Head and heart are at war here, at least with me. I know that there was much worthy music composed during the ‘long nineteenth century.’ But my heart tells a different story. Back to the 1970s and organ lessons. In the organ loft was pile of sheet music: mainly The Village Organist. This series of albums were published by Novello at the turn of the twentieth century, with the express intention of bringing ‘together a collection of pieces which they trust will prove to be at once simple, without being uninteresting, and effective where the instrumental resources are limited.’ Featured composers included John Stainer, Myles B Foster, Joseph Barnby and a cast of dozens of now largely forgotten composers/organists. There were also some arrangements of music by Handel, Schumann and Mozart and others. I recall playing through some of the ‘easier’ original pieces. To me (aged 17) they were dreadful. I agreed with a friend who referred to them as belonging to the ‘grind and scrape’ school of organ composition. It was around this time that I discovered Herbert Howells, Percy Whitlock and William Mathias. So, The Village Organist went back on the shelf, where, metaphorically speaking, they have remained for the past 50 years.
Now, pick any one of the tracks in this new CD of ‘Organ Music by Victorian and Edwardian Composers’ played by Robert James Stove and my lifelong opinion is challenged to a greater or lesser extent. Stove (in the liner notes) admits that this music has had a bad press. It has often been decried as third-rate Mendelssohn from top to bottom, from end to end. He notes that the only major piece to have survived in the repertoire from this period is Edward Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G major, op.28 (1895).
Stove makes an extremely valid point when he declares that many of the pieces included on this CD are much harder to perform than their notes on paper would suggest. And perhaps that was my problem so many years ago. I thought that the Village Organist was ‘easy’ music, so just bashed through it. Other organists playing this music probably did so as well. We played it badly, with condescension: almost as a standing joke. Stove’s recording allows us to hear a selection of these forgotten works played to a highly professional standard. He displays a good understanding of registration, attention to the dynamics demanded by these composers and a learned understanding of ‘rubato’ so often abused in these pieces (and elsewhere). Finally, some of these works can stand proud in today’s worship, especially Evensong. And one or two, such as William Thomas Best’s ‘Christmas Postlude’ could be used as recessional at any time.
I am not going to give a detailed assessment of all sixteen pieces presented in this hour-long recital. Several carry their own authority such as Stanford’s Andante con moto, op.101, no.6 and Hubert Parry’s Elegy in A flat. The same can be said about Edward Elgar’s Vesper Voluntary. Not my favourite work by this composer, but typically attractive in its presentation of melody and harmony. The eight Voluntaries can be played individually or as a sequence. There is a common melody that features in three of these pieces, making the entire work ‘cyclic.’
I am not sure about Brinley Richards’s God Bless the Prince of Wales. Where would a church organist use this rousing little piece? Sterndale Bennett’s Voluntary is well-constructed but sounds like a glorified hymn tune. John Stainer is now recalled only for his cantata The Crucifixion, which is still regularly heard. He wrote a deal of organ music, which is rarely, if ever, played. Many older organists will recall using his organ tutor published by Novello. The present restrained Impromptu was composed whilst Stainer was on holiday on the French Riviera. It is my favourite piece on this CD.
William Wolstenholme’s ‘mellow’ Communion is ideally suited for a liturgical interlude and Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s ‘Melody in D’ makes an attractive before-service voluntary. Despite its depressing title, Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘Burial’ is a well-contrived little number. This is the third of three pieces designed for religious events: the other two are ‘Baptism’ and ‘Wedding’. I was disappointed in Charles John Grey’s Organ Sonata. I guess that I imagined it would be bigger and more powerful than it is. Characteristically Victorian, this work opens with a short ‘andante’ which is a touch chromatic in its working out. This is followed by a ‘pastorale’ which makes use of a lovely solo stop (oboe): Nymphs and Shepherds come away! The finale fairly romps along. A bit operatic for the ‘kirk’, but it is a great bit of fun with its gentle chromaticism, wayward modulations and generous use of suspensions.
Charles Edward Stephens’s turgid ‘Adagio non troppo in F minor’ and Charles William Peace’s ‘Meditation in a village churchyard’ seem to define the genre of Victorian organ music as I recalled it! Yet even here there is an unsuspected magic that can rescue this music from sheer sentimentality (if it is played properly, as it is here!). The ‘Meditation’ seems to be depressing rather than uplifting. I think it is more about ‘resignation’ and ‘The Girl [he] left Behind’, rather than about spirituality. But, despite the title, this is a thoughtful little piece. Alfred Rawlings’ short end-of-the-pier march, ‘Allegro con spirito’ deserves the occasional airing. It has a jolly main tune with a more sombre ‘trio’ section.
Dame Ethel Smyth’s gorgeous Chorale Prelude ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ may well have had J.S. Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ BWV 639 as her model. As a pastiche it works well. Finally, William Thomas Best’s Christmas Postlude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ has little to do with the season, the subtext coming from a hymn used at the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated during the summer. (This year it was on 20 June). But it is a respectable piece that could easily be played during the Yuletide Season. A splendid conclusion to a rewarding and often eye-opening recital.
The liner notes give a positive assessment of Victorian and Edwardian organ music. Whilst not denying the ‘reception’ problems of music from this era and its lapse into the ‘sentimental’, it encourages the listener to appreciate the diversity of the programme, ranging, as it does, from ‘ebullient jocularity to grim sorrow. The programme notes give a brief resume of each composer and a short description of the piece presented. Omissions include the birth/death dates of each composer and for most of the music. Furthermore, the details of where several of the pieces ‘come from’ are not included. The record company could have spent a studious hour, just as I did, finding the various ‘albums’ that some of these pieces were once collected in. This information is important for listeners who may wish to gain a deeper understanding of this music or may even want to track down the sheet music and play the work for themselves. Many of the scores are available online.
Naturally, the all-important specification of the organ is included. Although several pictures of the composers are featured, I was surprised that there is not a photo of the organ and/or venue. (there is a small black and white photo of the organist, but it is so indistinct it could be anywhere or anyone.
The present instrument in Trinity College at the University of Melbourne was installed in 1998, replacing an organ built in 1923 by J.E Dodd (Adelaide). Made by Dublin-based organ builder Kenneth Jones, it has 3 manuals, 33 speaking stops, 6 couplers with both tracker & electric stop action.
This recital presents a decent cross-section of music from the late-nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Virtually every piece deserves its place on this disc. A very few of them could be relegated to the genre of ‘grind and scrape.’ Most are musically valid statements that benefit hugely for being played with enthusiasm, understanding and lack of disdain. Some are even little masterpieces that ought to be in the mainstream repertoire of church and recital organists. Certainly, none deserve to be consigned to the waste bin like so many copies of The Village Organist have been. Perchance I may dig out a copy or two of this ‘venerable’ publication.
Henry BRINLEY RICHARDS (1817-85) God Bless the Prince of Wales (1862?) [1:38]
William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-75) Voluntary in E flat, The Village Organist, vol. 1 (1870/1897) [3:00]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Vesper Voluntaries, op.14 no.3 (1889/90) [1:49]
John STAINER (1840-1901) Impromptu in F minor, no.5 from Six Pieces for Organ (1897) [4:22]
Henry Alexander John CAMPBELL (1856-1921) ‘Moderato grazioso’ in G minor, from The Village Organist, vol.6 (c.1898) [1:48]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Andante con moto, from Six Short Preludes and Postludes, First Set op,101, no.6 (1907) [2:01]
William WOLSTENHOLME (1865-1931) Communion (1897) [2:33]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Melody in D from Three Short Pieces for organ (1898) [2:27]
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935) ‘Burial’ from Three Pieces for organ, op.27, no.3 (1882) [6:50]
Charles John GREY (1849-1923) Organ Sonata in G minor (pre 1914) [9:33]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Elegy in A flat (c.1913) [3:17]
Charles Edward STEPHENS (1821-92) Adagio ma non troppo in F minor from Two Movements for organ (c.1860) [4:08]
Charles William PEARCE (1856-1928) Meditation in a Village Churchyard published in Vox Organi, vol.4 (1896) [4:45]
Alfred RAWLINGS (1860-1924) Allegro con spirito, published in The Organist (1898) [2:59]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) Chorale Prelude on ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ (c.1880s, pub. 1913) [3:32]
William Thomas BEST (1826-97) Christmas Prelude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ (pub. 1900) [3:52]
Robert James Stove (organ)
Rec. 25-28 April 2019, Trinity College Chapel, University of Melbourne
ARS ORGANI AOR002 [58:43]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.