In celebration of the official start of the holiday season, let’s swing by the grand old former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of Philadelphia. The store is home to the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world, with 28,604 pipes, 463 ranks, and six manuals. Originally built for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, the instrument found a home in Wanamaker’s seven-story Grand Court in 1909. It took thirteen railroad cars to transport the organ to Philadelphia.
You can hear this spectacular organ in action in this clip of a transcription of the Funeral March from Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a piece which gradually unfolds in long waves of sound, amid a series of far-reaching modulations. At times, you might be reminded of John Williams’ Star Wars film scores.
In 2010, midday shoppers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a flashmob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The over 650 singers were from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The event was part of the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture.”
To learn more about the history of Wanamaker’s department store, read Wanamaker’s: Meet me at the Eagleby Michael Lisicky. A nationally recognized expert on the history of America’s department stores, Michael is a former colleague of mine who is currently an oboist in the Baltimore Symphony.
Imagine that you could travel back in time to observe key moments in music history. Maybe you would drop in on Handel as he was preparing the Music for the Royal Fireworks, hear a handful of lost works by J.S. Bach, or attend the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro.
Anton Bruckner’s legendary organ improvisations would rate high on my personal “musical time machine” top ten list. Bruckner spent many years as organist at the monastic Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria. Additionally, he performed virtuoso and mostly improvisatory organ recitals throughout Europe. Subjects of Bruckner’s expansive improvisations often included the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the Austrian National Anthem, music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, themes from Wagner’s operas, and themes from Bruckner’s own symphonies. This February 1937 Musical Times article describes these memorable musical events.
A Viennese review described a Bruckner organ recital this way:
Has no church been built for him and is there no chair vacant for him? We have experienced many times how he mastered the organ. Yesterday, again he sat down at the organ and freely developed a theme. Oh for the vigor and the abundance that flowed through the chapel! There‘s scarcely one around to challenge Mr. Bruckner in his virtuoso treatment of the pedal; he has really gained some dexterity with the feet. And this corresponds admirably with his agility on the manuals, an agility which is hardly ever confined by difficulties.
It’s ironic that Bruckner, a composer who endlessly revised the music he wrote down and occasionally fell victim to paralyzing self-doubt, simultaneously embraced the ultimate “in the moment” music making. We’ll never know exactly how Bruckner’s organ improvisations sounded. But here is his short Prelude in C Major, written in 1884. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter is performing on the organ Bruckner played at Saint Florian. The composer is buried in the Abbey’s crypt, just below the organ.
The Prelude is technically in C major, but its dizzying chromatic harmony is constantly pulling us away from the home key to unexpected places:
Bruckner’s symphonies often turn the orchestra into a virtual pipe organ. There’s a sense of effortless modulation and orchestration that often doesn’t mix the woodwinds, strings, and brass, but instead celebrates the purity of their unique voices. Organist Erwin Horn writes,
He was accustomed in his improvisations to using themes drawn from the symphonies on which he was working. […] As soon as he would realise the same idea both on the organ and in the orchestra, there would be an interaction between the improvised fantasies and the symphonies with their systematic layout. The sounds of Bruckner‘s symphonies, structurally, were foreshadowed by those of the organ.
The Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is built on a chorale which becomes interwoven with a complex double fugue, the sort of contrapuntal fireworks we would expect in organ improvisation. In the movement’s coda, the chorale theme soars to exhilarating new heights as the first movement’s first theme returns.
Here is the the final coda of Bruckner’s Fifth from a live 1986 performance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by the noted Bruckner interpreter Eugen Jochum. Jochum, who was in ill health and passed away the following year, reportedly conducted the symphony seated, but stood for this final coda, a climax which suggests the majestic power of a large pipe organ:
If you’re beyond your teenage years, take a moment and try to remember what you were doing when you were 16 years old. Then listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 and consider that this is the music of a 16-year-old. It brims with youthful joy, virtuosity, vitality and a playful sense of delight in showing off. At the same time, there isn’t a hint of immaturity in this music. Amazingly, as a teenager, Mendelssohn was tapping into the deepest source of musical creativity.
The Octet’s final movement, built on an eight part fugue, quotes “And He Shall Reign” from the “Hallelujah” Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Mendelssohn boldly interrupts Handel’s original motive with his own ending. There’s no way of knowing if the quote was intentional or subconscious. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was drawn to the music of Handel and J.S. Bach. At age 20 he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, which inspired a renewal of interest in Bach’s music. You might hear a momentary hint of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in the development section of the Scherzo (in the passage following 23:39).
Completed in October of 1825, the Octet is scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos. In the score Mendelssohn writes:
This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.
Whether I’m performing or listening to the Octet, I’m always amazed by the dramatic action going on in the inner voices. For example, listen to the explosive scale lines around 3:04 in the first movement. Throughout the piece, the eight distinct voices may suggest unique personas. Listen to the way they interact and converse with one another. Amid the final movement’s dense counterpoint, listen for the moment toward the end of the movement when Mendelssohn brings back fragments of the Scherzo (29:52).