The scandalous neglect of British and US-American concert hall organ-music is still going strong until today.

Primary tabs

The scandalous neglect of British and US-American concert hall organ-music is still going strong until today.

I. England

I was very irritated seeing that the articles about e. g. William Thomas Best, Alfed Hollins or John Ebenezer West have been eleminated from the new edition of the the "New Grove's Dictionary of Music". Somewhere I read that the organ music of these composers would not be "serious" or "important" enough. Speaking about British organ music only names like e. g. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Alan Gray, Edward Elgar, Basil Harwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, George Thalben-Ball or Percy Whitlock are mentioned.

In the 19th century nearly every British town owned a town hall with a big symphonic organ. These concert halls employed virtuos organists who regularly hold organ recital series there. Their programmes offered some genuine organ compositions but mainly organ arrangements of popular works for piano, chamber-music-ensembles or orchestra. These recitals were enormously successful and had an extremely large number of auditors.They often were the only occassion to listen e. g. to a Schubert-symphony or numbers from a Händel-oratorio. So the church organists were not amused about their success. Sir Walter Parry wrote in an issue of "Victorian Magazine": "The erection of large concert hall organs, and the necessity of pleasing the Saturday-night audience has had a disastrous influence over organ music, as in majority of such programmes two thirds at least are arrangements of orchestral and choral works". By calling it "disastrous influence" they showed that they were afraid that this kind of popular organ music became more aknowledged than their organ play. The difference between academic and popular organ music was born. I use the term popular in the meaning of "enjoyable, entertaining, music to please", not in the sense of today´s pop-music. From this time onwards all organ pieces, which were not a prelude, a fugue or a sonata were suspected of not being serious. This opinion is still going strong among many organists until today. As an example let me name Charles-Marie Widor's organ Symphonies which are very fine pieces, of course. But they are "ressentiment"-compositions and stand against the more popular organ pieces of some of his French collegues, especially against those in the Opera-style - but this is an item for an essay in the future ...

The organ as an instrument "to please the audience" had had a long tradition. It started with Händel's organ concertos which he performed between the acts of his operas. It was continued by organists like John Stanley, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy or Henry Smart. In the middle of the 19th century Reverend Scotson Clark tried to "reform" the organ music. His major work was a collection of fifteen very popular marches like "Marche aux Flambeaux", "Marche des Fantômes", "Marche des Girondins", or "Vienna March".

Not only the "New Grove's Dictionary of Music" is to blame for the neglect of the British concert hall organ music. The virtous organist Edwin Henry Lemare was an organist at St Margaret's in London near Westminster Abbey. He initiated the building of a new three-manual symphonic organ, and he conducted a big church choir. Lemare started a very successful recital series at St Margaret's - the church used to be overcrowded. There he performed as one of the first British musicians numbers from Wagner-operas for soloists, choir and organ, arranged by himself. He very soon became a prominent target for the enemies of "popular" music and was mobbed out by the priest of his church.
In our days the famous edition "English Organ Music. An Anthology from four Centuries in ten Volumes" includes in volume nine "From Rococco to Romanticism. # 2" some movements from the Voluntaries of the classical composer William Russel. Most of them are fugues; not even one of his very fine Trumpet Tunes was good enough for this publication.

Today the organ experiences a rough time. A big part of the recital audience merely understands the organ as a church instrument and not as a common musical instrument. In order to bring organ music more into focus it might help to look back to the golden times of concert hall organ music.

Sir Walter Parry was right: Arrangements are a big part of its repertory. Perhaps William Thomas Best can be calles the "king" of this genre. He had a repertory of about 5.000 pieces which he played in his recitals in the Liverpool town hall. These recitals had often 2.000 or more listeners. He published an incredible number of arrangements; even his series "Arrangments from the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ" had more than 1.300 pages. Best's arrangements present the organ as an impressive instrument of rich colors. An organist of today will enjoy Best's skills to create virtuous pieces conveniently playable. Best had a large interest in playing numbers from Händel's oratorios and operas. But his highlights are e. g.
- Allegretto from Beethoven's Sypmphonie Nr. 7,
- "Overture to the Sacred Drama 'Athalie'" of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,
- Symphonie Op. 24 of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,
- numerous movements from Spohr's chamber-music
- March of the Templiers of Benedict,
- Polonaise Op. 40, 1 of Chopin,
- Hungarian March of Berlioz,
- Coronation-March from the opera "Le Prophète" of Meyerbeer.

But he also arranged pieces which were played in the lounges of luxury hotels or steamboats, e. g. Braga's "La Serenata. Legénde Valaque".
We have no arrangements of Wagner-pieces by Best. Wagner was served by other British organists like Alfred Herbert Brewer, Reginald Goss-Custard or William Joseph Westbrook. Also these arrangements are done very organ-friendly. More arrangements arose by British organists like George Cooper, George C. Martin, John Stainer. All kinds of marches were a popular genre besides classical pieces.

The blind organ-virtuoso Alfred Hollins was a very skilled composer who wrote ambitious organ pieces for town-hall recitals. He became prominent by his recital tours, especially to Africa and Australia. Hollins wrote in an absolutely popular style, and his high level of technique of composition can be seen in his "Theme with Variations and Fugue". He opened the organ for ideas and colours from piano- and orchestra-pieces. Very famous is his "Evening Rest" written for the inauguration of the town-hall organ at Johannesburg. This piece is one of his "character"-pieces like others, e. g. "A Song of Sunshine" or "Spring Song". His "Concert-Overture Nr. 2" and his "Triumphal March" include all elements of Donizetti's or Rossini's opera-compositions. The "Concert-Rondo" and the "Morceau en forme de Valse" are brillant examples for pieces in hte style of Park-Pavillon-Orchestras.

Further British composers of this kind of repertory are Herbert Arthur Fricker with his "Concert-Overture" and "Scherzo Symphonique" or Herbert Arthur Wheeldon with his "Canzona", "Evening Chimes" or "Oriental Intermezzo". Very few church organists were open for the style of the concert hall organ music. Felix Corbett contributed his "Rêve d'Amour" to this genre. John Ebenezer West was not only church organist; as a lector for the Novello company he had a wide experience of all kinds of music. His "Festal Song" is an absolutely popular piece. Édouard Silas who was organist and professor in composition wrote the organ piece for the inauguration of the great symphonic Father-Willis-organ in Blenheim Palace.

All these organ composers are nearly forgotten toady. Only William Faulkes who composed an enormous number of both "serious" and very popular organ pieces like "Bacarolles" or "Nocturnes" is sometimes represented in organ recital programmes.

The main part of popular British organ music which is composed since 1930 can be called Ceremony- or Cathedral-pomp without any artistic profile - neither academic nor enjoyable. The "Festal Offertorium" and the "Festival Toccata" of Percy Fletcher are in a way the first examples for that although in general he might be called an attractive composer.


Edwin Henry Lemare emigrated to the USA because of his problems in St. Margaret's in London. Seen from a retrospective viewpoint he is definitely an "icon" of the US-American concert-house organ tradition. He was appointed city-organist at the "Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium" at Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he hold a very successful organ recital series until the end of his life. The circle of concert hall organists included a great number of brilliant players. Unfortunately only few people remember that today. Two years ago an essay in a prominent German organ magazine about the Romantic US-American organ music did not mention a single word about the world of the concert-hall organists in the USA.

Lemare published an enormous number of organ-compositions and arrangements. Additionally he edited a big part of his recital repertory in "The Recital Series of original Compositions for the Organ" which shows an overview of our genre. Lemare's original organ compositions and organ arrangements show that he must have unique and admirable technical skills in playing the organ. Other organists composed titles like
"An April Song", "At Twilight", "Echo Bells", "Ecstasy", "Forest Study", "In Moonlight", "Lullaby", The Morning Light", "Spring Song", "The last Rose of the Summer", "The Swan" and so on. It is not possible to mention all interesting organists of this topic. Let me just present Clifford Demarest's " A Pastoral Suite" with the movements "Sunrise", "A Rural Scene", "Sunset", and "Thanksgiving", Isaac Vleck van Flager's "Military March" or Rollo Maitland's "The Optimist". The borders between this kind of organ music and music for movie theaters or other entertaining occasions like sports palaces became floating. Organ-compositions or -arrangements like "Marionette" (Felix Arndt), "Nola" (Felix Arndt), "Elfentanz" composed by Bernhard Johnson especially dedicated for his friend (quotation) Lemare were played on the organ. "In India", "Persian Suite", or "Tales from Arabian Nights" of Roy Spaulding Stoughton mark the relationship between the concert-hall organs and the theater organs in this time.

You can listen to a lot of this repertory on this website.

Back to the Menu "Performances"