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Some traditions deeply rooted in Europe have trouble spreading their branches across the Atlantic Ocean, but bringing the artistry of James O’Donnell here may facilitate this process. While it has become familiar for some musicians to explore exotic and esoteric worlds by looking into the relics of the Middle Ages, O’Donnell’s status within several prominent English institutions and even an ancient order, including being the current Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, sheds a different light on the past, making use of the relics not as things rediscovered, but as things never lost.

O’Donnell reminds us that while German and French traditions of playing the organ create a rich repertory of invention and discovery, the English have their own tradition, which highly respects the role of the organ in ceremony and instruction. O’Donnell’s program begins and ends with substantial English fare, but also includes German, French, and Italian organ works that reach far into the antiquities of the European Christian Church.

 

In considering the organ music by British composer Francis Pott (b. 1957), a mammoth two-hour organ symphony titled Christus from 1990 might seem to upstage his other works for the instrument. Nonetheless, shortly after completing Christus, he faced the further pressure of meeting a deadline that involved writing an organ piece for a wedding. These efforts under pressure produced the first version of his now expanded, ten-minute Toccata.

An introduction presents material developed in the second part of the two-part work; the first part explores what Pott refers to as “additive rhythms.” Once this first part commences with a swelling of volume, the key area remains subliminally B minor, exploring melodies that often veer off into dissonances. The second part of the work shifts key areas into the dominant key (F-sharp major) while taking on the character of a conventional French toccata (filigree passages on the manuals with a slow loud melody in the pedals).  

 

Toward the end of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) compiled the famous collection known in the English-speaking world as the “Great” 18 Chorale Preludes, or otherwise as the “Leipziger Choräle.” They stemmed from different periods of Bach’s life and encompassed a variety of different styles, some by then even considered antiquated.

The work based on the tune “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr” (Only God on high let us honor), BWV 664, employs a simple three-part texture throughout, much like the early Baroque trio sonatas of the 17th-century. Set in A major, the melody originally composed by the German monk Nikolaus Decius is diffusely scattered throughout the otherwise imitative counterpoint, although only the opening stanza of the melody is clearly stated at the very end of the piece in the pedals.

The G-minor setting of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (O come, Redeemer of heathens), BWV 659, commences by establishing a walking bass in the pedals and accompaniment, followed by the introduction of the extremely varied and embellished melody in the right hand. This melody is traditionally attributed to Saint Ambrose.

“Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” (Come, Holy Ghost, Lord God), BWV 651, uses the popular practice of the day of playing the melody slowly in the pedals, forming a skeletal texture while dramatic flourishes and passages in the manuals swirl in and out of it. The origins of this tune are not clear, although it is often cited as a work by a Medieval Italian theorist, Marchetto di Padua. The celebratory nature of this F-major showpiece almost lends it the character of an elaborate toccata.

 

In 1930, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) wrote his Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator, Op. 4, for a competition organized by Les Amis de l’Orgue, where he premiered it and won the competition. According to the guidelines of the competition, the work had to be in one of three genres, including variation form, and in three movements. Because scholars have observed that the final third movement originally had the title “Variations sur l’hymne ‘Veni Creator,’” there is credible conjecture that Duruflé added the Prélude and Adagio to meet the rules of the competition after earlier completing the final movement, changing the title later. This also accounts for the sense that instead of being a traditional theme and variations, it is a set of variations with a clear statement of the theme occurring only at the end during the final movement. Nonetheless, fragments of the Veni creator chant are heard throughout the three movements, serving as the sole material for the set.

Dedicated to Duruflé’s mentor Louis Vierne, the piece demonstrates idiomatic organ moments, while at other times it reflects Duruflé’s possible intention of orchestrating the music – he was after all a student of the famous teacher and orchestrator Paul Dukas. The famous melody, attributed to the early medieval German philosopher Rabanus Maurus Magnentius and also used by Gustav Mahler in his Symphony No. 8, can even maintain its traditional function as a celebration of Whitsunday.

The Prélude introduces a running triplet pattern in A major, almost reminiscent of the Impressionism of Debussy’s famous first Arabesque. This texture hypnotically pulsates in an unpredictable way up and down, while melodies emerge. How these harmonically Impressionistic melodies relate to the original Veni creator are at first blush a mystery, but substantial analysis reveals that they are.

Although the music pauses at several key moments, conveniently allowing the organist to reset the organ stops, the Adagio commences without pause, opening with a simple four-part harmony in the manuals and with Veni creator clearly indicated in the soprano voice. The final Choral varié serves as the starkest statement of the hymn, inspiring some organists to actually bring in a chorus to sing the melody with its text as it occurs.

 

The capricious Scherzo in G minor, Op. 49, No. 2, by Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) offers the listener a pat theme made up conveniently of three repetitions of a 16th-note pattern in 6/8 time. The theme undulates and develops, often irresistibly exploring hemiola, when appropriate.

Following the original meaning of “scherzo” as a musical joke, the piece still technically challenges any organist to keep the rapid passages under control. In this way, it is also quite serviceable as an etude.

 

As much as the popular “Pomp and Circumstance” marches of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) even rival those of America’s John Philip Sousa as highly recognizable music to any of today’s audiences, the other music that gave Elgar the reputation of being the most important composer in England since George Frideric Handel requires more study and attention. In fact, recent popular recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto suggest that his more challenging music has yet to be fully appreciated or even understood.

Although his Organ Sonata, Opus 28, was orchestrated more than a decade after Elgar’s death and made fairly popular as if it were some sort of lost symphony, the original version is still an imposing creation. It borrows generously from a Wagnerian sense of “endless melody,” or continuous music that avoids cadences.

While the outer movements (Allegro and Finale, both in G) employ fairly academic sonata forms, the inner movements (Intermezzo in G minor and Adagio in B-flat) use simpler A-B-A forms. On the other hand, the busy nature and rhythmic variety of the composition make for a study in continuous musical expression, all stylistically within the word that Elgar himself enjoyed to describe his work: “nobilmente,” or very nobly.

Although evidence might show Elgar labored on the work for at least a month, he claims on the manuscript it took him only one week to initially write all four movements. There are some indications, such as the uncharacteristic short taps on the pedal during the Intermezzo suggesting bass pizzicato, that he might have originally envisioned the work for a chamber ensemble.

A sudden metric transformation (from 3/4 to 9/8) helps distinguish the fanfare first theme (basically a four-note motive) from the dolce second theme in the first movement. In the contrapuntal and canonic development section, the influence of Bach can also be detected. (Elgar would often play through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for inspiration).

The second movement is an Allegretto in 4/8 time, ending in G minor, although whether a major or minor key prevails remains mostly equivocal throughout, with a prominent melody in the left hand dominating. Following without a break, the third movement (with an Andante espressivo indication) favors B-flat major, with a lush middle section in F-sharp major.

The final Presto (comodo) notoriously requires much physical strength and even acrobatics to accomplish all the octave leaping in the pedals. Ending in G major, it develops continuously a simple rhythm of eighth-note with two 16th-notes (or in Elgar’s parlance, a quaver and two semi-quavers) with abundant sequencing and development.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.