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Usually the first important decision a student organist makes concerns whether to pedal in the German style, which requires knees to always be apart, or the French style, requiring the knees to remain always together. Such basic technique reflects the importance of two historical eras when this instrument represented “state of the art” in both instrument-building and, for many purists, music-making as well.

With an ideal of how mighty music could be made, the German era during the first half of the 18th century perfected both large sound and filigree rapid fingerings, all while assistants inconspicuously operated bellows on bicycles. The second historical era was French, during the last part of the 19th century and early 20th century, when electricity allowed even larger instruments with remote placement of pipes and volume-swelling techniques.

If mastering both styles should be the modern ideal, organist Janette Fishell’s program accomplishes the marriage with understated but admirable sophistication. The French and German works on this program, as well as one work by a Czech composer (knees apart or together?), probably may at first blush not venture far from what most listeners’ cursory notions of such music should be. Nonetheless, every piece on this program has substantial depths to explore.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote only one passacaglia for organ, and the Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582) represents more a hybrid than a simple application of the passacaglia form. The anchoring theme in the pedals is eventually removed, transforming the work into more of a solo chaconne, before changing it yet again by adding a concluding elaborate double fugue.

This familiar music might remind the listener of the famous baptism scene from the movie The Godfather, although scholars with more numerological propensities will also happily demonstrate the intricate way this theme and 21 variations represents the Biblical numbers 3 x 7. Others have even found quotes from famous Lutheran hymns in it. Otherwise, it starts out slowly and ominously, gradually becomes busier with scalar movement, and ends with the grandeur that only Bach fugues can accomplish.

Bach’s career included much revision and adaptation of earlier works, and during the final decade of his life he felt the need to codify many works into carefully edited final versions. Information about the origins of many of 18 chorale preludes Bach prepared during this period remain incomplete, although we certainly know Bach wrote many of these arrangements of famous German hymns early in his life, later adapting them into his cantatas while working as Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Of these finished chorale preludes, “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele,” BWV 654 (Adorn yourself, O dear soul), traditionally accompanies Holy Communion more as a joyous feast than as a lamentation. The familiar melody is attributed to Johann Crueger (1598-1662), and true to the first word of its title, Bach has “adorned” it with ornaments and melismas to the point of being difficult to recognize. 

Certainly César Franck (1822-1890) stands as a cornerstone of the French organ tradition, leading an intrepid group of younger composers in Paris at a time when the imposing heights of Wagner’s chromaticism influenced French music, as much as a rediscovery of earlier French traditions of music. Written in the last year of his life, his Three Chorals for organ represent a mastering of motivic development.

In Choral No. 1 in E major, Franck invites a patient observer to discern and discover relationships between motives in a form which is basically a theme followed by three variations. At the same time, the almost hypnotic alternation between three manuals, all carefully indicated in the score, suggests not only antiphonal use of the instrument, but symbolism assigned to each manual as well.

Commencing with a meditative registration coupling flutes with the “flue” pipes, Franck presents the theme almost exactly in five-part harmony, all basically written within the vocal ranges of a choir. These opening 15 bars in E major are then repeated and embellished in G major, followed by a registration change for an 18-bar chorale melody, played very softly, which remains the most recognizable recurring melody of the entire piece.

Initially, the first variation is barely recognizable, sharing only the opening bass line of the theme and changing character with running 16th-notes. Nonetheless, it clearly ends like the theme with an almost exact statement of the chorale melody. 

The second variation commences after a loud maestoso fanfare and canonic development of a new 16th-note idea. This new idea continues to develop, finally giving way to the chorale melody, which this time is repeated one more time and then yet one more time in the pedals. The third and final variation breaks briefly into a triplet motion, but then announces the loudest and most distinctive chordal statement of the chorale melody.         

If Czech composer Petr Eben (1929-2007) had not been imprisoned at Buchenwald during World War II, because his father was Jewish, his music might not so starkly represent the forces of good and evil as they do here. His “Moto Ostinato” from Musica dominicalis or “Sunday Music” from 1958 represents the third movement of the four-part work, consisting also of two Fantasias and a Finale.

With repeated rhythmic motion representing a battleground between good and evil, the first six-bar “Evil” theme appears in triple meter built upon minor thirds – mostly ascending as if coming from below. Later, the second, “Good” theme descends as if coming from above in a quicker more lively gesture.

As the piece develops, Evil is depicted in many forms and keys, overwhelming the simpler Good. Evil’s improvisatory style is said to derive from a New Testament story in both Mark and Luke about a possessed man who called himself “Legion, because we are many.” 

The relatively short but eventful life of Jehan Alain (1911-1940), who died on the battlefield during World War II and whose younger sister, Marie-Claire, went on to become one of France’s most prominent organists, shows how fame can still arrive posthumously for a 20th-century composer. His three-minute whimsical Fantasmagorie for organ (or piano) from 1935 might show evidence of his later interest in exploring the parallel structure of Medieval plainsong, but the clear simplicity of alternating between an ostinato section and a section of chords makes for more of a comic strip punchline than an epic novel. As such, the gesture is clever and not without its charm.   

The organ symphonies of French composers are more often represented in abridged forms in modern recitals, which makes a complete performance of an organ symphony of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) worth relishing and listening to with a critical ear. From the year 1911, the Third Symphony in F-sharp minor is dedicated to and was premiered by his longtime friend and protege, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), before a famous falling out between the two master French organists occurred.

Commencing with a loud, highly chromatic Allegro maestoso, the main 2-bar theme (with a three-note pick-up) is stated fortississimo and then repeats itself in a roughly inverted form – emphasizing with tenuto the ultimate three quarter notes. From there, this first movement proceeds academically in a sonata allegro form. After a transition of highly chromatic, stridently dissonant large chords developing the opening theme, a second theme is introduced with the indication “sostenuto e legato” in the dominant key. The running eighth-notes of the second theme transform into running 16th-notes, eventually leading to the closing of the exposition with variation of the opening theme. A development section follows, as does the recapitulation in an even louder, more strident chromatic presentation emphasizing large chords.  

If this first movement pushed the limits of how loud the instrument could play, the second movement, Cantilène, explores how softly it can play. Following this, a playful Intermezzo movement in triple meter then borrows much from the character of a scherzo, if not also a variation of its form (ABA-ABA). These two movements complement the first in keeping an almost rote agenda of the academic sonata allegro form.

The fourth movement, entitled “Adagio” (even though the tempo indication is “quasi largo”), returns to the soft, homophonic idiom of the Cantilène, but with a much more Wagnerian use of chromaticism. Nonetheless, it begins with the slowly unfolding canonic layering of a distinct opening theme in a diffuse B minor (based on the key signature and the note B held in the pedal). A middle section develops with an endless declamatory melody before a flute solo heralds again the opening theme, which is then developed further in the closing section.

The Final offers everything of the typical French toccata (i.e., rapid ostinato passages on the manuals with a slow melody in the pedals) which often closes such organ symphonies, but develops in a much more contrapuntal and multifarious way. A recognizable second theme repeats and then recurs between the sections that repeat the opening theme. The ostinato built on fifths often resonates into a continuous harmony, while carefully notated dynamics test the organist’s skill on the swell pedal.  

Above all, Vierne uses academic forms to his advantage, allowing him to edit and perfect his musical ideas based on a purely abstract ideal. With this in mind, this Symphony deserves careful study and attention to the twists and turns of how the themes are presented and developed.

Composer and critic Gregg Wager 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.