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Walcker, Willis, and Cavaillé-Coll: "...for the performance of a melody"

Michael Plagerman Plays Organ Works by Arthur Foote, Brahms, Franck, and Parry

Organ by Juget-Sinclair, Op. 45 (2016), in the style of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, St. Luke Lutheran Church
Three Compositions for the Organ, Op. 29 – Arthur Foote
    Festival March
Choralvorspiel und Fuge über “O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid” WoO7 – Johannes Brahms
Cantabile – César Franck
Chorale Fantasia on “O God Our Help” – Hubert Parry

Seated at the bench of the French-romantic style organ of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Ithaca one could be forgiven for thinking that its modest size might limit its potential. “…One prefers to have many stops,” quipped 19th-century German organ builder Eberhard ­Friedrich Walcker, “of which the player also can use each individually for the performance of a melody…” It is this melodic character, understood in the 19th century as “orchestral” or “symphonic,” that lends to even a small organ a panoply of color.

Henry Willis in England, along with Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in France and E. F. Walcker in Germany, represented the pinnacle of organ building in their respective national styles. Though their opinions of each other’s work were not always favorable—Cavaillé-Coll described Walcker’s famous Paulskirche organ in Frankfurt as “…like a fine man suffering from tuberculosis…”—their instruments shared similarities in design. Cavaillé-Coll appreciated Walcker’s unity of tone and Willis began incorporating more and more powerful reeds into his organs after meeting Cavaillé-Coll in 1848. There is no record of Walcker commenting on the work of his colleagues, but that he twice went out of his way to visit his French counterpart suggests at least a professional affinity. The instruments made by these master builders differed in character, but they shared a sound-idea of beautiful lyricism, and their organs allowed composers to use not only the then newly-emerging mechanical playing aids but also the subtly-varying character of each stop across its compass to develop crescendos, changes of color, and other effects. Middle-century American builders followed the lead of their German counterparts, constructing organs rich in string tone and based upon modestly scaled principal stops. By the end of the century these American builders were incorporating English solo stops and French reeds into their instruments—the beginning of an eclectic style of organ that would come to be called “American classic.”

Arthur Foote (1852-1937) would surely have been familiar with these proto-American classic organs. Having studied organ playing with John Knowles Paine, Foote inherited a tradition of finely-crafted melodic composition that is exquisitely suited to 19th-century organs and their wide range of orchestral color. Registration indications in American organ music at this time were scant, often denoting only a dynamic level or a minimal set of stops as a guide for the less-experienced organist. The forte registration at the beginning of Foote’s Festival March is unambiguous, but the composer gives no suggestion for the middle section, where the organist must play a solo on the Great at the same volume as the accompanying Swell. This solo must be subtle enough to later become a simple left-hand accompaniment. The French Flûte Harmonique is able to meet those requirements. The interplay of this flute with the soft sounds on the Swell exploits the variation of these stops in different parts of their range to bring out or hide each part as needed.

Foote includes no registration indications in the Allegretto, choosing only to denote a separate manual for the melody. A quirky tune requires a quirky stop, and the pungent Salicional acquits itself admirably. The lush middle section of this piece calls for the same treatment as that of the Festival March, relying on the upward crescendo of the Flûte Harmonique to give contour where a swell box does not exist. In the Pastorale, Foote calls for a third manual, which I have conjured here by changing stops on the two manuals of the St. Luke organ, contrasting the percussive speech of the Flûte Harmonique with a somber melody on the Trompette.

César Franck’s music contains highly specific registration indications. In this Cantabile he lets the trumpet sing throughout its range, needing only two stops to accompany the ever-expanding tune, a melody heard in alternation with solemn chordal sections on the warm foundations of the Great. Franck’s use of the Trompette throughout its compass shows not only the varying character of the reed stop but also the ability of the Bourdon and Salicional to provide accompaniment regardless of the range of the solo. As the reed descends it becomes louder, the inverse being true of the flute and string. The melody and accompaniment are written such that the variation within those stops creates a dynamic dialogue that transcends the four stops used in the piece.

Johannes Brahms calls for only one registration in each movement of his Choralvorspiel und Fuge über “O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid.” After having introduced the chorale melody in the prelude, Brahms allows the fugue to unfurl slowly on a sighing melody, later to be accompanied by large leaps evocative of wailing. The rosin quality of the Cavaillé-Coll-style foundation stops on the St. Luke organ adds to the tension of this lament, rising into astringency at the pinnacle of the piece.

Playing English composer Hubert Parry’s (1848-1918) Chorale Fantasia on “O God Our Help” on a French-style organ might be the greatest departure from a plausible historical occurrence n this program. The English were not always fond of the sound of continental organs. Of those instruments Dr. Edwin George Monk of York Minster had this to say: “Being dead against the modern fashion of forcing tone, at cost of quality: of changing the mellow, rich, and sober tones of our English Cathedral Organs of the best type into the likeness of German and French instruments of the most pronounced kind; and of producing a screaming, brawling organ, neither suited for a reputable street, or tolerable as a make-shift military band,—I most devoutly hope that the Abbey organ… is not about to be sacrificed to the mad, and reckless, demand for more noise…”

Willis might have been considered a revolutionary by his contemporaries, but his instruments can hardly be described as “screaming” or “brawling.” His instruments, like the French organs represented so beautifully, if in miniature, at St. Luke, embodied the symphonic unity of tone that was the ideal of 19th-century builders. In Parry’s Chorale Fantasia, even if the English music is expressed with a French accent in today’s performance, we hear that symphonic ideal. The melody crowns the dense accompaniment nobly before the Cavaillé-Coll organ is finally let loose at the piece’s conclusion—a sound as thrilling to our ears as it must have been to those who first heard it.

—Michael Plagerman