The World’s Hardest (videos)

World’s Toughest Piece of Organ Music

Oh my. When I saw this on The Huddersfield Examiner website, I knew I had to make a post! “It’s a piece of music so technically demanding that only a tiny handful of organists can play it… The piece, written by American composer Sowerby in 1931, is 12-minutes of sheer technical hell – ironic considering it has some beautiful moments.”

Well, I’ve certainly heard Pageant by quite a few organists and it’s popular enough to be available for sale today by Fred Bock. You can buy it at your local music shop in the UK or from Lois Fyfe Music in Nashville or from several online shops in Europe. Thankfully, it is a piece that is not in need of my restoration services!

There are a few other contenders for the crown of “World’s Most Difficult Organ Piece.” I’d like to present my nominees and you can add yours if I don’t mention it.

Etude #6 “Octaves,” by Jeanne Demessieux
(student of Dupré)

Overture to Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner,
transcribed by Samuel P Warren (AGO Founder)

I include this transcription because of the technical demands which even with today’s electronic gizmos are incredible and because of the incredible length which does not include a break for the performer. There has never been a recording as far as I know. This is the single hardest piece of traditionally-written organ that I know of, bar none. Mr Warren wrote it before Lemare and he didn’t have electric pistons to help out. He wrote in 1877, “The modern mechanical accessories (combination pedals and “knobs”) are of course almost if not quite indispensable.”

Cantique de Joie, by Serge de Gastyne
(Official Composer for the US Air Force)

You may know less about Serge de Gastyne than the others mentioned above, so here is a bit about him. Serge de GastyneSerge de Gastyne (1930-1992) was born is Paris, France, as the Count de Gastyne, Marquis de St Maur and Viscount de Montauriant. He expected to live the traditional life of French Nobility but World War II changed all that. Early in his teens, de Gastyne found himself fighting in the French underground. He emigrated to America at the end of the war and enrolled at the University of Portland, Oregon. Following graduation, he entered the US Air Force and was assigned to the Composing and Arranging staff of the Air Force Band in Washington DC. His musical compositions include symphonies, operas, and many pieces for band and voice. He won awards for his compositions from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1968, he renounced his titles in France and became a citizen of the United States. After studies at Eastman, he received a Masters degree and a Doctorate in music from the University of Maryland. He taught music at Northern Virginia Community College while serving in the Air Force.

Cantique de Joie, Opus 70, was dedicated to Peter Basch and performed by him at Notre Dame, Paris, on the V/153 Cavaillé-Coll (modified) in 1973. He wrote of his experience playing there: “The most exciting part for me was the entrance of the pedal triplets mid-way, like a pile driver pumping its way forward, a determined thrust and support to the upperwork that was crashing/exploding, aided by the dissonant chords cutting through the texture with a volcanic bombardment to the victorious final spread. And, that huge organ wrapped itself around me, like a tiger, and I will never, ever forget the entrance of the bombarde division when the console and tribune floor began to vibrate, making me think that I would bring down the entire balcony.” If you visit the page, you may hear the only recording of the piece, by Peter J Basch, on the organ in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, from 1973.

I knew Peter before his death in 2012 and he was a passionate advocate for the organ. He strongly encouraged me to find others who would be willing to learn and play Serge’s only organ piece. He sent me the biography of Serge’s life which helped to explain his musical style and strength and his love for the United States. I offer his recording of Serge’s “Cantique” as a memory to his life.

Back to Pageant, by Leo Sowerby

And, if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a surprise. “Pageant” was written for Fernando Germani. You’ve seen and heard Paul Jacobs play it. Now you can see and hear Germani play a part of it on an Italian television show from 1972. You’ve got to love the transparent organ bench!

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6 Responses to The World’s Hardest (videos)

  1. Tom Nichol says:

    I have read in several different places that it was Virgil Fox who gave the premiere performance of this piece at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Mr. Fox had just turned 21 years of age. The story goes that the advance word-of mouth about him was such that he found himself playing to a capacity audience PLUS 1,000 standees! He had just completed his studies with the great Marcel Dupre in Paris, as well as several lessons with Dupre’s pupil, Louis Vierne. What a way to begin one’s career!

  2. Seth Blacklock says:

    What is your opinion of the pedal studies by Charles-Valentin Alkan?

  3. D. John Apple says:

    The 12 Etudes, published in 1866, are some of the earliest such pieces in France, since there was not a regular organ pedalboard. Alkan had won 1st prize in organ at the Paris Conservatory (in the class with teacher Benoist and fellow student Franck) in 1834. Because of Alkan’s interest in Baroque music and his concern over French organists having little concern for clarity in pedal playing, he composed these etudes for organ or pedal piano (an instrument first presented at the Paris Exhibition in 1855). Because of their length, rhythmic complexity and one to four notes at a time, these are the most demanding pieces for pedals alone until the Demessieux etudes, published 80 years later in 1946.

  4. Oh well, the fine folks at RAI have blocked the Italian’s performance on Italian television of piece written for an Italian. That’s real intelligence at work, RAI. There are many other fine performances on Youtube for you to choose, though none are by Germani or even Italians. Here’s one to start with:

  5. Baxley says:

    You forgot the durufle toccata…

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