In Praise of Pipes, by Paul Jacobs

In Praise of Pipes

This post is in response to a request to read Paul Jacobs’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal. If you know and care about organs, you should read this by one of our greatest champions of the organ.

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In Praise of Pipes

New York needs a new pipe organ; here’s how it can get one.

By Paul Jacobs
Oct. 17, 2016 3:31 p.m.

‘The organ is in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius,” declared Honoré de Balzac, the renowned 19th-century French novelist and playwright. The pipe organ is still revered by millions of music lovers all over the world; the concert halls of New York, however, have had an uneasy relationship with the instrument.

Pipe organs graced the two largest halls in the city—Carnegie and Geffen (previously Avery Fisher)—until 1966 and 1976, respectively, when they were banished during reconstruction. When asked if an organ would ever be returned to Carnegie Hall, violinist Isaac Stern, who spearheaded a campaign to save Carnegie from destruction, exclaimed, “Over my dead body.” Today, from beyond the grave, Stern’s edict remains honored. But what about Geffen Hall? Will the new architectural plans reintroduce a home for what Mozart called the King of Instruments?

Since the pipe organ was removed four decades ago, the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras have had to make do with an electronic organ. But synthesized sound emitted through loudspeakers cannot compete with the richness of tone produced by authentic organ pipes—thousands of vibrating columns of air, ranging in size from a soda straw to a telephone pole. There is simply no substitute for a genuine acoustic instrument. Would a reputable pianist prefer a digital Kurzweil keyboard to a well-regulated Steinway?

Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002, understood this all too well. He publicly lamented the absence of a pipe organ and was adamant that a new one be built, at the time going so far as to help secure a million dollars for the cause. When one considers the price tag for Geffen Hall’s planned renovation to be in the vicinity of $500 million, the cost of a new instrument would be a drop in the bucket—probably about 1% of the total budget.

Pipe organs are the most complex of musical machines, marvels of engineering. Their visual and aural splendor inspired important composers throughout history, from Johann Sebastian Bach with his astonishing counterpoint to Olivier Messiaen with his otherworldly harmony. Many people think of the organ as a solemn, lonely instrument, and organists as primarily a support for congregational singing. The organ’s sacred setting over the past millennium should not be underestimated or diminished, and church organists continue to play an indispensable role. But the artistic possibilities for organ music have blossomed significantly beyond the sanctuary.

In the 19th century, organs emerged in secular venues, too, including theaters, civic auditoriums and concert halls. Many important composers added the organ to the texture of their great symphonic works, sometimes prominently. Now, there is a trove of orchestral repertoire calling for a concert-hall organ. Many of these works are by familiar composers, among them, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Bartók, Janáček, Poulenc, Copland, Barber and Ives.

Increasingly, contemporary composers are experimenting with the endless possibilities of organ with orchestra, often featuring the instrument as a vehicle for bravura expression. Contemporary American composers have already produced an impressive body of works for orchestra and other ensembles with organ, including those by Christopher Rouse, Michael Daugherty, Mason Bates, Christopher Theofanidis, Samuel Adler and Wayne Oquin. Such music is unlikely to be heard outside a concert-hall setting.

By stark contrast to the scene in New York, almost every other major concert hall in the country has either restored or added a pipe organ. They have emerged in musical auditoriums from coast to coast: Severance Hall in Cleveland, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, Calif., Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Mo., the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. I write as someone who has had the joy of making music on every one of these stunning instruments.

When a great pipe organ is experienced in a great hall, there is a “shock of recognition” unequaled by any other instrument. The organ sets the tone in a way that an ensemble of other musicians, regardless of size, cannot rival. The organ’s presence, whether purring underneath an orchestra or in robust dialogue with it, is transformative in a way that no other combination can match. Provided future programming would include opportunities for audiences to hear the organ, it would be difficult to discern a compelling artistic, practical, or financial reason against reinstalling one.

New York prides itself on providing an unparalleled cultural life to the public. Its audiences are sophisticated and discerning. They should not be deprived of what many already enjoy elsewhere in the world: a vast repository of music—both old and new—for organ and orchestra. With the renovations planned for Geffen Hall, we have a singular opportunity to fill this void.

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Please Help Me with HTML5 Audio

Please Help Me with HTML5 Audio

May I ask for your help? I am changing the audio in my pages to (1) remove Quicktime which is no longer supported, and (2) stop the problem of playing all files on a page at once with Chrome. I’ve made a test page with my recent restoration of Gretchaninoff’s “Three Pieces”:

Please give me your experience and comments, and be specific if you have a suggestion for me.

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Jesse Crawford’s Advanced Organ Course Reprinted

Jesse Crawford’s Advanced Organ Course Reprinted

For the fourth time (!) I have had to reprint this important organ book of technique and style. For those who had to wait about two weeks for delivery, I have apologized and given reduced shipping. It feels good to know that interest exists today, and that interest is worldwide. The last copy before the reprinting went to Germany, and the first copy of the new printing went to the United Kingdom. Organists are justly proud of “The Poet of the Organ.”

See my page for the Advanced Organ Course.

See the Catalogue for all of the Crawford method books, some are free.

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Swinnen’s Countrymen Want More of His Music

Regarding Aria by Swinnen:“I’m certainly interested! Thank you for your great service! Just received Swinnen’s Longwood Sketches today!” —Belgium

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It Exceeds Expectations

“It did indeed arrive today and the music is beautifully done. It exceeds expectations. Thanks so much for the wonderful job you do. I would highly recommend your music. If I were more accomplished I would have ordered more, but it will be some time before I master what you’ve sent.” —Maryland, USA

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Ropartz, Report to the Office!

Ropartz, Report to the Office!

You, my readers and customers, are the best! Thank you so much for the recommendations. I have now received enough requests to restore the Guy Ropartz Thème Varié, which first page is seen above. I have now committed to restoring it to the full size with all original pages. Within a few months, you will be able to buy it in its original paper size with all of its 1901 original pages.

If you don’t know the name of Ropartz, you might begin (and I mean “begin” in a limited sense) with the Wikipedia article.

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Aria by Firmin Swinnen

Aria by Firmin Swinnen

I am presenting below a recent inquiry and my response.

Hi Michael. Thank you for posting the score! [Longwood Sketches] You have a very interesting selection of organ music! I’m particularly interested in music of former fellow-countrymen like Firmin Swinnen.

You do not happen to have edited his “Aria”* also? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.
I’m certainly interested in future editions, so you can keep me posted. Kind regards. —Belgium

Well, I have good news! I have finished the copyright search and have received an excellent source on which to make the restoration. There have been many requests for Swinnen’s “Aria,” and I’m sure it will be popular. Please watch my announcements for future news.

* “Aria,” by Firmin Swinnen. New York, HW Gray Co ©1954, Saint Cecilia series, number 804.

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Paul Jacobs and the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall

Cleveland Orchestra Welcomes Back Listeners

John Apple was in Cleveland to hear Paul Jacobs play the E M Skinner in Severance Hall, and was fully impressed. The audience was near capacity, and the organ encore received frankly a more enthusiastic response than the orchestra. Read the full review by Zachary Lewis for the full description.

Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, performed only one other time here, in 2002, made a refreshing reappearance, with Jacobs at the literal front and center. Hand-in-hand with the orchestra and Welser-Möst, he crafted an episode of haunting, cinematic power, all while revealing a side of Copland many surely hadn’t known.

Whether interacting subtly with individual musicians or letting the organ rip in regal displays with the full ensemble, Jacobs displayed perfect senses of balance and registration in addition to technical fluidity and musical insight. Through often strange, winding, and unpredictable territory, the organist proved an assured and compelling guide, taking care to point out all the music’s curious wonders.

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Joseph Nolan of Perth, Australia

Organic Perfection with Joseph Nolan

You should know about the excellent organist, Joseph Nolan. There is an outstanding article about him by Victoria Laurie presented on September 29 in The Australian. I do not normally present an entire article here, but there is a hard paywall that prevents everyone who does not subscribe from reading. Victoria’s article is well worth a wider distribution to organists throughout the world, and so … we’re off to Perth!

If you walk inside St George’s Cathedral off Perth’s busy streets, you may hear a peal of organ music played by a distinguished musician.

In the main organ loft or seated in front of one of two other cathedral organs will be Joseph Nolan. If you’re lucky, you may hear him play the spectacular Toccatafrom Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No 5, a stirring and popular piece for occasions such as Britain’s royal weddings.

You’re likelier to hear him rehearsing for ecclesiastical services and choral recitals that have attracted a following among St ­George’s regular parishioners and beyond. They include retired BHP Billiton iron ore head Sam Walsh, a firm admirer of Nolan’s artistry and patron of his cathedral music program.

Yet few other church visitors know that Nolan is an internationally celebrated organ recitalist, who in April was made a chevalier in the Order of French Arts and Letters for his services to French music, in particular his recordings of Widor’s symphonies.

British-born Nolan began his career as organist to the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. He has performed often at Buckingham Palace, playing the first concert on the Palace Ballroom’s restored organ.

“It was a scary experience because it was in front of an invited audience only, including Charles Mackerras,” Nolan recalls. “He was a very generous man.”

Nolan has performed around the world, but mostly in France where, after graduating from the Royal College of Music in London, he studied under legendary teacher and organ soloist Marie-Claire Alain.

He went on to record Widor’s symphonies for Signum Records on famous organs — La Madeleine in Paris, St Francois De Sales in Lyons and St Sernin in Toulouse — played by Widor himself and by organ music composers such as Gabriel Faure and Camille Saint-Saens.

“I recorded all 10 symphonies in five nights and looking back, I think ‘How did I do it?’ ” says Nolan. “I remember someone saying: ‘These are not enough nights, you will not be able to do it.’ I did, although it almost killed me.

“I did six months of nothing else, at least four or five hours’ rehearsal a day, to make sure that I had mastery of it.”

Nolan’s recordings have been lavishly praised by critics. One reviewer noted that Nolan “transcends Widor’s scores, truly revelling in the gothic beauty of this music and the grandiose instruments of the belle epoque”.

Next year, Nolan will perform all 10 Vidor organ symphonies during a week’s residence at Melbourne Town Hall.

Even more prominent will be his debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in February, when he will play the Widor fifth symphony and Liszt’s choral fantasy and fugue Ad Nos on the Sydney Opera House organ.

A precociously talented child from a non-musical family in Hull, Nolan started playing a piano keyboard at the age of four.

“Then when I was 15,” he says, “I went to visit somebody at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I heard someone play the organ and I was hooked.”

As a Royal College scholarship student, he studied organ and piano. “To have a good piano technique is very important as an organist,” he says.

In 2008, Nolan arrived in Perth to take up the role of cathedral organist and master of the choristers. He was lured by former cathedral dean John Shepherd, a doctorate music expert who Nolan jokingly says “has a silver tongue and could sell snow to Eskimos”.

“He doubled the budget for music and gave me a very nice deal. I don’t have to play evensong during the week so I can do a lot of practice.”

The move to Australia has suited Nolan personally, too; he has become an Australian citizen and his nine-year-old son attends school in Perth.

He also has been appointed as an honorary research fellow of the University of Western Australia’s school of music.

The cathedral’s incumbent dean, Richard Pengelley, describes Nolan as “clearly one of the best organists in the world and greatest living exponents of French organ music”.

He says Nolan is also “a great choir master and identifier of talent” for the cathedral choir of paid singers, which includes the boy choristers. Pengelley says when the choir performed with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in Bach’s St John’s Passion earlier this year, principal conductor Asher Fisch “raved about them”.

“He sets the bar high and is totally unflinching in his expectations,” The Australian’s Perth music critic Mark Coughlan says.

“Joseph pushes people to deliver beyond a standard they thought they were capable of. His sense of rhythm and colour and theatrical drama, which is essential with Widor’s music, is compelling, overholding notes to create a super smooth legato line.”

Clive Paget, editor of Limelight magazine, describes Nolan as “a bit of a treasure” whose musicianship deserves greater acclaim in his adopted country.

“You think an orchestra makes a big noise, but wait until the organist has put his foot on the pedal,” he says.

Nolan concedes that his organ playing has rarely attracted the sustained interest enjoyed by other instrumentalists. Until now, it seems.

“Music is hard work and often you can feel as if you are up against a brick wall,” he says. “The chevalier award is also lovely — I put a lot into French music and it’s nice to be recognised for it.

“It seems to have led to other engagements, like my solo debut with the SSO.”

Completing the Widor series on France’s best organs was satisfying, “but then I thought: ‘What do I do next?’ ”

He returns to Perth next month after recording performances at Selby Abbey and giving concerts at Swansea International Festival and in other parts of Britain. Next year he will also visit The Netherlands to make a recording for Signum on the ornate baroque organ of St Bavokerk in Haarlem that was played by Mozart, Handel and Brahms.

Back home, choral conducting has become a second passion.

“This choir sings beautifully from vowel to vowel,” Nolan says. “It’s actually hard for them to get out a consonant when I want it. A reason I’m still here is that it’s pretty tricky to find a choir that sounds as good as them.

“People say I almost build the choir sound the way I approach the organ,” he adds. “I’m always drawing on certain stops, on certain singers’ sounds at different moments. It’s all building blocks to music.”

He would love to get funding to tour the cathedral choir, “because at our best we are every bit as good as visiting British choirs”.

Playing Widor’s symphonies will always be a big part of Nolan’s life. His affection is clear for the prolific French composer.

“Widor’s own playing was extremely legato and he was very, very still at the console,” Nolan says. “Everything was about technique. I think his music is played far too fast; in St Sulpice the organ physically pulls you back. You try and play too fast and it grips your body and slows you down. The instrument’s personality is that powerful.”

Widor continued playing the organ at St Sulpice in Paris into his 90s.

“There’s a recording of him playing his Toccatavery slowly,” Nolan says. “He was probably riddled with arthritis by then, but it’s still wonderful to hear him play, bless him.”

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A Smart Prelude, Tuneful Scherzo, Gatty’s Repose, and Three by Gretchaninoff

Greetings, everyone. October’s pieces include a recent request by an organist in New Jersey and selections by two of my favorites — Hollins and Sellars. You all know Henry Smart as an excellent composer of pieces suitable for use in service, but do you know the organ music of Alexander Gretchaninoff? I hope you enjoy reading and listening to this month’s pieces.


1. PRELUDE IN E FLAT, by Henry Smart. This publication comprises three pieces from “Organist’s Quarterly Journal” released together by Novello: Prelude in E Flat, Introductory Voluntary in B Flat, and Andante Grazioso. They are all quality organ music.

2. SCHERZO, by Alfred Hollins. Most scherzi these days seem to be overly loud and frantic. Hollins’s Scherzo is delicate and tuneful and pleasant to hear and to play. I offer a recording so you might judge for yourself.

3. REPOSE, by Gatty Sellars. Here is another in my project of restoring the organ music of Gatty Sellars. Repose is from 1911 and shows the beginning of his theatrical side showing itself. It’s not hard and it is restful.

4. THREE PIECES by Alexander Gretchaninoff. He was born in Russia and died in the United States in 1956. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and moved to St Petersburg where he studied composition and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. These Three Pieces composed in 1939 are his only solo organ works. I offer recordings for you to hear these.

MONTHLY DISCOUNT BUNDLE. To get the four pieces mentioned above, I offer a special price so you can buy all of the pieces above with one click and save money in the deal. I welcome your support, and if you don’t want to play a particular piece in the group, consider giving it to a student or another organist.

You can read about Hollins and Smart (and many others) on my Biographies Page: Thank you for your interest in this music. Please continue sending your suggestions.


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