Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) — Abendfriede (Evening Joy), Op.156, No.10
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) — Träume (Dream), Wesendonck Lieder, No.5
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) — Vesper Voluntaries, Op.14
I Andante – II Allegro – III Andantino – IV Allegretto piacevole
V Poco lento – VI Moderato – VII Allegretto pensoso – VIII Poco allegro
Coda. Adagio come prima
A favourite hymn for the Feast of All Saints contains the lines “The golden evening brightens in the west./Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest.” Even as a young boy I found this highly evocative and looking back I recall many long summer evenings which truly were golden, the comfortable feeling that the duties and stresses of the day were over, and that one could enjoy a fallow time in which to rest and recuperate. In the world of religious myth and symbolism, evening connotes the end of life and falling asleep is a reminder of the ultimate sleep of death. From a Christian perspective, however, the fear which might naturally surround such ideas is mitigated by belief in the resurrection. We go to sleep each night with the expectation that in a few hours the dawn will break and there will be a new day. The passing of the night and the rising of the sun thus become symbols of death and resurrection and this symbolism pervades the evening prayer offices of the church. Music associated with the evening is almost always calm. A good deal of organ music tends to be rather loud and, perhaps, brash; but when the instrument is asked to deal with music for the evening we discover the variety of its subtlety.
Josef Rheinberger spent most of his career in Munich as a church musician, conductor, composer, and teacher. His output for the organ was considerable and apart from twenty magnificent sonatas he also produced numerous collections of what he sometimes called “character” pieces. Many of these are quite programmatic in the sense of being descriptive of times, seasons, or events in which the composer endeavours to capture and relay a specific mood. Rheinberger’s music is always accessible to the listener by virtue of its lovely melodies and the richness and balance of its harmonies.
Richard Wagner did not write music for the organ, and the arrangement of “Träume” was made by the renowned British recitalist Reginald Goss-Custard (1877-1956) whose older brother Harry became the first organist of Liverpool Cathedral and thus the first to preside at Britain’s largest pipe organ. Reginald Goss-Custard was part of a great British line of concert organists, succeeding Edwin H. Lemare at St. Margaret’s, Westminster as well as G.D. Cunningham at the Alexandra Palace. As well as being outstanding exponents of the “legitimate” organ repertoire (i.e. music specifically written for the instrument) these musicians also excelled in the art of the organ transcription. Transcribing orchestral, instrumental, and vocal music for organ solo performance fell into disrepute after World War 2 but its value is once again becoming recognised. “Träume” is the fifth and final song in the “Wesendonck Lieder” song cycle which consists of settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s patrons. Some of its material was destined to be further developed in Tristan und Isolde. This song cycle and the “Siegfried Idyll” are the only non-operatic works by Wagner which are still performed. From the point of view of the organist the interest lies in giving shape to a vocal melody on an instrument which has negligible capacity for varying intensity of tone from note to note and which therefore has to rely on the use of tempo rubato to make the music expressive. At the same time it must be remembered that the organ has a superlative capacity for sustaining a melodic line, theoretically ad infinitum – the instrument does not physically need to breathe! However, music does need to breathe and so the organist must make sure that this happens in a judicious and graceful manner.
In some ways Elgar is the quintessential English composer. So much of his music evokes the gentle slopes of places like the Malvern Hills; the Pomp and Circumstance marches evoke past splendours of empire; and nothing can best the sheer beauty of works like the concerti for violin or ’cello, the symphonies, or the well known “Nimrod” Variations. However, Elgar’s musical upbringing was atypical for an English composer. Being a Roman Catholic, he had no connection with the Church of England and so a career path through the portals of cathedral music was not available to him. Indeed, he was largely self-taught and much of his early music-making was with local bands and orchestras in Worcester. The small amount of church music which he produced was clearly intended for Roman Catholic worship although it has its rightful place in the eclectic repertoire of Anglican choirs. Also, always close to his native Worcester, he was a prominent and influential figure in the Three Choirs Festival which takes place each year in one of the neighbouring cathedral cities of Worcester, Gloucester, and Hereford.
Elgar’s organ music is confined to the Sonata in G, Op.28 and the Vesper Voluntaries which are being played today. There are three other works, including a later sonata, but these are arrangements of pieces not originally intended for the organ. The Vesper Voluntaries date from the time when Elgar was organist (in succession to his father) at St. George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. He held this post from 1885 until 1889 and the voluntaries were published a year later. Some of the material from the Introduction is reprised in the short Intermezzo as well as in the Coda where there is a shift from minor to major tonality. In between these elements of musical framework, which provide cohesiveness to the whole, is a series of highly individual pieces. They amply display Elgar’s gift for melody and harmony, an interesting variety of textures often redolent of orchestral writing, and what I will call rhythmic motifs (repeated rhythmic patterns) which in some cases pervade an entire piece and give it its character. It is refreshing to play music which does not call for a large organ and which was originally conceived for an instrument of similar size to that at St. Paul’s in terms of the variety of tone colours available.