5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Organ

In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky, trumpet, Maria Callas and Bach.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the grandeur and colors of the organ — a full orchestra in a single instrument. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1740 to hear Johann Sebastian Bach play the organ in Leipzig, Germany. Bach is the ultimate composer for this extraordinary, timeless instrument. Much of his organ music is intense, revealing its multilayered, life-affirming majesty slowly, through repeated listening. The opening to his 29th cantata, however, leaps and bounds with immediate joy. There is something visceral about hearing this music played live, on a great organ, in a vast cathedral space: The building shakes, the air shimmers and the music is as much felt as heard.

This piece stops me in my tracks every time I hear it, conjuring the phrases “tour de force” and “pièce de résistance.” In an incredible display of badassery, Demessieux unleashes the full spectrum of the organ’s capabilities, with all its sounds, timbres, colors and contrasts. Too often people associate this instrument with dirges or spooky music; this piece is energetic and exuberant.

The middle section is like a slow jazz waltz sound bath, filled with luscious chords and featuring an inverted texture that places the solo in the pedals and the bass line on the keyboards. As a performer, it’s always a great adventure to tackle music written by a virtuoso composer to showcase her own instrument. Demessieux knows exactly what the organ can do, and she uses all of it.

It hardly gets grander than Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, which he titled “with organ.” And yet, with the right musicians, this gigantic Romantic wedding cake of a piece is shining elegance, not overkill. After its first C-major blast in the finale, the organ is woven into the orchestra so lovingly that it never seems to be used for mere effect; the instrument is treated like a jewel, to be placed in one of the repertory’s most sumptuous, stirring settings. A delightful bonus in this finely detailed recording: a father-and-son pair of eminences as organist and conductor.

One remarkable thing about the organ is its ability to generate acoustic sounds that seem electronic. The Scottish composer Claire M. Singer explores this to rapturous effect in “The Molendinar,” a slowly morphing, 25-minute journey that intricately builds beautiful, bending overtones over a simple ground bass through her manipulation of the organ’s mechanical stop action. The Molendinar is a hidden watercourse above which the city of Glasgow was founded in the sixth century, but the music’s grand, glacial build, and ghostly evanescence, remind me of the Breton legend of Ys, its mythological cathedral rising and then sinking back into the ocean.

If I’m introducing someone, I can only submit my most recent recording, since it is played on an instrument I designed whose very point is to demonstrate the possibilities of the modern organ. The transition of the instrument to the digital realm gives us a glimpse of the part of it that transcends moving parts. In pairing Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations with Howard Hanson‘s 1930 Symphony No. 2, “Romantic,” I wanted to contrast two masterpieces from outside the organ repertoire. I didn’t intrude on any organ works in which others are better versed, and the instrument’s clarity and color helps us to understand these well-loved pieces anew.

Although César Franck wrote relatively few works for the organ, he was still arguably the greatest composer for the instrument since Bach, and it was in Bach’s shadow that he composed three chorales in 1890, the year he died. What Franck called a chorale, though, bears little resemblance to Bach’s settings of hymn tunes; the three are vast, 15-minute ruminations on belief, none more spiritual than the second, a passacaglia that hypnotically winds its way to what the ear thinks is going to be an imposing declaration of faith, before it falls away to a quieter, more personal hope.

Beethoven considered organists “the greatest of all virtuosi.” But if making music with all four limbs isn’t hard enough, Lou Harrison also expects the soloist in his Concerto for Organ and Percussion to play clamorous clusters of keys with felt padded slabs — to match a full battery of percussion that includes Chinese crash cymbals, oxygen tank bells and gongs galore. While I’ve always prized the organ’s uncanny ability to arouse our numinous instincts, sometimes we just want to let our hair down. The irrepressible joy of the final movement will wake the dead and make them dance.

The young Aaron Copland wrote his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra at the behest of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, who played the solo part at the premiere, in 1925. Copland’s friend and colleague Virgil Thomson later described the symphony as “the voice of America in our generation.” He was right. While looking back at the European symphonic heritage, Copland’s ambitious piece is fresh, direct, unsentimental and sassy in a way that seems somehow American, especially the feisty, unabashedly dissonant finale. And I love the ruminative opening Andante, which glows and sighs in this live recording.

Handel is best known for his operas and oratorios. But his organ concertos contain some of his most lively and playful music. A gifted virtuoso on the instrument, he performed several of these pieces as entertainment for audiences between acts of his oratorios. The Organ Concerto in F, which premiered in 1739, goes by the nickname “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” for its chirpy motifs. Marie-Claire Alain plays with precision and zeal, gliding through the many improvisatory sections.

The organ in church can be like a piece of beautiful architecture, or a wonderful sermon: It is sometimes taken for granted. And there is a subtle art to playing with a choir; the organist must wrestle with the acoustics of the space to make sure everything aligns, as the player is oftentimes quite far from the singers, and the pipes can be practically miles away.

One beautiful challenge is the “Jubilate” from Herbert Howells’s morning service for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the extraordinary and specific acoustics of the chapel there. Even when the organ is under the choir, Howells is masterly at doubling the voices and weaving in and out of them, foretelling little themes or echoing them after. The acoustics of the space turn the simple counterpoint into something intentionally blurry but somehow precise, like a house at night lit from within but seen from outside, with shapes flickering in and out of view.

The beginning of the piece starts with the organ in its simplest incarnation, just holding an E-flat minor chord. In the last phrase, on the text “world without end, amen,” the choir sings in unison, and the organ, here the primary voice, unspools a long melody, crabwise but ultimately pointing downward toward a resolution in E-flat major.

You can’t help but appreciate the too-muchness of the organ. Its extremity goes both ways: It can whisper, or shake the ground you stand on with the awe-inspiring sound of a full-voiced choir. Both ends of the spectrum coexist in Samuel Barber’s 1960 “Toccata Festiva.” About two-thirds into the piece, after an opening of Romantic excess and concerto-like flair, comes a cadenza that rises from foreboding depths to episodes that are by turns agile, luminous and borderline outrageous — but arriving at a mysterious peace. When the orchestra returns in a crowded dash to the ending, all of its might is necessary to meet the grandeur of what may be our most extravagant instrument.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer power a pipe organ can produce, but it is also an instrument with an amazing capacity for beauty and sensitivity, characteristics that are often overlooked when talking about it. We hear this more subtle side in Robilliard’s transcription of Fauré’s “Sicilienne,” performed here by Thomas Ospital in the Church of St. Eustache in Paris. It’s in this kind of music that the building becomes integral to the success of a performance; as we hear the individual flute stops dancing around the space, the acoustic bloom becomes an architectural sustaining pedal.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic wanted to commission organ music from Terry Riley, they let him hang out all night playing on Hurricane Mama, the potent pipe instrument inside Walt Disney Concert Hall. Some of the material Riley improvised there made its way into his 2013 concerto “At the Royal Majestic.” One of his grandest late-career works, it’s punchy, mystical and gorgeous. (It’s also a reminder that his artistic development did not stop with the early Minimalist touchstone “In C.”)

The close of the first movement — called “Negro Hall,” after a drawing by the fin-de-siècle Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli — occasionally seesaws between sugar-sweet orchestral motifs and gloomier exhalations from the organ. Riley presents such contrasts not with postmodern irony, but with tangible, genuine delight. Even after a climactic turn toward frenzied rhythmic patterns, his joyous sensibility is always perceptible, and the final chords are exhilarating.

April 15, 2019: The whole world was horrified to discover the images of Notre-Dame on fire. A few weeks earlier, I was in the cathedral recording this “Little” Fugue in G minor for an album called “Bach to the Future.”

“Little” — but it is nevertheless great Bach! In a few minutes, the cantor of Leipzig tells us such a story. I love the fragility that shines throughout this work, a fragility that brings us back to our human condition in front of current events: the fire of Notre-Dame, the health situation, climate change. May this music make us aware of our determining role in humanity.

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