Sunday 19 November 2017

A Franck appraisal of the organ masters

US Patent No 1,956,350 might seem an unlikely starting point for a consideration of classical music. It was issued on this day in 1934, acknowledging Laurens Hammond's invention.

The Hammond Organ is one of those names that we all seem to know, but if pressed to explain, we would be hard pushed to say more than it is something we might have heard in church, an electric organ to replicate what those huge pipe organs provide in cathedrals and concert halls.

There are reams upon reams of organ scores. It was as an organist that Johann Sebastian Bach was famous during his lifetime, and he wrote extensively for the instrument. Think Toccata, or Prelude and Fugue. His is the most often performed and recorded organ music.

Handel wrote six concertos for organ. Before them, Buxtehude and Pachelbel were writing for the instrument.

Later, Felix Mendelssohn was a noted player who did much to popularise organ music, particularly the compositions of Bach. Over in Paris, some years after Mendelssohn, there was Cesar Franck (pictured below), declared by no less an assessor than Franz Liszt, to be as good on the instrument as Bach.

Franck's Grande Piece symphonique, dating from the 1860s, is considered as the first solo organ symphony, and still gets played today, but in the symphonic context the instrument is most likely to be heard in the Camille Saint-Saens masterpiece, which was dedicated to the memory of Liszt.

This Symphony No 3 in C minor (avec orgue, with organ in the original French title) was the last symphony that Saint-Saens would write (there were five in all, but he withdrew two of them).

It is not specifically a symphony for organ, nor indeed an organ concerto, it's just that the organ features prominently, and there are parts for piano as well -- solo, and four hands -- two players on the one instrument.

However unusual all of this may be, it does lend to the symphony the air of a resume of the composer's career, combining three of its most important strands -- music for orchestra, piano, and organ.

All these elements are brought together in the conclusion -- the majestic organ, striding like a colossus through the music and the piano rippling along wonderfully in the background. It's no wonder Laurens Hammond was inspired.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE Lyric Fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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