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Ordinary Time 2017

14 July 2009
organ - American symphonies for (part 1)

American Symphonies for Organ

David Diamond wrote his Symphony for Organ in 1987, thus culminating the tradition of the American "organ symphony" in the last century. The beginning of the American tradition dovetails nicely with the late Symphonies of Louis Vierne.

Warning: There's a doctoral thesis here somewhere. If you write it, you owe me $20. If you are already writing it, sorry I spilled the beans.

Symphonic nomenclature

With regard to the title, the term "organ symphony" has always been a bit of a colloquialism. Widor and Vierne simply titled their large multi-movement solo organ works "Symphonies". Only in America do we then pound the term "organ" into the title of symphonic works for the solo instrument. This becomes either a descriptive title ("Symphony for Organ") or a full-fledged proper name ("Organ Symphony"), a term that brings to mind the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, the orchestral symphony that prominently features loud organ chords in the final movement.

No American composer has actually given their work the title Organ Symphony, but this is the title that Gunther Schuller will use when referring to Leo Sowerby's Symphony for Organ.

From Widor to Copland: American beginnings

The strands of the organ symphony movement in America begin with Aaron Copland. His Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924) was in many ways the first major work of his career. While not a solo organ work, it does of course feature prominent writing for the instrument. There are also obvious ties to the French organ symphony genre. The organist for the work's premiere was Copland's composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger studied organ with Louis Vierne, and composition with Charles-Marie Widor, the two titans of the French organ symphony.

Leo Sowerby: a large American organ work

In the same year that Vierne wrote his last symphony, Leo Sowerby wrote his first: the Symphony for Organ. Written in 1930, the work was published in 1932 (See Robert Parris's dissertation). Vierne's final symphony, written after a tour of the United States, maintained his favored five-movement structure. The "Dean of American church music" left us with a non-traditional, three-movement work with a quintessentially American character. The first movement begins "very broadly" outlining the expansive sweep of the American landscape. The second movement is marked "fast and sinister", arguably description of the frenetic pace and character of American life. The third, composed first, is a telestic passacaglia.

Eventually this article/dissertation will have to be expanded to include a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, published two years after Sowerby's Symphony for Organ. Common themes: Americans in France, American Francophilia in the early Twentieth Century, acting, love, etc.

Gunther Schuller: reinventing the past

Gunther Schuller's Symphony (1981), the fourth work titled "symphony" that he composed, is scored for solo organ. In his Musings you can read that he was describing his own forthcoming work a "four-movement Symphony for Organ" and says that it is "perhaps the first of its kind since Sowerby's Symphony for Organ Symphony of 1936."

Discounting Sowerby's own smaller Sinfonia Brevis (1965), Schuller is likely correct in his assumption. The intervening years were largely devoid of organ symphony composition, but the 1980s saw a flurry of activity; beginning with Schuller's three such works composed by major composers.

Schuller is, however, misinformed about some of the details of the larger Sowerby work. First of all, Sowerby called the work "Symphony for Organ" not Organ Symphony and the work was written in 1930. This errant date seems to have popped up in the New York Times a few years later.

Mr. Schuller believes that his symphony may be the first essay in this form since Leo Sowerby's Symphony in G (1936); he may well be right. In any event, this is a major work.

Mr. Schuller seems to have built his symphony around the pattern established by Charles-Marie Widor, complete with a toccata finale. He has neither Widor's gift for melody nor the French composer's ability to create irresistible musical sequences that, heard once, are impossible to forget. But Mr. Schuller's harmonic sense is sure, his conception grand, and he displayed an acute understanding of the organ's innate power and possibilities.

Page, Tim. "RECITAL: NEW MUSIC IN VILLAGE" New York Times 22 April 1985. Emphasis added

Here again there are problems. The Sowerby Symphony for Organ is called "Symphony in G" and the date again is given incorrectly as 1936.

William Albright: bridging the gap

There are some notable omissions in the organ symphony movement. Ned Rorem studied composition with Sowerby and might have been a logical torch-bearer for the American organ symphony. His "organ books" fall short of symphonic stature, but share the genre with William Albright, another composer of the American livre d'orgue movement. Albright has also composed a Symphony for Organ.

The Symphony for Organ, which arguably occupies a dominant position in Albright's oeuvre, was commissioned by the University of Evansville and the Friends of UE Music with the support of the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. The work, completed in July 1986, was premiered by Douglas Reed (to whom the work is dedicated) on the Holtkamp organ in Wheeler Concert Hall at the University of Evansville on 4 November 1986. Percussionist Ted Rubright assisted. This thirty-minute work consists of four movements in which an overall conceptual simplicity contrasts with a richness of subtle musical detail. In the booklet accompanying his recording of Chasm (William Albright, Music for organ and Harpsichord [Arkay Records AR6112]), Reed notes:

The work grows out of the genre of large multi-movement compositions for solo organ developed primarily by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century French composers, Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne. Each movement explores a primary color: principals (first movement), flutes (second movement, ["Cantilena"]), reeds and mixtures (third movement, ["Tarantella macabra"]), and foundation stops including strings and celestes (fourth movement, ["Ritual"]).

Mary Ann Dodd. "Symphony for Organ: Organ Solo with Percussion." Notes Sept 1997.

Albright's addition of percussion in the final movement of what is otherwise a typical organ symphony is analogous to Saint-Saëns use of the organ at the end of his Symphony No. 3 or the use of trombones in Beethoven's choral and orchestral Symphony No. 9. In all these cases, the introduction of a "foreign" element expands the boundaries of the work as it draws to a close. Like Sowerby's Passacaglia, a teleological goal is evident.

Percussion is a natural ally to the organ as many organs include percussive effects including the classic zimblestern, and those effects associated with French storm fantasies: the rossignol, the effet d'orage, and, rarely, the rain machine. Lou Harrison's earlier Concerto for Organ and Percussion (1973) makes full use of the relationship.

This article will be continued.

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