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The scandalous neglect of British and US-American concert hall organ-music is still going strong until today. By Wolfram Syré

2017-07-24 - Playing and Pieces

The scandalous neglect of British and US-American concert hall organ-music is still going strong until today.

I. England

I was very irritated seeing that the articles about e. g. William
Thomas Best, Alfed Hollins or John Ebenezer West have been eleminated
from the new edition of the the "New Grove's Dictionary of Music".
Somewhere I read that the organ music of these composers would not be
"serious" or "important" enough. Speaking about British organ music only
names like e. g. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Villiers
Stanford, Alan Gray, Edward Elgar, Basil Harwood, Ralph Vaughan
Williams, Frank Bridge, George Thalben-Ball or Percy Whitlock are

In the 19th century nearly every British town owned a town hall with a
big symphonic organ. These concert halls employed virtuos organists who
regularly hold organ recital series there. Their programmes offered
some genuine organ compositions but mainly organ arrangements of popular
works for piano, chamber-music-ensembles or orchestra. These recitals
were enormously successful and had an extremely large number of
auditors.They often were the only occassion to listen e. g. to a
Schubert-symphony or numbers from a Händel-oratorio. So the church
organists were not amused about their success. Sir Walter Parry wrote in
an issue of "Victorian Magazine": "The erection of large concert hall
organs, and the necessity of pleasing the Saturday-night audience has
had a disastrous influence over organ music, as in majority of such
programmes two thirds at least are arrangements of orchestral and choral
works". By calling it "disastrous influence" they showed that they were
afraid that this kind of popular organ music became more aknowledged
than their organ play. The difference between academic and popular organ
music was born. I use the term popular in the meaning of "enjoyable,
entertaining, music to please", not in the sense of today´s pop-music.
From this time onwards all organ pieces, which were not a prelude, a
fugue or a sonata were suspected of not being serious. This opinion is
still going strong among many organists until today. As an example let
me name Charles-Marie Widor's organ Symphonies which are very fine
pieces, of course. But they are "ressentiment"-compositions and stand
against the more popular organ pieces of some of his French collegues,
especially against those in the Opera-style - but this is an item for an
essay in the future ...

The organ as an instrument "to please the audience" had had a long
tradition. It started with Händel's organ concertos which he performed
between the acts of his operas. It was continued by organists like John
Stanley, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy or Henry
Smart. In the middle of the 19th century Reverend Scotson Clark tried to
"reform" the organ music. His major work was a collection of fifteen
very popular marches like "Marche aux Flambeaux", "Marche des Fantômes",
"Marche des Girondins", or "Vienna March".

Not only the "New Grove's Dictionary of Music" is to blame for the
neglect of the British concert hall organ music. The virtous organist
Edwin Henry Lemare was an organist at St Margaret's in London near
Westminster Abbey. He initiated the building of a new three-manual
symphonic organ, and he conducted a big church choir. Lemare started a
very successful recital series at St Margaret's - the church used to be
overcrowded. There he performed as one of the first British musicians
numbers from Wagner-operas for soloists, choir and organ, arranged by
himself. He very soon became a prominent target for the enemies of
"popular" music and was mobbed out by the priest of his church.

In our days the famous edition "English Organ Music. An Anthology from
four Centuries in ten Volumes" includes in volume nine "From Rococco to
Romanticism. # 2" some movements from the Voluntaries of the classical
composer William Russel. Most of them are fugues; not even one of his
very fine Trumpet Tunes was good enough for this publication.

Today the organ experiences a rough time. A big part of the recital
audience merely understands the organ as a church instrument and not as a
common musical instrument. In order to bring organ music more into
focus it might help to look back to the golden times of concert hall
organ music.

Sir Walter Parry was right: Arrangements are a big part of its
repertory. Perhaps William Thomas Best can be calles the "king" of this
genre. He had a repertory of about 5.000 pieces which he played in his
recitals in the Liverpool town hall. These recitals had often 2.000 or
more listeners. He published an incredible number of arrangements; even
his series "Arrangments from the Scores of the Great Masters for the
Organ" had more than 1.300 pages. Best's arrangements present the organ
as an impressive instrument of rich colors. An organist of today will
enjoy Best's skills to create virtuous pieces conveniently playable.
Best had a large interest in playing numbers from Händel's oratorios and
operas. But his highlights are e. g.

- Allegretto from Beethoven's Sypmphonie Nr. 7,

- "Overture to the Sacred Drama 'Athalie'" of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,

- Symphonie Op. 24 of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,

- numerous movements from Spohr's chamber-music

- March of the Templiers of Benedict,

- Polonaise Op. 40, 1 of Chopin,

- Hungarian March of Berlioz,

- Coronation-March from the opera "Le Prophète" of Meyerbeer.

But he also arranged pieces which were played in the lounges of
luxury hotels or steamboats, e. g. Braga's "La Serenata. Legénde

We have no arrangements of Wagner-pieces by Best. Wagner was served by
other British organists like Alfred Herbert Brewer, Reginald
Goss-Custard or William Joseph Westbrook. Also these arrangements are
done very organ-friendly. More arrangements arose by British organists
like George Cooper, George C. Martin, John Stainer. All kinds of marches
were a popular genre besides classical pieces.

The blind organ-virtuoso Alfred Hollins was a very skilled composer
who wrote ambitious organ pieces for town-hall recitals. He became
prominent by his recital tours, especially to Africa and Australia.
Hollins wrote in an absolutely popular style, and his high level of
technique of composition can be seen in his "Theme with Variations and
Fugue". He opened the organ for ideas and colours from piano- and
orchestra-pieces. Very famous is his "Evening Rest" written for the
inauguration of the town-hall organ at Johannesburg. This piece is one
of his "character"-pieces like others, e. g. "A Song of Sunshine" or
"Spring Song". His "Concert-Overture Nr. 2" and his "Triumphal March"
include all elements of Donizetti's or Rossini's opera-compositions. The
"Concert-Rondo" and the "Morceau en forme de Valse" are brillant
examples for pieces in hte style of Park-Pavillon-Orchestras.

Further British composers of this kind of repertory are Herbert
Arthur Fricker with his "Concert-Overture" and "Scherzo Symphonique" or
Herbert Arthur Wheeldon with his "Canzona", "Evening Chimes" or
"Oriental Intermezzo". Very few church organists were open for the style
of the concert hall organ music. Felix Corbett contributed his "Rêve
d'Amour" to this genre. John Ebenezer West was not only church organist;
as a lector for the Novello company he had a wide experience of all
kinds of music. His "Festal Song" is an absolutely popular piece.
Édouard Silas who was organist and professor in composition wrote the
organ piece for the inauguration of the great symphonic
Father-Willis-organ in Blenheim Palace.

All these organ composers are nearly forgotten toady. Only William
Faulkes who composed an enormous number of both "serious" and very
popular organ pieces like "Bacarolles" or "Nocturnes" is sometimes
represented in organ recital programmes.

The main part of popular British organ music which is composed since
1930 can be called Ceremony- or Cathedral-pomp without any artistic
profile - neither academic nor enjoyable. The "Festal Offertorium" and
the "Festival Toccata" of Percy Fletcher are in a way the first examples
for that although in general he might be called an attractive composer.


Edwin Henry Lemare emigrated to the USA because of his problems in
St. Margaret's in London. Seen from a retrospective viewpoint he is
definitely an "icon" of the US-American concert-house organ tradition.
He was appointed city-organist at the "Soldiers and Sailors Memorial
Auditorium" at Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he hold a very successful
organ recital series until the end of his life. The circle of concert
hall organists included a great number of brilliant players.
Unfortunately only few people remember that today. Two years ago an
essay in a prominent German organ magazine about the Romantic
US-American organ music did not mention a single word about the world of
the concert-hall organists in the USA.

Lemare published an enormous number of organ-compositions and
arrangements. Additionally he edited a big part of his recital repertory
in "The Recital Series of original Compositions for the Organ" which
shows an overview of our genre. Lemare's original organ compositions and
organ arrangements show that he must have unique and admirable
technical skills in playing the organ. Other organists composed titles

"An April Song", "At Twilight", "Echo Bells", "Ecstasy", "Forest Study",
"In Moonlight", "Lullaby", The Morning Light", "Spring Song", "The last
Rose of the Summer", "The Swan" and so on. It is not possible to
mention all interesting organists of this topic. Let me just present
Clifford Demarest's " A Pastoral Suite" with the movements "Sunrise", "A
Rural Scene", "Sunset", and "Thanksgiving", Isaac Vleck van Flager's
"Military March" or Rollo Maitland's "The Optimist". The borders between
this kind of organ music and music for movie theaters or other
entertaining occasions like sports palaces became floating.
Organ-compositions or -arrangements like "Marionette" (Felix Arndt),
"Nola" (Felix Arndt), "Elfentanz" composed by Bernhard Johnson
especially dedicated for his friend (quotation) Lemare were played on
the organ. "In India", "Persian Suite", or "Tales from Arabian Nights"
of Roy Spaulding Stoughton mark the relationship between the
concert-hall organs and the theater organs in this time.

You can listen to a lot of this repertory on CCH.


AntoniScott (2017-10-17) Log in to Reply
In my opinion "the church" has no right to criticize the concert-room organ. In fact they have no right to the organ at all. It is just a matter of convenience that organs were installed in churches since the buildings were large, offered wonderful acoustics and could house many people. A little know fact was that at the height of French composition during the 18th century when Clerambault, Daquan, Balbastre, Dandrieu, were composing wonderful tunes loosely based on Christmas melodies, the very popular "Noel" was banished in churches since church-goers would go just to hear the music and not receive religious guidance.
The concert-room organ usually is not, but could easily be, equal to or better than any church organ. The limitations of the concert-room organ would be imposed by the size of the building in which it was placed.
Regrettably, the future of the concert room organ is in jeopardy due to the far less expensive digital organ and the fact that today people are less likely to attend concert rooms just to hear an organ. In a church they have less choice since the majority of churches have organs and thus far more exposure to the pipe organ and/or digital electronic organs.
Lastly, and it is my opinion only, I don't understand why we have to dwell of Cameron Carpenter and his contribution to organ performing. I think his technique is flawless but his interpretation is excessive and convoluted and impresses me as just "showing off". As an example, the virtuoistic composition of Widor and his famous toccata from the 5th symphony is played at lightning speed with techniques that make it basically ridiculous. If one were to listen to Widor himself playing his own composition ( available from an early 1930's recording) you would get an idea of how it SHOULD be played. So basically when it comes to Cameron Carpenter I am not impressed.
Regrettably I cannot see any positive future for the concert-room organ. True, they will always exist but never in the number they used to be. The church will have to remain as the place to go to listen to organ performances.
horatio64 (2017-09-26) Log in to Reply
Although I can relate to the feeling of 'organ on the decline', I do not think there should be a 'battle' between old and new, or organ and other instruments.

I recall having a chat with a village organist. She complained that no-one cared hearing her play Bach's fuga's. When I asked here how many classical music lovers she knew to be among her audience, she guessed only a few. The problem was not an unwilling audience, but a complete mismatch between the need of the audience and her offering.

It is a reality that most music sources are either 'modern' or cultural traditional. 'Classisal music' as a whole is on the decline. So instead of fighting that, or 'educating the illiterate' as some organist seem to think, we should embrace the change.

There is definitely a place for modern organ, even in the most traditional churches. In the Netherlands, we have organist/composers who can transform a musical piece, written with combo's in mind, to a fresh and beautiful sounding organ solo piece. Music that relates to 'modern' styles, but is pure organ nonetheless. Dick Sanderman comes to mind, but there are others as well. The result is a happy audience, which could not believe 'the organ could do that'.

Of course there will always be the subject of taste, and some simply prefer other instruments above the organ, but hey, let there be room for that. Sentiment is sometimes good, but innovation is IMHO most of the time the better option.
gooseholla (2017-09-18) Log in to Reply
I think another thing that is killing it, and I can only speak for us in the UK, is the fact that most people's experience of an organ in the UK is a very limited, out of tune, wheeze bag played poorly by a little old granny or granddad.
wolfram_syre (2017-09-22) Log in to Reply
If you want to promote organ music don't trust any longer in the big churches. They will find every day a level under the their level from the day before. And most of the congregations are not interested to pay a convenient fee for serious music. Expensive music has to have its worth, cheep music has no worth.
The big churches traite their own spiritual, intellectual and cultural heritage for to get more, it means other people in the services. The result: We (the people who are coming) leave the services for to return never, and the other people will not come. The socalled "new hymns" (I speak here for Germany) are trash. Lyrics which can sing an Atheist without any problems. Melodies on the level from about 1840 but bad and without any interesting melodic, harmonic or rhythmic patterns.
A church with contemporary features is not modern, it is with a German word "reaktionär". It repeats only the present situation without any visions for the "aeternitas vera". Only one example of German history. The Protestant church consecrated in time before the first world war wapons: very contemporary. The Catholic church fightet at the same time for social reforms: visional. And so on ....
Mirabilis (2017-08-23) Log in to Reply
I agree with adri, Cameron Carpenter is "an" organ performer these days, but I have to say, I do not care for what he is presenting as organ music. I will give him this: he is playing something that we called an organ in years past.

Wolfram, an excellent article. I agree with your sentiments. I suspect that many of us do. One of the major elements that is killing the organ, be it digital, pipe, or a combination, is the change in worship style from what we call "traditional" (hymns & such) to contemporary, which embraces a whole plethora of instruments. There is one other style called "blended", which merges the two. I cannot bring myself to embrace the contemporary style, but I can tolerate the blended style. Contemporary pretty much rules out the organ, unless it is a digital instrument which can emulate other instruments. The blended style seems to be very prevalent in the region I live in, namely the southern US. With this style you will find at least some songs that accent the organ and others that accent other instruments.

As for the neglect of British and US composers, I agree wholeheartedly. The churches are going for what brings the worshipers in. Without that push for organs, they are not a 100% necessity these days. This means that no type of organ music is even used in many churches. I went to a Singing Christmas Tree performance last December. The organ sat idle, not being used for any of the performance. And, it was not a minimal instrument. It was/is a large four manual, 90+ stop, instrument. Even though the program was very good, I felt robbed as the organ was not used anywhere.

The mainline denominations do continue to use the organ in worship. The Pentecostal churches use more of the contemporary style, which does not require an organ.

That said, without an instrument to play the music of the composers of the music of this discussion, that music won't be played. To me, it is a very frustrating development. I am not saying this is what caused the neglect of this music. But, I feel it has to be a huge contributor to the issue.

Not that many years back, my church had musicians who could switch from piano to organ. I was doing a lot of technical support of the services at that point. Every Sunday, we had a piano/organ duet for the offertory. I mean these were heavily practiced works. After the offertory, I could leave, especially on those Sundays that the organ took the lead. I had worshiped! In other words, “the music is what brings me to a point of worship.” These musicians were heavily studied musicians. They brought all the composers to the table. It was wonderful. I must admit, I long for those times.

Erzahler (2017-08-20) Log in to Reply
Our national FM network 'Classic FM' seems to actively avoid playing any organ music these days. They may play THE toccata and BWV 565 but that is about it.
adri (2017-07-25) Log in to Reply
Don't forget Virgil Fox in the U.S. in the 20th century, who played a lot of arrangements, and today we have Cameron Carpenter, who is popularizing organ music (whether one likes his style or not!).

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