement, written long before the piece gained the iconic, if not notorious, status it has today:


“The Finale is a veritable moto perpetuo; built upon a kind of ecclesiastical chant or plain-song, which is given out on the pedals, fortissimo, with bold and striking effect.”

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Hmm!   Plenty of material to consider on this topic.

You choose a good exam question along the lines of " Can it be said that the quality of  English organ music went into a state of decline in the early nineteenth and twentieth century " ?

I would state that there were a lot of player/composers who have left us a huge legacy of organ music; the problem being that there is just too much of it and its accessibility is not always easy. Libraries, attics, car boot sales, skips even!

During the period under discussion not only in England but also Europe and America there was what could almost be described as a virtual renaissance in works for the organ which matched the developments in organ design on an exponentional scale.

The discussion could now divert down the avenues on the subjective/objective quality of some of this work .  WTB stands out as a prime example of a brilliant organist who stood classical music on its head by arranging " Classical Hits " for the Common Man  and successfully dragged good music out of the musty hidebound stable of the class ridden concert hall .

Bests successor at SGH  has for some time now regularly included a transcription or two successfully into his recitals .  He has also included in other recitals some pieces by lesser known ( or totally forgotten ) composers from the period under review.

There are mighty Titans from this period , most notably  IMHO I think  would be CV Stanford.


To finish  ( yawn! )  I endorse your comments regarding playing technique/ interpretation; always a bit of a political animal this one.

IMHO, which it is all  its worth, I think that if we are to really understand and develop our musical skills, both theoretically and practically, and in doing so help to enrich an already ripe harvest we will have to look both back - and forwards ; or to use that terrible metaphor , " avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater ".

Eaglefield Hulls most excellent book is as relevant now as  when it was first published. One has to make allowances for the epoch in which  Hull was trained and any modern day shortcomings which it may now reveal.

The same can also be said, I think, with regard to Conways " Organ Playing " written some forty plus years later.

All in all a very good posting worthy of some serious debate.






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At least the music scores still exist and an increasing amount can be listened to through media such as Youtube even if the quality is somewhat variable (I defy any recording company to successfully market a boxed set of "The complete organ works of William Faulkes" - all 500 of them!).

I have lately been drawn to some exceptionally fine works by forgotten German composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Ludwig Finzenhagen, Hugo Kaun or Hans Fahrmann. Forgotten either because their scores were wiped out in Allied bombing or because that period of German history was intentionally overwritten after the second World War. Thankfully the internet and release of online scores means that what little remains can be archived and searched for with increasing ease and it is well worth the hunt.

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