Preludium – John Bull (1562-1628) – 450

Echo Fantasia in a – Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) – 450

Voluntary in e – John Stanley (1712-1786) – 300

Suite Gothique – Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897) – 150

  1. Introduction-Choral
  2. Ménuet Gothique
  3. Prière à Notre Dame
  4. Toccata

The Preludium by John Bull with which the programme opens comes from Parthenia, one of the earliest published collections of keyboard music, which first appeared in 1611. Its title claims that it was “the first musicke that euer was printed for the Virginalls.” It contains 21 compositions “by three famous Masters, William Byrd, Dr. John Bull and Orlando Gibbons.” While primarily intended for the virginals and hence for domestic use, musical practice at the time was far from doctrinaire with regard to choice of instrument and much of this music is equally at home on other keyboard instruments, including the organ. Percy Scholes wrote that John Bull “ranks as one of the founders of the keyboard repertory” and, while only an aperitif to the main courses of that repertory, the Preludium exhibits all of the invention, balance of phrase, and economy of means which will characterise the great works of later periods. John Bull was a chorister at the Chapel Royal and later, after a spell at Hereford Cathedral, its organist. He was a D.Mus of both universities. After falling into disfavour at the English court in 1613(a somewhat easy task in those days notwithstanding the fact that Dr. Bull was a rather naughty man), he spent the remainder of his life in Brussels and Antwerp where he was a friend of the Dutch composer Sweelinck. The confluence of English and Flemish keyboard styles did much to initiate and influence the North German school as exemplified by the work of Buxtehude (c.1637-1707) which then had a profound influence on Bach himself.

Sweelinck wrote a number of fantasias for the organ and this Echo Fantasia, as its name suggests, exploits the potential of the organ to create the echo effects so loved by late Renaissance and Baroque composers by the simple expedient of contrasting different tone colours controlled by the various keyboards of the instrument.

A century and a half later, back in England, John Stanley was yet another virtuoso, blind from the age of two, whose fame was such that even the great Handel (1685-1750) would attend services at London’s Temple Church to hear him improvise. The very name voluntary comes from a Latin root and connotes music played “at will”, that is, music which is improvised. To that end, the usual structure of a voluntary is somewhat formulaic – a slow, often imitative, introduction followed by a fast movement designed to show off the dexterity of the player. There were sometimes directions added to the score to indicate which stops the player should use. In the case of the piece being played today the right hand is supposed to play on a separate keyboard from the left using the Cornet stop. This was not a set of organ pipes designed to imitate the brass instrument of that name (which had not yet been invented). Rather, it is what is known as a compound stop whereby, when the stop is drawn, a number of pipes tuned to different pitches sound when a single key is depressed. The Cornet can therefore either be a single stop of 5 ranks (that is, five pipes per note) or made up by drawing 5 separate stops of the necessary pitches:

8′ (sounding at unison),
4′ (sounding an octave higher than written),
2⅔’ (sounding 12 notes higher than written),
2′ (sounding 2 octaves higher than written), and
13/5‘ (sounding 17 notes higher than written).

The result, as you can hear, is a rather unique and interestingly nasal sound. Here at St. Paul’s, the sound is produced by fairly small scale flute stops whereas in Stanley’s London the pipes would have been of more generous scale (diameter) making a slightly louder and more full sound.

Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique needs no introduction among organists the world over – it may be the very first work from the French school of the late 19th century which most of us learn. The titles of the movements virtually speak for themselves except, perhaps, for the third which translates as “Prayer to Our Lady”. Of course, you can virtually smell the incense in music like this as the gentle hymn-like melody rises and falls, exploiting the organ’s ability to sustain a long melodic line without the annoying need to take a breath (as is the case with singers or players of wind instruments) or to change the direction of a bow (as is the case with string players). The final toccata is typical of its genre with rapid passage-work on the manuals unfolding over a bold theme which is presented in the pedals. Boëllmann was a native of Alsace but spent most of his regrettably short life in Paris.