Friday, 21 March 2008

Alun Hoddinott: Sonata for Organ (1978)

The nineteen seventies were a productive time for Alun Hoddinott. The opus magnus was his opera The Beach at Falesa – a strange tale of voodoo magic and corruption set in the South Seas with the original ‘book’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was first performed in 1974. The beautiful A Contemplation upon Flowers was first heard at the Fishguard Festival in 1976. The following year saw performances of the Sinfonia Fidei, the considerable Passaggio for full orchestra and the children’s opera “What the Old Man Does is Always Right”.
The Sonata for Organ Op.96 No.2 was written in 1978 and was perhaps the most significant work of that year. It was dedicated to the accomplished organist Huw Tregelles Williams. Williams was later to become the Head of Music at BBC Wales in 1984 and then become the first Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 1992.
The composer writes that the first movement “develops two ideas – a chordal fanfare with a flourish, contrasted with a more imitative contrapuntal texture.” Certainly the work commences with an immediate statement of the first ‘idea.’ The music quietens down as the composer introduces the intricate part writing which reappears in varying guises as the music of this movement progresses. There is also some contrasting material which is surely designed to slow the pace down: four bars of string tone chords accompanied by a quiet pedal phrase give the impression of timelessness. Soon the pace picks up again and after reference to the contrapuntal passage and a loud statement of the ‘flourish,’ the music ends very quietly with swell strings stops.
The second movement is likened to a chorale prelude with “three varied statements of a chorale – like a paragraph preceded and followed by a tune on the pedals moving against held chords on the manuals.” The actual musical material is quite simple – it is just that the chords have heaps of added notes to spice up the proceedings. Once again Hoddinott makes use of the string stops on the swell – especially the voix celeste with long breathed chords. The general effect is quite magical.
The finale is a relatively uncomplicated toccata that employs the baroque concept of the ‘ritornello’ or short recurring passage. It is written in 6/8 and signed allegro molto. The main argument is split up between hands on the swell with a light pedal accompaniment, before an interesting ‘four against three’ passage leads to a trill. A short pedal solo lead to a return of the original music before staccato chords played on the swell interrupt the argument. A loud ‘unison’ passage on the great with more staccato chords leads to the final statement of the opening material, this time with full pedal. At the end the predictable solo reeds are drawn. The work concludes with an upward scale leading to an un-harmonised Eb in octaves.
James Dalton writing in the March 1981 edition of the Musical Times was less than complimentary about the Sonata – he wrote that it struck him “as a trivial pot boiler showing no originality or ingenuity of design and a most un-thoughtful lack of enterprise in its use of the instrument.”
Yet Malcolm Boyd, commenting on the first performance is more generous – he insists that the new Organ Sonata “reminded us how well suited [Hoddinott’s musical style] is to the king of instruments. He praised especially the “atmospheric harmonies” of the central Andante.
Listening to this piece some thirty years after its composition reveals a work that is good but not perhaps one of the composer’s masterpieces. Certainly Boyd is correct: the most impressive part of this Sonata is the slow movement with its lovely nocturnal harmonies. However it is a piece that needs to be kept in the repertoire as it represents the composer’s most important essay for the organ.

The first performance was at the Cardiff New Hall on 6th March 1978. The score was published in 1980 by Oxford University Press.
Jane Watts has recorded this work on Priory PRCD 389

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