Bruckner’s Organ

Bruckner's organ at Abby of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.
The organ Anton Bruckner played at Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.

 

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:

Here is the complete Fifth Symphony.

  • Find Erwin Horn’s recording of Bruckner organ music at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear five recorded versions of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony Finale’s coda here.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

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On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.

Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:

Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.

Five Great Recordings

Your 2014 Christmas Playlist

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With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:

Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes

Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.

The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.

The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboardsrepeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.

Here is the Hilliard Ensemble:

Handel’s Messiah

The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:

Greensleeves

Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686. Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:

Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite. 

Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.

Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

Three Nativity Carols by Stephen Paulus

This excerpt comes from a CD called Wonder Tidings: Christmas music of Stephen Paulus.

Here is The Holly and the Ivy, This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings:

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.