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Program Notes | Program #2

by Gaston Litaize (1909–1991)

Gaston Gilbert Litaize was a French organist and composer who toured, recorded, worked at churches, and taught students in and around Paris. Blind from infancy, he studied and taught for most of his life at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for the Blind).

At the Paris Conservatoire he studied with Marcel Dupré and Henri Büsser, and privately with Louis Vierne. Over the course of six years, he won first prizes in organ, improvisation, fugue, and composition, as well as the Prix Rossini for his cantata Fra Angelico. In 1938 he finished second to Henri Dutilleux in the Prix de Rome, said to be the first time that a blind person was accepted in the competition

He began working as organist at Saint-Cloud in 1934 and, after leaving the Paris Conservatoire in 1939, he returned to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles to teach harmony. In 1944 he began a 30-year directorship of religious radio programs, where he oversaw five weekly broadcasts. He took up a position in 1946 at St François-Xavier, Paris, where he remained the organist until his death.

About a year ago a good friend and colleague gifted me an audio CD for the purpose of acquainting me with an organ composition by Gaston Litaize. Epiphanie was completed in January 1984 and dedicated to Litaize’s friend Claude Hilger. The piece is relatively short, registered with full ensembles and derives thematic material, mostly through augmentation. This work, to say the least, is full of energy.

—David Wolfe

by Gaston Litaize

What really captured my attention on that same audio CD my friend gave to me was a less-bombastic piece, also by Litaize. Scherzo is one of a collection of short organ compositions the composer entitled Douze Pièces pour Grand Orgue. The set is distributed in two volumes and has a copyright of 1939.

Scherzo is found in Volume II and is dedicated to Litaize’s friend and fellow organist/composer Jean Langlais. The registration for this work primarily features the 2′ flute, and the piece was programmed for its light playful character and its contrast to this evening’s opening work.”

—David Wolfe


by Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)

Although Maurice Duruflé published just a few works (only 10 for the organ), he is one of the 20th century’s great French organist-composer-pedagogues. His 1947 Requiem and Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégorien (written in 1960 for a cappella choir) are considered masterpieces of French choral literature.

In 1927, he became Louis Vierne’s assistant at Notre-Dame and two years later became titular organist of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Maurice Duruflé did not compose many pieces for the organ but they have become very popular and standard in concert-organists’ repertoires. The subtle registrations and impressionistic harmonies found in Duruflé’s compositions resemble compositions by Fauré, one of Duruflé’s teachers.

Méditation was composed about 1964. He then introduced the first theme of this work in the Agnus Dei movement of his Messe Cum Jubilo in 1966. Duruflé himself usually performed this work in liturgical settings. It, nevertheless, serves as a beautiful concert piece.

—David Wolfe

”To contrast with music in program No. 1, which consists of massive chords and full orchestral sounds in the registration, I chose J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532 and Sonata No. 7, Op. 89 by Alexandre Guilmant to express the clearness of Bach’s contrapuntal writing and Guilmant’s logical structure.”

—Ae-Kyong Kim

by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach spent his earlier career principally as an organist, latterly at the court of one of the two ruling Grand Dukes of Weimar from 1709–1717.

This piece was written during that Weimar period, a very distinguished and cultured time. Consequently, most of his greatest organ works were written during this period. He held a two-fold position as member of the chamber orchestra and as Organist to the Court, which offered him many opportunities for improvement. As a Court Organist, he became known as one of the greatest German organists. He produced the largest sounds possible by pulling out all the stops.

Both the prelude and a fugue of this piece are in D Major. The prelude starts with an ascending semi-quaver scale from the pedals and then the manuals respond to it with a dotted quaver and semi-quaver rhythm. Followed by an Alla breve in the middle section, it finishes with a new tempo of Adagio with the elongated final chords. The subject of this fugue is eight measures long, which is elaborated by interesting harmonic progressions.

—Ae-Kyong Kim

by George Thalben-Ball (1896–1987)

George Thalben-Ball was born in Australia but built his career as a virtuoso concert organist in England (sort of an English Virgil Fox). Organist/director at London’s Temple Church for more than 60 years, Thalben-Ball was a prolific recitalist and played many broadcasts on radio. He gave the inaugural programs on the organ at Royal Albert Hall. During his three-decade tenure as Birmingham City Organist, he gave more than 1,000 recitals.

The Variations on a Theme of Paganini is based on—yes—”that” theme, the famous Caprice No. 24 for solo violin. It’s been arranged by dozens of composers, most not ably Sergei Rachmaninoff (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, for piano and orchestra), Johannes Brahms (Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, for solo piano), Franz Liszt (Six Grandes Études de Paganini, S.141) and Benny Goodman (Caprice XXIV).

The first nine of Thalben-Ball’s variations provide the organist an opportunity to demonstrate dazzling pedal technique, and the set closes with a toccata-like movement.

—Timothy Howard

by Seth Bingham (1882–1972)

American-born Seth Bingham studied at Yale University and subsequently taught there, as well as at Columbia University and the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary. He was a founding member of the American Guild of Organists.

Roulade is a character piece not untypical of its genre, which is to say it sounds light-hearted (even frivolous); however, it is a challenge to play. The opening section, characterized by a running 16th-note line and punctuated by a fanfare figure, is followed by slower, lyrical theme, a modal “chorale,” and a return to the opening section. A kaleidoscopic registrational scheme compliments the thematic ideas.

—Timothy Howard

by Herbert Howells (1892–1983)

Herbert Howells was an English organist and composer best remembered for his compositions for organ and choir. Generally, his harmonic progressions do not follow standard formulas, which is to say that chords we expect to move to other specific chords just don’t always do so, thereby creating both an unsettling and settling effect. Melodies and harmonic patterns often exhibit modal tendencies, nevertheless, being anchored in tonal structures.

Howells wrote two sets of Psalm-Preludes (three pieces in each set). Each piece exhibits a familiar Howells structural formula: start soft, build to an often-crashing climax, then diminuendo to a whisper before the end. Each piece also carries an incipit from the Psalms, identifying Howells’ inspiration.

Tonight’s selection will be Op. 32, No. 2: Psalm 37:11 (But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.)

—Timothy Howard

SONATA NO. 7, OP. 89
by Alexandre Guilmant (1837–1911)

Alexandre Guilmant was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer. He studied with his father, then with the Belgian master Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (who also taught Charles-Marie Widor).

In 1871 he was appointed to play the organ regularly at la Trinité church in Paris; he remained there for 30 years. For the final decade of his life, Guilmant gave concerts in the United States (the first major French organist to tour that country) and in Canada, as well as in Europe, making especially frequent visits to England.

His American achievements included a 1904 series of no fewer than 40 recitals on the largest organ in the world, the St. Louis Exposition Organ, now preserved as the nucleus of Philadelphia’s Wanamaker Organ.

In 1894 Guilmant founded the Schola Cantorum with Charles Bordes and Vincent d’Indy. He taught there up until his death at his home in Meudon, near Paris, in 1911. In addition, he taught at the Conservatoire de Paris where he succeeded Charles-Marie Widor as organ teacher in 1896. Marcel Dupré was the most celebrated of his many students.

A great improviser, like Widor, Guilmant was engaged enormously with the Cavaillé-Coll organ in general. He gave a concert series at the Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Trocadero music hall in Paris, which became a tradition.

His Eight Organ Sonatas composed between 1874–1906 were conceived with the Cavaillé-Coll organ, symphonic in style and form. All the sonatas consist of several movements. The 7th Sonata in F Major Op.89 (1902) consists of six movements. Lento assai is formed with immaterial sounds. Intermezzo mixes arpeggios with some calm bars.

—Ae-Kyong Kim

by César Franck (1822–1890)

One of the greatest organ composers of the French school in the 19th century was César-Auguste Franck. A Belgian by birth, but French by education and adoption, this modest man exerted a profound effect upon his pupils and the development of organ music, not only in the 19th century but also the 20th and even up to today.

The organ compositions of ‘Père Franck’ were composed with the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste. Clotilde in mind. Franck was organist there from 1859 until his death. As the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Franck emphasized the study of composition in his organ teaching.

Franck’s final major works for the organ were the three chorales composed during the last year of his life. Legend has it that Franck was clasping them to his breast as he lay dying. Whatever the truth of that report, author Léon Vallas wrote: “Their beauty and importance are such that they may be properly considered as a kind of musical last will and testament.” (RDT)

These three fantasias of large design are not built upon a pre-existing chorale melody, but they do contain sections which suggest hymn writing.

The Chorale No. 1 in E Major opens with a stately harmonized melody which Franck developed according to the “cellule génératrice” technique, in which the entire piece grows from the same motivic material.

The dignified ‘choral’ theme, which enters in measure 46, is diatonic and presented in phrases of approximately equal length. Some of the ways in which the thematic material is varied are as solo and accompaniment in the original key, later in the parallel minor mode, and also as alternating phrases of the theme progressing back and forth from the soprano range to the tenor range.

The Choral closes with a climactic version of the choral theme, in which the first three phrases of the choral melody are repeated in the pedal part after their statement in block chords on the full organ sound.

—David Wolfe

Robert D. Thomas contributed to these music notes.

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