Music for Organ: Top 7

Strange, sacred, intoxicating: These pieces wrote organ history.

7th place: For people not in a hurry

John Cage: ORGAN²/ASLSP (1987)

Among the many strange compositions from the pen of John Cage (1912–1992), this is perhaps the strangest of all: »ASLSP«, »As Slow As Possible«, – and the title is meant literally! Cage, who loved to experiment, wrote the piece, originally for piano, with the help of a random-selection computer program, and genuinely intended it to be played as slowly as possible. While the 1989 first performance lasted 29 minutes, several recordings of varying length exist. But none of these comes even close to the performance that has been running in the Sankt-Burchardi Church in Halberstadt since the year 2001. That's right: the performance began in 2001 and is scheduled to last until 2640! This curious project is planned to stretch over a period of no less than 639 years, with »ASLSP« being played on an organ specially built for the purpose. An emergency power generator ensures that air is channelled through the instrument without a break, and the note played only changes every few years: the last time was in 2013, and the next change is scheduled for September 2020. These occasions have turned into cult happenings over the years, attracting numerous visitors. John Cage would have been delighted!

Change of note, »ASLSP« in Halberstadt (2010)

 Tonwechsel: John Cage »ASLSP«
Tonwechsel: John Cage »ASLSP« © Brezelhaus / Youtube

The Elbphilharmonie organ

No plan showing the wind channels, the bellows and the abstracts? Organist Thomas Cornelius answers the essential questions about the organ in the Grand Hall in short videos.

6th place: Acoustic extremes

»›Hell und Dunkel‹ explores the acoustic extremes of the organ like hardly any other piece«

Sofia Gubaidulina: Hell und Dunkel (1976)

The central theme in the life of Sofia Gubaidulina (*1931) is belief. As the Russian composer, who has been living near Hamburg since the mid-1990s, puts it: »Without belief, music has no reason to exist«. Perhaps that's why the organ with its aura of the sacred holds such a strong appeal for Gubaidulina. In terms of subject matter, however, her work »Hell und Dunkel« (Light and Dark) follows a different direction: it explores the acoustic extremes of the organ like hardly any other piece. While shimmering figurations flutter in the high register, there are dark cluster clouds brewing lower down. These structures pull and tug at one another like the two poles of a magnet, which culminates in an explosion of massive dissonances. But at the end, the two sides seem to manage to agree on a major third, clear as a bell, in the middle register. Is this a utopia of peaceful coexistence? It's certainly a classic of modern music!

Iveta Apkalna plays »Hell und Dunkel«

Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Gubaidulina © Peter Fischli

Iveta Apkalna, titular organistin at the Elbphilharmonie, named her album »Light & Dark« after the piece by Gubaidulina.

5th place: Till the organ catches fire

György Ligeti: Volumina (1962)

Another composer with a connection to Hamburg: From 1973 to 1989 György Ligeti (1923–2006) taught at the Hamburg College of Music, and even after he became an emeritus professor, the Hungarian composer lived by the Alster for a few more years »because it's a wonderful place to work unnoticed«. Ligeti was made famous by the ecstatic planes of sound found in compositions like his »Atmosphères« of 1961 (particularly after master director Stanley Kubrick used the piece to great effect in the iconic film »2001: A Space Odyssey«).  Ligeti followed a similar principle in his 1962 organ work »Volumina«, which ushered in a revolution in organ music when it appeared.

»Volumina« in St. Jakobi, Lübeck

Ligeti: Volumina
Ligeti: Volumina © Franz Danksagmüller / Youtube

»Volumina« dispenses entirely with structural elements such as melody and rhythm, making it in the truest sense of the term not of its time. Instead, Ligeti explores the instrument's limits, playing with extremes of timbre; and the technical demands were extreme as well: at the first rehearsals, several fuses blew, prompting some churches to ban its performance as a precaution. The background: at the beginning of the piece, Ligeti calls for a total cluster, where all the stops have to be pulled and the entire keyboard depressed. Only then should the drive be engaged, so that the music appears out of nowhere with a colossal surge. The end of the piece follows a similar principle: the drive is switched off, causing the air supply to the pipes to gradually come to a halt. An effect, incidentally, that cannot be reproduced on every organ; but the technical demands that »Volumina« imposes were taken into account in the construction of the Elbphilharmonie organ.

»At the first rehearsals, several fuses blew, prompting some churches to ban its performance as a precaution«

4th place: Tribute to Bach

Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Tmpani in G Minor (1938)

The Frenchman Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) was one of the most inventive and imaginative of all composers, often seasoning his music with a good dose of humour. But his organ concerto opens on quite a different note: the organ strikes up an almost brutal solo, after which the string orchestra and the timpani build up an enormous tension for three minutes, before the music finally pushes on. Gripping, brilliant, infectious – and a true repertoire milestone. It goes without saying that even here, Poulenc doesn't take things completely seriously: the choice of the organ concerto form already represents a recourse to the Baroque, and at the end of the score he includes an obvious nod to the master of the genre, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, performed by Iveta Apkalna and the hr-Sinfonieorchester

Iveta Apkalna
Iveta Apkalna © hr-Sinfonieorchester / Youtube

3rd place: Is that my pig whistling?

Camille Saint-Saëns: Sinfonie Nr. 3 c-Moll op. 78 »Organ Symphony« (1886)

The most beautiful music ever written – all argument is futile! French composer Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) took a similar view at the time: »Here, I gave everything I had to give …I shall never write anything like this again«. And indeed he didn't – at least, not in symphony form. In his Third Symphony, the organ plays a prominent role, but it remains the equal of the other instruments in the orchestra. Saint-Saëns splits up the classic four-movement symphony into two parts that can hardly be surpassed in terms of wealth of melody, rhythmic power and musical elegance. Too bad that the people responsible for the »Babe« movies (The Gallant Pig) thought so too, and rehashed the music for their soundtrack. Which sounds so dreadful that it's almost beautiful to listen to …

Camille Saint-Saëns: »Organ Symphony«

Saint-Saens: Orgelsinfonie / Thierry Escaich / Paavo Järvi (BBC Proms)
Saint-Saens: Orgelsinfonie / Thierry Escaich / Paavo Järvi (BBC Proms) © Classic Vault 1 / Youtube

2nd place: Music for all eternity

Charles-Marie Widor: Orgelsinfonie Nr. 5 f-Moll op. 42/1 (1879)

One more organ symphony, but this time without an orchestra. One of the main representatives of this particularly French genre, where organs have always sounded especially »orchestral«, was the organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1934). Widor's best-known work is the last movement of his Fifth Organ Symphony: a monumental toccata that, sad to say, is often reduced to a virtuoso showpiece nowadays. But that doesn't detract from the sublime beauty of the music. Or, as the composer himself put it: »Playing the organ means revealing a will filled with the view of eternity.« With this work, Widor certainly created music for all eternity.

Charles-Marie Widor playing his Organ Symphony

Charles-Marie Widor
Charles-Marie Widor © Wikimedia Commons

1st place: A synonym for organ music

Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata und Fuge in d-Moll (zw. 1703–1707)

Just three notes (to be precise, it's a single note with an ornament), and everyone knows right away what he's listening to: The first place in our Top 7 goes clearly to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and his famous Toccata in D minor. With this toccata and the fugue that follows, the Baroque master wrote the most famous organ piece in music history, and at the same time one of the most iconic of all classical works. There are actually people who dispute that Bach was the author, but we don't want to get involved here in such blasphemous speculations. One thing is indisputable: this is such magnificent and captivating music that it has deservedly become a synonym for organ music per se.

Bach's famous Toccata (Hans-André Stamm)

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Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 11.5.2020

»Just three notes – and everyone knows right away what he's listening to.«

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