Reed stops became something of a sensation on Spanish organs of the eighteenth century. New organs of the period often featured a colorful battery of reed registers, and nearly every old Iberian organ already in existence was brought up to date with the addition of reed timbre. The most potent component of this veritable arsenal was the extraordinarily brash Trompetas reales, or Clarines, as they were sometimes called. A Batalla is a type of novelty piece, popular with Juan Jose Cabanilles and his contemporaries, which evokes the rallying call of the bugler and a scene of battle. The performance tradition associated with these compositions dictates that the organist should deploy the loudest reed available. This recording features the organ’s brilliant Trompeta register, itself modeled on a historic Iberian example.
John Bennet’s Voluntary in D Major is one from a collection of ten which Bennett had published around 1757-1758. That composers of no less stature than Handel, Boyce, and Stanley are known to have purchased the collection indicates that this now nearly-forgotten composer was at one time held in some considerable regard. Following the requisite grave and sostenuto opening section which was to be played on the organ’s Diapasons, there follows the usual lively allegro featuring a solo stop (or composite of stops) in a more stylishly modern texture. Some among Bennett’s contemporaries, such as one John Marsh, thought it best to reserve this type of voluntary music for worship’s conclusion, at which time “the Performer . . . may be allowed a little more scope for his Fancy and Finger, than during divine service.”
J. S. Bach seems to have arranged the Concerto in d Minor, by Vivaldi, as well as a number of other instrumental concertos, at the suggestion of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, at whose court Bach served as organist and director of instrumental music from 1708 to 1717. It is difficult to know what Bach’s intentions may have been for these transcriptions: to what degree they were the dutiful fulfillment of a commission, the practical enlargement of his organist’s repertoire, or even an exercise in arranging and composition. In any case, Bach did not seek to have these arrangements published. Therefore, one might speculate, their real worth was determined by their utility to a specific time and place—the music-making at the court of the Duke of Weimar. It is interesting to observe how Bach reconciled Vivaldi’s music to the layout and disposition of a typical German Baroque organ. At times Bach uses the highly differentiated manual divisions to suggest the opposing concertino and ripieno instrumental groups of the Italian concerto. At other times the hands are directed to play on different manuals, with the aim of bringing clarity to the individual voices of the texture.
If the number of titles of organ music published in Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is an accurate indication, the appetite for printed music among Italian organists of the time might well be described as voracious. Among contributions to this enterprise, that of composer Girolamo Frescobaldi was the most prodigious, with eight editions of organ music collections published during his lifetime and one further, published posthumously. Frequently these publications included prescriptions for the proper performance and appropriate registration of the pieces contained therein. Frescobaldi was a remarkably trusting and practical composer with regard to the performance of his organ works, allowing that there might be many ways to play his compositions according to each performer’s judgment and good taste. He even suggested that one might end a piece at any reasonable cadence point before its printed conclusion, if the music had served and completed its function in the context of a religious rite. This Elevation Toccata (alla levatione) is rendered in the manner prescribed by Frescobaldi and his contemporaries: on a combination of two stops, one of which is very slightly and purposely “out of tune,” producing a lyrical and piquant effect.
The organ recorded here reflects an aesthetic which bears certain remarkable similarities to some of the most prized elements of German organ building of the seventeenth century. These elements flourished simultaneously with and in support of the sort of composition (and improvisation) of which this Praeludium by Nicolaus Bruhns is a representative example. The large pedal division, complete with its own chorus of reed registers and two separate mixtures, is heard as a powerful solo voice already in the first few measures and reasserts itself in the fantastical and free style of music at the piece’s conclusion. This approach to the disposition of a large organ also places a premium on an abundance of reed color and the placement of particular reed timbre in specific manual divisions. Note here the jolly aspect of the first fugal section, rendered on a characteristically buzzy reed. The specific composition of the high-pitched mixture ranks, as well as their volume relative to the ensemble which they crown, lends clarity to Bruhns’s sometimes thick contrapuntal textures, even when they are realized at impressively loud dynamic levels.
The six chorale settings of Bach’s Schübler Chorale collection have broad appeal, favored as they are among organists, audiences, and those fortunate enough to experience them in the context of worship. Because of their origins as vocalinstrumental compositions (at least, this is known for certain about numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6), the Schübler chorales present the performer with a dilemma: To what extent has the composition become organ music or to what degree should the performance attempt to recreate the sound of bowed and wind instruments and voice (with words, no less)? As this issue is worked out in the organist’s mind, it will influence how the instrument is registered, what articulation, phrasing, and tempo will be used, and even which hands (or feet) will take which parts on which keyboard. The enduring popularity of this music is a testament to Bach’s skill at fashioning a counterpoint that in its winsome, melodic quality rivals and even surpasses the chorale tune from which the composition springs.
I cannot hear this E-flat Major Prelude of Bach’s without seeing sparks flying and molten steel being poured from a massive cauldron. This vision replays an impressive industrial scene from one episode of Alistair Cooke’s well-known “America” documentary, which was shown one day in my high school American History class. As the orange-lava steel is being poured, Cooke quotes Andrew Carnegie: “Farewell then, age of iron. All hail King Steel.” The fanfare hailing the new king and accompanying the fiery spectacle is Bach’s famous organ prelude. Perhaps it is the fact that Carnegie is known to have given over 7,000 church organs as part of his famous philanthropy that motivated the show’s producers to choose organ music as the soundtrack for that particular sequence. Maybe something about the French overture style which Bach evoked struck them as regal. Perhaps even they found a parallel between Carnegie’s bold, new venture and Bach’s unprecedented melding of French overture style and Italian ritornello process. In any case, the visual and musical elements are, in my mind, permanently alloyed.
– AARON BURMEISTER