By Melissa Plamann
Josef Rheinberger spent the majority of his life in his homeland of Germany and was an incredibly prolific composer in many genres. Composing for choirs, solo instruments, orchestras, and chamber ensembles, Rheinberger is most well-known for his virtuosic organ works. The Op. 127 Organ Sonata no. 7 in F Minor appeared in 1881, and a few years later Rheinberger himself reworked the expressive “Andante” movement into his “Rhapsodie” for organ and oboe or violin.
Jeanne Demessieux enjoyed a storied career as an international concert artist. Marcel Dupré’s most prized student, she played over 700 concerts and was reported to have memorized over 2,500 organ works; she left an impressively large number of compositions and several recordings in her short life. Composed in 1947, Demessieux’ Chorale Preludes on Gregorian Chant Themes is a collection of 12 pieces each in a different form. “Rorate caeli” presents the Advent chant as an ornamented cantus firmus; the celebratory Easter tune “O filii” is a theme and variation set. Demessieux sets the hauntingly beautiful “Domine Jesu,” used in the Requiem Mass, as a lilting berceuse, and the majestic “Veni, Creator” as an exuberant toccata.
J. S. Bach composed the church cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I had much grief) during his second stint in Weimar (1708-1717). The first part of the cantata focuses on themes of pain, grief, and loss, while the second part focuses on God’s grace and culminates in a hymn of praise.
Champion of the Parisian composer Olivier Messiaen, Olivier Latry provides this preface:
Oliver Messiaen’s Prélude pour orgue was discovered by Yvonne Messiaen in 1997. With no supplementary information concerning its origin, one can only suppose it dates from the period when the composer was studying the organ at the Paris Conservatory. The latter held one of the very few organs possessing a keyboard extending to C (61 notes) with a pedalboard reaching G (32 notes). The work might be contemporary with the Diptyque (late 1929), which has a similarly restless and virtuosic style in the manner of Marcel Dupré.
Also composed in Weimar, Bach’s church cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) was composed for Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. Bach suggests that one must enter the kingdom of heaven through much sorrow and hardship (“Cross and Crown are bound together”), and the final chorale reminds, “What God ordains is always good.”
While the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen composed for many instruments and ensembles, his organ repertoire is most enduring. Jongen’s Op. 53 comprises two pieces. “Chant de Mai” features beautiful, sweeping melodic lines with gracefully undulating accompaniment. “Menuet-Scherzo” is charming and witty, full of clever character changes and good humor. As a pair, the two pieces exploit the myriad textures, colors, and capabilities of the organ.
Lebanese-French composer Naji Hakim wrote his variations on “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” for organ and oboe in 2008. Equally virtuosic for both instruments, this work showcases Hakim’s eclectic and enchanting style. Dark, brooding chords bookend the first movement, and the middle section features a delicate, highly-ornamented cantus firmus on the oboe. The second movement features soaring, virtuosic passages on the oboe, above the unadorned melody in the organ pedals. The final movement is a jaunty, rather tongue-in-cheek setting that exploits the jazz influence heard in the earlier movements. Hakim suggests that the three movements correspond to the following texts taken from the well-known 16th-century hymn by Philipp Nicolai:
I. How beautiful shines the morning star
full of grace and truth from the Lord,
the sweet root of Jesse!
II. Because of you,
gracious rose of heaven,
my heart is sick and smouldering,
wounded with love.
III. Pluck the strings on the harp
and let the sweet music
resound full of joy,
so that with dear Jesus,
my most beautiful bridegroom,
in constant love I may make my pilgrimage!
–Notes by Melissa Plamann