The Twentieth Century

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) Sonate I

Jean Langlais (1907-1991) Ave Maria, Ave maris stella (No. 1 of Trois Paraphrases Grégoriennes)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria

It would be quite impossible, in the space of half an hour, to present a definitive programme of music from the twentieth century. This applies to all musical media, and not just to the organ. The organ, though, is somewhat of a special case. There have been major composers throughout history who have either virtually or completely ignored it. The composers of really great organ music have almost always been church organists, although Mendelssohn is probably an oddity in this respect – never a church musician, yet able to write for the organ as skillfully as any. In Bach’s day, the church was a major employer of musicians. The Age of Reason took its toll in that regard, and by the early nineteenth century the salons and concert halls lured musical talent into a more secular realm. The trend continued into the twentieth century when, it would appear, the church held little attraction for many composers. So, while we have one or two short choral pieces from Stravinsky, for example, we have no organ music. Of course, the church was in stasis in the Soviet Union for most of the century, and there are usually no organs in Orthodox churches. So, nothing from Shostakovitch. Nothing from Berg or Webern, which some may greet with relief! Only one very difficult work from Schoenberg. While we have numerous wonderful choral scores from Benjamin Britten, some of them using the organ imaginatively, we only have the one organ piece which is included in this programme. Nothing for solo organ from William Walton, although like Britten he used the instrument imaginatively in works for choir and organ. Only one Symphony for Organ and Orchestra from Aaron Copland. This is not to say that there is not a huge amount of “modern” organ music – there is, but few of its composers are known outside the collegiate chapel or cathedral close, and that in spite of their producing other, secular music. The situation has been a little different in France where the particular liturgical style requires imaginative organ improvisation leading to the publication of equally imaginative compositions. So there we have, pre-eminently, Messiaen, and before him we had Vierne, Widor, and Guilmant But again, although they all wrote other music – are we really all aware of it? More recently there was Alain, cut off in his prime in the Second World War.

In the programme today we visit Germany, France, and England. Hindemith was primarily a string player, theoretician, and teacher. He had a complicated relationship with the Nazi leadership in Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1940. His three sonatas for the organ, together with an organ concerto, are major contributions to the repertoire, and each is quite different from the other. Unfortunately, they are seldom heard in recital these days. His harmonic language is carefully worked out. There is always a clear tonal centre, and dissonance does not occur for its own sake. His textures and forms rely on Baroque and Classical models. Sonate I is in two movements each of which divides into a number of clear cut sections. In turn, these exploit the ability of the organ to offer contrasted tone and colour.

Last month’s concert was devoted to music by César Franck who held the post of Organiste Titulaire at the Basilica of Ste. Clotilde in Paris. One of his illustrious successors was Jean Langlais, who held the position from 1945 to 1987. The chief role of the organist in a Parisian church is to provide improvisations, often based on Plainsong melodies, to accompany certain parts of High Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. It is a great art, and in the written compositions we glean important clues as to how the improvised music may work. The piece played today is from a set of three, all based on Gregorian tones, and is an organ commentary, if you will, on two melodies associated with Mary – Ave Maria (Hail, Mary) and Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea).

Benjamin Britten was one of the most important and iconic figures in British music in the twentieth century. It is something of a tragedy for the world of organ music that he only produced the one work. His operatic output was large, as was his contribution to the genre of solo song. Perhaps his most famous work, however, is the War Requiem composed for the consecration of the new cathedral in Coventry in 1962. Britten chose to combine the Latin text of the Requiem Mass with some of the war poems of Wilfred Owen. For the first performance in Coventry Cathedral, the solo parts were intended to be sung by the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the English tenor Peter Pears, and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as a gesture of the reconciliation between former foes that the cathedral represents. With only ten days to spare, the Soviet government refused to allow Vishnevskaya to leave the Soviet Union, and her place was taken by the English soprano Heather Harper. However, in the recording which was later released (and which is still available), Vishnevskaya did take part. Owen’s poems protested the futility of war from the front lines of World War 1. Britten himself was a pacifist. Of the music he said, “I hope it’ll make people think a bit” and on the title page of the score he quoted Wilfred Owen:

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity…All a poet can do today is warn.”

The Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria, based on a melody by the 16th century Spanish composer, has no connection with the War Requiem or with thoughts about war. But it comes from the mind of Benjamin Britten. So, as we approach Remembrance Day, let it remind us of Britten; of the War Requiem; of the wars which blighted the face of the past century and which continue (28 of them in 24 countries last year); and thus, indirectly, of the need to advocate something better for the world. All that poetry and music can do, however, is remind and warn!