Christ­mas, from swell to great

A whole world of Christ­mas or­gan mu­sic is out there just wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered, says Paul Ri­ley

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Paul Ri­ley in­tro­duces 12 es­sen­tial fes­tive or­gan works

T here’s no deny­ing that choral mu­sic steals the lime­light at Christ­mas, or­gan mu­sic al­lot­ted a few pal­try min­utes at the end of the ser­vice. By then, most of the congregation has headed for the exit and a warm­ing glass of mulled wine, the or­gan­ist’s fi­nal bars ac­com­pa­nied by the clunk of a west-end door. We’re all miss­ing out. The or­gan reper­toire is, in fact, a cor­nu­copia (or should that be cornopean?) of thrilling fes­tive works that de­serve wider cur­rency.

It is time, then, to shine a light on the very best Christ­mas or­gan mu­sic – pieces that will hope­fully in­spire both or­gan­ists and con­gre­ga­tions. From JS Bach’s in­ge­nious, ear­grab­bing chorale pre­ludes to Mes­si­aen’s vast nine-move­ment La Na­tiv­ité du Seigneur, there are cen­turies of Christ­mas or­gan mas­ter­pieces to explore and en­joy. ★ere are 12 of the best.

Bux­te­hude Chorale Fan­ta­sia on ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Mor­gen­stern’ (c 1690)

When the 20-year-old JS Bach se­cured a leave of ab­sence to hear the doyen of the North Ger­man or­gan school on his home patch, it was not an un­der­tak­ing for the faint-hearted. The round trip to make Bux­te­hude’s ac­quain­tance in Lübeck en­tailed a blis­ter-in­duc­ing foot slog of 500 miles. ★ardly sur­pris­ingly, Bach ex­tended his stay and was able to savour the Ad­vent and Christ­mas mu­sic in the Marienkirche, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Abend­musik con­certs ar­ranged by Bux­te­hude. Given the sea­son he might also have heard the aged or­gan­ist play his ex­tended Fan­ta­sia on the Epiphany hymn ‘★ow brightly shines the morn­ing star’, a multi-sec­tional work in­clud­ing a me­teor shower of swirling fig­u­ra­tion and a joy­ous jig fugue.

JS Bach Canonic Vari­a­tions on ‘Vom Him­mel hoch da komm’ ich her’ (1747) Bach and Christ­mas prob­a­bly start with the clar­ion call of Wa­chet auf, a can­tata move­ment en­shrined in the em­brace of a fa­mous chorale ar­range­ment, pub­lished by Schübler. And

for the big day it­self, the chorale pre­ludes on In dulci ju­bilo ei­ther roar (BWV 729) or play­fully scin­til­late (BWV 608). But for an ex­tended ex­am­ple of Bach bring­ing all his con­tra­pun­tal fire­power to bear within a work that never fails to twin­kle, the 1747 Vari­a­tions on Luther’s Christ­mas hymn ‘From ★eaven above to earth I come’ is a show-stop­ping tour de force. Demon­strat­ing com­po­si­tional prow­ess to the max, it nonethe­less fan­ci­fully struck 19th-cen­tury bi­og­ra­pher Philipp Spitta as

‘like the gaze of an old man who watches his grand­chil­dren around the Christ­mas tree and is re­minded of his own child­hood’. Stravin­sky added baubles of his own in a fes­tive 1956 re­work­ing for choir and orches­tra.

Daquin Nou­veau Livre de noëls (c. 1757)

★e might be best known for that de­light­ful lit­tle harp­si­chord minia­ture Le coucou, but Daquin (1694-1772) was one of the great­est or­gan­ists of the age and pipped Rameau to a church post in 1727 be­fore ul­ti­mately tak­ing charge of the or­gan loft at Paris’s Notre Dame cathe­dral. Not to miss out on the French craze for noël ar­range­ments, around 1757 he brought out a book of key­board pieces based on the folk-like carols tra­di­tion­ally wo­ven into the Christ­mas Eve Mid­night

Mass. A Musette re­calls the Shep­herds and their bag­pipes, while a danc­ing ‘Suisse’ fi­nale con­cludes the set in bom­bas­tic high spir­its.

Brahms Chorale Pre­lude on ‘Es ist ein

Ros entsprun­gen’ (1896)

Brahms ex­pressed an early am­bi­tion to be­come a vir­tu­oso or­gan­ist, but he wasn’t the first to dis­cover that flu­ent pi­ano skills don’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late. And af­ter a mod­est clutch of pieces com­posed in the 1850s, he turned his back on the in­stru­ment un­til, in the year be­fore his death, he em­barked on a set of chorale pre­ludes, a post­script to the late pi­ano pieces. Among them is a ten­der med­i­ta­tion on that Lutheran Christ­mas favourite, Es ist ein Ros entsprun­gen, its noble melody art­fully dis­guised and sup­ported by a pil­low of yearn­ing chro­mati­cism.

Ives ‘Adeste fi­delis’ in an Or­gan Pre­lude (1897) Af­ter his ri­otous 1891 Vari­a­tions on Amer­ica for or­gan, it might have been ex­pected that, six years on, when Charles Ives (1874-1954) turned to the ju­bi­lant strains of O Come, All Ye Faith­ful, he would pull out all the stops to evoke its re­joic­ing. In the event ‘Adeste fi­delis’ in an Or­gan Pre­lude (Ives’s spell­ing), turns out to be just as sub­ver­sive, if dif­fer­ently so. To a

hushed, shim­mer­ing ac­com­pa­ni­ment, the theme mourn­fully un­curls up­side down be­fore right­ing it­self over har­monies more mys­ti­cal than ‘joy­ful and tri­umphant’.

Karg-el­ert Chorale Im­pro­vi­sa­tion on

‘In dulci ju­bilo’ (1912)

Al­though mostly as­so­ci­ated with the or­gan these days, spurred on by Grieg, Karg-el­ert (1877-1933) started out com­pos­ing for pi­ano, and found his way to the King of In­stru­ments by way of the har­mo­nium. The mu­sic he wrote for it – like that of Max Reger, his pre­de­ces­sor as pro­fes­sor of com­po­si­tion at the Leipzig Con­ser­va­tory – rev­els in the sonori­ties of a large Ro­man­tic or­gan. Com­plete with dou­ble ped­alling and dense tex­tures, his big bear-hug of an im­pro­vi­sa­tion on the 14th-cen­tury carol is no ex­cep­tion. A fes­tive work­out for player and in­stru­ment alike.

Dupré Vari­a­tions sur un vieux Noël (1923) The 18th-cen­tury French love af­fair with elab­o­rate or­gan vari­a­tions on Christ­mas carols by no means ended with the deaths of Daquin, Dan­drieu and Bal­bas­tre. One of the most in­ge­nious and vir­tu­osic sets of the 20th cen­tury emerged in 1923 from the pen of Mar­cel Dupré (1886-1971), a com­poser-per­former schooled by the for­mi­da­ble trin­ity of Guil­mant, Vierne and Wi­dor. Based on Noël nou­velet, it en­gi­neers thick­ets of con­tra­pun­tal com­plex­ity con­cealed be­neath a dis­arm­ing sur­face en­chant­ment. By way of prepa­ra­tion for the in­evitable fu­gato and grand toc­cata, Vari­a­tion Nine sounds as if it’s gone a lit­tle too lib­er­ally at the Christ­mas sherry.

‘‘ Vari­a­tion Nine of Dupré’s Vari­a­tions sur un vieux Noël sounds as if it’s gone a lit­tle too lib­er­ally at the sherry ’’

Langlais La Na­tiv­ité (1932) Not be con­fused with Mes­si­aen’s ex­tended epic, Langlais’s La Na­tiv­ité is the sec­ond of three Poèmes Evangéliques writ­ten in 1932 for a com­po­si­tion com­pe­ti­tion – Langlais’s first or­gan mu­sic to make it into print. The set is book­ended by rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the An­nun­ci­a­tion and the En­try into Jerusalem, while the cen­tral na­tiv­ity tableau, a serene pas­torale, falls into three sec­tions. Af­ter the an­gels have brought their glad tid­ings, the shep­herds are in­voked in an old song, Sa­lut, ô sainte-crèche, re­mem­ber­ing Langlais’s na­tive Brit­tany, be­fore the mu­sic peace­fully sub­sides into con­tem­pla­tion of the ★oly Fam­ily.

Mes­si­aen La Na­tiv­ité du Seigneur (1935) Moun­tains, medieval stained glass, bird­song and a pro­found knowl­edge of the­ol­ogy col­lide in ar­guably the most im­por­tant sin­gle or­gan work – cer­tainly the most ex­tended – pon­der­ing the Christ­mas story. Com­posed in 1935, its nine ‘med­i­ta­tions’ em­body Mes­si­aen’s lat­est think­ing about rhythm, melody and har­mony. And they range over the pic­to­rial such as the wor­ship­ping Shep­herds or jour­ney­ing Magi, and ab­stract reflections on the mean­ing of the un­fold­ing story. ‘Dieu parmi nous’ wraps ev­ery­thing up in a fi­nal fes­tive flour­ish.

Distler Par­tita on ‘Wa­chet auf’ (1935) While this Par­tita by the Ger­man or­gan­ist and com­poser ★ugo Distler (1908-42) is roughly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with Mes­si­aen’s La Na­tiv­ité, it couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Whereas Mes­si­aen’s work breathes the in­cense of mys­ti­cism, Distler in his pref­ace de­manded that com­posers should ‘blend the spirit of the present day… with the hi­er­ar­chi­cal and strict art of the past’, a credo that shines through ev­ery neo-baroque note, its ti­tle nail­ing its colours to the age of Bux­te­hude and Bach. Flanked by a toc­cata and fugue, even the cen­tral move­ment is called ‘Bicinium’, which in­vokes the two-part in­ven­tions of the Re­nais­sance and early Baroque.

Maxwell Davies Fan­ta­sia on ‘O mag­num Mys­terium’ (1960)

Be­tween pe­ri­ods study­ing in Rome and Amer­ica, Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) taught mu­sic at Cirences­ter Gram­mar School where, in 1960, he com­posed a se­quence of carols and sonatas for the stu­dents on the Christ­mas Day plain­song O mag­num mys­terium. ★e de­scribed the work as a con­tem­pla­tion on ‘the won­der and prom­ise of the Na­tiv­ity’, and at its con­clu­sion placed this mighty 15-minute solo or­gan Fan­ta­sia. Mov­ing to­wards and from a pow­er­ful cli­max, it’s a sparse, aus­tere an­ti­dote to Christ­mas ex­cess.

Eben Vari­a­tions on Good King

Wences­las (1986)

Czech com­poser Petr Eben (1929-2007) could be for­given for an out­burst of na­tional pride un­der­pin­ning his 1986 Vari­a­tions, but in fact the choice of theme was all about bridge-build­ing. Com­mis­sioned to write a piece for the un­veil­ing of Chich­ester Cathe­dral’s newly-re­stored or­gan, he looked for some­thing that would con­nect his home­land to the UK. Then he re­mem­bered the English medieval dance-carol sub­se­quently adapted to ex­tol the virtues of his na­tion’s saintly monarch: Good King Wences­las. Prob­lem solved! Theme in­ge­niously teased out, the vari­a­tions are punc­tu­ated by re­gal fan­fare in­ter­jec­tions to

show off the Chich­ester reeds.

Fes­tive feet: JS Bach im­pro­vised or­gan chorale pre­ludes

Realms of glory: An­gels singing and playing mu­sic by Jan van Eyck

Pipes of peace: Petr Eben united his Czech home­land and the UK in an or­gan work; (be­low) com­poser Mar­cel Dupré c1923

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