British Organ Music
It is available to stream on YouTube and other streaming services.
Sample audio clip: Ridout – Scherzo
Historically the organ has been an important part of the British music scene for centuries, and many well-known composers have written both large- and small-scale works for the instrument. This recording collects together seventeen of the best pieces by twentieth-century British composers, and presents them chronologically according to birth date. The collection acknowledges the rich heritage of compositions written as preludes and postludes to church services rather than as recital works. They represent an extraordinary diversity of styles and techniques by composers who are widely know (such as Vaughan Williams and Britten), and some that are less well known (such as Dearnley and Drayton). Some of these pieces are now part of the standard repertoire. For example, Rhosymedre by Vaughan Williams has been a favorite among both players and audiences since its composition, even though the hymn tune on which it is based is now rarely heard. Others, such as the Interlude by David Lord, have never been recorded and are rarely performed.
Most of the composers studied at the Royal College of Music, in London. Founded in 1882, it quickly became preeminent among British conservatories. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was an almost apostolic succession of organists that held major church and administrative posts in addition to their work as composers, and many were extremely prolific in a number of genres. The cathedrals and collegiate churches in Britain modeled exemplary standards for liturgical music but the tradition was alive in many parish churches too, and there was a strong tradition of playing pieces before and after services. Often called ‘voluntaries,’ the term did not imply the music was played without compulsion or obligation; rather it came to mean an organ prelude or postlude. Many of the titles of the works in this collection are generic (Prelude, Voluntary, Toccata, Scherzo), but this is to give an indication to the organist (and also perhaps the listener) of the content and use of the piece. These pieces are also written for organists of differing skill levels so that quality music is within reach of parish musicians with a range of abilities.
1. Rhosymedre: Ralph Vaughan Williams. [4’31”]
2. Sursum corda: John Ireland. [3’55”]
3. Voluntary in D: George Dyson. [4’29”]
4. Prelude in G: William Harris. [1’55”]
5. Preludio ‘Sine nomine’: Herbert Howells. [6’09”]
6. Festal Flourish: Gordon Jacob. [3’07”]
7. Elegy: George Thalben-Ball. [4’39”]
8. Prelude & Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria: Benjamin Britten. [5’48”]
9. Fanfare: Kenneth Leighton. [2’19”]
10. Dominus regit me: Christopher Dearnley. [4’24”]
11. Fanfare: William Mathias. [2’28”]
12. Scherzo: Alan Ridout. [1’19”]
13. Toccata in 7: John Rutter. [2’05”]
14. Pavane: Paul Drayton. [5’18”]
15. Interlude: David Lord. [2’31”]
16. Intrada: Grayston Ives. [3’52”]
17. Penguin’s playtime: Nigel Ogden. [3’16”]
© 2014, Andrew Shenton
Although this CD can be listened to in its entirety as a recital, and the following notes read as an essay, it was assumed that most listeners would dip into it piece by piece and so the description for each work is intended as a stand alone as well as part of the whole.
Rhosymedre: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams began composing at the age of six and played violin in the Charterhouse school orchestra as a child. He studied composition at The Royal College of Music in London and at Trinity College, Cambridge, with distinguished British musicians Hubert Parry, Charles Wood, and Charles Villiers Stanford. In 1919 he joined the faculty at the RCM, and became conductor of the Bach Choir (one of England’s oldest and most distinguished choirs) in 1921. Symphonies, choral works, and songs constitute the core of his output, but he composed in a variety of genres, including opera. Vaughan Williams made many contributions to church music, even though he was not a professing Christian. He served as editor of The English Hymnal (1906), and composed a number of anthems and organ works. He is broadly recognized as the most important English composer of his generation, figuring into the 20th century revival of British music. Rhosymedre is the name of a hymn tune written by John Edwards (1805-85). Edwards named the tune after the village in Wales where he was the vicar from 1843 until his death in 1885. Vaughan Williams included his arrangement as part of a collection entitled “Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes” (the others being Bryn Calfaria and Hyfrydol). Rhosymedre (which also exists in arrangements for orchestra, brass group and string quartet with voice) is a gentle andantino. After a short introduction with graceful counterpoint and a pizzicato pedal part, the tune is played in its entirety on a solo stop in the tenor part. For the second verse the tune moves to the soprano part in a hymn-like arrangement that retains the motifs of the opening. The piece ends with a coda that balances out the introduction, using much of the same material.
(Publisher: Stainer & Bell, 1920)
Sursum corda: John Ireland (1879-1962)
John Ireland’s principal musical education was at the Royal College of Music where he studied piano with Frederic Cliffe, and composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. He served several short appointments as organist and choirmaster before being hired at St. Luke’s, Chelsea, a position he held for 22 years (1904-26). In addition to his career as an organist and composer he taught composition at the RCM from 1920 to 1939. His compositions were predominately chamber works, however, he wrote several major orchestral works and also the music for the film The Overlanders (1946). His organ music was mostly composed early in his career, between 1902 and 1911. Many of them, including the Alla Marcia and the meditation called The Holy Boy, have become part of the both concert and church repertories. The Sursum corda was composed in 1911 and is dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt (a distinguished organist and sometime Master of the Queen’s Musick to Queen Victoria). In Christian liturgy the Sursum corda (Latin, “Lift up your hearts”) is the opening dialogue to the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, dating back to at least the third century. Ireland’s piece, a quiet meditation in triple time, has the form AABA’ and features a solo clarinet in bridge passages between sections. Its lush harmonies pay homage to the legacy of the late romantic composers such as Strauss and Mahler without verging into any excess that might be considered unsuitable for Anglican worship.
(Publisher: Novello, 1983)
Voluntary in D: George Dyson (1883-1964)
Dyson studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music (1900-4). He became director of music at the Royal Naval College at Osborne and then served in the infantry during the war. Following the war, he taught at Wellington College and then served as head of music at Winchester College. He became Director of the RCM in 1938 and continued there until his retirement in 1952. He was knighted in 1942. Dyson produced several large-scale choral works, including The Canterbury Pilgrims (1931), as well as works for orchestra (Symphony in G and Violin Concerto). He also authored two influential books The New Music (1924) and The Progress of Music (1932), a study of music in social history. His Voluntary in D, almost certainly composed for use as a postlude to a church service, is in free form and makes great use of echo effects (made by changing manuals on the instrument). It is a tonal work that begins and ends in D, but Dyson moves through several key areas with great fluency, including quiet passages in B minor and B-flat major and a march-like section in A-flat major. It was likely composed with a great space in mind since it contains many rests, notably in the last grand ‘largamente’ section.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1958)
Prelude in G: William Harris (1883-1973)
Harris studied the organ with Walter Parratt and composition with Charles Wood and Walford Davies at the Royal College of Music. He held organist appointments at Lichfield Cathedral (1911-19); New College, Oxford (1919-29); Christ Church, Oxford (1929-1932); and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (1933-61). He was professor of organ and harmony at the RCM (1921-53), and conductor of the Bach Choir (1926-33). His compositions reflect a deep commitment to the Anglican tradition. His choral compositions include Faire is the Heaven (1925), and Bring us, O Lord (1959). Four Short Pieces of 1938 and Flourish for an Occasion (1948) are among his popular organ compositions. His Prelude in G is a charming and simple piece in AAA’ form with an interlude between the sections and a short coda. Harris was skilled at writing memorable melodies and this is certainly evident in his Prelude.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Preludio ‘Sine nomine’: Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Like William Harris and Christopher Dearnley, Howells was deeply involved with church music from an early age. He was an ‘articled pupil’ under Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral before attending the Royal College of Music, where studied composition with Charles Wood and counterpoint with Charles Villiers Stanford. He joined the faculty at the RCM in 1920 and continued teaching there through his 80s. He also served as Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, West London (1936-1962). During World War II he substituted for Robin Orr as organist at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and quickly became famous for his contributions to cathedral music as well as his chamber and orchestral music. His vocal and organ works, including Hymnus paradisi (1938), Missa sabrinensis (1954), and Stabat mater (1963), demonstrate a connection to his composers of the so-called Golden Age of church music, during the Tudor period, because of their use of singable counterpoint and transparent forms and textures. The Preludio ‘Sine nomine’ (Prelude without name) is dedicated to Herbert Sumsion, a composer and organist who succeeded Herbert Brewer as organist of Gloucester Cathedral in 1928. The piece is typical of Howells’ style: it contains long and flexible phrases, audible counterpoint which gives rise to enchanting solo melodies, and a harmonic idiom that is both unique and recognizable. The Preludio opens on a C-sharp pitch that gradually we hear as the dominant to F-sharp (although the first cadence in this ‘tonic’ doesn’t happen for several measures and is disguised). The first section ends on an unharmonised F-sharp and leads into the second half, marked “placido ma espressivo” (calm but expressive). This section is less contrapuntal than the first section, being marked instead by a homophonic chorale in the manuals interspersed with a melodic pedal part. Howells slows the pace of the music in the final measures and the piece dies away to a tranquil end.
(Publisher: Novello, 1953)
Festal Flourish: Gordon Jacob (1895-1984)
Continuing the tradition of the composers represented on this disc, Jacob studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and later served on the composition faculty there from 1924 to 1969. He authored several textbooks on the subject of composition: Orchestral Technique (1931, revised 1982), How to Read a Score (1944), The Composer and his Art (1954), and The Elements of Orchestration (1962). His active composition career spanned more than sixty years and included various concertos and other orchestral works, choral music, and chamber pieces. His later compositions included works for the growing wind band movement and for amateur and school orchestras. His Festal Flourish, as the name suggests, is a fanfare piece for a festival service. It opens with a two-part fanfare interspersed with magnificent chords on full organ. The fanfare motive is developed throughout the piece and includes several virtuoso pedal passages. It ends with a final statement of the fanfare punctuated with a series of dissonant chords before coming to a majestic close on the tonic chord of B-flat major.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1958)
Elegy: George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987)
Known as a British organist and church musician, George Thalben-Ball was actually born in Sydney, Australia to British parents. He moved to the UK at the age of four and began studying at the Royal College of Music at the remarkably young age of fourteen, and was later a faculty member there. He was appointed Organist at the Temple Church, London, in 1919 and held that post until 1981. He became nationally recognized for a series of recordings of the Temple Church choir and enjoyed a career as an international organ recitalist. He directed the BBC Singers and served as musical advisor the BBC’s religious broadcasting department (1941-69). He was curator of the Royal Albert Hall organ from 1934 and city and university organist in Birmingham from 1949 until his death. His beautiful Elegy is probably his best known piece. It received renewed popularity when it was played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. According to legend, the piece was originally an improvisation which Thalben-Ball played at the end of one of the live BBC daily religious service during World War II, because the service finished earlier than expected and some time needed to be filled before the next program. So many listeners to the broadcast telephoned the BBC to ask what the composition was, that Thalben-Ball decided to write down his improvisation, and it was subsequently published in 1971. The piece is an essay in crescendo. After a short introduction the principal theme is heard on a solo stop and then richly harmonized on its repeat, building to a huge climax before dying away to the calm from which it came.
(Publisher: Paxton & Co., 1971)
Prelude & Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria: Benjamin Britten (1913-76)
Benjamin Britten was one of the most important figures in twentieth-century classical music. He began piano lessons at age five and began to compose at that same age. He entered the Royal College of Music in 1930 and studied composition with Frank Bridge and Vaughan Williams. The poet W.H Auden became a close and influential friend and provided the text for Britten’s first symphonic cycle for voice and orchestra, Our Hunting Fathers. Britten’s work was also heavily influenced by his pacifism and his domestic partnership with Peter Pears. He was responsible for the resurgence of English Opera, notably with Peter Grimes in 1945. His large-scale choral work War Requiem, which combines the Latin Mass with war poems by Wilfred Owen, was performed at the dedication of the Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and introduced Britten to a wider audience. Prelude & Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria was composed by Britten in 1946. It was commissioned for St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, and first performed on 21 September (St. Matthew’s Day), three days after its composition. It is founded on the first plainsong antiphon for the Second Vespers of the Common of a Confessor or Bishop, the theme used by Vittoria in his motet Ecce Sacerdos Magnus (1585). This theme is heard in both the prelude (where it is played repeatedly on the pedals), and as the basis for the fugue. Despite composing a number of notable works for choir with organ accompaniment (including the popular anthem Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) also composed for St. Matthew’s, Northampton), the Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria is the only solo work for organ by Britten. The Prelude opens grandly with a pedal solo and builds to the final chord. In contrast the Fugue is quiet and understated to begin, swelling to a climax that quickly fades to a quiet end. Britten chose this dynamic scheme because the piece was intended as the processional at the start of the Festival High Mass. The bold entry announced the start of the procession and the quiet end introduced the first spoken parts of the service or the singing of the Vittoria motet.
(Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes, 1952)
Fanfare: Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)
Leighton studied classics and composition at Queen’s College, Oxford. As winner of the Mendelssohn Scholarship, he studied composition with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome, returning to England to hold positions at the University of Leeds (1953-5) and the University of Edinburgh (1955-68). He briefly taught at Oxford and was Fellow of Worcester College before returning to Edinburgh as Professor of Music. He produced highly acclaimed concertos as well as solo works for piano and organ. In addition to several sacred music works, he made frequent use of plainsong, chorales and chants as thematic resources. Many of his works also display an exploitation of intervals (especially 2nds and 4ths) along with intricate use of counterpoint and strong rhythmic drive. A triumphant piece with strong rhythmic drive, the Fanfare begins with declamatory statements in the manuals, punctuated by the pedals. A middle section starts quietly and builds to an ornamented development of the opening material and the piece closes with a series of compelling and triumphant chords.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1967)
Dominus regit me: Christopher Dearnley (1930-2000)
Dearnley studied music and theology at Worcester College, Oxford. Following service in the RAF, he became assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1954 and succeeded Douglas Guest as organist in 1957. From 1968 to 1990, he served as organist and director of music at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where he provided the music for many notable occasions, including the Wedding of Charles and Diana in 1982. Dearnley emigrated to Australia in 1990 to concentrate on teaching, and served successively as director of music at Christ Church, St. Laurence, Sydney and the cathedrals of Hobart, Perth, Sydney and Newcastle. He wrote English Church Music: 1650-1750 (1970), the definitive work on the period, and edited Treasury of English Church Music: 1650-1760 (1965).1 His prelude is based on the tune Dominus regit me, usually sung to the words “The King of love my shepherd is.” It is similar in style to J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude Erbarm’ dich mein in its use of a repeated chordal accompaniment to the melody. It differs from Bach’s model in its use of more extended chromatic harmony, and its clever use of the pedal line which moves in a pattern of 3+3+2 eighth-notes per measure, giving an unusual impulse to the music.
(Publisher: Cramer, 1976)
Fanfare: William Mathias (1934-1992)
Mathias was a Welsh composer and pianist. He studied composition at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, with Ian Parrott and at the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley. He served on the faculty at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, (1959-68, 1970-88), and was elected a fellow of the RAM in 1965. He composed both instrumental music and choral music in his early career but later composed in nearly all musical genres. The popular success of his setting of Psalm 67 (Let all the people praise thee) resulted in numerous commissions from churches, predominately in North America, where he traveled in his later years for regular performances. His Fanfare was commissioned for the inaugural concert of the Christie Organ in the Memorial hall, Barry (Wales) on 28 February, 1987. In 4/4 time, it develops the traditional arpeggiated fanfare figure in several keys and in several short sections before building to a brilliant and triumphant close.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1991)
Scherzo: Alan Ridout (1934-1996)
Ridout studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob and Herbert Howells, and later privately with Peter Racine Fricker and Michael Tippett. His Psalm for Sine Wave Generators (1958) is one of the earliest electronic works by a British composer. He served as professor of theory and composition at the RCM (1960-84) while holding lectureships at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities (1963-1975). He was teacher at the choir school of Canterbury Cathedral (1964-72) and subsequently at the King’s School, Canterbury. He produced a variety of choral works, including seven canticle settings and versions of the Matthew and John Passions, as well as several operas for children. He also composed for ballet and for wind instruments. His Scherzo is a technical study for the organ. Humorous pedal interjections and irregular meter (often in the uneven 7/8 time) are part of the musical joke.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Toccata in 7: John Rutter (b. 1944)
Rutter studied music at Clare College, Cambridge, and held teaching appointments at the University of Southampton and Clare College (1975-9). He left his position at Clare College to devote his time to composition and to the Cambridge Singers, a professional choir which he founded and with whom he has produced several recordings of both his own music and other (mostly European) composers. He has produced several large-scale choral works and anthems and is often best recognized for a large output of Christmas pieces, both as arranger and composer, including Shepard’s Pipe Carol and Star Carol. A prolific composer of popular music, his output includes a few pieces for organ of which the Toccata in 7 is justifiably the most popular. The seven in the title refers to the meter of the piece: 7/8, which is usually divided into 2+2+3. This unusual asymmetric rhythmic pulse drives the music forward. In three sections, the short piece is both energetic and joyful.
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Pavane: Paul Drayton (b. 1944)
Paul Drayton is pianist, composer and conductor. He studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music and composition at Oxford University. As a pianist, he has appeared in concerto performances, solo recitals, chamber music, accompaniment, and jazz performances. He is the author of Unheard Melodies or Trampolining in the Vatican (2008), a listener’s guide to music. As a composer, he has had works commissioned by the Norwich Triennial Festival, the Three Choirs Festival and the Kings Singers. He is currently director of the Duchy Opera and composer of several operas, including The Hanging Oak (2009), based on a story by M.R. James, and The Mermaid of Zennor (2012), adapted from a popular Cornish legend. His Pavane is an adaptation of he traditional Pavane dance form, which originated in the renaissance. Drayton uses the slow meter and repeated form in his elegant and melodic piece, which has the form AABCCA, with a short coda using material from the C section.2
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Interlude: David Lord (b. 1944)
David Lord is a composer, producer and arranger. He studied classical composition at the Royal Academy of Music and received several commissions after completing his studies, including works for the London Symphony Orchestra, guitarist Julian Bream and Mezzo-Soprano Janet Baker. While continuing to compose classical music, Lord moved into the commercial music recording industry, becoming a rock studio owner and record company producer. He has worked with many notable recording artists including Peter Hammill, Jean-Michel Jarre, Tori Amos, and Echo and the Bunnymen. With Peter Gabriel, Lord pioneered the use of sampling in commercial record production. He has taught music at the University of Bath and The Laban Art of Movement Centre, London. His Interlude is the most modern sounding piece on this program. Marked “flessibile,” Lord uses a harmonic language that is mildly dissonant creating a piece that both rhythmically and harmonically ambiguous. The piece is in ABA form and opens with a single pedal F around which a series of interesting chords are built. The middle section is comprised of several short phrases interspersed with rests before the modified reprise of the first section. The harmonic ambiguity is particularly evident in the fact that the piece closes a half-step higher than it opens, ending on an added chord in F-sharp major.3
(Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Intrada: Grayston Ives (b. 1948)
Grayston Ives (known as Bill Ives) was a chorister at Ely Cathedral and went on to study music at Cambridge, taking composition lessons with Richard Rodney Bennett. He sang in the Guildford Cathedral Choir before joining the Kings Singers. He directed the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, for eighteen years and many of his compositions are written for choir and are have been performed by the Magdalen College Choir. He has served as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. He has worked with several popular music artists, giving the premiere of Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum, and has received many notable commissions including a Te Deum for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Intrada was written for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Thanksgiving service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1977. It makes use of the fanfare motifs and is harmonically composed of added chords (in which extra notes have been added to the common triad).4
(Publisher: Banks Music Publications, 1982)
Penguin’s playtime: Nigel Ogden (b. 1954)
The son of a church organist, Nigel Ogden began playing organ at age twelve. He trained as a teacher but began a career in the music business, getting his start as a salesman/demonstrator at an electric organ retail business in Hyde, Cheshire. In 1972, he began being featured on “The Organist Entertains,” a 30-minute weekly BBC Radio 2 program, presenting popular organ recordings from around the world. Since 1980, Ogden has been the presenter of “The Organist Entertains.” He regularly travels, giving concerts of popular light and light classical music on theatre organs and in churches and cathedrals. Ogden has composed a number of character pieces for organ (see, for example, Andrew Shenton’s recording of Scherzo for a White Rabbit on the CD Concert Variations). Penguin’s Playtime is a lively dance in 4/4. It has the form ABACCABA enclosed by a short introduction and coda. The right hand plays a variety of jaunty melodies accompanied by an ‘oom-pah’ figuration in the left hand and pedals. It is a fun and evocative piece and it is not hard to imagine penguin’s slipping and sliding on the ice as they play.5
(Publisher: Stainer & Bell, 1989)
Biographical details were sourced from Grove Music Online and The Oxford Companion to Music.
4. http://www.graystonives.com/biography.html and https://archive.today/www.kingssingers.com/aboutus/pastsinger_billives.htm
In 1938 Holy Name Church in West Roxbury, a suburb of Boston, became home to one of the most distinguished organs in Boston, a large 3 manual organ, opus 1691, built by the Wicks Organ Company It was designed by Henry Vincent Willis, grandson of “Father” Willis of the prestigious British organ building firm, who was the tonal designer for Wicks at the time. He designed several highly regarded organs for Wicks including the Holy Name instrument and a slightly larger 4 manual instrument, opus 1503 for the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Illinois. Prior to his employment at Wicks Willis had worked for the Midmar-Losh Organ Company where he was heavily involved in the development of the largest organ in the World, the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in the Atlantic City Convention Center. The pipes are divided between two large cases in the gallery and a separate 16 rank instrument located in the sanctuary. Both organs are controlled by twin 3-manual drawknob consoles, one in the gallery and the second in the sanctuary directly behind the altar. The specification of the current instrument can be found here. The organ was one of the instruments featured in the 2000 convention of the Organ Historical Society. In 2005, after more than 60 years of daily use, a complete refurbishing of the organ was begun. This work was completed in 2008 by the Southfield Organ Company.
Recording Details / Acknowledgments
The CD was recorded on the Wicks organ in Holy Name Church, West Roxbury on June 11, 2014.
Sound engineer: fader vu / Mike Burke
Producer: Andrew Shenton
This recording was supported in part by a grant from the Boston University Center for the Humanities.