Friday, January 10, 2020

The Lighter Side of the Organ

This month's PianonoiseRadio program features pieces that are tuneful, fun, and light for an instrument that many of us think only plays for solemn occasions. Although the repertoire does tend in a theater organ direction, there are no actual pieces for theater organ, nor did I record anything on one. The accompanying, picture, however, shows me sitting at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the restored vaudeville theater in Champaign, Illinois, for a New Year's Eve concert with The Chorale, trying not to look down, or to knock the elevator switch off of the bench (it was not attached!). I know, it doesn't look like I'm up very high in the picture, but the pit is about 10 feet below the stage, so there is some height involved if you look straight down from the bench.

The first piece on the program is something I discovered last month on an organist's online group. The Postlude for Festival Occasions was written by Emma Louise Ashford, presumably to be played at the conclusion of a church service, and quite likely on a harmonium, or pump organ. I recorded it at my church on a large Allen using the Skinner sample set. Everything sounds more theatrical when you employ the tremolo.

Louis James Alfred Lefebre-Wely seems to have had the same attitude toward church music as Ms. Ashford, because the Sortie that follows (French for "exit" meaning a postlude for church) is just as light and fun as the previous selection. Lefebre-Wely was frequently badgered by colleagues who didn't think he was taking his vocation seriously enough.

In case we need a pause after all that festivity, the next piece is slow and peaceful. Charles Marie Alkan was a child prodigy who spent most of his later life in self-imposed isolation. His 13 prayers were probably written for the harmonium (ie, the pump organ) but I again played it on a full-blooded church organ. This second of the set was sufficiently melodious to make the cut. And again I made use of the tremolo.

Edwin Lamare was a virtuouso English organist who spent a couple of years in Pittsburgh as the civic organist (back when they had those); the organ he presided over is currently in disrepair and unplayable. I recorded his pastorale a couple of years ago. It is also a pleasant little piece, not too difficult, except for the part where he insists on making one hand play on two manuals at once (thumbing down).

We are back at church, which I admit is a strange place to spend half a program dedicated to just having a little fun and relaxation, but some organists have approached their task with more solemnity than others. Domeinco Zipoli wrote this ditty for the place in the service when the priest is cleaning up after the eucharist.

A few years ago I played a house concert (it had a large ground floor; about 50 people managed to get in) and I included a piece by Jean Phillip Rameau to begin. While I had a volume of his pieces with me, I recorded a few others, including this little gem, which was intended for harpsichord, but I thought it would sound nice on the organ. I was right.

The first thing I remember about the Mozart Rondo all Turca, which I recorded as part of a set of sonatas on the organ because our piano was out of tune at the time, is how exhausted I was the afternoon I recorded it. If I hadn't told you you wouldn't have known; such is the magic of recording. I am rested and feeling much better a year later!

The year I had cancer I remember hearing this Lemmens Pastorale on an internet radio station devoted to the organ 24/7. It sounded like a nice little piece I should play once I was feeling better. And indeed, it is now associated in my mind with my first Christmas in Pittsburgh. The part in the middle with the weird sounds may have caused the comment from a parishioner at a church where I subbed one Sunday that "the organ doesn't normally sound like that." No, I'm sure it doesn't, but when the composer asks for something unusual, you can either lock him up, or---give it to him!

We'll conclude with Lefebure-Wely's other most famous piece (depending on who you read it is the most famous or it is the other one). This one was recorded in 2014 in Illinois at an organ rededication concert and is from the period of my first discovery of this interesting man and his music. I've since played it at Heinz Chapel here in Pittsburgh (but did not record it), and this year finally got around to the other postlude/Sortie, the one in Bb which you heard earlier, eminating from the lovely Austin at Westminster Presbyterian whence I concertized this past summer.

For those of you who enjoy reading the manual, thanks for lending me your eyeballs. Now you can join the rest of your fellow listeners and enjoy the music!

and of course, there is a whole lot more this week at

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