Great Organ Music at Yale | James O'Donnell

Sunday, September 17, 2023, 7:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall

View PDF of the print progam here.

Program Notes

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is today best-known for his six symphonies, three concertos and chamber music. Less well-known, and rarely performed, is Commotio Op 58 (1930-31) for organ: Nielsen’s last work and, judging by the surviving correspondence, a piece he considered one of his most important. In February 1931 he wrote to his son-in-law:

“None of my other works has demanded such great concentration as this: an attempt to reconstitute what is truly the only valid organ style, the polyphonic music that is especially suited to this instrument…”

The following month he wrote to his wife:

“Now my big organ piece is quite finished and I am happy about the work because it has been done with greater skill than all my other things.”

Nielsen stated that his chosen title, the Latin word ‘commotio’ (meaning ‘movement’), applies to all music and implies a quality of ‘self-objectification’, which accords with his neoclassical sensibilities and fondness for traditional musical forms and techniques, such as fugue. His original intention was to publish the piece without any expression or performance instructions: the first edition however included the markings—mainly dynamic and tempo indications—found in the composer’s fair copy and which are indispensable to the performer.

The formal structure of Commotio is in many ways similar to that of an extended Buxtehude Praeludium but on a much larger scale. The music forms one continuous movement but falls into distinct, contrasting sections. The piece begins with a dramatic introductory Adagio over two long pedal points a tritone apart (G and C sharp). The music is densely chromatic with a striking tonal fluidity which sets the scene for the music to come. After a gentler, lilting interlude comes the first of the two extended fugues that form the structural pillars of the piece, with a subject détaché in G major. The music becomes more turbulent and again subsides into a lyrical Andante sostenuto, which then builds into a C major fugue in a buoyant 12/8 meter.  The work comes to a heroic conclusion in C major.

Not surprisingly there was much interest among Danish organists in a major new organ piece by the country’s greatest living composer. Aside from anything else it was an intriguing new departure for Nielsen. Before the first performance in Aarhus Cathedral in August 1931 no fewer than three organists had played the work privately for the composer. In October the same year a planned celebratory performance in the Marienkirche, Lübeck – Buxtehude’s church – became instead a commemoration for the composer, who had died only a few days previously.

The formative role played in the development of nineteenth-century French organ music by César Franck (1822-90) is well recognized. Appointed organist titulaire at the basilica of St Clotilde in 1859, and professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, he had a wide circle of influence. The Cavaillé-Coll organ in St Clotilde inspired much of his writing for the organ. Franck was particularly taken with the expressive potential of the trumpet stop on the enclosed Swell organ, or Récit, which he often specified to be used as a solo voice, as in the Cantabile. The work was first performed by the composer on the large new Cavaillé-Coll organ in the Palais du Trocadéro, Paris, as part of the Paris World Exhibition in 1878. It is easy to see why it was an immediate hit with audiences. But apart from its lovely melody one can also note the finely-wrought voice-leading of the accompanimental parts and Franck’s command of chromatic harmony, teetering just on the brink of sentimentality.

This program closes with another work first performed by its composer in the 1878 Paris World Exhibition. Relatively little of Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) music is known today except for his works for organ which, important though they are, constitute only about ten percent of his output. From 1870 until 1934 Widor was organist of St. Sulpice, one of the most prestigious churches in Paris and home to a famous Cavaillé-Coll organ. He succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire on the latter’s death in 1890, only to relinquish the post six years later to become professor of composition. His students included Marcel Dupré, Darius Milhaud, Albert Schweitzer, and Edgard Varèse.

Central to Widor’s organ compositions are his ten so-called ‘organ symphonies’. Taking the lead from Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique both Widor and his near-contemporary Guilmant composed a series of large-scale multi-movement works (symphonies) which were generally independent of liturgical themes or material and conceived on a symphonic scale. They aimed to exploit the full range of color and expression made possible by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.

The opening movement of the sixth symphony (Op. 42 no. 2), marked Allegro, begins with an arresting tutti statement of an austere, chorale-like theme in the key of G minor. A cadenza-like passage (quasi recitativo) leads into an exciting toccata-like section based on motives from the opening theme, which returns briefly in its chorale-like guise only to give way to a light-hearted scherzando underpinned by agile staccato pedal figuration quasi pizzicato. This builds towards a final agitato statement of the main theme which brings the movement to an exhilarating close.

The beautiful Adagio in B major that follows perhaps shows the influence of the music of Richard Wagner. In 1876 Widor had attended the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth and it made a deep impression on him. Certainly the sumptuous opening registration (gambes et voix célestes), rich, chromatic harmony, and singing lines full of expressive appoggiaturas, could suggest the German composer’s influence.  A dramatic agitato episode leads to a return of the opening material, now featuring a serene flute solo.

Next the Intermezzo reverts to the tonic G minor for a thrilling, Schumann-like scherzo marked staccato throughout. Widor stipulates an unusual registration of reeds and cornets, giving the music the incisive and slightly pungent character of a grand jeu. The trio section, in three strict parts with much use of imitation, serves as a comparatively serious interlude before the return of the unruly scherzo.

Widor’s fourth movement, Cantabile, shares its title and its melodic beauty with Franck’s work, and, like Franck, Widor stipulates a trumpet stop for the return of the theme (although we hear it the first time on an oboe stop), where it is accompanied by bubbling triplet figuration on a flute stop. This then comes into its own in a final coda, soaring above glowing strings and closing sublimely in the key of D flat major.

The Finale (‘Vivace’) begins arrestingly on full organ, rather suddenly returning us to the tonic major key of G. Like the start of the entire work much of the music is emphatic and chordal, but now lacking any trace of severity, propelled by dotted rhythms and a real sense of joie de vivre. A final più mosso coda brings the work to an exuberant conclusion.

— James O’Donnell