Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) — Morning Mood (Peer Gynt Suite, Op.46, No.1)
Edwin H. Lemare (1866-1934) — Sunshine, Op.83
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) — Chanson de Matin, Op.15, No.2
Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) — Chorale Improvisations, Op. 65, Nos.33, 44, 25
Wachet auf! Ruft uns die stimme
Wie schön leuchtet die Morgenstern
Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag
Two of the pieces in today’s programme, those by Grieg and Elgar, are transcriptions of music originally written for orchestra and violin solo respectively, although Elgar later made orchestral versions of both the Chanson de Matin and its companion piece Chanson de Nuit. Organ transcriptions of this kind were particularly popular from the mid-19th century until just before the Second World War. The reasons for this will be discussed shortly. However, after the war they fell into disuse and tended to be scorned by serious organists. Indeed, in the second half of the last century organists were intent on performing music specifically written for the instrument. This is understandable for two reasons. Firstly, there was excellent contemporary music on offer. Secondly, a vast amount of early music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods was finding its way into proper performing editions, the early music movement was encouraging people to experiment with “authentic” performance practices, and the renaissance in organ building and design was tending to steer us away from the kinds of instrument which had been ideal for playing orchestral transcriptions. Nevertheless, such transcriptions have a venerable history and, in recent years, have regained their place in concert programmes as a legitimate part of the organ repertoire.
Transcriptions, especially of large scale orchestral works, became very popular in late 19th century Britain. This trend paralleled important developments in British organ building which led to the provision of large organs in many a town and city hall. At the same time, enterprising municipalities began to employ concert organists to preside at these instruments and to provide townspeople with regular recitals. My own organ teacher at the Royal Academy, Arnold Richardson, presided at such an instrument in Wolverhampton Civic Hall in the British midlands until his death in 1973. His teacher, G.D. Cunningham, had likewise presided at the magnificent organ in neighbouring Birmingham City Hall and was succeeded there by Sir George Thalben Ball. Slightly prior to Cunningham’s time yet another famous British virtuoso, W.T. Best, held sway at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool. All of these men were stunning performers and it is good that a new generation has arisen in the past decade or so to revive their tradition. Edwin H. Lemare was also one of them but moved to the United States as a comparatively young man. The importance of the municipal organ, organist, and the organ transcription was that it provided a means whereby ordinary people could be introduced to the symphonic repertoire in places where orchestral performances were not easily accessible.
Grieg composed his incidental music for the first performance of Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt in 1876 and later arranged the very long score into two Suites. Morning Mood is the first piece in the first Suite but was originally the Prelude to Act IV of the play. The contrasting colours used in the orchestral version transfer rather easily to the organ. Lemare, apart from being a brilliant performer, was also a prolific composer. Sunshine was chosen for this programme because it happens to be in a book that I own and because it can be associated with the “morning”. At first it seems a slender affair but it is a perfect example of a very English sort of country air or carol. It has a well balanced ternary structure and the tone contrasts and phrasing called for by the composer create the kind of elegance which was to become more highly developed in Elgar’s Chanson de Matin.
Sigfrid Karg-Elert composed prolifically for the organ as well as for the harmonium. Much of his music is highly atmospheric and descriptive. It also usually calls for very precise (and sometimes strange) combinations of sounds many of which are unavailable except on the largest instruments and even then they can pose a challenge. His best known organ pieces come from the Opus 65 collection of Chorale Improvisations. Those being played today all relate to the theme of “morning” but from a point of view which is beyond the mere description of a time of day or climatic conditions. The Advent chorale Wachet auf! (Wake up!) bids the faithful, at the hour of midnight, to be watchful for the coming of the Lord who will appear like the day-star. Another way of putting this could be that we are asked to wake out of sleep to greet a new day in which we will experience new spiritual life. Karg-Elert’s setting is mindful of the changing moods within the chorale text all of which are illustrated by the dramatic changes of tone colour, volume, mode (major/minor), and pace. The chorale Wie schön leuchtet die Morgenstern (How brightly shines the Morning-star) is often associated with the season of Epiphany and the myth of the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child. The “Morning-star” is redolent both of the star which, in the story, heralds the birth of Christ and guides the Magi on their journey, as well as of Christ himself. Finally, the Easter chorale Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag (Here shining is the splendid Day) speaks of what, from a theological point of view, is the ultimate morning – the day of resurrection itself.