the Power of Music - David Ponsford (RVRCD78)


‘This Organ, was Originally built by that celebrated Artist, commonly called, Father Smith; and erected in its present form, by Robert Gray; of London, 1775.’

This inscription on the frontboard of the organ at Dingestow Court, with most of its pipes being made around 1680 and its present case and mechanism dating from 1775, immediately suggests two different repertoires of music: the Restoration and the Georgian. Moreover, since the late Elizabethan/Jacobean composers such as Byrd, Gibbons and Tomkins, remained established in the late seventeenth century, it is appropriate to include pieces by them as well, thus giving three distinct and contrasting repertoires, all of which are appropriate to this organ of the utmost historical significance.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the coranto was becoming a popular dance in France and Italy, and Byrd’s three French Corantos that begin this CD may be some of the first English examples, the popular melodies and simple harmonic textures being in marked contrast to the complexities of the mature English pavan and galliard. Byrd’s Fantasia in C exists in the two great collections of keyboard music, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and My Ladye Nevells Booke. In Byrd’s hands the fantasia was a mixture containing elements of the old contrapuntal style, dance styles, and the free fantasia style, but all welded into a toccata-like piece. Popular song could also be a component, as may be heard particularly in the delightful Ut Re Mee Fa Sol La - a set of five variations based on the six notes of the hexachord (C, D, E, F, G, A, in ascending then descending order). The two popular songs woven ingeniously into the texture are ‘The Woods so Wild’ in Variation 3, and ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’ in the middle of Variation 4.

Gibbons’s monumental Fantazia of foure parts in A minor was included in Parthenia (1612/13), the first-ever publication of English keyboard music, a collection of 21 pieces by the three most famous composers of the age, Byrd, Bull and Gibbons. It was intended as a wedding present for Princess Elizabeth, only daughter of James I, and Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine. Despite being published for the ‘virginalls’, the stately old-fashioned contrapuntal style of this fantasia, in which the main theme is transformed successively as the note values become ever quicker, suits the organ particularly well – perhaps as a result of Gibbons’s early experience singing in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Thomas Tomkins, the youngest of the Jacobean composers represented on this disc and who died in 1656, only four years before the Restoration of the English monarchy, was a pupil of Byrd. Tomkins’s Voluntary exploits a love that English musicians have cherished for the so-called ‘English Cadence’ – a motif that incorporates the close juxtaposition of the flattened and sharpened leading-notes (such as F natural and F sharp in the key of G) - although the motif as used by Tomkins was employed in France too, as Louis Couperin’s organ music demonstrates. Tomkins’s Sad Pavan for these distracted times is dated February 14, 1649 – only a fortnight after the execution at Whitehall of King Charles I. The piece thus has intense political and religious significance.

The inclusion of a piece by Froberger in this collection of English music is justified by the German composer’s documented visit to England, perhaps as early as 1651 or 1652, and by the musical influence he had upon native English composers. In the Allemande from Suite No. 30 in A minor, found in the recently-discovered Berlin Sing-Akademie manuscript, we learn that Froberger was robbed twice on his journey from Paris to England, arriving in London in a penniless state. He was forced to take employment as an organ blower, but was dismissed by the organist for allowing his melancholy thoughts to interrupt his duties. As a pupil of Frescobaldi, Froberger’s Toccatas are in sectionalised stylus phantasticus form in which free improvisatory toccata-like passages alternate with highly organised contrapuntal sections, with exciting results.

Primarily through the impact of Robert Dallam, Renatus Harris and ‘Father’ Smith, French influence in the form of ‘extraordinary stops’ such as the trumpet and cornet began to be introduced to English organs after 1660, which enabled composers such as John Blow to exploit these new sounds in their voluntaries. Such pieces as Blow’s Cornet Voluntary in A minor, as reconstructed for single manual organ by Geoffrey Cox, could well have been written for an organ similar to that at Dingestow Court. The Dingestow organ’s sesquialtera rank enables the ‘Cornett’ solo to be played in the upper register, whilst the ‘single’ organ accompaniment is played below middle C. Henry Purcell, justifiably the most famous composer of the period, is represented by his Voluntary in G major. Written in two movements, it begins as a sustained homophonic piece in durezze e ligatura style (in which I have added some ornamental figures) and is succeeded by a lively movement in contrapuntal style. When compared with his contributions to church, chamber and operatic music, Purcell’s keyboard music is modest in quantity, and so I have added two secular pieces (for an essentially secular organ): the Round O (the Rondeau for strings from Abdelazer) that was made famous in the twentieth century by Benjamin Britten’s variations upon it in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and a Ground in Gamut, whose 8-bar theme in the bass is identical (coincidentally) to the first 8 bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A significant quantity of very worthwhile music exists from the period whose authorship remains unknown. The two anonymous Verses recorded here reflect some of the character and individuality that marks Restoration organ music as a unique and special style.

Handel’s Six Fugues or Voluntarys for the Organ or Harpsichord, Op. 3, were first published in 1735, and were frequently reprinted and reissued throughout the eighteenth century. The range of his contrapuntal invention is staggering. No. 2 in G major, for example, contains exhaustive development of its subject, and when every possibility is completed, Handel inverts the subject, presenting himself with a further range of musical possibilities. Evidence of Handel’s re-use of musical material is found in Fugues Nos. 3 and 5. No. 3 in B flat also appears as the third movement of the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2 (1734), and No. 5 in A minor appears as the chorus ‘They loathed to drink of the river’ from Israel in Egypt (1739). The inherent tension in this latter fugue is created as much by the wide leaps and chromaticism in the subject (highlighted in this recording by the unequal keyboard temperament) as by the wide hand-stretches that Handel demands, creating considerable physical stress. Such was the popularity of Handel’s Water Music, first performed on the River Thames in 1717, that the music was ‘Set for the harpsicord’ for publication in 1743, in addition to the publication of the orchestral parts some ten years earlier. The keyboard arranger is unknown, but judging from the numbers of printed errors, it is most unlikely to have been Handel. However, the D major Suite makes a lively sequence of pieces for the organ, the alternation of piano and forte in the overture providing a wonderful opportunity for the shifting pedal to be employed, whereby several stops can be removed instantaneously by the foot to provide echo effects.

Jonathan Battishill’s performances of Handel’s keyboard works were highly regarded, and having in his youth heard Handel himself play, he was able to reproduce the famous composer’s style courtesy of his prodigious musical memory. The Voluntary in B flat was printed in his ‘Select Pieces for the Organ or Piano Forte’ published about 1805.

Handel, in fact, never wrote a typical English organ voluntary, such as we find in the G major Voluntary by the Oxford organist William Walond. It begins with a slow movement for the two ‘Diapasons’, both open and stopped according to John Marsh’s ‘Explanation of the different stops of the organ, & of the several combinations that may be made thereof’ (London, 1791). This is followed by a lively solo movement for the cornet very much in the style of an Italian concerto Allegro, with sequential figuration and clear harmonic structure. The other example of this genre (which can really only come to life on an eighteenth-century English organ) is John James’s Voluntary in A minor, although in this instance the second movement is a contrapuntal movement for ‘Full organ’. James had a reputation for improvisation, and it was reported that Handel, Geminiani, Roseingrave, Greene, Pepusch and Boyce all went to hear him. Many of his organ voluntaries survive because their popularity with ‘every deputy organist in London’. James’s inventive use of harmonic sequences complements a sure mastery of fugal counterpoint.

John Stanley’s famous collection of 30 voluntaries was published in three sets between 1748 and 1754. Blinded at the age of two, Stanley became organist at the Temple Church in London in 1734, and most of his voluntaries were written for the full resources and ‘colour’ stops on the three manual organ made by ‘Father’ Bernard Smith in 1684. For this recording on a one-manual Father Smith organ with very limited resources, I have chosen to record one of his lesser-known pieces, an arrangement of his overture The Power of Music, which formed the exercise for his B.Mus degree at Oxford in 1729, by which he became the youngest person ever to gain this degree.

David Ponsford

The Organ at Dingestow Court

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