Organ Music for January 30

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:50am)


A celeste is a string stop tuned a little bit sharp. When it is combined with another similar string stop that is tuned normally, the two strings together make a beautiful undulating sound, similar to a large string section in a symphony orchestra. Our new organ has two sets of strings, and, oh my, are they beautiful!

Adagio (from Symphonie V)
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)

Here I use the larger set of strings – the absolutely classic strings of 19th Century France: the Gambe and Voix Céleste. This is a sound unmistakably French, gorgeous, and absolutely perfectly voiced for our church. In this movement the hands play on the strings and the feet play the melody from time to time on beautiful flute stops.

Desseins Éternels (Eternal Purposes) (from The Nativity of the Saviour)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

“God, in His love, has predestined us to be His adoptive children through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of His grace.”  -Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians

I’d like to quote Jon Gillock’s book on Messiaen: “This is one of Messiaen’s most beautiful slow movements. Like a hushed vocalize, it is filled with a deep inner joy from the knowledge that God has allowed lowly mortals to become his children, that man has the hope of salvation. Here, God’s all-encompassing love for humankind is expressed with a great inner emotion.”

The stops I have found for this piece make one of the most extraordinarily beautiful combinations I have found so far on our organ. The mélange of timbres is exceptionally poetic; each component is absolutely perfect for this beautiful piece of music.

Let’s start with the strings: they are the second set, the Aéoline and Aéoline Céleste. This set is quieter and more gentle than those in the Widor. They are joined by the Bourdon 16’, making an incredibly tender accompaniment.

Then, there is the melody, played on two very specific flute stops: the Quintaton 16’ and the Bourdon 8’ of the Positif division (the second keyboard from the bottom.) At the church where Messiaen played for 62 years, La Trinité in Paris, the Quintaton 16’ is a very, very special stop, and was one of Messiaen’s favorites. He composed many special movements, including this one, for the ravishing, poetic sound of the stop. About two years ago, Jon Gillock took Pascal Quoirin to the organ loft at La Trinité to show him some of the most unique Messiaen sounds on that magnificent organ for which Messiaen composed his entire body of organ works. The Quintaton 16 was one of the timbres demonstrated. And M. Quoirin replicated that stop on our organ. It is one of the most beautiful Quintatons I have ever heard. And when combined with the other stops it is exactly what Messiaen had in mind.

It is interesting in this piece to notice that when the melody and accompanying chords go higher, they seem to crescendo. And when they go down, they seem to diminuendo. That is not because of anything I am doing at the organ. It is the natural inclination of these specific timbres, which is exactly what Messiaen had in mind when he composed the work. Only in the last 4 notes do I close the swell shades.

At Communion:

Antiphon: I am black but comely
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

You heard me play this many, many times during Communion here at Ascension. And it sounded beautiful on the Holtkamp – but not like this! The Gambe and Voix Céleste are absolutely shimmering, and the Flûte traversière just spins in the room.

At the Postlude:

Prelude and Fugue in C Major
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

We close the service with an early prelude and fugue of Bach, played on the principal choruses (the Plein Jeux or Plenos) of the Grand Orgue and Positif. I use a moderate pleno sound for the Prelude and a fuller one for the Fugue.