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Mastermind on the Organ: Wayne Marshall

The outstanding British organist improvises on themes by Beethoven.

He is a genius on the organ, and a charismatic conductor, composer and entertainer: Britain's Wayne Marshall can do church music and jazz, Bach and Broadway – and has a worldwide fan community. To mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, he improvises in the Elbphilharmonie on themes written by the great composer. To start with, he plays major works from the French organ repertoire, a complex Toccata and Fugue by his Canadian colleague Andrew Ager, and an improvisation on music by his artistic lodestar Leonard Bernstein.

The Performer

Wayne Marshall enjoys a considerable worldwide reputation as a conductor, organist and pianist. He has been Organist in Residence at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester since 1996. After working as chief conductor of the WDR Radio Orchestra from 2014 to 2020, he is now concentrating more on solo projects. A special focus of Marshall's is the music of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and contemporary American composers.

Wayne Marshall Wayne Marshall © Daniel Dittus
Wayne Marshall Wayne Marshall © Daniel Dittus
Wayne Marshall Wayne Marshall © Daniel Dittus


Wayne Marshall
Improvisation »Hommage à Lenny«

Charles-Marie Widor (*1844–1937)
Sinfonie Nr. 6 g-Moll op. 42/2

George C. Baker (*1951)
Deux Évocations

Andrew Ager (*1962)
Toccata und Fuge

Wayne Marshall
Improvisation on themes by Ludwig van Beethoven

Wayne Marshall
Sheet music © Daniel Dittus

The Spirit of Improvisation :About the music in this recital

  • Improvisation: Hommage à Lenny


    It goes without saying that improvisation calls for inspiration. This applies to Leonard Bernstein twice over: as a composer and pianist, inspiration came naturally to him, while as a conductor, humanist and motivator he inspired comrades-in-arms and music lovers all over the world. Despite his classical musical training, Bernstein was a true polyglot: no genre was alien to him, no style too far removed to stop him blending the best of all musical worlds into an incredibly diverse and many-faceted oeuvre free of all reservations. He combined and exploited classical music and jazz, musicals, blues, rock and Latin American material without prejudice – »West Side Story« is a good example. The critics of the day found his approach nothing short of scandalous, but Bernstein, who also wrote symphonies, songs, chamber music, piano pieces and film soundtracks, didn't give a damn about conventions. Whatever Wayne Marshall takes as the basis for his improvisation today, one thing's for sure: Bernstein's oeuvre offers more than enough inspiration for a Homage to Lenny.

    Leonard Bernstein (1955)
    Leonard Bernstein © New York World-Telegram and Sun collection, Library of Congress
  • Charles-Marie Widor: Sinfonie Nr. 6

    Symphonic Heavyweight

    One of the organ repertoire's »greatest hits« is the toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony by Charles-Marie Widor. Alongside this heavyweight, Widor's other nine organ symphonies lead something of a shadowy existence. But they are actually no less worth listening to: they all illustrate the pinnacle of French Romantic organ music, which was heavily influenced by the huge new instruments of organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. As titular organist of the Parisian church St. Sulpice for no fewer than 64 years (!), Widor had one of these magnificent instruments at his disposal. »The modern organ is essentially symphonic in nature«, he concluded. »For this new instrument we need to find a new language and a different ideal to replace scholastic polyphony.« In other words, a new type of instrument also calls for new music. Fewer fugues in the Bach style, more sweeping soundscapes in the style of today's orchestral works. This prompted Widor quite rightly to call his works »symphonies«. He wrote No. 6 in 1878 for the inauguration of a new Cavaillé-Coll organ as part of the World's Fair in Paris: the instrument was situated in a new hall, since partly demolished, by the name of Trocadéro.

    Charles-Marie Widor
    Charles-Marie Widor © Wikimedia Commons

    The first movement of the symphony is an allegro brimming with expressive vitality, and pretty virtuoso in style; the dramatic first subject is presented right at the beginning. By way of contrast,the second subject is more of a recitative. The adagio that follows is a set of variations based on a chorale-like theme, of which Albert Schweitzer said it was inspired by music of Richard Wagner that Widor had heard in Bayreuth not long before. The third movement is a scherzo where a quiet central section is framed by two virtuoso outer parts. Fourth place is taken by a cantabile that features pure bel canto with a solo part. The symphony comes to an end with a march-like rondo, full of dynamic contrasts, which culminates in a stormy coda.

  • George C. Baker: Deux Évocations

    A la Française

    The Deux Évocations by George C. Baker are firmly rooted in the French tradition, dedicated as they are to two heroes of French organ culture: Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau. Both of them were titular organists at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, and they both made a name for themselves not only as composers, but also as brilliant improvisers. Baker in turn is not only a gifted organist: his main occupation is that of dermatologist, and in that field he enjoys an outstanding reputation. As far as his compositions are concerned, Vierne and Cochereau both have a strong influence on his work.

    Der Organist George C. Baker vor seinem Instrument
    George C. Baker © unbezeichnet

    The themes on which the Évocations are based are Gregorian in origin. The meditative Évocation No. 1 makes use of hymns that are associated with the Virgin Mary – right at the beginning, for example, in a pedalboard solo that is accompanied by gently progressing chords. Évocation No. 2 opens with agitated, pulsating chords, and develops into a rousing toccata. At the outset, Baker quotes from the Easter sequence »Victimae paschali laudes«.

  • Andrew Ager: Toccata and Fuge

    Traditional Genre

    Andrew Ager's career as a composer didn't really get off to a good start: the experienced Canadian pianist was thrown out of school and had to teach himself the requisite skills at home. He achieved his breakthrough not least with a series of organ works, and he is now one of the most sought-after composers of his generation, appearing on the programme of many opera houses with operas like »Frankenstein«, »Casanova« and »Führerbunker«.

    Der Komponist und Organist Andrew Ager
    Andrew Ager © Peter Robb

    With his »Toccata and Fugue« Ager takes up a traditional organ genre and adapts it for modern times. The complex Prelude lives from assembled rhythms and constantly shifting emphases. The fugue opens all harmless in C major, but then departs gradually from conventional rules – both rules of the fugue form and rules of tonality –, ending with a scorching finale.

  • Improvisation über Themen von Ludwig van Beethoven

    Improviser Beethoven

    Every morning, two masses were sung at the Bonn court of the Elector of Cologne, and in addition the afternoon vespers had to be accompanied by music on all Sundays and public holidays: no small workload for the young Ludwig van Beethoven, who held the position of second court organist. But his duties also offered him the chance to accumulate a wealth of experience, as the art of improvisation was keenly cultivated. Beethoven must have benefited from this later in many »improvisation duels«, e.g. competing against the composer Joseph Woelfl. And in performances of his own piano concertos, he also often improvised on the basis of rudimentary sketches – generally because he hadn't completed a neat manuscript in time. So there are plenty of reasons for Wayne Marshall to improvise on themes written by Beethoven at the end of today's recital.

    Ludwig van Beethoven, Gemälde Joseph Willibrord Mähler, um 1805
    Ludwig van Beethoven © Public domain

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