Monthly archives "April 2015"

TAO Practical Organ Music May 2015

Practical Organ Music
May 2015
Christopher Cook

I spend a lot of time playing hymn tune-based literature. Don’t you? What would you expect, being church organists and all? It is our stock-in-trade, so to speak. Familiar and much loved melodies speak directly to the hearts of our congregations; they speak of church, worship, God. Over the years, I have learned that there are many approaches to this literature, approaches that can locate the same hymn tune in one of many religious traditions. And I play them all: evangelical, liturgical, mainline Protestant–you name it!
Every once in a while, I need to cleanse my palate with the clear, transparent beauty that more abstract compositions offer. My “go-to” choices usually veer directly to the Baroque, which stole my heart and soul early on. Publishers are generous in their offerings of newly found material from every European country, and they are more than willing to repackage old treasures in new bindings. (You can expect a column on this very soon.) For now, let’s look what is available in the reverse: new treasures in old forms.
I have a new title for composers who are devoted to writing good music in smaller forms: Heroes of the Miniature. The first one up for nomination is the prolific John S. Dixon who offers a variety of interesting, useful music, including Six Offertories for Organ (Zimbel Press #80101116), written in song form with colorful, but conservative harmonies. We find him equally well composed in his With Eager Hands: Organ Music for Manuals Only (Zimbel Press #80101207). These twenty pieces sing with immediate “ear appeal,” which is what we are all looking for, right?
My second Hero of the Miniature is W.V. Rentowski whose Kammermusic for Organ (Zimbel Press #8010310) is a little more adventuresome. The five-movement suite is perfectly perky without becoming prickly until the last movement. Even then, his rolling arpeggios lie comfortably in the hand while pedals sustain long tones that make “Bewegt/with motion” fun to work on right up to the big finish.
Heroes of the Miniature come from many directions to the task of writing for us. You might not suspect that the versatile Carson Cooman has hidden a number of miniatures among his huge catalog of compositions. Take a look at some of these. Ricercari for Keyboard (Zimbel 80101342), in 17th century instrumental style, offers some short contrapuntal pieces useful for interludes, or put all together, makes a nice prelude. He offers a much wider variety of early European-inspired styles in Piccoli fiori musicali (Vol. VIII, Wayne Leupold 600282). His “Rondeau” is a masterful reworking of the French Baroque style, using shifting meters to keep the tonal harmonies bouncing along. Carson clearly knows the stylistic parameters particular to each piece, gently pushing them into the present. Check out his “Hornpipe” and “Planctus II” to see what I mean. You can explore more of his miniaturisms in Organbook I, found in volume V of his collected works (Wayne Leupold 600106). There is more freedom here once the historical focus is dropped, yet he holds himself to easy/moderate technical demands.
My award for Miniaturist of the Year goes to James Woodman, who has quietly been adding to the repertory for quite a while. I have already mentioned his Six Little Partitas in two volumes. Here are two more books in similar style to offer you. First, Fairest Lord Jesus (Thorpe Music 493-00066) contains five variations in his same easily accessible style. Then there is For All the Saints: Music for Funerals and Memorial Services (Thorpe Music 493-00097), a very useful book of twenty familiar hymn tunes presented as an improvisation, a prelude and a chorale. All are available from Theodore Presser.
These pieces are nothing compared with his newest book, Eight Little Harmonies and Counterpoints (Thorpe Music 493-001808). These works, all about four minutes long are moderately easy to a little more challenging. In them, James has updated the “Eight-Littles-Previously-Ascribed-to-Bach.” He has striven to balance scholarly concerns, such as historic forms and compositional procedures, with his desire to offer something of his “post-modern” self. As he writes, “…Making works which I find beautiful on my own terms.”
While they are humble works, they are satisfying. The first one in Lydian is a joyous Baroque concerto followed by an open and airy canzona. In the second, a more austere chaconne leads to a scholarly ricercare. (You don’t have to know all these terms to enjoy them, by the way.) The third is much more lyrical, leading into a pastorale that makes you sorry these are short pieces. His Phrygian #4 begins with an exploratory tone cluster or two moving into a thoughtful counterpoint using Tallis’ Third Mode Melody. The aesthetic of Tournemire is the inspiration for his fifth work. He uses Gregorian inspired material in both sections, first in a flurry of arpeggios, then in a fluid, serene fugue. While each of these works deserves a mention, let me skip ahead to my favorite one, Number 7 in A Major. The opening is a North German praeludium with a pedal solo (needing rehearsal) that leads into an extended development right in line with Buxtehude and Bach. Then, Woodman leaps across the Channel to bring us a Restoration England counterpoint with long, noble lines rising and falling over each other until the opening flourish brings the whole thing to a conclusion. It would be a shame if only students played these. You will like them, too. They really will cleanse your aural palate.
These composers are not the only Heroes of the Miniature I know about. One of my heroes, Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Composers are not the only heroes there are. Everyone who is willing to do the humble work of worship is as hero as far as I am concerned. Truly, our work is no small thing—yet it is heroic. Do you have someone to nominate for my new award? Let me know!