While, the organ is a very ancient instrument, - a Pan's pipe with a bellows attachment was probably its most primitive form, - I doubt if legitimate organ music can be said to have existed before Andrea Gabrieli, an Italian born in 1510, and his nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, who were the first composers of the fugal form. But the school of organ music thus auspiciously founded in Italy soon fell into decadence. Indeed, after Frescobaldi, - the immediate successor of the Gabrielis, - who created the florid, brilliant style of composition and playing, and was, in his day, as much an object of suspicion as was Wagner three centuries later, there were, until we come down to the present day, few Italian organ composers worth mentioning, except Padre Martini. The Padre composed twelve remarkable organ sonatas, in one of which occurs the popular Gavotte, almost universally known at the present day as a pianoforte solo.
A number of Italian organists are now making a praiseworthy effort to restore the Italian school of organ composition and playing to its old-time preeminence. The most prominent among these are Filippo Capocci of Rome, who has composed four excellent sonatas, besides many other pieces for the organ; Enrico Bossi, author of several capital organ pieces; and Signor Tebaldini. These musicians, in striving to cultivate a taste for a better class of organ music and a higher style of playing, have had more than popular indifference to overcome; for the defacts in the instruments upon which they are obliged to play make their task a peculiarly difficult one. It is really a discouraging fact that most of the Italian organs lack many of the appliances necessary to the performance of elaborate organ music. The fault lies with the Italian organists who succeeded the early masters. They did not develop the legitimate style of organ-playing or organ composition.
Instead of carrying forward the polyphonic school, they regarded the organ merely as an instrument for the accompaniment of the voice. The general lack of interest in instrumental music in Italy diverted Italian organists from upbuilding and developing the school of the Gabrielis and of Frescobaldi. As, under such conditions, Italian organ music did not call for more elaborate organs, and Italian organists took but little interest in their instruments, organ-builders had no incentive to progress.
As a result, the stops in many Italian organs of to-day are divided as in an ordinary harmonium - separate rows for the treble and the bass, - so that, to draw them, both hands have to be used at once. This, of course, greatly impedes the player. The pedal-boards, also, of Italian organs are very deficient; the pedals being so short that the player has to reach out for them with his toes.
Twelve years ago I was invited to play in Genoa by Signor Remondini, who, though no a professional musician, was one of the leaders in reforming organ-building and organ music in Italy. I found among the organists of Genoa a general impression that it was impossible to play Bach and Mendelssohn on the organ; and when I told them that I played Bach's fugues upon organs constructed after the plans of Signor Remondini, their surprise was great. In fact, it was so apparent, that I requested them to call for any one of Bach's fugues at my recital. When I responed to their call for one, they sat open-mouthed with astonishment. They called for another. To their credit as musicians be it said, that these fugues made a profound impression upon them, and that the next day every organist in Genoa was making arrangements to have a pedal-board attached to his piano, so that he might practice pedaling the Bach fugues at home.
The pioneers of the German school of organ composition and playing were Samuel Scheidt, Johann Froberger, and Dietrich Buxtehude. Froberger belonged to the seventeenth century, and was known both in Germany and in Engand. There is a romantic anecdote regarding his visit to England. He was twice robbed on his way to London, and, reaching that city practically penniless, was obliged to accept the place of organ-blower at Westminster Abbey. At the solemnization of the marriage of Charles II, he overblew the bellows, - necessarily with disastrous effect upon the performance. The organist, Christopher Gibbons, was so enraged that he jumped from the organ-bench and not only berated Froberger, but actually struck him. A few minutes later, however, Froberger, seeing the organ-bench vacant, occupied it and began improvising. His style of playing was immediately recognized by a court lady who had been one of his pupils in Germany. She sought him out, and presented him to the King, who received him most graciously. After that his circumstances improved greatly.
Buxtehude's place among these pioneers is of primary importance, not only be reason of his individual work as composer and player, but also because he exerted a marked influence upong Bach. Every one must have a father; and there are fathers in music. Buxtehude was Bach's musical father. His influence on Bach was as marked as was Weber's upon young Wagner. Buxtehude was a Dane; but his most solid work - that upon which his fame rests - was done in Germany. He was organist of the Marien chuch in Lübeck for many years. Here he originated the so-called Abend-Musiken, - great musical performances given in connection with church services on the evenings of the five Sundays preceding Christmas, - which, under his successors, continued well into the nineteenth century. The extent of Buxtehude's fame and influence may be understood from the fact that Bach walked fifty miles in order to hear him. At the time Buxtehude was organist in Lübeck, Handel applied for a similar position in another church in the same city. But, as one of the conditions of the appointment obliged him to marry the daughter of his predecessor, he withdrew his application, - whether before or after he had seen the young lady, I do not know.
Organ music reached its climax with Bach: it may, perhaps, be said that all music did. At any rate, one thing is certain: viz., if there has been any progress in music since the day of Bach, it has been due to him. Bach's music is polyphonic; and polyphony is true music. To its foundation upon this school is due the fact that there has been no decadence in music in Germany.
There has been no advance in polyphony since the days of Bach. Such advance as has been made has been in orginality and boldness of modulation. Wagner's music may be called "omnitonic," that is, modulating into all keys: but it is still polyphonic; and for that reason it is real music. The old church composers wrote their pieces in one key and the keys closely related thereto. Wagner expressed passion, love, and, in fact, all the emotions, and swept over the whole gamut of chromatic tonality. But the old German church composers and Wagner are polyphonic; and the latter is but a logical evolution from the former.
For pure organ music, Bach still is, and probably will always remain, the greatest of all composers. Even with all the modern mechanical appliances that have been attached to the organ, his works are still very difficult, - perhaps the most difficult of organ compositions. He must have been as great as organist as he was a composer. That he should have been able to play, upon the organ of his day, works so exacting in technique as his own, is simply marvelous.
It is one of the phenomena of musical history that, while orchestral, operatic and other branches of music were in their infancy in Bach's day, and have developed since then, Bach brought organ music to its climax. He was not the small source whence flowed a rivulet which, in time, was to expand into a broad stream; he was the broad stream itself. The word "Bach," in German, means a brook, which led a famous German composer to say punningly that this great master was not a Bach, but an ocean. The music of Bach must be played in the strictest style of legato, in each individual part; but this does not exclude accentuation. Bach was an excellent violin-player; and there are many traces of violin technique in his organ compositions, which decidedly affect the phrasing. The familiar "G Minor" fugue, for instance, is full of violin phrases, requiering the most delicate accentuation, in order that their full meaning may be disclosed.
There are some singular details in connection with several of Bach's compositions. To this day, the pedal-boards of most German organs have only twenty-seven notes, instead of thirty. They range from low C to the middle D of the piano, instead of to F or G. Yet, in the "Toccata in F Major" the pedal part goes to F. One of his organ chorales even reaches F sharp, half a tone higher; and in the "Fantaisie in G major" he starts on B below the lowest C found on the old pedal-boards. This suggests that possible some of these compositions, like the "Passacaglia," were composed for the clavecin with pedals.
My admiration for Bach is unbounded. I consider that Bach is music. Everything else in music has come from him; and if all music, excepting Bach's, were to be destroyed, music would still be preserved. People who think of Bach as a composer of fugues, and imagine that because he wrote fugues and pieces belonging to that style of music, he was merely a dry, learned, musical arithmetician, are to be pitied. Bach's genius was most fexible; and many of his works indicate that, if he had been disposed to become a dramatic composer, he might have done so successfully.
His "Passion" music, for instance, is full of emotion. The expression in such recitatives as that describing the rending of the veil of the temple is marvellous. At the same time, the music is extremely realistic. In fact, throughout the "Passion" music, recitative and chorus follow the action closely and give exact expression to the emotions suggested by the text. It cannot be doubted that Gluck's style of dramatic recitative is founded upon Bach's wonderful achievements in the recitative of the "Passion" music. Another dramatic number in Bach's works, to which I always like to call attention, is the F Minor chorus in the cantata entitled "Actus Tragicus." In this chorus the alto, tenor, and bass chant a sad and solemn reflection on death, while above them the soprano part soars like a prayer breathing hope in the Saviour. In fact, in everything relating to the Saviour, Bach's musical expression is exquisitely tender.
But I find the heart of Bach in the chorales which he wrote for the organ. There combine in a wonderful degree exact musical science with the deepest feeling, and are grand objects to study. At the Paris Conservatoire, where I have the pleasure of being professor of the organ, much time is devoted to these chorales. I think that, on account of the polyphonic character of Bach's works, they should no be played too fast. In ancient music, the "Allegro" movement was not played so fast as at the present day. On the other hand, the "Andante" is now frequently played too slowly.
Mendelssohn, in his organ music, has given a modern touch to polyphonic writing; and the later German organ composers are following him. As regards playing, the German organists have adhered to the classical style; but I consider this due largely to the fact that German organ-builders have not thoroughly modernized their instruments. The touch of German organs is stiff; they have few modern mechanical appliances; and, while the mixtures and diapasons are good, and the pedal-boards have decidedly improved, the reeds remain poor.
Coming now to the French school, I should call Jean Titelouze the father of organ music in France. Like the Italian pioneers of organ compositions, he wrote pieces in the Gregorian tonality. Unfortunately, little by little, his successors departed from the polyphonic style, with the result that organ music in France underwent a degeneration similar to that in Italy.
About the middle of the present century, a well-known organist named Boëly endeavored to place French organ music upon a more solid basis, and to restore not only the old style of composition, but also of playing. He made a valiant attempt to introduce Bach and other serious composers; but he was unsuccessfull. He simply sacrificed himself; for his efforts resulted in dismissal from his church. But M. Jacques Lemmens, from whom I had the honor of receiving instruction, was more fortunate. His efforts to introduce the best style of organ music in France begain in 1852. His playing of Bach was a complete revelation to French organists, and formed the foundation of a more serious style of playing and composition.
Among the more famous and best-known organists and composers of France, in recent years, are: M.M. César Franck, A. Chauvet, Th. Salomé,
Saint-Saëns, Widor, of St. Sulpice, Eugène Gigout, of St. Augustin, Clément Loret, of the École Religieuse, and Théodor Dubois, who
succeeded M. Saint-Saëns at the Madeleine and is now the Director of the Conservatoire.
This list would be incomplete without the addition of the name of M. Alexandre Guilmant himself. - Ed. The Forum
The development of organ-playing and organ composition in France has been greatly aided by the skill of French organ-builders, notably by the inventions of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The first notable product of the skill of the latter was the organ of the Basilique at St. Denis. It was he who devised the distribution of the wind at different pressures, which has resulted in greater steadiness of tone.
Organ-playing may be divided generally into two schools. In one, the organ is treated as an orchestra, the production of orchestral effects being sought; while the other holds that the organ has so noble a tone quality, and so many resources of its own, that it need not servilely imitate the orchestra. I belong to the latter school. Berlioz said: "The organ is Pope; the orchestra, Emperor." In other words, each is supreme in its own way.
I am utterly opposed to the playing of orchestral works on the organ. While the rendition of orchestral pieces on it, in an attempt to reproduce the orchestral color of the original scoring, is, to my mind, deplorable enough, the playing of such works as the "William Tell" or "Semiramide" overtures is especially out of keeping with the character of the instrument.
It is true that I myself have arranged several works for the organ; but in each instance the composition have been previously played by the composer. Among these may be mentioned: The "Marche Héroïque" (Saint-Saëns), Prelude to the "Déluge" (Saint-Saëns), and "Romance" (Chauvet). The "Berceuse," by Saint-Saëns, which I have only recently arranged, was done at the special request of the composer. At the same time, M. Durand requested that I would transcribe the finale from M. Saint-Saëns's "Suite Algérienne." This I refused to do, because the piece is not in the organ style.
As between orchestra and organ, each has its great qualities and its faults. The organ has a certain solidity of resonance; while the orchestra's resonance is restless, feverish. The organ holds, sustains. On the other hand, one of the great faults of the organ is its lack of attack, or slowness of response. Here I may refer to a fault in technique which is often found. Many organists think it wise not to press down the key too quickly or too far. I think, on the contrary, that the full pressure of the finger should be made at once, and the key held down solidly until released. As to pedaling, French organ pupils are now taught to hold the knees together and to use the heels much more than formerly. This method results in a quieter style of playing, and gives greater smoothness in phrasing; while it increases speed.
In America I have found many good organ. They are especially effective in the softer stops, such as the Dulciana, Flutes, and Gamba. But the Full Organ lacks resonance and energy, and does not thrill. I do not think the mixtures and reeds of the Great Organ should be included in the swell-box, as this weakens the tone and destroys proper balance. The pedals in American organs are not so clear and distinct as they should be. They lack the Eight- and Four-Foot tone. The effect is the same as if there were too many double-basses in an orchestra and not enough violoncellos. The Sixteen-Foot Open Diapason in the Great organ is so powerful that every organ should also have a milder Sixteen-Foot Bourdon, which give a mellow quality to the foundation stops. But, as a rule, the softer Sixteen-Foot stops are wholly lacking in American organ.
My opinion is that organ-builders should devote less time to mechanical improvements, and more time to improving the voicing of their instruments. Mechanical appliances are multipying so fast that very soon the organist will be unable to occupy himself with anything except the mechanism of his instrument. This is a tendency greatly to be deplored. Organ-playing should be essentially musical, and, as far as possible, in the pure style of the organ; it should not involve the necessity of constantly changing the registration.
There is too great a tendency to use the vibrating stops, such as the Voix Céleste, Tremolo, or Vox Humana; so that, when these effects are really called for, they do not make the desired impression.
Both in Europe and in America, a lively interest is eviced in all these questions, so vitally important to the organ; and it is to be hoped that, as a result, a taste for pure organ music and better instruments will be promoted. In France, a society called "The Schola Cantorum" has recently been formed with the object of reviving the ancient forms of church music, and for the study of the Plain-Song, Gregorian Chant, and organ music. Were a similar movement initiated in America, it would certainly bear good fruit.