Organ Music Notes March 13, 2016

organ In 2011 we inaugurated The 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 is already widely considered one of the most significant organs of our time. Full-length recitals are given throughout the year by some of the greatest organist in the world.

In addition to the concerts, we invite you to join us Sundays at the 11:00am service when major organ music is played each week (come early for the Preludial music at 10:45-10:50!) The music for each Sunday’s service is listed on our website http://www.ascensionnyc.org by Thursday or Friday each week.

Today we hear:

At the Prelude (10:50 am):
Toccata in A Minor – Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)

Sweelinck was a Dutch composer, organist and teacher, straddling the period between the late Renaissance and early Baroque. He spent virtually his entire life in Amsterdam, where he was organist at the Oude Kerk for 44 years. As a composer, his output included a huge amount of excellent choral music (we have sung his Psalm 90 and 96 here), and a large number of outstanding keyboard pieces, some for harpsichord, others for organ. The early 1600’s was the time when keyboard music started being published throughout Europe, and Sweelinck was one of the most important early keyboard composers, certainly the most important in the Netherlands. He was also known as the “Father of North German Organ Music,” because he taught so many of the most important early German organ composers. His influence can be seen from Scheidt to Buxtehude and all the way to Bach.

This Toccata is a simple piece, composed for the hands only. The word toccata comes from the Italian toccare (to touch), and the form started around this time in the early 1600’s simply as a free-style piece for the hands. But soon it acquired the association with rapid, often virtuosic finger passages. The toccatas of Bach were great examples; but so were the toccatas of 19th and 20th century France, such as those of Widor, Vierne, Duruflé, and so many others. In this Toccata rapid passage “finger” work only appears occasionally. Most of it is more vocal in character.

Variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein end’ – Jan Sweelinck
(My young life has an end)

This set of variations on a German song represents one of Sweelinck’s most beautiful compositions. The nuanced, poetic atmosphere he evokes is extraordinary. It begins with a simple four-part harmonization of the tune – or at least it seems simple, except that it expresses a remarkable tender, vulnerable, interior world, as subtle as a Vermeer. The Bourdon 8 stop on the Echo division is absolutely perfect (in fact, the whole piece comes alive on our organ!) Each subsequent variation is more and more extroverted: the second variation (on the flutes 8 & 4 of the Positif) is still tender, but moves more in eighth notes than quarter notes, and it has subtle sprinkles of fast passage work. The next variation is heard on the sparkling 8 & 2 flutes of the Grand-Orgue, and it moves a bit more, with mostly sixteenth notes. The fourth variation begins with a firmer rhythmic motive and includes much more finger work. It is played on the Montres 8 4 and 2 of the Positif division. Then comes the boldest variation, played on the principal choruses (plenum or plein jeu) of the Grand-Orgue and Positif. It is quite virtuosic. After working up quite a bit of excitement, suddenly we return to the mood (and Bourdon 8) of the beginning, in Sweelinck’s final variation. The music is similar to the first variation, but even more internally intense. A very special piece!

At the Postlude:
“Dorian” Fugue – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The nickname comes from the fact the piece was not composed in a major or minor key, but in one of the old church modes – the Dorian mode. This is the same as a D Minor scale, but with a C-natural instead of a C-sharp.

Let’s now have a quick refresher course: what exactly is a “fugue”? It is a musical form that came to its peak in the Baroque period, and the single greatest composer of fugues was Bach. It is a contrapuntal form. Counterpoint or polyphony are the same thing: they simply mean that each individual voice part moves independently of the others, instead of, for example, a chordal fashion, or accompaniment and melody. Most fugues have four voice parts, but not necessarily so.

The principal theme of a fugue is called the “subject,” and here’s the normal procedure: the first voice starts with the subject, all alone, by itself. When that theme of a few measures is over, a second voice-part comes in with the theme/subject, usually a fourth or a fifth above or below. Meanwhile the first voice continues with a counter-melody which is constructed to go perfectly with the subject. This second theme is called the “counter-subject.” Then, the other voices come in the same manner. To add interest or variety, the composer may drop the subject and counter-subject for awhile and add un-related material, called “episodes.”

This particular fugue is one of the supreme examples of the art form, and it is notable in that it is the “purest” fugue Bach ever composed: all of the material of the lengthy piece is derived from either the subject or counter-subject. There are absolutely no episodes or extraneous thematic material. It is an astonishing tour-de-force that Bach could keep that up for the duration of the piece without boredom creeping in. But, of course, that’s not all. The piece has that unmistakable trademark of Bach fugues: it evolves seamlessly over the course of the piece in a totally organic manner, building and subsiding, moving this way and that, and finally building in intensity to an astonishing musical world of universality. This is Bach’s form par excellence, and this is one of his finest examples.

– Dr. Dennis Keene