18th Century English Organ Music

Voluntary in g minor (Ten Voluntaries, No.8) – John Bennett (c.1735-1784)

Voluntary in F major (Harmonia Sacra Glocestriensis) – William Hine (1687-1730)

Voluntary No. 1 in D major – William Boyce (1710-1779)

Voluntary in e minor (Op.7, No.7) – John Stanley (1712-1786)

Voluntary in d minor (Six Voluntaries, No.6) – William Walond (c.1725-c.1770)

In England the organ music played before or after a church service is not referred to either as a Prelude or Postlude but (without distinction as to its position relative to the service) as a Voluntary. Despite the efforts of at least one musical humorist, this is not a reference to the fact that organists tend to be underpaid! The term Voluntary is peculiarly English and it has a long history, being documented in musical treatises as early as 1565. In the word’s musical context the Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: “A musical piece or movement played or sung spontaneously or of one’s free choice…” In other words, a Voluntary is improvised and many of the organists in 18th century England were famed practitioners of the art. Organ improvisation is more usually associated with liturgical musical traditions in Germany and France where the improviser’s art reigns supreme to this day. In England, the art virtually died but is now becoming more widely practiced and encouraged. In the early 18th century, however, the lawyer and musical essayist Roger North (c.1651-1731) devoted an entire essay to the subject and it is well known that Handel himself was wont to visit the Temple Church to hear the blind organist John Stanley play. William Tan’sur (1706-1783), an English hymn-writer, psalmodist, and music teacher wrote in his Elements of Musick in 1772 about the Voluntary that “In Divine Service, it is performed just before the First Lesson; which is (or ought to be) solemn, grand, and noble withal…” The service referred to was most likely that of Morning Prayer and so there would have been Voluntaries played before and after the service as well as prior to the first Bible reading. There is a sense that the latter should have been designed to create an atmosphere conducive to hearing the Bible read. In this alone, perhaps, there is a correspondence between the place and purpose of organ music in English worship and that which obtained in France and Germany where, in the former, organists would improvise on the Plainsong melodies of the Mass and, in the latter, there was the great tradition, which reached its height in the work of Bach, of improvised preludes based on the chorales which would then be sung by the congregation. Inevitably, this leads one to compare 18th century European organ music to its English counterpart, and the latter is by no means as highly developed. This has mainly to do with the fact that English organs themselves were not as highly developed as those in Europe. A major difference was that English organs had no pedal organ. Thus the music is for manuals only and in some cases published voluntaries were named as being written for either the organ or the harpsichord. In some cases, organs had a few pedal pipes playing the very lowest four or five notes which lent gravity to final cadences. Many organs, however, had two or three manuals but in some cases the compass of the subsidiary manuals was incomplete. Most of the organ works of Bach or Buxtehude would have been impossible to play on such instruments. That having been said, though, the organs contained beautiful choruses of sound, elegant and gentle flute stops, and imitative stops like the Oboe or Trumpet which were highly colourful. Further, an English innovation during the 18th century was the enclosure of part of the organ within a box fronted with shutters (much like a Venetian blind) which could be opened and closed by the organist as he played. This allowed the music to swell louder and softer, and the Voluntary by William Walond being played today is one of the very first organ pieces to have directions written into the score by the composer with regard to the use of this feature.

Bennett’s Ten Voluntaries were published in 1758. Little is known about the composer except that he was the organist of St. Dionis Backchurch in London’s Fenchurch district for over thirty years. He was also, like many of his contemporaries, a musical “all rounder” playing the organ, teaching the harpsichord, playing the viola, and performing at Drury Lane Theatre as a singer in the chorus and as a ballet dancer.

William Hine held sway at Gloucester Cathedral as organist having been born in Oxfordshire and received his musical education at Magdalen College in the University. It seems that Gloucester was a somewhat dreary provincial town affording little opportunity for growth. If this was the case it was not to remain so. Gloucester Cathedral became, with those at Worcester and Hereford, one of the hosts of the famous Three Choirs Festival. The oldest musical festival in Europe, it began in 1719, and thus during William Hine’s tenure at Gloucester. None could have estimated the importance of the foundations being laid in those first decades of the 18th century. Harmonia Sacra Glocestriensis is a collection of his works published posthumously by his wife.

William Boyce was one of the great English composers of his day and his output included symphonies, anthems, instrumental music, and music for the theatre. One of his most important contributions to the Anglican tradition was his completion of a large collection of Cathedral Music which his mentor, Maurice Greene, had begun.

Stanley was appointed Organist to the Society of the Inner Temple in 1734. Blind almost from birth, he was highly regarded as one of the greatest keyboard virtuosi of his day.

Little is known about William Walond except that he was active as an organist in Oxford where he took the B.Mus. degree c.1757. Apart from his keyboard music which is of a high calibre he is famed for a setting of Pope’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day.

English organ voluntaries almost always follow a two-section plan consisting of a slow introduction, often reminiscent of string trio writing, followed by a fast section which makes varied technical demands. It is the latter which usually displays the most structural ingenuity. Sometimes it is fugal as is the case with the pieces by Bennett and Walond. Indeed, that by Bennett is of a very high order based on a fugue subject which, with its wide range, might be more suited to strings than a keyboard – such a wide-ranging theme is difficult to accommodate gracefully on the keyboard but Bennett succeeds admirably. In other instances the musical structure is more like that of a Baroque concerto with a principal theme recurring numerous times and in various keys, punctuated by contrasting episodes. Some pieces call for specific organ sounds. In this programme the piece by Boyce requires a “Trumpet” stop while that by Stanley calls for a “Cornet” stop in the right hand. The “Cornet” is a composite sound made up of individual ranks of pipes speaking at the unison, octave, twelfth, fifteenth, and seventeenth – a combination which, happily, the little organ at St. Paul’s can produce with a fair degree of authenticity.