Long live the King (of instruments!)

Organ recitals aren’t the most user-friendly events for getting familiar with repertoire. The instrument is rooted to where it was born, usually a church, where the performer is rarely in the sight-line and the seating is on the Spartan side. So, I thought a blog on introducing organ music to newcomers to the instrument might prove helpful. I pondered on what or where to take as my starting point and came up, improbably, with China.

China is probably the last place that springs to mind at the mention of church organs, yet the country does have an association with the instrument that dates back more than 400 years. In 1600, the Jesuit missionary in the Portuguese enclave of Macau, Matteo Ricci, set about building the first organ in China as a sweetener for the Chinese emperor’s toleration of the Jesuit presence.

Fast-forward to the year 2010, when an event took place at the German Protestant church in the northeastern port city of Qingdao. This was the opening recital of a new organ, which marked the righting of a wrong inflicted on the church’s previous instrument some fifty years earlier. That was at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, a turbulent decade in China’s history that swept away the ‘Four Olds’ – old customs, old habits, old ideas and old culture. ‘Old culture’ included the practising of religion. Churches were routinely vandalised and most were redeployed for other purposes, such as schools and warehouses.

The church in Qingdao became a hospital, having had its stained-glass windows roughly removed. While most organs were cannibalised for their valuable alloy pipes, copper wiring and silver electrical contacts, the Qingdao instrument escaped the axe to serve a more grandiloquent purpose.

It was loaded onto on a ship and dumped in the Yellow Sea in a symbolic rejection of the foreign religious presence in China. Music wasn’t the offender; it was the instrument’s iconic religious symbolism that was the issue.

Ricci and his fellow missionaries found themselves treading no such eggshells at the start of the 17th century, when the instruments were not so exclusively associated with liturgical use. In building an organ for the emperor, Ricci was first and foremost offering an exchange in new technology, like the clocks and astronomical instruments that the Jesuits also brought. At the time, an organ was the largest engineering structure around; more of a machine than an instrument.

When you consider the present-day installations of mammoth, prestigious instruments around the world, including the one in Beijing’s Forbidden City, you’d be forgiven for wondering how the instrument’s musical soul has survived all the hammering and banging necessary in both the destruction and construction referenced here.

So, having set some historical parameters, let’s hear the organ speak for itself in a selection of recordings from across the centuries that demonstrate its power and tonal range.

Note: each image displayed is of the organ on which the music is performed.

We’ll start with music by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), a late-Renaissance Dutch composer who spent the greater part of his professional career in Amsterdam, including 44 years as the organist of the Oude Kerk. From here, Sweelinck established himself as a musician of growing international importance, attracting pupils from the Netherlands and from North Germany, and the attention of English composers and performers. His duties involved daily performances which became something of a tourist attraction. Here’s one of his pieces that may have been on the programme – variations on Onder een linde groen, a Dutch song derived from the English ballad All in a Garden Green. We can hear the last two variations.

Onder een linde groen (8.550904)

We have a larger scale of operations with the magnificent, towering organ works of the German composer J. S. Bach (1685-1750). I’ve chosen his Fugue in E flat, published in 1739 while he was working in Leipzig and where he remained until his death. It’s known particularly by English organists as the St Anne Fugue, since it’s built on a melody closely resembling that of a well-known Anglican hymn tune of the same name (O God, our help in ages past). It can be clearly heard in the low pedal notes towards the end of the extract.
St Anne Fugue (8.553859)

Bach is the bridge to our example from the Romantic period, which is Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (German nomenclature for the notes B flat-A-C-B natural). You can hear the motif permeating this clip from the close of the Fugue, which also demonstrates the instrument’s wide dynamic range.
Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (8.554544)

Next we have a 20th-century contribution from the French composer-organist Jean Langlais (1907-1991): Visions prophétiques from his Cinq Meditations sur l’Apocalypse. The impetus for writing the work was the heart attack which almost killed him in 1973. Spurred to write a piece about death, he spent his convalescence reading the Revelation of St John the Divine. He subsequently experienced a number of powerful visions that led to the new work. He lumps many of the apocalyptic horrors together in the third movement – earthquakes, floods, the exterminating angel, and so on.
Visions prophétiques (8.553190)

Finally, music by another French composer with whom Langlais was inevitably compared – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). We’ll let him end our quick survey with more joyful sounds. A devout Catholic throughout his life, Messiaen wrote La Nativité du Seigneur (The Birth of the Saviour) before he turned thirty, yet it was the work that established his worldwide reputation as a visionary composer for the organ. A synthesis of his innovatory compositional style, it’s rich in colourful harmonies and precisely noted but flexible rhythms, well exemplified by the closing section of the ninth and final movement, Dieu parmi nous (God among us).

Dieu parmi nous (8.573332)


Note: a survey of the more subtle sounds and talents that the King of Instruments has at its disposal will be featured in our next Thought for the Week, on 22 February, 2019.

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