The music on this disc is all closely associated with The Wanamaker Organ, arguably the greatest symphonic organ ever built. John and Rodman Wanamaker left us, as their legacy, the very pinnacle of symphonic organ design; over the past century, many of the world’s leading organists have made pilgrimages to perform on this great instrument. Several have composed works especially for the Wanamaker organ, inspired by its truly unique and wonderfully rich, warm character, and by the splendor of its unparalleled palette of orchestral color.
The famous blind musician Louis Vierne was organist of Notre Dame Cathedral for thirty-seven years, beginning in 1912. He was a pupil of César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, and later taught Marcel Dupré. Vierne's Pièces de Fantaisie, written between 1917 and 1931, are grouped into four sets; Vierne dedicated each composition to a friend or colleague. Dédicase is inscribed to Rodman Wanamaker, John Wanamaker’s son, who was responsible for continuing and completing his father’s dream of creating the finest symphonic organ in the world. The fiery Toccata is inscribed to Dr. Alexander Russell, then-professor of organ at Princeton University, and long-time music director of the Wanamaker Stores. Felix Alexandre Guilmant is considered by many to be the father of modern French organ music. At age twenty-five, he succeeded his father as organist of Saint Joseph’s Church in Boulonge. He was later appointed organist at La Trinité, a position he held for thirty-seven years. He was a noted concert organist, and won particular renown for his extempore playing in recitals in Europe and America. On his third and final tour of the United States, he appeared at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where he performed forty concerts on the Exposition Organ. (That organ was later installed in the Wanamaker Grand Court in Philadelphia.) He composed eight sonatas for the organ, and numerous other works. Guilmant performed his March Religieuse— based on the chorus “Lift up ye heads, O ye gates,” from Handel’s Messiah—in his second program at the Exposition. Several newly restored chorus reeds from the Solo, Swell, and Ethereal divisions are showcased in this performance.
Virgil Fox’s arrangement of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (“Come, Sweet Death”) is arguably the piece most closely associated with the Wanamaker Organ. Fox was asked to perform for the 1939 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists in Philadelphia, and was encouraged to play a Bach chorale on his program. Fox knew that the massive resources of the Wanamaker organ could not be fully exploited with a simple Bach chorale. He also knew that Leopold Stokowski, an organist himself, had transcribed the choraleinto an arrangement for full symphony orchestra, with richer sonorities, additions of inner string voices and soaring flute melodies. Fox was inspired to transcribe Stokowski’s arrangement for performance at the convention, bringing the work full circle, back to an organ solo.
Fox worked on the arrangement for eight Tuesday nights in a row, commuting from Baltimore to Philadelphia, in preparation for the concert before 13,000 of his peers. That performance established Fox’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest organists, and Komm, süsser Tod became one of his “signature” tunes. There can be no doubt that Fox’s arrangement perfectly captures the very soul of the Wanamaker sound, and exploits the instrument’s best effects. On this new recording of Fox’s masterpiece, the seamless decrescendo in the final three measures—from four hundred soaring ranks down to one Dulciana stop—was attained with over forty piston pushes, combined with careful maneuvering of the ten expression shoes, all within reach of the performer’s hands or feet. The crescendo pedal was not used in this performance.
Marcel Dupré studied with Louis Vierne, Alexandre Guilmant, and Charles-Marie Widor at the Paris Conservatory. He was Widor’s assistant at Saint Sulpice, and later became organist there. He traveled frequently to the United States, and performed several times on the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, of which, in 1948, Dupré said: “It is still the greatest; it has everything and lacks nothing to be desired." At Rodman Wanamaker’s request, Dupré served on the Wanamaker staff with Charles Courboin during the second enlargement of the instrument in the 1920s. Cortège et Litanie dates from 1921, and was originally composed for a twelve-piece chamber ensemble; later, Dupré arranged it as a piano solo, next, orchestrated it for full symphony orchestra, and in 1923, at the request of Wanamaker music director Alexander Russell, arranged it as an organ solo. For this performance, I have revisited Dupré’s orchestral score, and transcribed this version directly from the full score. Those of you familiar with this endearing work will notice a few more solo “orchestral” voices, contrapuntal lines, and richer sonorities than in the standard organ solo version.
In 1921, Dupré made his first concert tour to the United States. On December 8, he performed at the Wanamaker Grand Court in Philadelphia. He was offered several liturgical themes on which to improvise at that concert: Jesu redemptor omnium, Adeste fidelis, Stabat Mater dolorosa, and Adoro te devote. Dupré recalls in his memoirs: “I suddenly had an inspiration for a symphony in four movements that was to become my Symphonie-Passion and which I started to compose upon my return to France. When my plan was announced by the distinguished Dr. Alexander Russell, I received a standing ovation, and I played in a state of exaltation that I have rarely experienced.” Completed three years later, the work was given its first performance in London at the inauguration of the Westminster Cathedral Organ.
The performance here, recorded live during the 2002 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists in Philadelphia, marks the first complete performance of the work in the Wanamaker Grand Court since Dupré improvised it there. The symphony is in four movements, and begins with a dark, agitated theme, set in restless five- and seven-beat meter, depicting the world in turmoil as it awaits the Messiah. In “Le monde dans l’attente du Sauveur,” the plainsong melody, Jesu, redemptor omnium (“Jesus, redeemer of the world”), appears as a quiet second subject, and ultimately triumphs over the returning, unsettling opening theme. The second movement, “Nativité” (“Nativity”), follows the biblical narrative, first with Mary singing the infant to sleep with a lullaby, followed by the distant procession of shepherds and wise men. Mary’s cradlesong is then joined by the cantus firmus Adeste fidelis, “Come, ye faithful.” Finally, the angels’ “Hallelujahs” echo into the peaceful night. “Crucifixion,” like the Nativity movement, is in triptych form, and depicts the unending ascent to Calvary, with jagged harmonies and a stumbling, heavy ostinato; the Crucifixion, climaxing in three loud cries, and seven cluster-chords; and the descent from the cross, illustrated by the haunting plainsong tune Stabat Mater dolorosa. The final movement, “Résurrection,” is a vast crescendo based entirely on the Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote (“Humbly I adore Thee”). A free counterpoint rides over the cantus, which is first heard in the pedals, then in canon, and finally in a brilliant toccata, incorporating ever-ascending key changes, and climaxing in fiery, cascading chords so typical of Dupré’s compositional style. Symphonie-Passion is one of Dupré’s greatest achievements, and marks one of the first great works of ecclesiastical, symphonic program music for the organ.
- Peter Richard Conte