Part of OR1 Organ Recital Series
Ann Elise Smoot , organ
Schmidt: "O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen"
Reger: Toccata and Fugue (op. 59, nos. 5 & 6)
Sowerby: II. Fast and Sinister, From Symphony for Organ in G
Simonds: Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus"
Whitlock: III. Scherzetto from Sonata in C minor for Organ
Marsh: Solomon’s Demons (US première)
Elgar: Imperial March
About This Performance
Winner of the 1998 National Young Artists Competition of The American Guild of Organists, Smoot has made critically acclaimed recordings at the Washington National Cathedral and on the two historic Silbermann organs in Alsace, France.
About The Program
Notes by Gregg Wager
American organist Ann Elise Smoot has found her individual path to virtuosity patiently emphasizing precision in musical content over the more immediate effects of bombast or dazzling agility. During master classes that she conducts throughout America, she has been known to tell students to study relevant portions of the history of the country a composer was active in, not to mention even studying the language itself of that country.
Although there is nothing wrong with the visceral sonic effects that pipe organs are so remarkably capable of, Smoot’s program here consists of music that requires more attentive listening. The first half of the program consists of a collection of mostly 20th-century music by composers whose native tongues are German and French, while a subtly contrasting set of works by English and American composers makes up the second half.
This lean musical diet stresses the content of these works and how the composers have refined their language. These composers could be flamboyant and flashy when they wanted to be, but they also knew how to explore a sophisticated, more introspective side of music. Whether intentional or not, Smoot has even apparently chosen several pieces matching their key areas: the first half of the program is mostly in areas with a “one flat” key signature (F major or D minor and related keys); and the second half favors keys in C and G.
An organ toccata by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) typically took the form of a grab bag of quick flurries of notes, extended pedal passages, and repetitive patterns that allowed the organist to exercise and loosen up before embarking on the longer, more intricate piece it was paired with, usually a fugue. The character of Bach’s Toccata in F, BWV 540, proves far more ambiguous than this stereotypical model, lasting up to nine minutes long and standing on its own as a substantial piece of music (even though it is traditionally paired with a fugue not included in this program). In fact, some published editions even refer to this lengthy toccata as a prelude.
A running 16th-note motive that starts the piece off is played over a long drone in the pedal, and this idea recurs throughout, exploring several different key areas. Eventually more chords and syncopation are added, but without disrupting the steady flow. In this way, the Toccata remains focused primarily on a single motive and portrays it consistently in a character of festive and fluid gestures. This allows the overall effect to be of a tightly organized work, distinguished from the more peripatetic norm of Bach’s other toccatas.
Over the years since he died, the legacy of composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) has made for a compelling but ultimately unconvincing political discussion, mostly based on the première of an oratorio which happened to coincide with the German Anschluss of Austria and which the Nazis inflated to the level of propaganda. However convenient Schmidt’s conservative approach to music was to this end, any halfhearted political convictions towards the end of his life would be made under the distractions of poor health and the tragedy of losing his wife to a state policy of euthanasia.
With these and other political tensions just beginning to mount in 1926, he wrote his Four Small Chorale Preludes (4 kleine Choralvorspiele). The third of these, “O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen” (O how holy you indeed are, you the faithful), is based on a hymn that was famously set by both Bach and Brahms. Schmidt’s soft and solemn setting presents the hymn melody predominantly and lucidly on one manual, supported throughout with gentle harmonies mostly in D minor.
During a three-year period living with his parents while recuperating from military duty, Max Reger (1873-1916) composed an extensive amount of work, including a set of 12 pieces for organ, eventually published as his Op. 59. The fifth and sixth pieces of this cycle pair off appropriately as Toccata and Fugue, the former commencing with a loud, bold presentation of scalar motion, roughly in D minor. The left hand follows the right with a recurring imitative pattern, followed by stridently dissonant chords. As a juxtaposition of these ideas further develops them, a quiet interlude abruptly interrupts, followed by a conclusion with a powerful recapitulation of the opening ideas.
The Fugue in D major painstakingly and slowly unfolds, building a quiet and reflective four-voice chorale counterpoint on an otherwise simple subject. Because of a similarity of melodic contour and its continuous development, this fugue has sometimes been compared to Bach’s famous C-major fugue from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Although composer-organist Jehan Alain’s (1911-1940) unusual life and 10-year career ended abruptly when he was killed during World War II, his Suite for Organ, Op. 48, brought him probably the most fame and success during his lifetime, earning him a first prize for the Paris “amis de l'orgue.” The three movements represent Alain’s mature style, which stresses a playful type of improvisation as well as a starkly simple approach to the presentation of ideas.
In a little more than seven minutes, the first movement develops a single motive of 12 notes, harmonized in parallel motion like Medieval plainchant. This motive breaks down and resurrects itself into a set of variations, always developing its melodic character.
Beginning with an eerie introduction stating a theme over tone clusters, the second movement, titled “Scherzo,” quickly finds its more lively character, although without entirely shedding the sinister quality of its tone clusters, and ends with a more subdued ostinato serving as a coda. Other than the occasional quirkiness of Alain’s unusual harmonies, the final “Choral” movement concludes the Suite in a remarkably straightforward and traditional form.
The exuberance of Jean Langlais’ (1907-1991) Fête, Op. 51, flows out freely, exploring limits of cacophony as contrasted with a more quiet middle development section, in which the music develops the continuously moving character, but at a much slower tempo. Finally, the opening cacophony returns, at one point breaking down into a string of abrupt and dissonant tone clusters, but ending grandly on a final E-major chord. It may be easy for the listener to get lost in the thick textures, but the overall festive character of the piece ultimately prevails.
The second of three movements of the Symphony for Organ in G by Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) carries the curious tempo indication “Fast and Sinister.” Being the only fast movement of the Symphony, its 5/4 time signature still might get lost within the uneven pulsations at a tempo of 208 beats per minutes (the fastest tempo on the modern metronome).
After the establishment of a distinct accompaniment, a meandering melody is introduced in the pedals, requiring the feet to play with just as much finesse and nuance as any melody played on the manuals. The overall development proceeds in an understated way, actually losing itself in a texture that utilizes the melody and accompaniment unpredictably, but always with a lively and delicate serenity that eventually ends loudly.
Yale professor Bruce Simonds (1895-1989) was hardly known as a prolific composer, let alone a composer for the organ, for which he wrote only two known pieces. His Prelude on “Iam sol recedit igneus” (as the fiery sun departs) is based on a line from a hymn attributed to St. Ambrose, “O lux beate Trinitas” (O light of the blessed Trinity). The slow meditative quality of the piece finds nevertheless a remarkable depth of emotion, almost more an anthem than prelude. The listener may imagine a fiery sun burning in the sky, but the stillness of the sun is emphasized here, and the euphoria it creates is something spiritually optimistic and hopeful.
The whimsical Scherzetto by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) is the third movement of his Sonata for Organ in C minor. The pat and catchy melody is constructed with ascending arpeggios followed by a syncopated repeated note. The tonal harmonic language remains lush and even occasionally sounds like ragtime.
Smoot commissioned American-born composer Joanna Marsh (b. 1970) to write Solomon’s Demons and premiered it last July at Westminster Abbey. The work explores what Marsh claims are the supernatural elements embedded within the multi-ethnic nature of the famous Hebrew temple in Jerusalem, especially injecting Arabic mythology of the Djin. Marsh has been living in Dubai, incorporating the Arabic influences there into her music in this and other similar ways.
Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the Imperial March, Opus 32, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), was transcribed for organ by George Clement Martin from the full orchestral version. The organ version became popular on its own and is often played in encore. This grandiose celebratory piece in B-flat major is punctuated by a secondary theme in G minor recognizable by its repetitive notes. A more subdued middle section in E-flat major develops a new melody before the opening melodies return for an especially large ending.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.
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