Music Post: The Organ, from Bach to Iron Butterfly

Published: Oct. 9, 2018 at 2:03 PM HST
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I often talk about my dad being 99, and good for him, but it is also true that my mother succumbed to a brain tumor in her late sixties. It came on suddenly, progressed rapidly and devastated the family. Planning the funeral, someone asked me what the organist should play and I suggested “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” because it was a favorite of my dad’s (he likes New Orleans jazz and this is a staple of that repertory) and because Tennessee Ernie Ford, whom my mother liked, sang it (with male back-up singers riffing “Oh, my Lordy Lord” to make it swing.) What a horrible mistake this was. Already in grief, Dad did not need to hear a favorite tune turned into a dirge on the organ.

I’ve met several people who say, “I don’t like organ music. It reminds me of funerals.”

Yet a huge chunk of classical music, including some pinnacles of the repertory, are composed for solo organ. About once a year I do a whole show of music for organ, but I take steps to make the program sound as “un-funereal” as possible.

It helps to sample jazz and rock for organ – “Inna Gadda Da Vida,” and some Emerson Lake & Palmer, and cheesy Hammond organ jazz from the 1960s and later. I will.

But there are also magnificent classical organ concertos, like Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings & Timpani, which the Hawaii Symphony will soon perform live, and Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for Organ & Orchestra, one of the first sonic showpieces on the then-new Telarc label, and the rollicking scherzo from Aaron Copland’s early Organ Symphony.

Organs were the first synthesizers, using the most advanced technology of the day to replicate the sounds of acoustic instruments. In American history from the 1600s through most of the 1800s, if the average American heard any major music it was played on an organ, because even our most famous symphony orchestras were not founded until the late 19thcentury and some even later than that.

Paris was the birthplace of music for organ AND symphony orchestra, with early masterpieces produced by organ-playing composers like Cesar Franck and Camille Saint-Saens. While Schumann and Brahms both wrote a few pieces for solo organ, the organ-playing Austrian composer Anton Bruckner never wrote a note for his own instrument, though Germany would later give the world great organ repertory from Max Reger and Paul Hindemith.

I might observe that synthesizer instruments, from organ to calliope to Theremin to Moog and beyond, tend to follow this history: (1) performers try to show how much their new instruments can sound like old ones, which can be a novelty but it of only transient interest; and, (2) then the actual sounds of the new instrument are accepted for what they are, and their own sonorities and timbres become the focus of interest.

(Howard Dicus hosts “Howard’s Day Off” on Hawaii Public Radio’s HPR-2, 5am-7am HST Saturdays, with a replay at 5pm-7pm HST Sundays. If you join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook you’ll see cue sheets for the programs along with advance notice of the following weekend’s topic.)