This music is for both long-time organ lovers and people new to the glories of the "King of Instruments". The pieces that I have chosen to record here are a small but representative sample of music for organ from five centuries. Although most of these are not the best-known examples of their composers and musical styles, they do represent some of my personal favorites.
Our musical journey begin with a piece that was actually composed for two antiphonal choirs, not for organ. Although the style of this composition is fairly typical of the Italian late Renaissance and early Baroque period (the early 17th century), the composer, Salamone Rossi, was a very unusual man. He came from a family of Italian Jews that traced their ancestry back to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century of the common era, when the Romans captured many of the Jews and carried them off to Rome. But he was also well-versed in the culture and styles of the Italian Renaissance. His composition on this album, which I have transcribed for organ, is a setting of the familiar Jewish hymn, "Ein K'Eloheinu" ("There is None Like Our God"). But this is NOT your bubbe's "Ein K'Eloheinu", for sure!
Our next stop is at perhaps the pinnacle of organ building and organ music, the German Baroque (the early 18th century). It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that organ music can be divided into two categories: music by J. S. Bach, and music by everybody else. That's how important Bach is to organ literature! I have chosen three contrasting pieces by Bach for this album.
The first is his great Fugue in g minor. This represents all of his large, extended organ pieces, including many toccatas, preludes, and fugues. To my mind, fugues, especially Bach's fugues, are the epitome of musical composition. From a single theme, played all by itself at the beginning, he weaves a whole piece, with each "voice" getting the theme (called the "subject") in various keys and multiple times throughout the whole work. This is music that is both intellectually interesting and emotionally captivating.
The second Bach piece marks a big contrast with the first. This is a quiet, meditative "chorale prelude", which is Bach's setting of a traditional tune "Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn" ("My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord"). It's likely (if not certain) that both this piece and the following one were originally written for other instruments, but Bach himself transcribed them for organ, and, when a rare opportunity for publication came his way, he chose them, together with four others. Hence, these six chorale preludes are known as the "Schubler Chorale Preludes", after their publisher.
The third Bach piece, a chorale prelude on "Lobe den Herrn" ("Praise to the Lord"), is a much more exuberant setting of a hymn that is still sung frequently. Believe it or not, the ornamented version of the melody, including trills, is designated to be played on the pedals of the organ with a high-pitch stop!
Next we move to France in the late 19th century. Cesar Franck was born in Belgium of a Belgian father and a German mother, but he spent most of his career in France. Many would consider him the second greatest composer of organ music, after Bach, despite the fact is his entire output for organ is less than 3 hours of music. But what wonderful, intricate, and rich music it is! Franck was a master of modulation (moving from one key to another) and of Romantic chromaticism. His music is serious but rich, warm, and engaging. I chose to record his Chorale #2 for this album because it is perhaps my favorite of all his works. It's roughly in the form of a passacaglia. The theme appears first at the beginning, all by itself, in the pedal. This is a long piece, but the variety of moods and timbres keeps it from becoming boring.
Now we come to the 20th century. I have selected two very different composers in this case. First, there is Paul Hindemith, whose third sonata for organ occupies the next three tracks. Hindemith was a German composer who eventually fled Germany (in 1938), partly because the Nazis did not always like his music and partly because his wife was Jewish. This sonata, written in 1940, when he was in Switzerland, is based on three old folk songs. Most of his prolific output is NOT for organ. In fact, all that he wrote for this instrument were three sonatas. Hindemith's style uses a lot of dissonance, and his harmony is very adventurous, but he comes back to pleasant chords at the end, and his music is always melodically and rhythmically interesting. If you let yourself, you may find that you like this music better than you think you will. Every since I first learned to play this sonata, when I was in college, it has exerted a strange pull on me.
The other 20th century composer represented here is Jean Langlais, from France. Despite becoming blind when he was only two years old, he became one of the most important organists of the century in France, producing a large number of works for the instrument. The piece I have selected for this album is also one that I learned to love in college, "Chant de Paix" ("Song of Peace"). This is a wonderfully quiet and peaceful composition that truly lives up to its name. It takes on even more significance when we learn that it was written in the early 1940's, in the middle of the Second World War!
The last four tracks of the album are a symphony for organ that I wrote just this year (2007), bringing us finally into the 21st century. This CD is the premier performance of this work. All the themes in this symphony are melodies for the Jewish Torah Service, where we take the Torah scroll out of the Ark, carry it all around the room for everyone to touch, read from it, and finally return it to the Ark. Being the composer, I know the most about this work, so I'll describe it for you in some detail.
The first movement is based on three melodies that we sing just before we open the Ark and right afterwards. These are: "Ein Kamocha BaElohim Adonai" ("There Is None Like You among the Mighty Ones, Adonai"), "Av HaRachamim" ("Source of Mercy"), and "Kumah, Adonai" ("Rise Up, Adonai"). This movement is in "sonata-allegro" form, with an exposition of the themes, a development section (rather short in this case), and a recapitulation.
Most of a Jewish service is in Hebrew, but the next prayer is one that is in Aramaic instead. Near the end of it, we sing the melody "Beh Ana Rakhitz" ("In You I Trust"). For the second movement, I have set this in a quiet, brooding setting, which gradually becomes more settled and confident.
The third movement uses the tune to which we sing Psalm 29 before putting the Torah scroll back into the Ark. Since we basically sing the same melody over several times, I wrote this as a theme and variations. After the simple statement of the theme, the first variation is a trio, with the theme appearing in longer notes against a more animated countermelody, all over a simple detached bass part. The second variation is in a style based on 16th century counterpoint (one of my favorite courses in college!). Here the melody is more hidden, appearing subtly in various "voices". In the third variation, the melody is on a solo stop in the tenor, accompanied by long, sustained chords. The fourth, and final, variation is a louder, more strident trio, almost like a toccata.
The last movement IS a toccata, based on the melody that we sing just before we return the Torah scroll to the Ark. It begins with the words "Etz Chaim Hi" ("It Is a Tree of Life"). In this movement, the upper part moves in rapid sixteenth notes with an insistent chordal rhythmic figure in the lower part. Against all of this, the melody comes in, a phrase at a time, in long loud notes, mostly in the pedal, except for a section in the middle, where it appears in long high notes instead.
ABOUT THE ORGANIST
I began piano lessons before I started school, so I literally learned to read music before I learned to read! My first piano teacher, Mrs Rittenhouse, taught me to love music. When she had to retire, I studied with Mrs Hempel, who taught me how to go beyond just the written notes. My third piano teacher, Mr Hicks, who was also my first organ teacher, introduced me to the joys and the rigor of classical music. All of my teachers gave me a good foundation in musical theory, as well, which I really learned with gusto.
In college, I couldn't decide whether to major in math or in music, so I did both! The music major was by far the more demanding of the two, requiring more units and occupying much more of my time, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here, I expanded my knowledge of music theory, composition. history, and, of course, performance. Besides improving my playing skills, my organ teacher, Donald Vaughn, taught me an immense amount about the history and design of this unique and powerful instrument. I also learned a great deal from my composition teacher, the late Perry Beach.
In graduate school, I studied math, and my career has been based on that. However, in recent years, my interest in the organ and in musical compositions has been rekindled. And advances in technology have allowed me to bring you this music, recordings of real pipe organs meticulously and carefully crafted from my own home studio in Tsfat, Israel. I hope that you enjoy this music as much as I enjoyed making it!
ABOUT THE INSTRUMENTS
I used two very different organs to make these recordings. The newer one was completed in 2001 in the town of Litomysl, in the Czech Republic, by Vladimir Grygar. However, this instrument is actually best suited to the older music. I had no doubt that it would be the best organ to use for the Rossi and the Bach. This is a largely Baroque style organ, with 51 bright and crisp stops arrayed over four manual divisions and the pedal division.
The other organ was built in 1928 by E. M. Skinner in a church in Chicago. This instrument is an outstanding example of the American orchestral-style organ of the early 20th century. It's about the same size as the Grygar organ, but with a much more subdued, warm sound. It has three manual divisions and, of course, a pedal division. I knew that it would be the best for the Franck, the Langlais, and my own organ symphony (which I actually wrote using it!).
The Hindemith was the only piece that I thought might work on either organ. In fact, I recorded it on both. In the end, I decided that it sounded best on the Grygar instrument, but it is also nice on the Skinner.
HOW THIS MUSIC WAS MADE
If you've read this far, congratulations! If you've REALLY been paying attention, you may well be wondering exactly how I made this music.
The process begins with someone (not me!) meticulously recording each pipe of each organ, individually. This means literally thousands of recordings for each organ! The Skinner organ was recorded by Milan Digital Audio, and the Grygar by Sonus Paradisi. I bought these samples from the respective companies.
But this alone is not enough. Each pipe makes a particular sound when the air first enters it (when one first presses the key on the keyboard) and another unique sound when the air is cut off (when one releases the key). During the time in between, the sound is quite steady, so the sample can be looped to allow the note to be played as long or as short as desired. Also, a way is needed to select the various pipes in a manner similar to the way a live organist sitting at the organ console does, that is, by selecting the stops desired and pressing the keys. All of this is handled by a program running on my Windows PC called Hauptwerk, from Crumhorn Labs. In other words, Hauptwerk provides the front end to play the organ samples. By the way, the word "Hauptwerk" is German for "high work" and is generally the name of the main manual division on a German organ (whose pipes are mounted immediately in front of but high above the organ console in a traditional organ). In English, this manual division is usually called the "Great".
This still leaves the question of how to play the organ. Here's where something called MIDI ("Musical Instruments Digital Interface") comes in. This is a protocol that was developed decades ago to allow electronic musical instruments to communicate with each other. This is used, for example, to let a musician control a wide assortment of synthesizers, sampled sounds, drum machines, and even lighting controls from a single keyboard or other electronic instruments, such as an electric guitar.
So, one way to play these organs is to have an organ console that is equipped with MIDI. This is NOT how I do it, however! Instead, I have another program, Digital Performer, which is a sequencing program, that runs on my Macintosh. This program sends the MIDI messages to Hauptwerk (on the other computer) via MIDI cables, and this is what actually "plays" the organ. Of course, Digital Performer allows me to determine exactly which notes on which manual or pedal will be played, when they will begin, and when they will end. It also allows me to set when the stops will change. With Hauptwerk, I pre-set which combinations of stops to use, and Digital Performer merely sends Hauptwerk a signal telling it to move to the next (or the previous) combination. Luckily, Digital Performer has a pretty good user interface, including some musical notation, so this process is not as hard as you might think. I do have an electronic keyboard, also connected to the computers by MIDI, and usually use it to enter the notes. I don't have to enter every single note this way, however. In fact, copy and paste come in VERY handy here!
The sounds of the organ come out of the PC sound system, either through the speakers or through the earphones, depending on which I plug in. But, when I want to record, Hauptwerk can also send the sound to a WAV file (the standard musical file on a regular music CD) in addition. This means that only the organ sound gets into the file (on my PC hard disk). I don't have to worry about ambient sounds, such as someone slamming a door, or the A/C fan, or a mooing cow (yes, we do sometimes have cows near our house here!), or a big construction track vehicle rumbling by (which also happens here!).
Of course, the main challenge for me in all of this is to make the music SOUND as though a live organist were playing it. The organist is basically note perfect, since I DON'T see any reason to DELIBERATELY enter wrong notes! But I DO pay considerable attention to the lengths of notes, especially repeated notes, and to making subtle variations in tempo, as I would certainly do if playing the music live. As for results, I'll leave you to judge, but I think you'll be amazed at how realistic it sounds! I must say, it's quite a thrill for me!