5 minutes that will make you love the organ

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In the past we have chosen the roughly five minutes we played to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st century composers, violin, baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, quartets string, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky, trumpet, Maria Callas and Bach.

Now we want to convince these curious friends to love the grandeur and the colors of the organ – a complete orchestra in one instrument. We hope that you will find a lot here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

If I had a time machine I would go back to 1740 to hear Johann Sebastian Bach play the organ in Leipzig, Germany. Bach is the ultimate composer for this extraordinary and timeless instrument. Much of his organ music is intense, slowly revealing his multi-layered and life-affirming majesty, through repeated listening. The opening of his 29th cantata, however, jumps and leaps with immediate joy. There is something visceral about hearing this music played live, on a large organ, in a vast cathedral space: the building trembles, the air sparkles and the music is felt as much as heard.

This piece stops me dead in my tracks whenever I hear it, evoking the phrases “tour de force” and “piece de resistance”. In an incredible display of badassery, Demessieux unleashes the full spectrum of the organ’s capacities, with all its sounds, timbres, colors and contrasts. Too often people associate this instrument with funeral songs or scary music; this piece is energetic and exuberant.

The middle section is like a slow jazz waltz sound bath, filled with luscious chords and featuring an inverted texture that places the solo in the pedals and the bassline on the keyboards. As a performer, it is always a great adventure to approach music written by a virtuoso composer to showcase his own instrument. Demessieux knows exactly what the organ can do, and she uses it all.

It is hardly more grandiose than the Third Symphony of Saint-Saëns, which he entitled “with organ”. And yet, with the right musicians, this gigantic romantic one-piece wedding cake shines with elegance, not excess. After its first breath in C major in the finale, the organ is woven with so much love into the orchestra that it never seems to be used for a mere effect; the instrument is treated like a jewel, to be placed in one of the most sumptuous and moving settings in the repertoire. A delightful bonus in this finely detailed recording: a father-son duo of eminence as organist and conductor.

One remarkable thing about the organ is its ability to generate acoustic sounds that sound electronic. Scottish composer Claire M. Singer explores this with delightful effect in ‘The Molendinar’, a slowly evolving 25 minute journey that intricately constructs beautiful curved overtones on a simple G bass through her manipulation of the action. mechanical shutdown of the organ. The Molendinar is a hidden waterway above which the city of Glasgow was founded in the 6th century, but the great glacial construction of the music and its ghostly evanescence reminds me of the Breton legend of Ys, its mythological cathedral. rising then sinking into the ocean.

If I introduce someone, I can only submit my most recent recording, since it is played on an instrument that I have designed and whose very purpose is to demonstrate the possibilities of the modern organ. The instrument’s transition to the digital realm gives us a glimpse of the part of it that transcends moving parts. By associating Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations with Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” in 1930, I wanted to oppose two masterpieces outside the organ repertoire. I have not intruded into any organ works that others know better, and the clarity and color of the instrument helps us to understand these beloved pieces once again.

Although César Franck wrote relatively few works for the organ, he was still arguably the greatest composer for the instrument since Bach, and it was in Bach’s shadow that he composed three choirs in 1890, the year of his death. What Franck called a chorale, however, bears little resemblance to Bach’s arrangements of hymns; all three are extensive 15-minute ruminations on belief, none more spiritual than the second, a passacaglia that hypnotically winds its way until the ear thinks it is an imposing statement of faith, before it falls in a calmer sense, more personal hope.

Beethoven considered organists “the greatest of all virtuosos”. But if making music with all four limbs isn’t difficult enough, Lou Harrison also expects the soloist in his Concerto for Organ and Percussion to play loud clusters of keys with felt padded tiles – to match. to a full percussion drum set including Chinese crash cymbals. , oxygen tank bells and gongs galore. While I’ve always appreciated the organ’s weird ability to arouse our numinous instincts, sometimes we just want to let go of our hair. The irrepressible joy of the final movement will wake up the dead and make them dance.

The young Aaron Copland wrote his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra at the request of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, who performed as a soloist at the premiere in 1925. Copland’s friend and colleague Virgil Thomson described later the symphony as “the voice of America in our generation.” He was right. While taking a retrospective look at European symphonic heritage, Copland’s ambitious piece is fresh, direct, devoid of sentimentality and sassy to in a way that feels sort of American, especially the fiery and unabashedly dissonant finale, and I love the ruminating Andante opening, who shines and sighs in this live recording.

Handel is best known for his operas and oratorios. But his organ concertos contain some of his most lively and playful music. A gifted virtuoso of the instrument, he performed several of these pieces to entertain the public between acts of his oratorios. The Concerto for organ in F, created in 1739, bears the nickname “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” for its singing motifs. Marie-Claire Alain plays with precision and zeal, sliding through the many sections of improvisation.

The organ in a church can be like beautiful architecture or a wonderful sermon: it is sometimes taken for granted. And there is a subtle art to playing with a choir; the organist has to struggle with the acoustics of the space to make sure everything aligns, as the player is often quite far from the singers and the pipes can be practically miles away.

A beautiful challenge is the “Jubilate” of Herbert Howells’ morning service for the King’s College Cambridge Choir, and the extraordinary and specific acoustics of the chapel there. Even when the organ is under the choir, Howells is masterful at doubling voices and weaving them together, predicting small themes or echoing them afterwards. The acoustics of the space transform the simple counterpoint into something intentionally fuzzy but somehow precise, like a house at night lit from the inside but seen from the outside, with shapes blinking inside and outside.

The beginning of the piece begins with the organ in its simplest embodiment, holding just an E flat minor chord. In the last sentence, on the text “world without end, amen”, the choir sings in unison, and the organ, here the main voice, unrolls a long melody, crabbing but ultimately pointing down to a resolution. in E flat major.

You can’t help but appreciate the overflow of the organ. Its end goes both ways: it can whisper or shake the ground you are standing on with the awesome sound of a full-blown choir. The two ends of the spectrum coexist in Samuel Barber’s “Toccata Festiva” in 1960. About two-thirds of the way through, after an overture of romantic excess and concerto-like flair, comes a cadence that rises from disturbing depths to episodes by turns agile, luminous and at the limit scandalous – but arriving at a mysterious peace. When the orchestra returns in droves towards the end, all of its might is needed to meet the greatness of what can be our most extravagant instrument.

It’s hard not to be impressed with the power that a pipe organ can produce, but it is also an instrument endowed with an astonishing capacity for beauty and sensitivity, characteristics that are often overlooked when talking about it. . This more subtle side can be heard in Robilliard’s transcription of Fauré’s “Sicilienne”, interpreted here by Thomas Ospital in the Saint-Eustache church in Paris. It is in this kind of music that the building becomes an integral part of the success of a show; as we hear the individual flute stop dancing in space, the acoustic bloom becomes an architectural support pedal.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic wanted to order organ music from Terry Riley, they let him spend the night playing Hurricane Mama, the mighty pipe instrument inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Some of the material improvised by Riley made its way into his 2013 concerto “At the Royal Majestic”. One of his greatest late-career works, it’s punchy, mystical and beautiful. (It is also a reminder that his artistic development did not stop with the minimalist first touchstone “In C.”)

The end of the first movement – called “Negro Hall”, after a drawing by fin-de-siècle Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli – sometimes oscillates between sweet orchestral motifs and darker exhalations of the organ. Riley presents such contrasts not with postmodern irony, but with tangible, genuine pleasure. Even after a culminating turn to frenzied rhythmic patterns, her joyful sensibility is still noticeable, and the final chords are uplifting.

April 15, 2019: The whole world was horrified to discover the images of Notre-Dame on fire. A few weeks earlier, I was in the cathedral recording this “Little” Fugue in G minor for an album called “Bach towards the Future”.

“Small” – but it’s still great Bach! In a few minutes, the cantor of Leipzig tells us such a story. I like the fragility that shines throughout this work, a fragility that brings us back to our human condition in the face of current events: the fire of Notre-Dame, the health situation, climate change. May this music make us aware of our decisive role in humanity.


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