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Mander Organs
Martin Cooke

Women composers (of organ music)

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I've seen some unsurprising expressions of disappointment and incredulity recently at the lack of inclusion of the works of women composers in such things as the Proms programme and in the Classic FM Hall of fame - in this latter example, I understand that just one of 300 works is by a woman. The excellent DoM of Pembroke College, Cambridge, is including a work by a woman in every service this term in chapel and it is going to take more of this sort of determination to bring about change.

Where are we with women composers of organ music? I play music by Ethel Smyth - in fact, I have gone to the trouble of transcribing two of the Choral Preludes that in their published version uses tenor clef so that I can perform them. I also play some pieces by Rebecca Groom te Velde which OUP has published over the last ten years or so in various albums, and Rosalie Bonighton is always worth a look in the Kevin Mayhew volumes. Then I have a piece by Florence Durrell Clarke which I don't play. There is some fabulous music by Rachel Laurin which sounds too difficult for me, and I bought a new piece by Judith Weir last year which I didn't really take to, if I'm honest, but after that, I am struggling a bit. 

Could we try to submit names we know of female organ music composers even if we don't play them? 

And... could we all try to recommend and provide sources for pieces we do know and play so that they can become better known? I am happy to help pinpoint the pieces mentioned here in a bit more detail, but will have to leave my armchair to do so!

Can we do this?

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2 hours ago, Martin Cooke said:

I've seen some unsurprising expressions of disappointment and incredulity recently at the lack of inclusion of the works of women composers in such things as the Proms programme 

 

27 women composers are featured at the 'Proms' this year.

………………………………. but of organ music - I'm not sure I could name more than half a dozen - if that!!!!

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IMSLP has Amy Beach's Prelude on an Old Folk Tune, which I rather like. I wouldn't want to make any false claims of greatness for the piece, but it's very pleasant, certainly worth an airing and there's far worse stuff out there.

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Then of course there's Jeanne Demessieux. Most of her stuff seems to require a very advanced technique, but some of her 12 Preludes on Gregorian Themes are not too difficult and sound well in the right sort of ambience in terms of acoustic and instrument.

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Two somewhat contrasting French women composers come to mind.

Dupré’s pupil Rolande Falcinelli composed prolifically for the organ as well as other instruments and for voices.  Wikipedia lists 27 works for organ, some of them having several (or many) movements and 14 works for organ and other instruments or voice.  

Cécile Chaminade was another prolific composer, although her organ music is probably little performed nowadays, if at all, outside France (S_L can doubtless enlighten us whether it is played there).  Works for organ include Prélude for Organ Op 78, Meditation for Solo Instrument and organ and the substantial La Nef Sacrée Op 171 - 9 movements for organ or harmonium, the last available from Boosey & Hawkes.  I can’t lay hands on the Meditation’s opus number.  I believe Thomas Trotter plays organ transcriptions from Six Feuillets Op 98.

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Judith Bingham’s Ancient Sunlight Is interesting and rather beautiful, and I think there are other pieces by her as well.  Diana Burrell’s Arched forms with Bells was a Proms commission back in the 90s though I don’t remember much about it. I’ve recently performed Thea Musgrave’s contribution to the Orgelbuchlein project. And there’s at least one piece by Florence Price - the first African American woman to have a piece performed by a professional symphony orchestra - in the series King of Kings - organ music by black composers, which is well worth investigating with some really interesting music.  Though I admit it’s not much - and on a related topic, we could do with more organ recitals by women as well! 

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An ex-student of mine went, after composition lessons with me, to Diana Burrell, I think when he was doing a Master's at the Academy. She was, he told me, an inspirational teacher. 

Arched form with bells is available on a recording with Kevin Bowyer which also includes works my Brian Ferneyhough, John Tavener and Wilfred Mellors - among others. The music is available on UMP. It was first performed in 1990 at a Prom, by David Titterington. Also on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9ny4EmDEyE

 

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I have a reording of Joyce Jones playing the uge instrument at West Point military academy , New Jersey, which includes a wonderfully well wrought improvisation on the Japanese song "Ako tombo"   (The red dragonfly?)  It combines delicious impressionistic  French style harmony with typical Japanese scales etc.   (Lots of fourths, if I recall correctly.....I shall have to listen to it again)

I'm not sure, but I believe it may have been written down and published, and if so, it is an absolute delight.

For those who keep fit by playing the organ, there are some monstrously difficult pieces by the l;ate, great Jeanne Demessieux; one of the truly great virtuoso  organists/composers, who died tragically young from cancer.  She left a large corpus of works, which included many genres, but do we ever hear any of it?

It seems to me, that organists are stuck in a bit of a rut, and seldom venture out beyond the normal accepted  mainstream repertoire.

MM

 

 

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15 hours ago, DariusB said:

 - and on a related topic, we could do with more organ recitals by women as well! 

And with some posts by them here also, and not just on this topic of course.  In fact, does not that rather say it all?

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At times I feel that we organists don’t do ourselves any favours and on occasions the stereotypical view ‘out on the streets’ so to speak is not always favourable. The fact that on many occasions the music comes firmly second to the ‘mystique’ with many organists or organ aficionados (do other instruments have similar I wonder?) must be enough to put many off regardless of gender! The technicality and tonal mysteries are all well and good but without the music what is the point?

I recently went to a local organists meeting where the centre of attention was a nice medium sized typical ‘village’ instrument, good action and musical sounds. An encouraging number attended with a good number of young players (male and female) who all turned up with appropriate pieces and played really well. There was a significant number (all male) however who came without music and ‘improvised’ in a decidedly unmusical manner. Yet this seemed totally acceptable to them! Most were local church players and when not on the bench could be found in huddles mulling over the beauty of the Swell strings, the fact that there was no electronic combination action or what would make the instrument even better for playing French music on. Enough to put anyone off forever!

Working as I do with musicians of all levels and ages (and many outside the organist fraternity) I really feel that gender aside we need to remember that this mystique should not replace musicianship. The instrument is only as good as the player as with a piano, flute or even rock guitar.  This applies to church music generally too I feel...but that’s for another forum!

A

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6 minutes ago, AJJ said:

The fact that on many occasions the music comes firmly second to the ‘mystique’ with many organists or organ aficionados (do other instruments have similar I wonder?) must be enough to put many off regardless of gender!

Perhaps I'm being over-cynical (what? me?) but I wonder whether it's not so much a matter of 'mystique' as of organists too often having little interest in music other than that for the organ. I don't think that this is at all unique though. I am fairly sure that almost all musicians are to some (small or larger) extent guilty of the same thing. The main difference is that those who play orchestral instruments are more apt to get involved in chamber and orchestral music (because it's very unsatisfactory always playing on your own) and thus acquire a much broader musical outlook.  Pianists, too, can get to play chamber music. The organ, however, is mostly totally isolated from the musical mainstream - choirs hardly count. Classical guitarists are perhaps in a similar boat.

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The organ is probably unique among musical instruments, for not only does it produce musical sounds, it is an infinitely varied and fascinating box of tricks.  Even small instruments amount to a substantial "machine".

As both a player and a bit of a historian (Compton especially), I can recognise and appreciate the richness of both approaches.   Perhaps it's no surprising that many organ buffs are also steam-train enthusiasts, and not all of them are drivers!

Quite a number of organ-builders are not great organists, and some don't play at all, but that doesn't prevent them from making really fine instruments.

MM

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4 hours ago, MusoMusing said:

It can't be too difficult to play a few octave, surely?


MM - running away in terror!
 

Pleased to see this resurrected. It’s  quite something MM! Worth looking up Waldsassen and the word ‘relics’..... I’ll leave that for interested parties to discover for themselves.

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1 hour ago, Vox Humana said:

 

Perhaps I'm being over-cynical (what? me?) but I wonder whether it's not so much a matter of 'mystique' as of organists too often having little interest in music other than that for the organ.

 

I remember, a long time ago, Lionel Dakers writing an article about paying a visit to a church! He was invited for lunch at the home of the organist and was surprised when he looked at the organist's CD collection. His comment was that he had never come across a collection with such a wide variety of music, in all his visits at Director of RSCM.

I remember looking at my CD collection, at the time, and thinking how strange it was that he felt he needed to comment.  My collection, in those days, featured main-stream orchestral repertoire, organ music, opera, oratorio, chamber music and so on. It also included the complete works on CD of Messiaen, John Cage and Stockhausen as well as music from the 13th cent. to the present day .

Were organists that narrow minded? I fear so - certainly in those days! Is it the same nowadays? In some circles, very much so although I do think that those who have studied at a half-decent University or Music College have, possibly, in the last 30 years (it is nearly 50 years since I graduated!) been exposed to a wider spectrum of music than in previous times!

I am reminded of when I was a student at RCM prior to University. I took part in  performance of the John Cage Theatre Piece. The day after the performance which began with one of the performers counting to ten, hitting a cymbal and eating a banana, we were summoned into the Registrar's office "We'll have no more of that kind of thing!" we were told! It was a time when History of Music lectures conveniently stopped at the doors of the 20th century!!!   

I don't think you are being cynical VH - I think you are, very much, touching on the truth!

But of course, I don't claim to be an organist!!!

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Thank you S_L.  I think you are on the nail with your observation about those who have studied at a university or music college. Nor would I expect my cynicism to apply to most members here!  Maybe I am being slightly snobby. Amateur organists may love the instrument and its music, but they have often had no musical education above "A" level at best and may not even regard themselves as "proper" musicians. They are perfectly entitled to whatever musical tastes they fancy and if these do not go beyond the organ who am I to tell them they are wrong, even if I am aware of what they are missing?

Anyway, I have strayed from the topic! Apologies!

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On 25/04/2019 at 00:24, DariusB said:

And there’s at least one piece by Florence Price - the first African American woman to have a piece performed by a professional symphony orchestra - in the series King of Kings - organ music by black composers, which is well worth investigating with some really interesting music.  Though I admit it’s not much - and on a related topic, we could do with more organ recitals by women as well! 

Florence Price wrote a fairly significant body of organ works including a sonata and a suite (No. 1, although I don’t think there is a No. 2), as well as a host of smaller works. They are published by ClarNan editions, in four volumes edited by Calvert Johnson. Unfortunately ClarNan do not have a distributor in Europe, so their music has to be ordered from an American supplier, with associated exhorbitant postage costs. 

Other female composers worth checking out include the Swede Elfride Andrée, whose Symphony No. 1 is a masterpiece. Her Symphony No. 2 features a brass band as well as the organ, but is not quite up to the standard set by the first, in my opinion. 

Johanna Senfter was a pupil of Reger, and wrote several chorale preludes, clearly inspired by her teacher. Here is the Fantasie und Fuge über Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern: 

 

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3 hours ago, David Surtees said:

Florence Price wrote a fairly significant body of organ works including...

... a little piece called Adoration which is on IMSLP.

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For a bit of fun,  try Diane Bish's arrangement of "A New Name in Glory".  The sheet music is available on her website (http://thejoyofmusic.org/thejoyofmusic-ii.aspx) and there's a sassy performance on YouTube played on the 1928 Kimball theatre organ now in the Capital Building at Juneau, Alaska.  I'm playing it today at our Noon Hour concert in Fredericton Cathedral.

 

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There is a lot of music by Judith Bingham - have a look at Resonus Classics website if you’re curious - and there are several new pieces in the offing. Cecilia McDowall has written quite extensively (very good series of pieces on George Herbert  poems and a newish set of pieces on the Advent Antiphons), and there are now several pieces by Judith Weir. Errolyn Wallen has written for the instrument too, and Joanna Marsh has written several pieces. Elsa Barraine wrote a very good Prelude and Fugue. The Orgelbuchlein project includes works by quite a few female composers. Janet Owen Thomas and Janet Graham wrote excellent pieces, but alas not many. Diana Burrell wrote a very big set of pieces for organ and various ensembles, The Hours, but I don’t think it’s been performed in its entirety after the various premieres, which were in 1990 or so, I think. Saariaho wrote a concerto recently. 

 

 

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There are three (I think) brief works by Roxanna Panufnik. Kyrie cum Jubilo found its way into my repertoire, by request.

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I recently commissioned a piece from the young composer Amy Summers. She has been ‘in residence’ at Nottingham RC Cathedral and is currently studying on a masters course in composition at Trinity College in London. She has produced some lovely liturgical music that deserves investigating and has a fb page with information etc. I have written about her in a recent Organists’ Review article also.

https://www.nottinghamcathedralmusic.com/blog/amy-summers-composer-in-residence-profile

A

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