Organ Music for January 9

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:45am)

Foundation Stops

All of the foundation tones of the organ are now voiced and playing. Today we will go from just one stop (in the Bach Kyrie) to almost all the foundations (in the Widor.)

Kyrie eleison (for manuals, from Clavierübung)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

This short piece is played on the Montre 8’ of the Grand Orgue (bottom keyboard.) A montre (or in English: principal) is the most basic organ sound that exists. In fact, until the Renaissance, organs were almost entirely made up of principal pipes at various pitches. Our Montre is built exactly to the dimensions of those built by the great French organ builder of the 18th century, Dom Bédos de Celles. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and satisfying stop: warm, clear, and singing all at the same time. One could play on it all day and never tire of it. And, even though it provides a warm and rich sound, you can hear all the inner parts of this four-part Bach piece. And the tracker action of the mechanical console allows me to articulate inner parts when I want them to be heard, or to let the top part sing when that is desired.

Fond d’Orgue (from Suite du Premier ton)
Louis Marchand (1669-1732)

The title of this piece is actually the registration intended (registration is the selection of stops).  The “Organ Foundation” stops of the French Baroque included montres at 16’, 8’, & 4’. (8’ pitch is the standard pitch – the same as a piano. 16’ pitch is an octave lower; 4’ is an octave higher.) It also included flute stops known as Bourdons at 16’ and 8’. These particular sounds on our organ are exactly the same as would have been heard in 18th century France. French Baroque pieces composed for Fond d’Orgue were almost always serious mood pieces.

Das alte Jahr (The Old Year has passed away) from Orgelbüchlein
J. S. Bach

Here I use a montre as a solo stop, and the left hand and pedal accompaniment are played on bourdons. When you use this kind of registration for a piece like this, it provides a uniquely austere, but intense expression. In this slow meditation, Bach is bidding farewell to the old year and the profound and sad things that were a part of it. Here, again, the tracker action gives me infinite control over the speech of the pipes in this deeply-felt piece.

Praeludium circulare (from Symphonie II)
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)

It’s called a circular prelude because the melody just keeps coming back, over and over again, and that’s the “form” of the piece. I chose this work because it is a perfect vehicle for the French 19th century Fonds 8’.  In that Romantic, symphonic era, the 8’ foundation tone included all the foundation stops the organ had – montres, flutes, gambes (strings) – all coupled together. This French Romantic Fonds timbre is one of the glories of the organ world: rich, warm, and singing! And this timbre on our organ is absolutely magnificent. Notice how, without pushing, it just fills the church with this gorgeous warm tone (as if the cello section of the Philadelphia orchestra were here!) For this piece, I’m moving to the large electric console because the electric key action allows me to play the work with a seamless legato, which is the hallmark style of the Romantic period in France.

At the Postlude

The Beginnings of the Plein Jeux

“Little” Fugue in G Minor
J. S. Bach

Right now the organ team is voicing the various Plein Jeux of the organ. A Plein Jeux is also known as Organo Pleno, or Plenum, or Principal Chorus in various languages. It refers to the group of principal stops of different pitches that all go together. For example, that single Montre 8’ we heard in the very first prelude today is joined by montres of higher and higher pitches. In great instruments all these stops balance so completely that you don’t hear individual sounds, but one united timbre. This registration, or combination of stops, is the core, the backbone of an organ. It is the sound one associates with major Bach pieces, but also major pieces from all European countries. Since the organ team has just started voicing our Plein Jeux, today you will only hear the beginning of all of our Plein Jeux, but it will be a beautiful sound nonetheless!