Durham Cathedral Choir Association

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The Grand Organ of Durham Cathedral    (DVD, BluRay & CD)



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PÆAN (FIVE SHORT PIECES)                              Percy Whitlock 1903-1946

The last of the Five Short Pieces of 1929, the Pæan perhaps encapsulates Whitlock’s dual roles of Organist of St Stephen’s, Bournemouth (a fine church by J L Pearson, with a magnificent organ by William Hill), and Borough Organist of Bournemouth, in which capacity he played regularly at the Pavilion Theatre. Flourishes on the Tuba in the soprano (and occasionally the tenor) are accompanied by Swell and Great foundations which eventually grow to encompass the full organ. A gifted composer in the early 20th-century English tradition, Whitlock was clearly also a gifted organist; his death from consumption at the age of 42 was a tragic loss to English music.

FANTASIA AND FUGUE IN G MINOR, BWV 542            J. S. Bach 1685-1750

Deservedly one of Bach’s best-known organ works, this Fantasia and Fugue contrasts Bach the free improviser with Bach the contrapuntist. The Fantasia alternates passionate, rhapsodic sections in stilus fantasticus with calmer, polyphonic four-part writing. Particularly striking are the silences; and indeed the modulations, especially in the central section, where the advantage which Bach takes of the ambiguous properties of the diminished-seventh chord results in key-changes that are startling today and must have been astonishing in his lifetime. The Fugue (whose subject may or may not be original to Bach) is likely to have been written earlier in his life; it illustrates to the the full Bach’s control of structure in a fugue of very considerable length (and excitement).

ANDANTE LARGO (VOLUNTARY IN D, OPUS 6 NO 5) (“TRUMPET VOLUNTARY”)                                                                            John Stanley 1713-1786

This movement has its genesis as the second movement of one of John Stanley’s thirty Voluntaries; it is written in the fashion typical of its time as a (normally) single line of notes on the Trumpet stop (with Echos) above single-note left hand accompaniment. As such it has a charm of its own; but, dare one say, it lends itself also on occasion to larger treatment, as here, where we hear the Tuba (echoed by the Orchestral Tuba) over an improvised, fully-harmonised accompaniment which includes pedal.

THREE PIECES FOR MUSICAL CLOCKS (NO 4, 13 AND 25)                                                                                                     Franz Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

Dating from 1792, 1772 and 1793 respectively, the miniatures [Flötenuhrstücke] were composed for musical automata - mechanisms driven by clockwork and comprising a set of bellows, a revolving cylinder with pins, and a rank of pipes. Different automata played in different keys; so for instance the pieces written for the 1792 instrument show it to have two octaves of pipes, able to play only in C major and G major (a total of 17 pipes including the two F#s). Authentically these pieces would be heard on a single flute stop; I have however gilded the lily, and in particular have tried in No 25 to convey the rather charming, stylised atmosphere of a march for doll’s-house marionettes.

SONATA NO 7 IN F MINOR, OPUS 127                                                                                                                                          Josef Rheinberger 1839-1901

Preludio (Allegro non troppo); Andante; Finale (Grave - Vivo - Fuga (Moderato))

A prolific composer who has tended to be remembered only for his organ compositions (though his choral works are now at last gaining acclaim), Rheinberger worked in Munich, where he was organist of the Michaeliskirche. It is fair to say that the twenty organ sonatas vary in quality, with an occasional tendency towards solidity; many individual movements stand out,  but in this F minor sonata there is a fluency and cohesion that marks out the whole work as particularly successful. The sonata-form first movement and fugal finale enclose a slow movement in D flat major, its poco animato central section moving to B flat minor. Rheinberger dedicated the work to a Munich colleague, Carl Greith, choirmaster of the nearby Frauenkirche.

PRELUDES ON OLD IRISH CHURCH MELODIES, OPUS 101 NOS 6 AND  5                                                                      Charles Villiers Stanford 1852-1924

Another prolific composer who is now largely known for his church music, the Irishman Stanford was a seminal figure in the English musical world of his time. The tune St Columba is familiar to us as being sung to The God of love my shepherd is; the less familiar name Gartan belongs to a tune from Petrie’s Collection of Irish music - a tune now sung to the central section of St Patrick’s Breastplate (Christ be with me). Both pieces display a confident fluency in writing for the organ, and both find their natural home in the soundworld of this organ and the spiritual environment of the building in which it is placed.

PIÈCE HÉROÏQUE                                                                                                                                                                                      César Franck 1822-1890

Franck composed this work for the opening of the Trocadéro in Paris in 1878, where he performed it on the large Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Salle des Fêtes. Its opening in B minor, with its repeated right-hand chords and its brooding left-hand melody, contrasts with the radiant B major section - whose theme, first heard quietly, will eventually predominate, bringing the piece to a triumphant conclusion. We see in this piece Franck’s skill in a symphonic style of writing which will find its final flowering in the Trois Chorals of 1890.

INTERMEZZO (SYMPHONY NO 3 IN F SHARP MINOR, OPUS 28)                                                                                                          Louis Vierne 1870-1937

This third movement of a five-movement symphony serves as the Scherzo; its A-B-A-B-A structure in no way strait-jackets Vierne, who is free to indulge in flights of fancy and in the delightfully ambiguous progressions that are a trade-mark of his style. The writing, while not so harmonically impenetrable as in the later symphonies, is nevertheless largely chromatic; for instance , it is noteworthy that the first of the two ‘B’ sections is recapitulated not at the fourth or fifth, but at the interval of one semitone. The imaginative registration scheme, much coloured by the Nazard, enhances the playful and slightly phantom-like character of the piece.

PLACARE CHRISTE SERVULIS (LE TOMBEAU DE TITELOUZE), OPUS 38 NO 16                                                                               Marcel Dupré 1886-1971

This is the final piece in a collection of sixteen short preludes on plainsong themes written (in ascending order of difficulty) for beginners at the organ. In its title and in its conception Dupré pays homage to the 16th/17th-century composer Jean Titelouze, who is regarded as the founder of the French organ school and whose plainsong versets inspired this collection. There is perhaps no finer short French organ toccata than Placare Christe servulis, a setting of a hymn for All Saints’ Day, with its effervescent manual figuration above a striding pedal, and its culmination in a dazzling upward manual sweep followed by four sensational chords.

DEUX DANSES A AGNI YAVISHTA/LITANIES                                                                                                                                            Jehan Alain 1911-1940

One of the most creative and inventive composers of early 20th-century French music, Alain’s career was cruelly cut short by his death in action in 1940. His organ compositions, their importance out of all proportion to their slender size, explore many different styles and traditions. The Orient in particular fascinated him - hence these two dances to the Hindu god Agni, the lively one, the God of Fire. They depict him in different moods; the first lively (one imagines leaping flames), the second sleepy (reminiscent of the dying embers of a fire). During this work we see on screen another part of the Orient, with excerpts from the Chinese collection held in the Oriental Museum of Durham University.

Litanies is almost too well-known to need any introduction: it depicts a soul in fervent prayer, its petitions battering inexorably on the doors of heaven, the relentless rhythm reminiscent of the wheels of a train (according to Alain’s suggestion). If at the end you do not feel wrung out, it means you have neither understood it nor played it as I want it played, he wrote.

MARIALES Incantaion; Pastorale; Antienne; Hymne; Danse                                                                                                                    Naji Hakim b. 1955

Naji Hakim, born in Beirut, has been organist of the Sacré-Coeur and of Sainte-Trinité in Paris; he studied under Jean Langlais, to whose memory this suite of five short pieces is dedicated. Each is built on a Marian plainsong theme; Incantation on Mater admirabilis, and the successive movements respectively on Regina coeli, Salve Regina, Virgo Dei genitrix, and Ave maris stella. Especially appealing is the gentle, languid third movement, the Antienne.

CARILLON-SORTIE                                                                                                                                                                                     Henri Mulet 1878-1967

The programme concludes with an extrovert toccata inspired by the ringing of bells - Mulet’s best-known work. Sadly, the life story behind it does not reflect the joy expressed in the music; Mulet was out of tune with the musical mores of his time and in particular with the current trends in organ building. He burnt his manuscripts before leaving Paris for Provence, spent his final years as a recluse, and died in penury. Posterity has been kind to him, though, and his organ pieces are rightly held in high regard.

© James Lancelot 2014

Percy Whitlock

Pæan (Five Short Pieces)

Johann Sebastian Bach

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542

John Stanley

Andante Largo (Voluntary in D, Opus 6 No 5) (“Trumpet Voluntary”)

Franz Joseph Haydn

Three Pieces for Musical Clocks (Nos 4, 13 and 25)

Josef Rheinberger

Sonata No 7 in F minor, Opus 127

Charles Villiers Stanford

Prelude, Opus 101 No 6, Founded on an Old Irish Church Melody (St Columba)

Charles Villiers Stanford

Prelude, Opus 101 No 5, Founded on an Old Irish Church Melody (Gartan)

César Franck

Pièce Héroïque

Louis Verne

Intermezzo (Symphony No 3 in F sharp minor, Opus 28)

Marcel Dupré

Placare Christe Servulis (Le Tombeau de Titelouze), Opus 38 No 16

Jehan Alain

Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta

Jehan Alain


Naji Hakim


Henri Mulet