Program Notes: Pipe Organ Spectacular – May 8, 2021

Concerto, Op. 4, #1, HWV 289, G minor

Instrumentation: strings

Duration: 12 minutes

The Composer

George Frederic Handel (1685-1758)

The History

The Handel organ concertos, Op. 4, HWV 289-294, are six organ concertos for chamber organ and orchestra composed in London between 1735 and 1736 and published in 1738. Written as interludes in performances of oratorios in Covent Garden, they were the first works of their kind for this combination of instruments and served as a model for later composers.

HWV 289 and 294 served as interludes for Handel’s oratorio, Alexander’s Feast. This concerto in G minor (HWV 289) has been described as a chamber work of “flawless lucidity and grace”. The opening stately larghetto in G minor has two different ritornello themes for organ and strings marked forte, with ornamented piano responses from the organ, like the solo voice in an operatic aria. Its unconventional free form and solemn mood are forward looking, with elements that prefigure the slow movements of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The following allegro in G major has brilliant virtuosic sixteenth notes passages for the organ, punctuated by orchestral tuttis, each reprise of the imitative ritornello offering a surprise. A short adagio in E minor leads into a delicately scored Minuet in G major with two variations. The echo responses of the upper strings are marked piano or pianissimo and the organ is sometimes accompanied only by a continuo.

The World – 1735

The Netherlands becomes the first government to announce a prohibition against citizens joining the Freemasons. 

John Wesley and his brother Charles set sail from England for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in British America; on the voyage they first encounter members of the Moravian Church.

Pluto (not known at this time) enters a fourteen-year period inside the orbit of Neptune, which will not recur until 1979.

Church Sonata No. 15, KV 336, C Major

Instrumentation: strings

Duration: 5 minutes

The Composer

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

The History

Mozart wrote seventeen Church Sonatas (sonate da chiesa), also known as Epistle Sonatas, between 1772 and 1780. These are short single-movement pieces intended to be played during a celebration of the Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel. Three of the sonatas include more orchestral scoring including oboes, horns, trumpets and timpani and the rest are scored for organ and strings (with no violas). In eight of the sonatas, the organ has an obbligato solo part and in the other nine the organ accompanies along with the figured bass.

Most of these pieces would be inserted into any mass setting of the appropriate key. Those requiring more instruments than the standard “Salzburg Church Quartet” are meant to go with specific mass settings that have that instrumentation.

Shortly after Mozart left Salzburg, the Archbishop mandated that an appropriate choral motet or congregational hymn be sung at that point in the liturgy, and the “Epistle Sonata” fell into disuse.

The World – 1780

Benedict Arnold gives detailed plans of West Point to Major John Andre. Three days later, André is captured, with papers revealing that Arnold was planning to surrender West Point to the British.

The legislature of Pennsylvania votes, 34 to 21, to approve the Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slaves.

Louis XVI of France abolishes the use of torture in extracting confessions.

Concerto, FP 93, G minor

Instrumentation: strings, timpani

Duration: 24 minutes

The Composer

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

The History

The Organ Concerto was composed by Poulenc between 1934 and 1938. It has become one of the most frequently performed pieces of the genre not written in the Baroque period.

The organ concerto was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac in 1934, as a piece with a chamber orchestra accompaniment and an easy organ part that the princess could probably play herself. The commission was originally given to Jean Franciax, who declined, but Poulenc accepted. Poulenc quickly abandoned this idea for something much more grandiose and ambitious; his earlier Harpsichord Concerto and Double-Piano Concerto were simpler, more light-hearted pieces. As he wrote in a letter to Françaix, “The concerto…is not the amusing Poulenc of the Concerto for two pianos, but more like a Poulenc en route for the cloister. The death of a colleague and friend, the young critic and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in the spring of 1936 made Poulenc go on a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, where he rediscovered his Christian faith. This new religious conviction not only nurtured an interest in religious music, which he began to compose, but also highly influenced his incomplete Organ Concerto. Indeed, Poulenc referred to it as being on the fringe of his religious works. Poulenc himself had never actually composed for the organ before, and so he studied great baroque masterpieces for the instrument by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude; the work’s neo-baroque feel reflects this. Poulenc was also advised about the instrument’s registration and other aspects by the organist Maurice Duruflé. Duruflé was also the soloist in the private premiere of the work on 16 December 1938, with Nadia Boulanger conducting, at Princess Edmond’s salon. The first public performance was in June 1939 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, with Duruflé once again the soloist and Roger Desormiere conducting. 

The World – 1938

Munich: German, Italian, British and French leaders agree to German demands regarding annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak government is largely excluded from the negotiations, and is not a signatory to the agreement.

Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds is broadcast, allegedly causing panic in various parts of the United States.

Seabiscuit defeats War Admiral by four lengths, in their famous match race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Adolf Hitler is Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”, as the most influential person of the year.