Hey Everybody! You know I love to write, here are my program notes for my upcoming Organ Recital this Sunday, April 3rd at 3:00. It's cleverly entitled the "Final Four" featuring works by Brahms, Mahler, Franck, and Vierne, and telling the story of how these middle and late Romantic composer helped usher in a new era of music.
The Final Four!
In constructing this concert, I did not literally pick the “final” four composers of the Romantic Era, but picked four who, through compositions played on the organ, could tell the tale of how the Romantic Era (1830-1900) came to a close and ushered in what is often called the period of “modern” music, or 20th century music. The Romantic Era was the last part of the common practice period (from 1600-1900), and was the last time in Western Music that the entire European continent was unified under a more-or-less homogenous musical ideal and aesthetic. Because of improvements in transportation and communication over time, ideas were able to be shared across a continent much faster, and therefore changes in art happened more quickly. For example, there were few significant developments in music during the Renaissance period from 1400-1600, the Baroque flourished then for the next 150 years after that, the Classical period only about 80 years after the Baroque. By the late 19th century, music was already being pushed to its limits, to the point where it was finally saturated, and essentially “exploded” into the 20th century. Composers started experimenting with completely new genres and formal structures, and atonality. The new ideal in modern music shook the very fabric of what had been developed the 300 years prior.
One of the best explanations of the Romantic Era I have heard is that its music is more about the “journey” than the “destination.” Large forces, huge orchestras, giant crescendos and decrescendos, use of rubato, sweeping melodies, and longer development sections are all key to the Romantic aesthetic. By looking at and listening to pieces by four very different composers of this period, we shall also look at the elements of their music that were looking forward to the time when the Romantic Era was to come to an end.
Johannes Brahms was a musical craftsman, rooted in the practices of his German musical forefathers, Bach and Beethoven. Brahms was a conservative in many ways, considering he wrote primarily under the tried-and-true formal structures of the Classical period before him, and composed through developing strong melodic motives, and a substantial amount of counterpoint. However, his innovations to the symphony, development of tonal harmony, and creativity with rhythm make him one of the most important and influential composers of his time. Brahms’ theoretical, and almost mathematical approach to composing may have had a more important impact on the development of 20th century music than we think. We might more easily look at Wagner, a composer who believed in the marriage of music to the drama on the stage of his operas, and whose music was characterized as more emotionally dense, and certainly more chromatic, than most of Brahms’ music, as a precursor to the 20th century music to come. However, when 20th century music exploded in multiple directions, the music was much more heady and introspective in nature. Though aesthetically closer to the chromatic harmony of Wagner, it was perhaps Brahms’ approach that influenced 20th century thinkers more than anyone else. The immediate successors to Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler on the Austro-German music scene were those of the second Viennese school: Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg – all serialists, or atonalists, writing their music using combinations of numbered pitch class sets and treating all twelve-tones equally.
The Prelude and Fugue in G Minor is a clear homage to J.S. Bach. Never assigned an opus number and discovered after Brahms’ death, it was one of several organ pieces Brahms wrote for Clara Schumann when he was about 20 years old. The prelude begins with a flourish, reminiscent of the great North German organ Praeludia, but soon transforms into a heavy-handed, almost tragic, Romantic symphony. Brahms uses contrasting textures, from full organ fanfares to single note virtuosic passages, to create drama in this piece. The fugue is a typical 4-voice fugue that is at times a little clumsy, and certainly not as perfectly constructed as the fugues of Bach. Brahms utilizes 2-against-3 rhythmic figures, often pitting the pedals against the hands, creating a sense of playfulness. Brahms wasn’t an organist, and never claimed to be, so much of the piece is written in a pianistic style. While certainly not Brahms’ best work, the Prelude and Fugue is still very exciting and showcases many of the signature stylistic features of his music.
Gustav Mahler, an esteemed conductor first, and composer second, was younger than Brahms, though the two did meet in 1896. Brahms is credited to have said to the young Mahler, “Music is done for. Nothing new remains to be composed. You and your kind have seen to that with your compositions.” Mahler was not the composition scholar that Brahms was, and in fact was led by beautiful, lingering melodies and lush harmonies much more than by Classical structure. Mahler’s contributions to the symphony cannot go unnoticed, having written nine complete symphonies of extreme length and substance! Mahler’s contribution to the 20th century was partially that he lived to see it. Whereas Brahms’ heady music concepts may have contributed to the second Viennese school’s mathematical organization, the increasing amount of chromaticism in Mahler’s and Wagner’s music clearly had an impact as well, leading to the ultimate chromaticism – atonality, where there is no key center, but instead every pitch is equal.
The Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 is one of the most well-known movements in any of Mahler’s symphonies. Scored for only strings and harp, it has a beautiful, pastoral quality full of subtle shifts in harmony, and long, expressive melodies. It is quite suitable for transcription for organ and harp. The Adagietto is understated, though it builds to two strong climactic moments at the end of each of the two “A” sections. The 5th Symphony was actually composed between 1901 and 1902, but like all of Mahler’s works, even the late works, the symphony embodies all the principles of high-Romanticism – longing, beauty, and expressiveness above all. Mahler was arguably the last great Romantic composer of the symphony. The next composers of historical importance to attempt writing symphonic compositions of Mahler’s scale were Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten, who flourished in the 1930s and beyond.
César Franck was a Belgian born composer who resided in France most of his life. He was undoubtedly the most influential composer of organ music in France to come after the French Classical period ended in 1790. Even from the earliest days of notated music, French music has been focused on unification of selected timbres and rhythms, often those reflecting the “nasal” quality and flowing cadence of the French language. It was because of this that between 1650 and 1790 the music written for French organists was grandly unified and unaltered, as were the available sounds on every French organ being built during that time. Around the time of Franck’s appointment as organist at the church of Sainte-Clothide in 1858, there was a new organ builder in Paris, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who would usher in the next generation of organ design in France, and hence the birth of a new era. Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments and Franck’s compositions were both of the “symphonic” style, with new stops mimicking the sounds of the orchestra, new wind control mechanisms allowing for easier playing at higher wind pressure, and innovations in expression that allowed for much more subtle dynamic control by the organist, in real-time. Franck composed music that utilized the full compass of these new innovations, and led a new generation of organ composers that followed in his footsteps into the 20th century: Widor, Vierne, Duruflé, Dupré, Messiaen, and Langlais just to name a few! He was truly the father of the modern French organist/composer.
The Pièce Héroïque, written in 1878, is an iconic Romantic piece, that highlights the rise of the common man as a hero. As music shifted from Classical ideals to the Romantic period, one of the common themes in the music was the rise of the hero, generally on the model of revolution, and specifically on the rise of Napoleon. The audiences had shifted from the upper-class to the masses by 1800, and the subject of the “hero” was an appealing one to the middle and lower classes. Like most of Franck’s organ works, the piece is symphonic in scale. It is clear that though Franck lived in France, his music is very much influenced by Wagner. There is an anecdote that upon hearing the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde in 1874, Franck was “transformed” and Wagner’s music had a lasting impact on the remainder of Franck’s oeuvre. The Pièce Héroïque begins with a brooding melody in the bass register, which eventually grows into a full organ statement. The middle section is a much gentler and expressive treatment in the parallel major, but the phrases are accented by militaristic fourths in the pedals. As the middle section builds in intensity, the original material from the beginning is reprised, though in a much more frantic and ornamented style. The final climactic moment is a reprise of the theme from the middle section in full, grand organ style, representing final victory!
Louis Vierne was a full generation removed from Franck, having studied primarily with Widor, and eventually became the organist at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1900, a position he held until he died on the organ bench in 1937. As the story goes, he had completed an organ recital, and as an encore was going to improvise a tune on two submitted themes. Before he could finish preparing, he had a stroke and fell off the bench, hitting a low “E” on the way down. Duruflé was in attendance at the concert and ran upstairs to the loft and was at Vierne’s side as he died. Louis Vierne was blind from an early age, yet was truly one of the great musicians of his time. Unlike the other three composers on today’s concert, Vierne composed Romantic music in his early period, but adapted to include some of the staples of 20th century French organ music by the end of his career. When looking at the “final four” of these organ composers, Vierne was perhaps the champion, as he brought the genre of the Organ Symphony (a multi-movement composition of symphonic proportions written for the solo organ) into the 20th century, beyond the roots that had been established by Franck and Widor.
Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 1 was written between 1898 and 1899, and is clearly an homage to his teacher Widor, as it displays many of the Romantic ideals and features of Widor’s symphonies. The opening Prelude is a dark, freely composed piece that is based on a simple head motive, a gesture of slowly falling fourths followed by an ascending chromatic line. Throughout the entire movement, Vierne takes this musical idea through several varying textures and rhythmic permutations. Though clearly in D Minor, the movement is extremely chromatic and often modulates into foreign key areas. After stating the main theme one last time, the hands take over with a quick, sparkling pattern in the upper register of the manuals, which accompanies a variation of the main theme in the pedal. Soon the texture explodes into a full organ flourish, only to subside into the final statement of the head theme, in canon. Though clearly French in the scope of Vierne’s selected timbres, this symphonic movement has some roots in German music, particularly the symphonies of Beethoven. Like Beethoven, Vierne takes a single, short motive and develops it in full over the course of the work.
The fourth movement is a playful scherzo showcasing the flutes of the organ. The fleeting, crisp theme of the opening is contrasted in the middle trio section, which pits a reed stop in counterpoint with flutes and pedal bass line, not unlike a Baroque trio sonata. The fifth movement is a beautiful slow movement that would have showcased the expressive abilities of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Notre-Dame. The outer sections feature lush, Romantic writing played on string stops, while the middle section contains several short cadenzas on a solo flute stop, followed by a dense chorale texture that utilizes unique orchestration techniques, including two notes at a time in the pedal part, having each foot represent a different musical line.
The Final is one of the staples of the organ repertoire. It compares in grandeur to the famous final movement Toccata of Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony. The hands open with a memorable ostinato figure, while the opening melody is set in the deep bass of the pedalboard. The development section is one of the most creative sections of the entire symphony, transforming the main theme through many permutations in different ranges of the organ, and through many distant key centers. The recapitulation showcases an alteration of the opening ostinato, then in duplets, now in triplets. As the final climax builds, the pedals give one last flourish, encompassing the entire range of the pedalboard, before the last three chords resound through the sanctuary. Some of the subtle harmonic shifts and dissonances throughout the symphony are signs of the music Vierne is yet to write, as he further experiments with chromaticism and post-tonal concepts in his later works.