Organ Music, March 6

by Dr. Dennis Keene

As many of you know, we are hearing the first sounds of the new Manton Memorial Organ. Built by Pascal Quoirin of St. Didier, France, it is the first French-built organ ever installed in New York City, and will no doubt be one of the most significant organs of our time. During the Fall the organ was assembled here, the mechanisms all put together, and the glorious organ cases installed. The final phase – the tuning and “voicing” (the tonal regulation) of all the 6,183 pipes – began in mid-December. It is now complete! The Quoirin team returns to France today, but will return right before the Inaugural events to  re-check everything.

We look forward to an extraordinary Holy Week this year, and, beginning May 1, the official inauguration of this magnificent instrument. Details of the inaugural events can be found in the Voices of Ascension brochures located in all the pews. In these next few months, we invite you to join us each Sunday at the 11:00am service (come early for the Preludial music at 10:45-10:50!) as we discover all the new sounds, week by week.

Today we hear:

At the Prelude (10:50 am)

Pièce d’orgue: Fantasie in G
Johann Sebastian Bach (
1685-1750)

Parishioners at Ascension have heard me play this special piece for years, most notably in recent times: it was the final piece I played on the Holtkamp organ as we said farewell to that instrument on the Sunday after Christmas, 2009. And, it was the Prelude of our Easter Sunday service in 2010 which we held in the chapel at General Seminary.

Two days ago I played it for the first time on our completed new organ, and the sounds are absolutely magnificent.

Bach’s own French title for the work gives a rather clear hint as to its inspiration: French Baroque organ music. The work is in three sections. The first, labeled Très vitement (very fast), is played on the 8’ and 2’ flutes of the Positif division and echoed on the same stops of our Echo division. The extraordinary middle section is a direct descendant of the Grand Plein Jeu movements of French Baroque organ composers, particularly those of Nicolas de Grigny, whose entire Organ Book was copied by hand by the young Bach. Of course, Bach being Bach, took this form, re-worked it in his own manner and harmonic language, and extended it about two or three times longer than any French composer had.

The final section can be played in different ways. Most players return to the flutes of the beginning, to bring a beautiful, symmetrical conclusion to the piece. It can be very touching this way. Many times (particularly at Requiem Masses) I have ended the work with a huge sound, depicting a glorious “resurrection”. This was how I played it as the Postlude for the impromptu Mass Fr. Andrew put together at noon on Sept. 11, 2001, in front of a packed church. The congregation at that service was made up of dust-covered people who had walked uptown from the remains of the World Trade Towers.

For this Sunday’s service I will end it with the beautiful, peaceful flutes.

At the Postlude:

Offertoire (Messe pour les couvents)
François Couperin (1668-1733)

During Couperin’s time, French churches often had “Organ Masses”. Among the many Sunday Masses each week there would be one where, instead of a choir singing, the Grand Orgue would be heard in improvisations or composed pieces for the Kyrie, Gloria, etc. This particular collection of pieces was intended for use in convents.

Of all the movements in an Organ Mass, the largest was the Offertory, and it usually consisted of three sections, as it does here. The outer sections were played in all splendor on the magnificent Grands Jeux (all the cornets and reeds of the organ) while the more contemplative middle section was played on the foundation stops – the Fonds d’Orgue 16’ 8’ 4’.  To hear this wonderful piece played on our new organ is quite something!