Spring recital at St Austin

Feast of St Mark, Evangelist
2016.04.25 · 19.30
St Austin Catholic Parish


Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la   William Byrd
Partita on ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’   Jan Bender
Fantasias I and III   Anthoni van Noordt
Toccata XII   Michelangelo Rossi
Ciacona in G   Georg Muffat
Pieces on the I. Ton   Jacques Boyvin
from Book I
     Grand plein jeu continu
     Fugue grave
     Duo
     Tierce en taille
     Trio à deux dessus
     Fond d’orgue
from Book II
     Grand dialogue

I’ll return to St Austin Catholic Parish this spring not for Organ Vespers, but for a solo recital on the beautiful Baroque-style instrument there. In such an inspiring setting, it’s a pleasure to explore the interaction between music and instrument, composer and interpreter, and easy to feel connected to these musicians and their work.

William Byrd is most widely known today as a choral composer, one of the best of his generation anywhere in Europe. But he also wrote a large quantity of very fine keyboard music, and while he drew upon earlier organ techniques as well as contemporary vocal polyphony and instrumental styles, and was working at a time when keyboard music was generally coming into its own, he can still be considered a pioneering figure in the art. His written keyboard works were probably mostly played on stringed keyboard instruments, but Byrd was employed as an organist for much of his career, first at the cathedral in Lincoln and then in the Chapel Royal, and certain of his works are well suited to the organ.

The hexachord – what we would call the first six notes of the major scale – was a popular subject for contrapuntal elaboration in both vocal and instrumental works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This contribution to the genre surrounds seventeen statements, unvaryingly in semibreves, of the hexachord (ascending and descending, on C, G, D, F, and B-flat) with imitative-contrapuntal techniques, passagework, dance-like homophonic textures, and other styles in rich variety, with frequent cross-rhythms enlivening the triple-meter section that appears late in the work. The registration chosen for tonight’s performance takes into account both the small size of the English organs of the period and the evidence that they were tuned quite a bit lower than today’s standard pitch, as well as the likelihood that his works were played on the larger instruments in the Low Countries, whither they were transmitted by some of his fellow English Roman Catholics who were forced into exile.

Dutch-German organist-composer Jan Bender was the only composition student of Hugo Distler, who heavily influenced his neo-Baroque style in which modality and expressive chromaticism in both their late-Renaissance/early-Baroque and modern versions are often wedded to Lutheran hymn-tunes. This set of variations written in 1969 – during a fifteen-year period in which Bender taught in Lutheran colleges in the US – is based on Luther’s hymn-trope of the Our Father and the very strong tune associated with it. We will hear not only some of the more powerful and pungent ensemble sounds of the organ in this work, but also some quieter individual stops – the Bourdon, Spitzflute, and Octave in particular – in their most beautiful ranges.

Anthoni van Noordt and his elder brother were the most important organists in Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century, successors to Sweelinck’s legacy. In 1659 Anthoni published a book containing sets of variations on the psalm-tunes used in Reformed church services, as well as half a dozen fantasias. At first glance these latter works are reminiscent of canzone or capricci, particularly in the outlines of their subjects, but their single-section plan and rigorous and tightly woven imitative-contrapuntal texture – the subject is almost always present in at least one voice, and the cadences are hardly ever stopping-points – set them apart from most examples of those genres. At the same time these pieces are more concise in plan and restrained in style than many others called ‘fantasia’; their allure and challenge lie in their elegant and closely fitted craft. Fantasia III, written in the enigmatic E-mode with its characteristic half-step above the tonic or final, invites the use of the calm Principal stop alone, while the somewhat sprightlier Fantasia I is played on a brighter flute combination.

Michelangelo Rossi was a significant violinist, organist, composer, and perhaps singer, active mainly at Rome. Though he wrote madrigals and operas, he is known today especially for his keyboard toccatas of the 1620s or 1630s, which are highly mercurial, moving quickly from one style and idea to another and delighting in the bizarrery that was then fashionable in certain quarters and still shocks and titillates even today. The wandering central portion of this work provides the opportunity to use a particularly Italian sound available here, unusually in this country: the Voce Umana, a Principal-type stop tuned slightly away from the main Principal to produce an ethereal undulating effect.

Georg Muffat was an important link among musical schools and cultures in the seventeenth century: he studied music with Lully at Paris and Pasquini in Italy (as well as studying law), and worked for the Archbishop of Salzburg and then was Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Passau. This delightful ciacona (originally a type of dance in triple meter and built over a particular ‘ground bass’, or repeating bass line or chord progression) comes from his 1690 publication Apparatus musico-organisticus, which contains twelve very fine toccatas and several other works.

After 1665 or so – following the collections of Jehan Titelouze and Louis Couperin that comprise nearly all the French organ music known from earlier in the century – there came a torrent of Livres d’orgue in a well-developed and distinctive language. Though intended for use in the liturgy – to alternate with sung verses of the Ordinary of the Mass, or the Canticle at Vespers or Lauds – these works largely left aside the chant melodies and the polyphonic style used in earlier generations and instead took up the dance- and song-based styles to be heard in the operas and instrumental suites of the day, marrying each genre to a specific combination of the organ’s stops, often indicated in the titles of the pieces. Profuse ornamentation, flexible rhythm, rich harmony, strongly etched sounds and styles – all governed by bon goût, good taste – give this music its charateristic elegance and élan.

Among the many representatives of this school was Jacques Boyvin, who served as organist of the cathedral at Rouen (where Titelouze had served 1588–1633) from 1674 until his death in 1706. Perhaps inspired by the new four-manual instrument he had built in 1683 by a leading builder after the previous organ was destroyed in a storm, Boyvin published two organ books, in 1689 and 1700, both featuring pieces spanning all church modes and all the current styles. The present suite is selected from both volumes and highlights a number of typical style–sound combinations: the full diapason chorus used for a grand introductory piece; reeds (Trumpet and Cremona [Cromorne]) for a fugue; two Cornet combinations in a minuet-like duet; a rhapsodic tenor-range solo, typically played either on a Cornet-like combination or, as here, on the Cromorne; Cornet and Cromorne used in a trio texture; the lower-pitched foundation stops for another slow, contemplative piece; and finally the blazing combination of reeds and Cornets, the two (in other pieces, often three or four) manuals alternating in a varied and lively dialogue.