HNOJ Recital Notes
September 12, 2023
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral
Bach: Sinfonia and Orgelbüchlein
The first half of this program is dedicated to Bach — works by and inspired by him. We began with Marcel Dupré’s arrangement of the opening movement from J. S. Bach’s 29th cantata: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (“We thank you, God, we thank you”). The cantata was written for the 1731 annual celebration of inauguration of the new town council in Leipzig. This sinfonia, the opening movement, is well-known, and is an example of Bach reworking existing music in a later composition. The existing music is the Prelude from his E Major Violin Sonata — so in a sense this is a transcription of a transcription! Dupré, who arranged the Sinfonia, was one of the most formidable and important French organists of the 20th century, and he brought his ample technique to bear in creating this transcription.
We’ll now hear three chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein — “Little Organ Book”. “Chorale prelude“ refers to an organ composition based on usually a Lutheran hymn tune, and most often they are intended to be used during church services. The title page of this collection by Bach reads: “Little Organ Book, In which a beginning organist receives given instruction as to performing a chorale in a multitude of ways while achieving mastery in the study of the pedal…” As I’ve often found to be the case, Bach had a rather unusual idea of what beginners are capable of, with the 46 pieces in this collection encompassing almost every variety of Baroque organ technique.
Liszt: Prelude & Fugue on BACH
We turn now to Franz Liszt, the great 19th-century virtuoso pianist, visionary and prolific composer, charismatic conductor, influential teacher, essayist, and philanthropist. Liszt had many facets to his personality and his music: his music can be poetic, thrilling, divine, sardonic, regal, and playful — sometimes all in the same piece. He is most known for his extraordinary piano compositions: most notably the Sonata, the demanding études, and numerous transcriptions of operatic works.
One might wonder how you can have a musical composition based on a name, especially when the musical alphabet spans A to G, and Bach’s name has an H! In German, “H” is a B natural, and “B” is a B flat. So Bach’s name is B-flat, A, C, B-natural.
The B-A-C-H theme was used by Bach himself and other composers after him. In Liszt’s hands, the chromatic theme can at times seem very menacing, especially at the opening. However, in the fugue, it sounds almost pleading at times, and the final pianissimo statement of the theme is almost celestial. Liszt gives the organist very little in terms of registration — the stops or sounds that the organist is to use. Whenever I play this piece, I try to explore the full sonic range of the instrument — from very soft to full organ — and extract as many interesting colors as I can.
Langlais and Guilmant
We’ll next hear some music by two French organists. Along with fellow French organist Louis Vierne, Jean Langlais was one of the most famous blind musicians of the 20th century. He was a tremendously gifted organist and improviser, and is especially known for his large body of organ compositions — the complete recording of which spans 26 CDs. He concertized prolifically, and made a number of European and American tours. His style was rather individual and eclectic, and his harmonic language was often more tonal than e.g. Messiaen. There is often a certain folkiness to his music as well. Compared to some of his contemporaries and the generation before him, his textures are also somewhat leaner and cleaner, and this will be very apparent in contrast with the Guilmant which we’ll hear after. The two Langlais pieces are from a set paying homage to Frescobaldi, who was a notable Italian virtuoso keyboard player and composer in the late 16th and early 17th century.
Alexandre Guilmant was also a notable organist, and possibly as prolific a composer as Langlais. He held two important positions in Paris. First, he was organist at Trinity Church, a position later held by Olivier Messiaen — one of the most important organists composers of the 20th century. In addition, Guilmant succeeded Widor as the organ professor at the Paris Conservatory. His most notable student there was none other than Marcel Dupré, whose transcription of Bach began tonight’s program.
To close tonight’s program, we’ll hear music from Hans Zimmer’s Academy Award-nominated score from the 2014 film Interstellar. Hans Zimmer has written the musical score to some of the biggest films of the last 30 years. His immense discography includes: Black Hawk Down, Madagascar, The Ring, The Prince of Egypt, Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Hannibal, The Last Samurai, The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean, Frost/Nixon, Kung Fu Panda, and many more. He is probably best known for his work with director Christopher Nolan: the Batman / Dark Knight franchise, Inception, Dunkirk, The Prestige, and — my favorite — Interstellar. If you haven’t seen the film, it is a science-fiction adventure on an epic scale. However, the heart of the film is defined by relationships — especially between Cooper and his daughter Murph. In the end, we discover that the only two things that can transcend space and time are gravity and love.
In an interview, Nolan said that it was important that the music for the film not pay too close attention to the genre. And so, he gave Zimmer one page from the script — including some dialogue and some ideas behind the movie but without any indication as to the genre or the scale of the movie, and told him to see what he came up with in a day. The dialogue was between a father and son. Zimmer said that he wrote some ideas based on his experience being a father to a son. It turned out however that the son was in fact a daughter — Murph, and that the relationship would span galaxies and decades. However, the material that he came up with allegedly formed the basis for almost the entire score.
The organ is featured heavily in the score. While it is not a religious film, there definitely is a sense of religiosity to it. Nolan and Zimmer chose to include the pipe organ as representative of mankind’s search for the mystical and metaphysical — what’s beyond us as humans on this earth.
The music for Stay is heard right at the beginning of the film, and culminates with Cooper taking off into space to begin his journey to another galaxy. Cornfield Chase is heard when Cooper and his two children are chasing a drone they discovered flying above a cornfield. It ends abruptly as they nearly drive over a cliff, but stop just in time. Dust / Day One is an amalgamation of two similar scenes, at the end of which you hear a reprise of the Cornfield Chase music. No Time For Caution is probably the most tense scene, during which Cooper has to attempt to dock their spacecraft with the main station, after the airlock has been blown, sending them hurtling towards an alien planet’s surface. It ends with a massive and epic chord, for which I have almost literally pulled out all the stops.