The Great Organ of Washington National Cathedral
Scott Dettra presents a program of large-organ favorites on this, the final recording of the Washington National Cathedral's Great Organ.
Music is an integral part of daily life in most cathedrals, and Washington National Cathedral is no exception. In its primary role as a liturgical instrument, the Great Organ accompanies more than 350 worship services annually and is heard in recital and concert throughout the year as part of the cathedral’s broader musical offerings. This recording presents a cross-section of the organ music one might hear in liturgy and concert at Washington National Cathedral, including pieces that have become particular traditions here, pieces that represent the best of “cathedral music."
Fanfare for the Common Man — Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Prelude & Fugue in B major, Op. 7, No. 1 — Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
Prière, Op. 20 — César Franck (1822-1890)
Passacaglia, Op. 40 — Seth Bingham (1882-1972)
Rhapsody in C-sharp minor, Op. 17, No. 3 — Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 — Samuel Barber (1910-1981), arr. William Strickland (1914-1991)
Crown Imperial — William Walton (1902-1983)
Introduction, Passacaglia & Fugue, Op. 149 — Healey Willan (1880-1968)
Total time: 77:03
The Majestus (also, Majestas) is the figure of Christ in Majesty, located at the center of the reredos of the high altar at Washington National Cathedral. The Majestus oversees the organ and choir stalls in the chancel, with Christ’s right hand raised in blessing…
Fanfare for the Common Man—Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was one of
several fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to open its
concerts during the 1942–43 season. The
United States had recently entered World War II, and conductor Eugene Goossens
hoped these pieces would foster patriotic spirit. Typical of Copland’s music, the piece uses
open intervals and broad melodies to capture a uniquely American spirit that is
at once rugged, optimistic, and heroic.
Fanfare for the Common Man is often performed at the National Cathedral,
most notably as the opening piece of the annual Independence Day organ
recital. It provides an excellent
opportunity to feature the two crowning stops on the Great Organ – the
Trompette-en-Chamade and Tuba Mirabilis.
Prelude & Fugue in B major, Op. 7, No. 1—Marcel Dupré (1886–1971)
Marcel Dupré’s Trois préludes et fugues, composed in 1912,
are among his most popular compositions for the organ. The first, in B major, is the most exuberant
of the three, opening with a brilliant, toccata-like prelude. The busy fugue theme emerges naturally from the
prelude and dances its way to a thrilling finish. This piece has been used as the closing
voluntary for a number of major services at the cathedral in recent years,
including the Inaugural Prayer Service for President Barack Obama in 2009.
Prière, Op. 20—César
Although he composed only twelve major works for the organ,
César Franck is widely considered to be among the finest composers of music for
the instrument. Greatly influenced by
the innovative work of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll—the master organ builder of
19th-century France—Franck’s music laid the foundation for the great French
organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, and Marcel Dupré. Completed in 1863, the Prière is an extremely
profound and devout work, with two lyrical themes accompanied by rich,
five-part counterpoint. It is played
almost entirely on warm 8’ foundation stops, which are bathed in the
cathedral’s generous five-second reverberation.
Passacaglia, Op. 40—Seth Bingham (1882–1972)
Seth Bingham had a distinguished career as a church
musician, composer, and teacher in New York City, serving as organist of
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and on the faculties of Columbia University
and Union Theological Seminary. Although
he was a prolific composer, most of his music is rarely performed today. One of the little-known gems of his output,
the Passacaglia is based on a haunting eight-measure theme which lends itself
to a vast amount of harmonic variation.
The twenty-eight variations explore the full tonal palette and dynamic
range of the Great Organ.
Rhapsody in C-sharp minor, Op. 17, No. 3—Herbert Howells (1892–1983)
Herbert Howells is the quintessential composer of
20th-century English cathedral music.
His choral and organ music is inextricably linked to the magnificent
architecture and acoustics of the great English cathedrals and college
chapels. The last in a set of Three
Rhapsodies published in 1918, this piece was composed during a single, sleepless
night during World War I. Howells was
visiting Edward Bairstow (organist of York Minster) and was kept awake by the
noise of Zeppelin raids. The anxiety of
that experience can be heard in the piece’s highly chromatic opening section. A serene middle section builds to an intense
climax and the piece closes with a long and dramatic crescendo to a final
C-sharp major chord.
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11—Samuel Barber (1910–1981, )arr. William Strickland (1914–1991)
Easily his most famous composition, Samuel Barber’s Adagio
for Strings began life in 1936 as the middle movement of a string quartet. Arturo Toscanini performed the work with the
NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938, and it has been hugely popular ever since. The Great Organ’s twenty-five ranks of
celestes are a hallmark of its sound and are featured prominently in this
Crown Imperial—William Walton (1902–1983, arr. Herbert Murrill (1909–1952)
William Walton was a versatile composer, equally at home
writing music for the church, stage, concert hall, film, and ceremonial
occasions. Composed for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, Crown
Imperial is a grand march reminiscent of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance
marches. The Great Organ’s two
high-pressure reeds are once again featured in this piece, including a
magnificent coda played mostly on the Trompette-en-Chamade.
Introduction, Passacaglia, & Fugue, Op. 149—Healey Willan (1880–1968)
Although born in England, Healey Willan spent most of his
career in Canada and is considered to be among that country’s finest
composers. From 1921 until his death, e
was organist of The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, during which time he
wrote hundreds of organ and choral works for church use. Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue,
composed in 1916, is his magnum opus for the organ. The dark and weighty Introduction gives way
to a colorful Passacaglia whose eighteen variations show off many of the
orchestral colors of the organ. The
Fugue starts quietly but builds to an intense climax before a grand coda puts
appropriate punctuation on the end of this masterwork. Few pieces in the repertoire showcase the
full capabilities of the Great Organ better than this one
Recording the Great Organ of Washington National Cathedral
presents immense challenges to a recording engineer. The organ occupies a
significant amount of physical space and it has a tremendous dynamic range.
Viewed from the crossing of the Cathedral, the organ divisions are situated one
behind the other, in the direction of the altar, on either side of the chancel.
The sound in the Nave however, is reasonably present and blended—even from the
divisions that are farthest away. We experimented with several microphone
setups, including microphones in the crossing (capturing the blended sound in
the room) combined with mics in the chancel (for closer, more equidistant
placement for the divisions). In the end, we decided on just two microphones in
the chancel, placed slightly below the impost level. This configuration
captured the blended symphonic character of the organ as heard in the Nave, but
with just enough un-muddled detail and clarity.
This was the best overall placement—not just for the organ—but for the
music being performed.
Because this may be the last recording of the instrument,
every effort was made to create the best possible document of its current
sound. We used our proprietary 24-bit technology, which has no transformers in
the signal path—allowing the true fundamental of the deepest bass notes to be
recorded without upper-bass ‘boom’. The dynamic range of the instrument is also
preserved in this recording, which may present some challenges to inferior
playback systems. On a high-resolution playback system however, the listener
will experience the full spectrum of this organ’s symphonic color and dynamic
Roger W. Sherman