Friday, March 27, 2015

Organ Concertos

No. 191 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Our last post for March adds another chapter to our look at concertos, and also adds another installment to our yearly Lenten organ series, by proposing concertos for organ and orchestra. All three works programmed today were composed within the same 12 year period – 1926-1938, and involve two very familiar names, and a third more obscure composer who left us a monumental work. 

The montage opens with Francis Poulenc’s concerto for organ, strings and timpani which, according to the internet, is one of the most frequently performed concerti for organ not from the Baroque period. The work was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac, herself an organist and a musical patron. Born Winnaretta Singer, she was the twentieth of the 24 (!) children of Isaac Singer (the man who perfected the sewing machine). Born in America, she lived most of her adult life in France. The concerto was composed at a time of particular religious devotion for the composer who at that time had rediscovered his Catholic roots. Interestingly, Poulenc was openly gay and his patron was also gay – though married to Prince Edmond de Polignac who turns out was himself a gay amateur composer. Although it was a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage), or indeed a lavender marriage (a union between a gay man and a lesbian), it was based on profound love, mutual respect, understanding, and artistic friendship, expressed especially through their love of music.
Poulenc had never composed specifically for the organ before, and so he studied great baroque masterpieces for the instrument by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude; as reflected by the work's neo-baroque feel.

Paul Hindemith composed a series of eight Kammermusik (Chamber Music). With the exception of the second piece (Kleine Kammermusik, op. 24 no. 2 for wind quartet), the titles are simply Kammermisik No. 1 to No. 7. Most of the works are not 'chamber music' in the traditional sense of the word, as they require larger forces than normally understood by the term. indeed, six are effectively concertos (Hindemith's subtitles say as much). However, in contrast to the much larger forces (and sounds) Hindemith previously employed, the works are very much chamber-styled if not truly chamber works. Kammermusik No. 7 features E. Power Biggs as soloist.

We come “full circle” for our last work, a sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra. Marie-Alphonse-Nicolas-Joseph Jongen was a Belgian organist, composer, and music educator. From his teens to his seventies Jongen composed a great deal, including symphonies, concertos (for cello, for piano and for harp), chamber music (notably a late string trio and three string quartets), and songs, some with piano, others with orchestra. Of a body of work of well-over 200 works, only his output for organ is performed with any regularity, much of it solo, some of it in combination with other instruments.

His Symphonie Concertante of 1926 is a tour de force, considered by many to be among the greatest works ever written for organ and orchestra. Numerous eminent organists of modern times (such as Virgil Fox, today’s soloist) have championed and recorded it.

The work was commissioned by Rodman Wanamaker for debut in the Grand Court of his palatial Philadelphia department store, Wanamaker's. Its intended use was for the re-dedication of the world's largest pipe organ there, the Wanamaker Organ. As part of a series of concerts Rodman Wanamaker funded with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Wanamaker's death in 1928 precluded the performance of the work at that time in the venue for which it was written, but it was finally performed for the first time with the Wanamaker Organ and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2008.

I think you will love this music too.