Programme notes: Two Baroque Giants

Mayfair Organ Concerts. The Grosvenor Chapel. 9 August 2022

Andrew Benson-Wilson plays music by
Two Baroque Giants – Buxtehude & de Grigny

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
Praeludium in d minor BuxWV 140
Ciacona in e minor BuxWV 160

Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703).
Recit de Tierce pour le Benedictus
Dialogue de flûtes pour l,’Elevation
Dialogue (Agnus Dei II)
from Premier livre d’orgue (1699)

Te deum laudamus BuxWV 218
Praeludium – Te deum laudamus – Pleni sunt coeli -Te martyrum – Tu devicto

Although Buxtehude and de Grigny were born 35 years apart, the music in this recital was composed at about the same time, around 1690/1700. They were composed for very different social, religious and musical settings, Buxtehude for Lutheran Lübeck in North Germany, and de Grigny for Catholic Reims in France. The organs they played were very different, but one of the joys of the English 18th-century-inspired Grosvenor Chapel organ is that it includes elements of both German and French instruments. Bach owned music by both composers and even added some of his own ideas to de Grigny’s Premier livre d’orgue. Bach’s youthful 200-mile walk to Lübeck to meet the ageing Buxtehude is well known.

The Praeludium und Fuga is one of the finest examples of Buxtehude’s use of the stylus phantasticus, an unrestrained multi-sectional form born in early 17th-century Italy. It alternates three toccata-like sections with two fugues. The first fugue, with its octave leaps, rests, and repeated notes, is in triple counterpoint, the two countersubjects covering the rests. It dissolves, in a flurry of notes, into an improvisatory sequence that concludes with a fugheta from which emerges the second fugue with a theme related to the first.

The Ciacona in e minor is from the Andreas Bach Buch, copied by Bach’s brother. The ground is initially heard in the pedals, but soon migrates to other voices as the structure becomes more relaxed. There is a theory, based on a mathematical analysis of the structure that the piece is linked to the Rosary.

It is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Nicolas de Grigny. He came from a family of organists of Reims Cathedral. His early death, aged 31, meant that his Premier livre d’orgue was his only publication. It includes settings for a complete organ mass and organ verses for five hymns. Although his music includes all the elements of the Classical French organ school, it is raised it into an elevated emotional and intellectual plane than the music of most of his contemporaries. The Recit de Tierce pour le Benedictus uses one of the most distinctive solo sounds of the French organ. It is followed by the Dialogue de flûtes pour l’Elevation, the most sacred part of the Mass. The powerful Dialogue is intended for a four-manual organ, using the powerful reeds of the Grands jeux and Petitjeux as well as the Cornet separé and Echo.

Buxtehude’s monumental setting of the ancient hymn of praise Te Deum laudamus is his longest and most complex work. It is in the stylus phantasticus, its five movements each further sub-divided, and uses a wide variety of musical textures. The Praeludium includes a mini fugue within free sections. Te Deum laudamus sounds the chant theme in long notes in the alto, treble, tenor and bass. An interlude leads to a setting of the second part of the chant. The Pleni sunt coeli chant is treated to a typical North German chorale fantasia, with echo passages. Te martyrum is a duo above the theme in the pedals. The triumphant Tu devicto is set as a quadruple fugue, each phrase of the chant having three countersubjects. The coda sets the final chant above a dramatic free improvisatory figuration.
© Andrew Benson-Wilson 2022

Andrew Benson-Wilson
specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from 14th-century manuscripts to the late Classical period. His playing is informed by experience of historic organs, understanding of period performance techniques and several internationally renowned teachers. The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works was Gramophone Magazine ‘Record of the Month’. The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk. He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.

Andrew’s concerts have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel in Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia, via St John’s, Smith Square. According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital was “one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”. Other concerts include return visits to the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

Andrew’s little book “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities. After 20 years as the principal reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew now reviews on his own website:

Andrew’s next London recital is on Monday 24 October at 7.30 in the brilliantly restored Christ Church, Spitalfields. The 1735 Richard Bridge organ is by far the most important 18th-century organ in the UK. For a long time, it was the largest organ in the UK. It was superbly restored in 2015 by William Drake. The music will explore some of the extraordinary range of organ music from the Gothic period up to the late 17th century.