|Ode to the Organ|
|Joseph Jongen |
Symphonie concertante, Op. 81 for Organ and Orchestra
Belgian composer, pianist and organist Joseph Jongen was a child prodigy with a meteoric career. He entered the Liège conservatory at age 7 and was appointed there as teacher of harmony and counterpoint before he reached 18. His outstanding talent for organ improvisation was famous throughout Europe. He spent World War I in London as a pianist and organist and also formed the piano quartet known as the Belgian Quartet, which raised money for Belgian war relief. After the War, he became a professor at the Brussels Conservatory and later its Director.
Jongen’s childhood influences were the late Romantics, in particular his compatriot, César Franck, and the young Richard Strauss, although in the 1920s he was unable to escape the influence of Debussy and Ravel. Later he attempted to chart a more independent course, composing music that was languid, impressionistic, with broad and sweeping themes.
Jongen was a prolific composer, primarily of instrumental music. He wrote 241 compositions but late in life reevaluated his output and, employing very harsh standards, withdrew all but 137 of them. Outside of his native country he is primarily remembered for his organ music.
The Symphonie conertante was commissioned for the refurbishment of the huge organ in Wannamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. In 1909, Wanamaker had ordered a giant organ for his new Philadelphia emporium. Thirteen freight cars were required to ship the instrument from St. Louis, and it was installed in the store’s seven-story atrium in 1911. Despite the organ’s immense size, the tone was judged inadequate to fill the huge court, so Wanamaker's opened a private pipe-organ factory in the store attic to enlarge the instrument. Lavish construction and elegant workmanship made the Wanamaker Organ both a musical wonder and a monument to superb craftsmanship. Commanding its 28,000 pipes is a console with six ivory keyboards and 729 color-coded stop tablets. There are 168 combination buttons and 42 foot controls. The Wanamaker building has changed hands and names numerous times, but the organ – now a National Historical Monument – is still there and is played twice daily.
The original plan was for Jongen himself to premiere the work in early 1928. Although he completed the Symphonie in August 1927, a series of non-musical events threw the plans into confusion. However, Jongen received permission to go ahead with a premiere in Brussels, playing the taxing organ part himself. Then, in March 1928, Wanamaker died unexpectedly, and the planned Philadelphia performance never took place.
Program notes for the concert, probably by Jongen himself, state that it is "not an organ concerto so much as an orchestral work in which the organ, an orchestra in itself, is given the priority it deserves. There are no thematic or rhythmic links between the four movements of this large-scale work; the composer's sole concern was to ensure the stylistic unity of each individual movement."
The Symphonie concertante features the more subtle sonorities of the organ, rather than the bombast that is so common in organ symphonies of this period. It is as if Jongen were reminding us of the instrument's tremendous range of muted colors. All four movements are constructed in modified ABA form, musical arches that mirror in sound the architecture of the organ's most common home. Jongen's themes tend to the long and serpentine, delaying cadences as a means of creating musical tension.
The first movement is a Prelude marked "In the Dorian mode." Jongen wrote about the solemn and impressive opening: “Unlike many composers who have recourse to fugues at the end of their works, the present composer has introduced a fugue at the very beginning; this is the only passage of the score in fugal style, apart, that is, from a recapitulation of the exposition at the end of the first movement.” Two subsidiary themes, the first for the organ and the second for the orchestra indulge in an interplay with the fugue subject, which is omnipresent.
The second movement, marked "Divertimento," reveals Jongen as fun-loving practical musician with eclectic taste. Like the preceding movement, a single theme dominates, and there are two subsidiary themes, which are all introduced by the organ. The first of these is a pianissimo melody marked "Religioso," The last hints at a little waltz.
Jongen describes the third movement, marked Molto lento,”…as an attempt to achieve complete fusion of orchestra and organ and to be the expressive climax of the whole work.” It opens with an introduction of a beautiful series of upper woodwind solos that cast a dreamy, rather than a somber mood. The principal theme, however, is introduced by the violins. The middle is a new theme over Debussy-like harmonies initiating a gradual build in intensity and solemnity.
The final movement, a rondo, is a “Toccata moto perpetuo,” the perpetual motion in the organ part throughout. Jongen interjects ever more bombastic episodes between each varied version of the rondo. The movement is a celebratory bravura piece with constant modulations.
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”
Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-SaŽns was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. He was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos. In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. He premiered his five piano concertos with impeccable technique and effortless grace. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-SaŽns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”
Saint-SaŽns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.” His output is large and diverse, including chamber works for most orchestral instruments. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).
Saint-SaŽns professed to uphold the classical virtues of clarity, restraint and elegance, but none of these virtues appear in the C minor Symphony, a romantic work with colorful and grandiose orchestration throughout. The organ part is integrated into the orchestra and does not emerge as a solo counterforce, as in a concerto. Appropriately, Saint-SaŽns dedicated it to the memory of Franz Liszt, whose virtuosic organ music served as his model. The symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and premiered by that orchestra in May 1886 with the composer conducting from the keyboard.
There is thematic interconnection between the Symphony's movements, and the traditional four movements are fused into two: “[the Symphony] embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first, halted in its development, serves as introduction to the Adagio, while the Scherzo is abandoned by the same process to lead to the Finale,” the composer wrote. Saint-SaŽns borrowed from Liszt the technique of thematic transformation in which a single theme, or motto, recurs in various guises as an essential unifying device. But despite his insistence that the Symphony is a two-movement work, it is easier to think of it as having four movements since there are four distinctly discernible sections each with its own mood and musical structure. A brief slow introduction hint at the motto in the solo oboe and flute. The following Allegro immediately presents the motto in hushed, stuttering strings, creating an anxious tension that pervades even the lilting second theme. The Allegro comprises a continuous stream of transformations of the motto and via a reprise of the introduction, the movement blends into the Poco Adagio without pause. This is the first appearance of the organ accompanying an expansive new melody in the lower strings . After a few minutes, the motto quietly returns, eventually combining with the Adagio melody, where it is played pizzicato by the basses and cellos.
The stuttering rhythm returns in the third movement with a new theme, but is immediately accompanied by the first movement theme and a return to the ominous mood of the opening. The Trio, yet another iteration of the first movement theme, makes a surprising introduction of the piano into the orchestral mix. The movement ends on a serene note, with the first movement theme now in the major mode, anticipating the final movement.
After a grand entrance on the organ, the strings, accompanied by the piano, transform the first movement theme into a majestic chorale. Saint-SaŽns even creates a fugue for it in its new guise. In a sense, the Symphony No. 3 can be understood as a musical drama, in which a protagonist (the first movement theme) eventually triumphs over adversity. Over the top? Perhaps, but then, Saint-SaŽns dedicated his Symphony to one of the nineteenth century's more melodramatic composers.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|