Le Grande Orgue Magnifique de Columbus! Program Notes

Richard Strauss – Festival Prelude

Richard Strauss was no stranger to grand statements in music. Deeply influenced by the musical ideas of Franz Liszt and the epic-length, infinitely complex operas of Richard Wagner, Strauss gained fame – and infamy as well – for pressing hard against the established boundaries of form, harmony, instrumental technique and taste. In 1896, the German composer penned a long-form orchestral tone poem based on the philosophical tome of Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra; its familiar opening fanfare is one of the most thrillingly explosive passages in the orchestral repertoire. His Alpine Symphony of 1915 lives up to its name with a pseudo-narration of an eleven-hour climb of an alpine mountain, replete with soaring themes and resplendent musical vistas.

By 1913, the composer’s reputation was already second to none among living composers in his home country and beyond (that reputation would endure until his death in 1949). So it was natural that he would be asked to compose a new work for the opening of the opulent Konzerthaus in Vienna. True to his personality, Strauss took the opportunity to pen a work of nearly unprecedented grandeur: A Festival Prelude scored for 150 players including 96 strings, twelve trumpets, organ, and assorted other augmentations including the “aërophone,” a mechanical novelty created to help brass players sustain their tones longer.

Due as much to its excessive personnel demands as anything, the work has not cemented a place in the standard repertoire. For our performance, the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic will perform a reduced orchestration of the work penned especially for the occasion by Dan Powers. Even in this more condensed package, one cannot miss the message that Strauss had in mind: This is music that blasts the senses and echoes in the ear long after its final crescendo fades away.

 Charles-Marie Widor – Symphony for Organ and Orchestra

The mid- and late-1800s saw an explosion of interest in and compositions for the organ in France. In no small part this was due to the plethora of world-class instruments in that country – who could walk away from hearing even “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played on the magnificent pipe organ of St. Sulpice inParisand not be affected?

It was for this instrument that Charles-Marie Widor wrote most of his ten Organ Symphonies (for solo organ – no orchestra) between 1876 and 1900. While Widor was an excellent composer for other instruments (as well as for the voice, as proven by his dramatic opera, Les pecheurs de Saint-Jean), it is for his Organ Symphonies that he is primarily remembered.

He also wrote five orchestral symphonies (two of which feature the organ as a soloist), and an unnumbered and all but forgotten Symphony for Organ and Orchestra dating from 1882 that we will hear today. That Widor never gave this symphony a numerical designation, or even its own opus number, reflects the fact that this work is actually a transcription of three movements from his earlier Organ Symphonies (numbers 6 and 2).

The impetus for this transcribed work was a request in the fall of 1880 from the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of England, who asked Widor for an organ concerto to be performed in the Royal Albert Hall as part of a benefit concert for a London hospital. Widor was always very busy, so time may have been a factor in his decision to transcribe already existing works rather than take the time to write a new one. The premiere of the new symphony took place in Paris in April 1882; the promised London performance occurred a month later. Widor, naturally, was the soloist for both occasions.

Some years later, the work was taken up by the Belgian virtuoso Charles-Marie Courboin, who would give the American premiere in Philadelphia in 1919 with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the famous Wannamaker store. Judging by contemporary accounts, the symphony was enthusiastically received, and Courboin performed it several more times, but before long it would disappear entirely from the concert stage. The score and parts were lost, and the symphony became, at best, a footnote in the catalogue of Widor’s works.

Interest in the work never faded completely away, however. In the early 1990s, two manuscript copies of the score came to light. The first was found in the collection of Albert Riemenschneider (1878-1950), an American organist who studied with Widor, and performed the symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1928. The second score had been in the possession of Courboin until his death in 1973. Copies of both manuscripts began to circulate, and interest in the forgotten work began to revive. In 2000, David Bowden conducted a performance with the San Diego Symphony and organist Robert Plimpton, which received a cheering standing ovation after just the first movement. At the end of the performance the vociferous ovation extended nearly fifteen minutes. The parts that were used for this concert were provided to Bowden after being found in the attic of one of Courboin’s descendants now living in Tennessee.

Dr. Bowden writes, “The performance of the complete symphony/concerto was enormously successful, but the musicians struggled to actually be able to read photocopies of old hand-written parts.  Through an influential patron at that concert who heard about these issues, the world’s premier Widor scholar, musicologist John Near, was engaged to edit and publish this great work. I was privileged to be able to be consulted by Dr. Near on a number of matters related to the published performing edition.  It is a joy to present this once lost and forgotten masterpiece tonight, a work in whose revival I was able to play a part.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.”

The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is in three movements, of which the first and third derive from the Organ Symphony no. 6, published in the opus 42 series. This explains Widor’s decision to designate the orchestral version as opus 42 as well, though the modifier bis (2 or “the 2nd”) has been added.  These outer movements are scored for full orchestra in addition to the organ part, which is changed very little from the original version. The middle movement, however, is taken from the Organ Symphony no. 2 (opus 13), much more sparingly re-scored for organ and strings.

Bowden continues, “Now it is only a matter of time before this Symphony for Organ and Orchestra takes its place in the standard repertoire alongside Widor’s other great works.  For, like the symphonies for solo organ, this piece demonstrates a wealth of warm lyricism, intricate rhythms, subtle orchestration, and powerful fortissimos.”

 Morten Lauridsen – Lux Aeterna   

For those who presume modern art music to be harsh or strident, Morten Lauridsen demonstrates that it ain’t necessarily so. His tranquil, melodic compositions and lush orchestrations, which hearken more to late Romantic and Impressionistic music than to the avant garde trends of the 20th Century, have found a welcoming home in concert halls around America during the 59-year old composer’s lifetime. Not surprisingly, Lauridsen has enjoyed a string of grants and prizes for his work, including honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, ASCAP, and others.

Written in 1997 for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which has held Lauridsen as its composer-in-residence since 1994, Lux Aeterna is composed around ancient Latin texts, all of which make reference to Light. The five-movement work, performed without pause between movements, is infused with a sense of peacefulness uncommon in modern music, echoing in many places the muted yet exquisite beauty of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.

Like that work, Lux Aeterna is based on sacred canonical texts – in this instance, the beginning and ending of the traditional Catholic requiem mass, plus three central movements drawn from the Te Deum, O Nata Lux, and Veni, Creator Spiritus. It is noteworthy that the light-themed work is framed by words originally intended to honor the dead – for one hears throughout the music a sense of contrast, an underlying emotional complexity that is not all blaze and brilliance. Light, after all, is most impressive when it casts shadows, and here there are plenty – not least of them the emotional backdrop experienced by the composer, whose mother passed away while he was working on Lux Aeterna.

But Lauridsen reminds us that in darkest times, light can always be found: “You opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers,” the choir sings in the work’s second movement. “A light has risen in the darkness for the upright. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us.”

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