Old and New

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) — Sonata II: i. Lebhaft, ii. Ruhig bewegt,  iii. Fuge: Mässig bewegt, heiter

Paul Hindemith escaped Hitler’s Germany and made his home in the United States. He used traditional Baroque and Classical forms and structures, combined with an interesting harmonic style whose dissonance always resolves, and whose tonal base always brings us back to a recognisable and, to some extent predictable, centre. He wrote three sonatas for the organ and one concerto for organ and chamber orchestra. Strangely, these fine works, while available on CD, are not performed all that frequently. The three sonatas differ widely in style. The first is very much on the grand scale, and its various sections are so integrated with each other that it is hard, for example in the church service setting, to separate out movements for use as prelude or postlude. The third sonata is based on folk melodies. The second, composed in 1937, is perhaps the most approachable. The first movement clinches the notion of Hindemith as a “neo-Baroque” composer on account of its ritornello structure. The word ritornello refers to something which returns, and hence to the material of the first eight or so bars which, after its first appearance in the key of E minor reappears several times, underpinning the structure of the movement much in the manner of a Baroque concerto. The second movement is the only one of the three to specify the use of certain manuals and, thereby, contrasting sections of the organ. Its lilting 6/8 time and dotted rhythms are reminiscent of the Baroque Siciliano. The final movement is a fugue, but one which only loosely uses fugal texture and procedure. Its quiet nature may at first hearing seem to be anticlimactic, but as it becomes more familiar it displays an almost self-deprecating sense of fun.

Usually, tempo or mood indications in music are of Italian origin, but Hindemith uses German terms. This is all quite honourable but the words tend to be quite unfamiliar. So:

Lebhaft   =    lively
Ruhig       =   quiet, calm, steady
Bewegt    =    agile
Fuge         =    fugue (!)
Mässig     =   moderate
Heiter      =   cheerful, bright

Unlike French composers, Hindemith gives no hint as to how the organ should sound beyond dynamic levels ranging from pp  to ff. The trick, therefore, is to find a range of sounds that not only satisfies the contrasts for which he asks, but that also enables one to bring to life the moods indicated by the German directions.

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (b. 1945) — Andante cantabile (No. 2 of 4 Diversions)

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and I were contemporaries at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1960s where we both studied organ with the late Arnold Richardson. Christopher’s career has tended to give his prodigious organ playing more prominence than his primary love, composition. His gift for interpreting difficult modern scores is astounding, and his recordings of music by Messaien and Pärt should be in everyone’s collections. At the same time, he is a composer of distinction and has had a number of important commissions. The Four Diversions for organ date from our student days in 1965, were first performed at the Royal Academy, and were part of my own Mus.B. recital in 1966. Christopher’s music is intense, serious, and in a sense, ascetic, but deep within it is a compelling passion and energy. Christopher has been on the professorial staff of the Royal Academy. He succeeded Arnold Richardson as organist of the West London Synagogue, and is also in charge of the music at the Chapel of Gray’s Inn, also in London.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) — Chorale Partita “Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig” BWV 768

The chorale was the musical mainstay of Lutheran worship in the Baroque period, and the ability to improvise and compose preludes based on chorale melodies was a sine qua non of the organist’s craft. Examples of the Chorale Partita can be found in the works of Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Böhm, and Walther as well as in their more well-known musical descendant, Bach himself. In this context the term partita denotes a set of variations on a melody. The number of variations often corresponded to the number of stanzas in the chorale, and so one might expect to see some correspondence between the musical figuration of each variation and the text of each stanza. The point, however, is debatable because the hymn in this case only exists in versions of five and seven stanzas, and there are eleven variations. In any event, the interest in the “Sei gegrüsset” variations lies elsewhere, and not merely in the treasury of motivic invention and development with which the work abounds. After the initial statement of the chorale, the first six variations are for manuals only. The remaining five, including the massive 5-part harmonic re-statement of the chorale, are for manuals and pedals. A further discrepancy is that the style of the first six variations is much more in keeping with what one might expect from Bach’s antecedents. What we are left with is the impression that these variations come from relatively earlier and later periods of Bach’s life. This insight was shared by Schweitzer and Spitta, and is maintained by Peter Williams – all noted authorities on the organ music of Bach.