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Isabelle Demers, organ
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About This Performance
Marking her Walt Disney Concert Hall debut, Canadian Isabelle Demers has been called a “diminutive dynamo” at the keyboard. This virtuosic up-and-comer will perform works by Bach, Widor, Martin and her own original transcriptions of Wagner and Prokofiev.
Bach’s Music as a Pedal-Point to Different Eras
Notes by Gregg Wager
Because organists tend to make Bach the central ingredient of their diet, all other music in their repertory can be appreciated somehow by comparison. Demers’s program spans several centuries, but somehow Bach’s influence is present throughout. Whether this was intended, a subliminal force when choosing the music, or ultimately just an illusion by at least one observer will be up to each listener to discern.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, also serves as the first and final pieces for his Clavierübung III, a collection of 27 (or 3 x 3 x 3) works for large or small organ, although only these first and final pieces also carry the title “pro Organo pleno,” which indicates a full organ with pedals. The German word “-übung” normally means some sort of exercise, but here the word refers to exercises for listening and enriching the soul, not perfecting finger technique. In fact, Albert Schweitzer nicknamed the collection “mass for organ.”
The Prelude derives from three thematic and stylistic sections, and, again, Schweitzer is often attributed as the originator of the now popular symbolism that this represents the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The “Father” theme employs the dotted-eighth note to sixteenth-note rhythm of the French Overture of Bach’s day, while the “Son” theme is more playful and simple. The “Holy Ghost” theme consists of a sinuous 16th-note melody that divides into two different alternating lines. These sections then intermingle, but maintain their distinct characters.
The five-voice triple Fugue is also in three sections, continuing the prelude’s Holy Trinity symbolism. Those of us in the English-speaking world have dubbed it “St. Anne” after a popular English hymn of Bach’s day (usually set with the text “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past”). “St. Anne” is the name of a church in the Soho section of London, where the hymn was written. It’s not known if Bach had actually heard this tune, or if the similarity to his opening fugue subject is purely coincidental.
The term “Gothic” in the title of Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) Ninth Organ Symphony originates from the distinctive Gothic architecture of the Church of St. Ouen in Rouen, where one of the most famous Cavaillé-Coll pipe organs in France is located. Widor called the instrument “a Michelangelo of an organ.”
The second movement of this organ symphony utilizes a distinctive E-flat-major melody with a few well-placed chromatic twists and turns supported by a repetitive accompaniment. The influence of César Franck is apparent, but the work stands on its own as arguably the most popular piece Widor ever wrote.
Those familiar with Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg know that this opera distinguishes itself from his other operas by not only lacking mythical monsters, magic, or love potions, but basing its hero on a historical figure, Hans Sachs (1494-1576). The story of artisans formed into a guild of mastersingers dedicated to art, poetry, and music in the Medieval German city of Nuremberg is also a love story. Sachs assists the man in love, Walther, in winning a songwriting contest, the prize of which is by happenstance Walther’s beloved, Eva. Wagner uses two very recognizable, fanfare-like leitmotivs, one to symbolize the mastersingers, and another to represent Walther; a more melodious, flowing melody to represent love; and, towards the end of the Overture, a stacking of these three leitmotivs simultaneously to represent Walther’s winning his love and joining the mastersingers at the same time.
Why Wagner chose to follow up the morose, highly chromatic harmonies of Tristan und Isolde with the grandiose C-major of Meistersinger has baffled musicologists for over 150 years. This stylistic about-face has been attributed to everything from Wagner’s interest in the hero-centric theories of art by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to an attempt symbolically to depict a medieval musical world, without actually resorting to the actual musical practice of that time.
In her transcription of the overture for pipe organ, Demers admits that her fascination with this music is primarily based on the way Wagner emphasizes counterpoint and the overlapping of leitmotivs. Then again, this is one of Wagner’s most tightly composed and powerful overtures, brilliantly resonating in C major, and few organists could not be tempted to play it on a pipe organ.
Like most piano students of the last century, composer Henry Martin (b. 1950) from early on always kept Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier near at hand while practicing at the piano. By the time he discovered composing, as an adult, Martin admits that by force of habit he kept reaching for the Bach, feeling almost innately comfortable and at home composing new music within the structures he admired there. So, in the span of ten years (1990 to 2000), Martin eventually completed an entire cycle of preludes and fugues for the piano. Although styled after Bach, the works exhibit Martin’s own eclecticism mixing 20th-century modernism, bebop, ragtime, and Impressionism. The cycle went on to win several awards, securing Martin a reputation as a new prelude-and-fugue writer.
In such a Bach-dominated musical universe as Martin’s, it might have been inevitable that the pipe organ would call him to yet more prelude-and-fugue duty. An aficionado who runs a radio show and website for pipe organ, Michael Barone, approached Martin to start writing a new cycle of preludes and fugues, unrelated to his cycle for piano.
Martin specifically wrote the E-major installment of the new pipe organ cycle for Demers, taking up her challenge after she gave a recital in Nashville to write something country-and-western. This he accomplished by mimicking banjo patterns from bluegrass music, but also by using a Bach E-minor prelude and fugue as a muse. As for Martin’s G-flat-major Prelude and Fugue for pipe organ, this time he turned to a purely abstract musical world.
When Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) first finished his two-and-a-half hour ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1935, it seemed the natural thing to take some of the more prominent musical episodes and collect them into orchestral suites. These collections are remarkably varied in tone and invention. Two of the suites, with seven pieces each, share the same opus number as the complete ballet (Op. 64, although oddly designated “64bis” and “64ter”). A collection of ten of the pieces arranged for piano was published as Op. 75, and yet a third symphonic suite of six pieces was published later as Op. 101.
Demers has now arranged her own suite for organ using five pieces that have been included in the various suites that Prokofiev arranged himself, and four other pieces that were not. These four new selections are arranged like a medley into a fifth movement, ending with the famous “Montagues and Capulets” theme (also known as “Dance of the Knights”), which probably rivals Peter and the Wolf as the most famous music Prokofiev ever wrote.
Demers explains what compelled her to create her own suite in the following way: “Prokofiev’s setting is – in my humble opinion – the greatest setting of Romeo and Juliet, because of the variety of moods that he is able to represent musically. In choosing a few excerpts from the ballet, I’ve tried to convey that variety. ‘Street Awakens’ is rather comical; so is ‘Romeo at the Fountain,’ though it also has a hint of lyricism. ‘Madrigal’ is a small balcony scene; the middle section, during which Romeo and Juliet meet, is so moving, even after hearing and playing it hundreds of times! ‘Morning Serenade’ is a bit funny, but also slightly sinister, as it’s ultimately a funeral march disguised as a serenade. The last movement is sheer action and drama, and ends with the most beloved passage of the ballet – ‘Montagues and Capulets’.”
Above all, this final fifth movement, which is linked together from various non-ordered parts of the ballet, demonstrates a highly contrapuntal writing, which Prokofiev is not usually noted for, but could certainly be quite masterful with. One suspects Demers has actually created here something beyond a merely functional suite of new transcriptions.
Canadian composer and organist Rachel Laurin’s (b. 1961) Étude héroïque honors any organist heroic enough to master the pipe organ, which of course is also commonly referred to as the “king of instruments.” Laurin assures us that although her exercise is designed to thoroughly challenge such a hero, in terms of mastering fingering and pedaling, it should also provide something interesting and enriching for the general public to listen to.
The approximately seven-minute composition divides into several sections identified by Italian tempo indications, although the main overlying form is a palindromic rondo (introABACABAcoda). The A section carries the title “Deciso,” while the B section is indicated “Misterioso.” The C section, “Tranquillo et Espressivo,” derives from a virtuosic pedal recitative stated in the second part of the introduction, but also brings out a countermelody on the oboe stop.
The piece concludes after a final statement of the A section refrain, which Laurin describes as an early “tambourin” dance, only to unite the A and B sections together with other materials into the final coda. This serves as the final, heroic dénouement to the many different styles presented.
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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Upbeat Live: pre-concert talks
- Sunday, March 25, 2012 - 6:30pm
Thomas Neenan, Lecturer in Music History and Theory at Caltech and Music Director and Conductor of The Chamber Orchestra at St. Matthew's, in conversation with organist Isabelle Demers
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