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ClassicsOnline Home » Early English Organ Music, Vol. 2
Early English Organ Music Vol. 2
European organ music, as it has been handed down in some form
of instrumental notation, might have begun in England, since the earliest known source to
contain keyboard music in tablature dates from the 14th century - the Robertsbridge Codex
of 1325-50. Like much English music, the keyboard repertory developed separately from that
of the Continent, not only because of geographic reasons, but due to religious
considerations, and the instruments themselves were subject to the sinuous events of
English political upheaval. At times the effects were disastrous: church organs virtually
disappeared during the Commonwealth. They were destroyed or sold for the price of the
metal they contained. Indeed, all musical activity suffered the repercussions and tyranny
of an intransigent religion.
Because there are enormous gaps in documented information and
very few old English organs that remain, no comprehensive history of the English organ has
yet been published. But it is clear that from the earliest times onward the organ was
accorded prominent status. Most large churches had two organs, one of which was placed in
the chancel, the other on the rood-screen. Up to the Reformation, the English organist,
like his continental colleague, performed parts of the Ordinary of the mass and alternatim
with the choir, that is, alternating with a chorus that performs a plainsong those
portions not composed for organ.
This practice, however, is not common in one of the most
important sources of early organ music, The Mulliner
Book, dating from before 1560. A unique collection of largely liturgical
pieces, it is the sole source for most of its contents. Obviously, it served less as a
liturgical "workbook" for the London organist who compiled it, than as a body of
haphazardly collected material for his own private amusement. It includes arrangements of
English and foreign part-songs as well as post-Reformation plainsong settings. Many of its
works attain considerable length, in which the accompaniment and style are varied with I
restatements of the cantus firmus. In this form, they are no longer strictly liturgical.
During the first part of the 17th century organ music was
closely linked to the virginal style and much of it was intended to be played on plucked
keyboard instruments as well. Virginal, after all, was a generic term, and it should be
noted that not all organ music was composed for sacred services; even extended works with
liturgical titles - sets of variations on the In nomine,
for example - often appear in collections given over to secular music. English organs of
that time were mostly small, some with a reed stop (regal) and portable. The choir often
sang to the doubling of sackbuts, cornetts, and the viol. The latter, in particular, was a
favoured accompaniment to the verse anthem.
While liturgical music ceased under the Puritans, the chamber
organ enjoyed great popularity in spite of the seemingly inhospitable atmosphere. The
interchange of popular songs and dances -music which "can be transported by a
whistling sailor", in settings for the keyboard was prevalent.
The Restoration in 1660 brought with it an infusion of
Continental elements of design and technology and the English organ evolved substantially
thereafter in size and tonal palette. Paradoxically, considerably less emphasis was placed
on solo organ-playing in the Anglican service. But the Voluntary continued to evolve as an
indigenous musical form. Instead of the ill-defined piece that it was in the 16th century,
it developed into a two-movement structure: a slow introduction played on the Diapasons or
full organ, followed by a faster segment spotlighting a trumpet or similarly colourful
stop. It also took advantage of the second manual (double organ) provided by the newer
organs with their diversity of registrational possibilities and effects. However, it was
not until the 19th century when the organ was given its broadest acceptance and use that
organ-building in England could compete with that of the rest of Europe, including the
widespread use of pedals.
The present recording emphasizes repertory drawn from the
periods separated by the Civil War: the mid-16th century, when organ and harpsichord music
began to emerge as separate idioms with distinct categories and forms independent of vocal
music, and the time after the return of Charles II from France when English organ building
began again in earnest through the resurgence of important builders such as Robert Dallam
and Renatus Harris. Like their king, they, too, had spent much time on the Continent.
While others resisted foreign influence and continued to build organs similar to the
pre-1640 period, Dallam designed a French organ for New College, Oxford. Indeed, he had
drafted a scheme for an organ incorporating French tonal principles as early as 1654 for
the Priory of Lesneven, complete with Cornet V, mixtures, and other typically French
Many builders of foreign origin also settled in England. Among
them, Johann Snetzler, a Swiss, and Bernhard Schmidt ("Father Smith") made
instruments that found their way to the New World. Smith was active in London from 1667
and was probably the maker of an organ that was placed in King's Chapel, Boston, around
1700. From that time on English organs were imported in significant numbers.
Thus, with European prototypes firmly transplanted, an American
school of organ builders was launched around 1750 when Thomas Johnston of Boston began
building organs patterned after imported English instruments.
Notwithstanding the Puritan Pilgrims' hostility to things
musical (perhaps the non-reverberant acoustics of most New England Colonial churches were
intentionally contrived to compliment the spoken word!), Americans have played a
conspicuous part in historical organ design. During the 19th century outstanding builders
such as William Marcellus Goodrich, George Jardine and George Hook made careful studies of
European concepts, imbuing traditional methods with their own carefully crafted advances.
The Orgelbewegung movement of the 1930's had a pronounced
effect on American builders such as the English-born G. Donald Harrison; his
"American Classic" ideal became a synthesis of European practice. The English
organ, hybrid that it was, gave way to further coalescence through the genius of builders
such as Charles Benton Fisk, in whose craft there permeated that peculiar American
phenomenon -the "melting pot". English music played on American organ, then, is
as musically logical as it is spontaneous.
Joseph Payne was born in 1941 on the Chinese-Mongolian border,
the son of British missionary parents. He received his earliest musical training as a
cathedral chorister in England, and in Switzerland where he lived for several years before
emigrating to the United States. He studied at Trinity College and Hartt College of Music
and was a pupil of Noretta Conci, Fernando Valenti, Clarence Watters, and Wanda Landowska.
Based in Boston, where he has lived since 1965, he has taught
at several major American universities and now appears throughout the world, performing
over sixty concerts a year on the harpsichord and organ. His many recordings include the
world-premiere recording of the 33 Neumeister chorale-preludes attributed to J.S. Bach and
re-discovered at Yale University in 1984. He has received grants and awards from the
Lowell Institute at Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He
has produced The Bach Connection, and other syndicated series for radio which have been
heard coast-to-coast throughout North America.
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Early English Organ Music, Vol. 2