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Program Notes | Program #3


by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)

One of the most significant and influential composers of the twentieth century was Olivier Messiaen, a highly idiomatic and individualistic composer, whose work in many genres, including opera to piano and organ music, was revolutionary.

Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11. He studied organ with Marcel Dupré and inherited the tradition of great French organists (Dupré had studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne, Vierne in turn was a pupil of César Franck). Messiaen gained first prize in organ playing and improvisation in 1929. Ultimately, he was appointed organist at the église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post held until his death.

However, Messiaen’s reputation as a composer exceeded that of his organ playing. After a year studying composition with Charles-Marie Widor in 1927, he entered the class of the newly appointed Paul Dukas. In 1930 Messiaen won first prize in composition.

In the Preface to his book The Technique of My Musical Language, Messiaen listed a number of people and things—tangible and intangible— which have affected him and his music. Among others were Dukas, Dupré, members of his own family, Shakespeare, Claudel, holy scripture, bird song, Russian music, plainsong, Hindu rhythms, the mountains of Dauphine, and his musical interpreters.

L’Ascension, written in 1933, is a suite in four movements based upon texts associated with the ascension of Christ and the Mass of the Ascension. The third movement, Transports de joie (Outburst of Joy), contrasts the full Great organ against the full Swell, sharp, staccato chords against legato pedal melody and a series of triplets, and, further cadenzas, chords alternated between hands in toccata style, to express the deep happiness of the soul before the glory of Christ.

—David Wolfe

by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

As previously stated in the notes for the first two programs, Johann Sebastian Bach had three different stages in his professional life. He spent his earlier career principally as an organist in Weimar. In 1717 he moved to Cöthen as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold and in 1723 made his final move to Leipzig, where he was employed as Cantor at the Choir School of St. Thomas, with responsibility for music in the five principal city churches.

The Prelude and Fugue in B minor dates from Bach’s Leipzig years and characterizes his mature contrapuntal style.

The prelude is sectional, with octave leaps on both manuals and pedals that act like something of both a refrain and anchor.

The fugue subject is unusual in its stateliness, lasting only two measures and verging on the uninteresting, though the counter subject provides enough energy to more than compensate. An extended section without pedal is followed by the resumption of all four voices, and the introduction of a new motive in the soprano voice (short-short-short-long) that some commentators have linked with the “Alleluia” figure in Bach’s sixth choral motet, leading to an exhilarating conclusion.

—Timothy Howard

by Marcel Dupré (1886–1971)

Like other organists on this series—Maurice Duruflé, César Franck, Gaston Litaize, Olivier Messiaen, Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor—Marcel Dupré is part of that great line of French organist-composers who have dominated the field of organ music for more than a century and a half.

Dupré became famous for performing more than 2,000 organ recitals throughout Australia, the United States, Canada and Europe, which included a series of 10 concerts of the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1920 at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1921 at the Palais du Trocadéro, both performed entirely from memory.

Dupré was also renowned for his improvisation skills; his Symphonie-Passion began as an improvisation on Philadelphia’s Wanamaker Organ.

Dupré wrote Variations Sur un Noël, Op.20 using some orchestrational variations. Each of the variations employ a wide variety of colorful characteristics. Specific indications of a unique guideline for the registration by Dupre suggests this. The theme is based on the French Traditional carol, Noel Nouvelet. It is varied with the use of ornamental Contrapuntal, Figural, Contrapuntal Canonic at the octave, and more. A wide variety of chromatic and contrapuntal techniques in the Var. V is well embellished in Dupré’s compositional piece.

—Ae-Kyong Kim

by Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)

Charles-Marie Widor, a Romanticist by nature, wrote for the symphonic organ [made possible by the innovations of organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899)]. Widor had a sense of style and grandeur which was quite appropriate to the instrument. He contrasted sonorities well, changed manuals for dramatic effect, and employed use of a staccato touch for brilliance. Inverted pedal point and double pedaling were other devices adopted by him.

Widor wrote 10 organ symphonies between 1876 and 1900. The first four make up Opus 13, and the next four Opus 42. Widor, like the famous French composer and recitalist Alexandre Guilmant (1837–1911), added other forms such as pastorals, toccata-preludes, chorals, variations, marches, intermezzos, scherzos, and finales to the standard set of sonata movements.

—David Wolfe

by Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)

A German composer, violist, violinist, teacher, and music theorist, Paul Hindemith was one of Germany’s most important composers in the 1920s and 1930s. Arguably his most famous works are his symphonic synthesis of the opera Mathis der Maler, written in 1933–34, and Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, composed in 1943.

Hindemith was also controversial because of his complicated relationship with the Nazis. Some condemned his music as “degenerate” and on December 6, 1934 during a speech at the Berlin Sports Palace, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.”

Although Hindemith’s music was banned in 1936, some Nazi officials believed that Hindemith might provide Germany with an example of a modern German composer, who by this time was writing music based in tonality and with frequent references to folk music. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s defense of Hindemith, published in 1934, takes precisely this line.

Hindemith emigrated to Switzerland in 1938 (in part because his wife was Jewish) and in 1940, moved to the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1946. He taught at Yale University where his students included Lukas Foss, Graham George, Norman Dello Joio, Mel Powell, Harold Shapero, Hans Otte, Ruth Schonthal, and Oscar-winning film director George Roy Hill (The Sting).

Among Hindemith’s vast works, his organ works represent only a small part of it. Since 1927 he had tried to construct a theory of his compositional technique. In 1937 he published this theory naming it Unterweisung im Tonsatz.

According to his theory, the triad is one of the most important elements in his music. He compares it with the three primary colors in painting. In 1937 he published his first two organ sonatas, No. 1 and No. 2.

—Ae-Kyong Kim

by Louis Vierne (1870–1937)

Throughout three concerts of Pipe Organs Inspire, the participating organists have played music by a large number of French organist/composers. Louis Vierne is the last—but certainly not the least—representative of a group that has dominated organ composition in the past 150 years.

Vierne was born nearly blind but was discovered to have unusual musical gifts at an early age. He studied with Franck and then Widor at the Paris Conservatoire and won a premier prix in organ in 1894.

For eight years Vierne was assistant to Charles-Marie Widor at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and from 1900 until his death in 1937 was organist at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (he died on the organ bench, possibly due to a stroke or heart attack, while playing the first piece of his 1,750th recital).

The “organ symphony” is a uniquely French genre. These are monumental, multi-movement works that may remind the listener of the finest orchestral symphonies, though focused on performance techniques best suited to the organ.

While the genre’s two major practitioners, Widor and Vierne, created works that on the surface seem quite similar, they differ in some significant ways. For example, Widor’s symphonies tend to be a collection of movements unified largely by tonality; by contrast, Vierne’s symphonies are cyclical, meaning themes recur throughout the movements in various guises (inversions, altered rhythms, etc.).

Vierne’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 59, was the composer’s final organ symphony; he completed it in 1930.

The work is also considered his most challenging. The Scherzo, while fun-filled as the title suggests, nevertheless has a slightly sinister edge partly due to Vierne’s registrational scheme. The Adagio’s melodies are all variants of themes heard in earlier movements, here given a slow, soaring treatment with typically “French” supporting harmonies. The Final’s recurring short-short-long rhythmic motive, second theme modified from earlier movements, and running pedal scales create a fitting conclusion to the Symphony—and to Pipe Organs Inspire.

—Timothy Howard

Robert D. Thomas contributed to these music notes.

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