A very fine organist passed on a fellow very fine organist‘s compliments on my recent annotations to his recital today on the Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson in Dallas, and he even urged patrons to read them, which goes way beyond my wildest expectations for this Sunday. Obviously, getting compliments is a nice boost in general (unless, I guess, the compliments are coming from actual Nazis—poor Orff!), but for me, someone who is constantly aware of my overall organ ignorance, especially when it comes to the technical details that are at the very heart of organ artistry, I know just about enough to feel unequal to the task. At any rate, I’m always especially nervous about writing organ notes because I’m not an organist. I do know several organists, though, and I know how scrupulous and knowledgeable they are (and how likely to notice errors). One of my favorite classical critics, the prolific freelancer and longtime Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell, trained as an organist, and I know he attends all those concerts. I have extra incentive not to screw up and embarrass myself in front of someone I respect so much.
Most of all, though, I don’t want to mess up the organ notes because I genuinely believe that more people would be interested in the pipe organ and its glorious repertoire if they knew more about it. I do not want to be a bad ambassador. Speaking for myself, I probably wouldn’t have become interested in the pipe organ if I hadn’t happened to have wandered into a free recital at the Notre-Dame Cathedrale in Paris, when I was a cash-poor and awe-struck 19-year-old fille au pair from Missouri who had never visited a city bigger than Chicago or older than New Orleans. If there was a program, I didn’t see it, and to this day I can’t remember what I heard, only that I loved the way the chords inhabited my body for a time, how the sounds could be felt as well as heard, inscribed on my musculoskeletal system like notes on staff paper.
To this day I feel certain that more lives would be greatly enriched by regular exposure to the king of instruments. You could listen to nothing but J.S. Bach fugues for the rest of your life and still find plenty to discover, but you don’t have to stop there, and you won’t want to after you get to the rest of the repertoire. Maybe you will find yourself drawn to the Bachian rigors of Max Reger, or the trance-inducing tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, or the languorous chromaticism and birdsong mimicry of Olivier Messiaen, or the sublime and inimitable Franckness of César Franck, but I urge you to give it a shot, especially if you associate the pipe organ with dreary sermons or civic occasions (in which case, I prescribe an immediate dose of Charles Ives’s organ music, stat!).
I’m already falling behind on both my blog content goals and my annotation schedule from my miraculously patient clients, so here are my program notes for the wonderful Christian Schmitt program. Insofar as all my links seem to be going bad, I’ll just cut and paste them from my Word document rather than linking you to the Dallas Symphony website, where they also appeared, as well as in the printed program. I extend my eternal thanks to all the organists who keep this vital art form alive. And the rest of you should try to find a local pipe organ recital in your cities and see if this music speaks to you the way it does to me and so many others.
Schmitt Organ Recital
By René Spencer Saller
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
Although regionally famous for his mind-bending organ improvisations and locally infamous for his hot temper, Bach lived in relative obscurity. He spent his entire life in Germany, where he was born. As an organist, a court musician, a choir master, a music teacher, and the father of 20 children, he was probably too busy to tour the continent. Yet somehow he cranked out more than a thousand compositions, in every major genre except opera. Many scholars estimate that he wrote about twice that much. Although few of his compositions were published during his lifetime and most of his original manuscripts were lost, his contributions to the solo organ repertoire are incalculable: at least 200 known works.
The Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is among the finest of these. The passacaglia form calls for a series of variations over a repeated bass figure (basso ostinato—Italian for “obstinate bass”), usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter. The genre was already more than a century old when Bach composed this, his only surviving organ passacaglia, probably in Weimar between 1708 and 1712. Somewhat unconventionally, he crossed the passacaglia with a chaconne—a related form that also features a basso ostinato—and created a spectacular double fugue.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Annum per annum for Solo Organ
When Pärt was born, his native Estonia was an independent Baltic state. Five years later, the Soviet Union launched an occupation that would last for the next half-century (not counting a three-year stint under German rule). Although he attended conservatory, Soviet bureaucrats went to great lengths to prevent Pärt and his peers from hearing any music created outside the Soviet Union, aside from a few contraband scores and tapes here and there.
Although commentators today call him a “holy minimalist,” Pärt first embraced the neoclassicism of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev before shifting to the serialism of Schoenberg. Most of the music Pärt preferred was banned by Soviet censors. Frustrated, he immersed himself in the study of plainsong and Gregorian chant—the sacred roots of early European polyphony. By focusing on the distant past, he found an original voice: austere, tonal, liturgical, and deceptively simple. He was particularly inspired by a technique he called tintinnabulation, which refers to the ringing of bells, or more specifically, to the way that sound resonates, how it blooms and decays in space over time.
In 1980 Pärt fled the Soviet Union for Vienna, later settling in Berlin. That same year he composed the organ mass Annum per annum for the 950th anniversary of the Speyer Dome Church. The mass is dedicated to Saint Mary, Mother of God and the guardian of the dome; to Emperor Conrad II, the founder of the dome; to St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians; and to Leo Krämer, the organist at Speyer Dome Church who premiered the piece.
Annum per annum consists of five movements, all variations on cantus firmus, the literal Latin translation of which is “firm song.” In polyphonic music the term refers to the foundational melody, the source from which all subsequent musical procedures spring. Each of the five movements contains an introduction and coda, although Pärt indicates in the score that these may be omitted by the organist if desired. The movements are distinguished by the letters K, G, C, S, A, which refer to the five ordinary parts of the Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei).
Annum per annum is best known for its dramatic opening, in which the organist holds a gargantuan, loud-as-God chord, and then lets the notes dissipate as the air is shut off. The effect is experienced by the body as much as the mind—and who knows, maybe even the soul.
César Franck (1822–1890): Choral No. 3 in A Minor
As a composer, Franck was something of a late bloomer, although his life in music began quite early. His greedy father bullied him into the role of child prodigy on the piano-recital circuit, and he was relieved when the passage of time ended that phase of his career. Introspective and painfully awkward, he preferred poring over his counterpoint exercises and experimenting with new organ registrations. After angering his father by leaving the family home in his early 20s, he supported himself by teaching music.
A few years later, after his marriage, Franck became a church organist, a position he cherished and retained for the rest of his life. He was widely beloved by his apprentices and students at the Paris Conservatoire, who called him Pater seraphicus (Seraphic Father). His harmonic language was indelibly marked by the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument that he played for more than 30 years at Ste. Clotilde. Its rich array of stops allowed Franck to create the unique sounds and textures that characterized his compositions.
In the summer of 1890, Franck suffered a head injury after a horse-drawn trolley collided with the cab in which he was riding. Although he dismissed his symptoms as minor, they quickly worsened, and before long he could barely walk, much less fulfill his duties at the Conservatoire. He hoped to recover over vacation, and he felt well enough to compose three remarkable Chorals in just two months, completing Choral No. 1 on August 10, Choral No. 2 on September 12, and Choral No. 3 less than two weeks later. But almost as soon as he resumed teaching, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died on November 8, 1890.
The Choral No. 3 in A Minor, the last of the set, opens with a glittering two-part Toccata surrounding a lyrical Adagio, which introduces a new theme, rapturously sung by the Trompette over soft accompaniment. Although the Choral is consistent with genre conventions, Franck finds ingenious ways to combine his three main themes, weaving them into a spectacular polyphonic tapestry. You might detect the influence of Liszt, particularly his “Weinen, Klagen” Variations, as well as traces of Bach and Beethoven, but Franck retains his unmistakable Franckness throughout: psychedelic but also heavy, an unlikely mixture of the delicately ornate and the sludgy-visceral.
A quick note on nomenclature: the word choral, as Franck understood it, refers not to the chorale, or Lutheran hymn-melody, but simply to an original theme harmonized in the style of a chorale.
Theo Brandmüller (1948–2012): “Die Kruezigung” (The Crucifixion) and “Pieta” from Sieben Stücke zurPassionszeit (Seven Works for Passiontide)
Born in Mainz, Germany, Brandmüller began making his first public appearances as a pianist and composer while still in his teens. From 1968 to 1972, he studied music education and sacred music in Mainz and Detmold. He underwent additional training in composition with Giselher Klebe from 1970 to 1975, then with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne and Cristóbal Halffter in Madrid. In 1977 and ’78, Brandmüller studied organ with Gaston Litaize and composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris before transitioning to a teaching career. At the time of his death in 2012, following a sudden illness, Brandmüller was a professor of composition, analysis, and organ improvisation at the Hochschule für Musik Saar, in Saarbrücken, Germany, and the recipient of many international awards and prizes.
Brandmüller composed Sieben Stücke zur Passionsveit, from which “Die Kruezigung” and “Pieta” are extracted for this performance, in 1983. In addition to organ, it is scored for metronome and speaking voice. Brandmüller was at the console for the world premiere on April 26, 1983, at the St. Georg parish church in Mainz.
The Composer Speaks
“The thoughts of the seven small musically related pieces revolve around the events of the Passion. Realistically ‘described’ details of the passion theme become—increasingly clear—visions; melodic sound-shapes emerge from the rhythmically bizarre initial position; the central piece, The Sweat Cloth (of Veronica), thanks to its sound mirrored form, is a reflection of today’s situation, our current situation!
“A sarabande (The Crucifixion) and a circular canon on ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (from Bach’s Mass in B Minor) conclude the cycle.
“All seven pieces are inspired by the passion cycle of the sculptor Richard Hess, whose unembellished, deeply felt reliefs begin to speak musically.” —Theo Brandmüller
Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937): Moderato from Symphony No. 10, “Romane,” Op. 73
Born in Lyon in 1844, Widor seemed destined to serve the king of instruments. His father was the organist at Saint-François-de-Sales for more than 50 years. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionized the pipe organ for the French Romantic age, was a family friend. In 1870 Widor was hired temporarily to play organ at Saint-Sulpice, in Paris. He held on to the job until 1934, just a few years before his death at 93. (He was even buried in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.) Among his many compositions are 10 organ symphonies; three symphonies for orchestra with organ; and Bach’s Memento, six original arrangements of music by J.S. Bach.
Nicknamed after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated—the gothic Saint-Ouen abbey church in Rouen and the Romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse—Widor’s last two symphonies represent his crowning achievement for organ. The Ninth, or “Gothic,” repurposes the Christmas Day Introit “Puer natus est nobis” (Unto us a Child is born), and the 10th, or “Romane,” uses the Easter Gradual “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus” (This is the day the Lord has made). In honoring the churches, these two symphonies also pay tribute to the organ builder, Cavaillé-Coll, whose state-of-the-art instruments grace each structure—and inform the music of each symphony. Widor himself debuted the “Gothic” in its namesake church in Rouen.
Widor’s “Romane” Symphony takes full advantage of the rich sonorities available on the Saint-Sernin’s Cavaillé-Coll. In his later years, Widor came to believe that organ music should derive its themes from sacred music; his 10th Symphony, like its predecessor, is steeped in plainsong.
In his preface to the published score, Widor described his Easter Gradual “Haec dies” theme as “an elegant arabesque ornamenting a text of several words—about 10 notes per syllable—a vocalise as elusive as birdsong; a sort of pedal-point conceived for a virtuoso free of restraint. The only means of holding the listener’s attention with so fluid a theme is to repeat it incessantly. Such is the plan of this movement that sacrifices everything to the subject. Here and there the composer has somewhat timidly embarked in development, but this departure is quickly abandoned and the original plan of the work resumes.”
Franz Liszt (1811–1886): “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”—Präludium nach J. S. Bach
Franz Liszt, the first superstar piano virtuoso, retired from concertizing at the peak of his fame, when he was 35 years old. A year later, the handsome and charismatic Hungarian set up house in Weimar with Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, whom he had met on his last tour and hoped to marry, pending a papal dispensation. While Liszt served as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he also cultivated a flock of eager young acolytes, including his daughter Cosima’s future first husband, Hans von Bülow. Up to that point Liszt had only played organ once in public, but he was a quick study. He composed most of his organ music during these Weimar years, while also conducting the works of other composers he admired, especially Beethoven; Berlioz; and his second future son-in-law, Richard Wagner, for whom Cosima left Bülow.
One composer Liszt held in particular esteem was J.S. Bach, who had, more than a century earlier, spent several productive years in Weimar. In fact, Bach was working in Weimar when he composed the church cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, lamenting, fretting, fearing”), BWV 12, for Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. He led the first performance at the court chapel in Weimar on April 22, 1714, the same year that he was appointed Konzertmeister, a post that required him to write and perform a new church cantata every month.
One reason for Liszt’s renewed interest in the organ: Bach’s complete organ works, which had only recently been published for the first time. Among Liszt’s first completed works in Weimar were his piano transcriptions of a half-dozen of Bach’s preludes and fugues for organ.
Liszt composed his variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” in 1859, as a prelude for solo piano. After his daughter Blondine died in 1862, he extended the prelude into a set of 30 variations, turning it into a kind of elegy for her. He transcribed the work for organ the next year, while living in Rome, where he had moved in a last-ditch (and ultimately futile) effort to get the Pope to annul his lover’s marriage.
Copyright 2023 René Spencer Saller