A good case for Mendelssohn’s (complete) organ music in cathedral series

Organ recitals at St Paul’s
The Mendelssohn Project, first recital

Michael Stewart, Cathedral Director of Music

The complete organ works of Felix Mendelssohn
Sonatas, in F minor and C minor, Op 65 Nos 1 and 2
Andante – Sanft; Passacaglia – Volles Werk; Fugue in D minor; Andante con moto in G minor

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 22 July, 12:45 pm

On top of last year’s Bach Project from Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley and the latter’s Buxtehude Project that’s running now, cathedral director of music, Michael Stewart, has now invited us to pay attention to and hopefully change our minds about Mendelssohn. In his introductory notes for the first of the series of recitals he claimed that Mendelssohn had “made an incredibly profound contribution to the organ and its repertoire”, and that he stood alongside Bach and Messiaen as an organ composer whose influence is felt across all genres.

Quite a statement, though very defensible in the musical environment of the first half of the 19th century.

Stewart went on to say that the three preludes and fugues and the six sonatas were fundamental to the repertoire of any serious organist. And he noted that Mendelssohn had achieved this place in spite of the fact that he never held a post as an organist; he had, however, begun organ lesson aged eleven and started to composer for the organ at once. Though his formal lessons lasted only 18 months, after which time he was self-taught, and confessed to not really mastering pedal technique.

This first recital included the first two of his sonatas whose provenance was unusual – really cobbled together from a variety of smaller pieces – in response to an English publisher’s request for some organ ‘voluntaries’. Mendelssohn claimed he didn’t really know what this peculiarly English liturgical form was and asked that they be called sonatas so they could be published recognizably in Germany. France and Italy.

Sonata No 1 is in four movements; it starts in conventionally grand manner using big diapason stops with what might have been a rudimentary melody on the pedals; it then changes abruptly to a calm, chorale-like phase which is interrupted by returns of the style of the opening. From then the two moods alternated, the heavier seeming to oppress the lighter passages.

The Adagio movement seemed constructed in a similar way, with alternating passages in widely separated registers, jumping from one manual to another. And the Andante recitativo presented a thin little tune that was suddenly overwhelmed by dominating chords, rather similar to the behavior in the second movement, and the two elements continued to alternate, with increasingly complex harmonies. With no pause and almost without a change of tone, the fourth, Vivace, movement took over and brought it to a rather exciting close.

Apart from the second Sonata, the rest of the programme consisted of slighter pieces, without opus numbers. Three from his early teens: first, an Andante which was tuneful and pleasant, seeming very conscious of the sort of music for which the organ was traditionally associated.

A second entitled ‘Volles Werk’, German for ‘full organ’. It was a stately Passacaglia, the theme subjected to a number of variations which became repetitive rather than interestingly contrasted or developed in an organic way (?pun intended).  Eventually brighter variations arrived and one had to credit the organist with providing more diverting registrations here with lively quaver accompaniment. It ended with a return to the portentous style, which was employed to build effectively to a satisfying climax. It did indeed strike me as pretty clever for a 13 or 14-year-old.

An 11-year-old’s Fugue in D minor followed, a counterpoint exercise originally for violin and piano.

Then a piece by a mature 24-year-old: Andante con moto in G minor. Though it set off purposefully on quiet stops, it was only a page long.

The second Sonata was rather shorter than the first (dating from 1844/45). The first movement, Grave – Adagio, could have been described as ‘meditative’ but I wasn’t drawn into any spirit of mature contemplation, founded on any deeply-felt philosophical reflection. It didn’t sound of its era at all and I found myself thinking how it compared with music being written around the same time – especially Schumann’s piano and chamber music (though I don’t know the few bits of organ music that Schumann wrote). I also read that the ever-generous Schumann played Mendelssohn’s sonatas over on the piano and wrote warmly to him, describing them as ‘intensely poetical’; ‘what a perfect picture they form’, he wrote.

It’s not as if Mendelssohn was not as influenced as his contemporaries were by the prevailing ‘Romantic’ ethos of the 1830s and 40s, in his piano and chamber music, his two best symphonies and several concert overtures. Perhaps his awareness of the overpowering impact of Bach inhibited a freedom of spirit that is found in those other genres.

The second and third movements – Allegro maestoso e vivace and  Fugue: Allegro moderato – contained some imposing music, contrapuntal, harmonically formidable and in the Fugue, plenty of evidence of the composer’s study and assimilation of the techniques and meaning of Bach. Nevertheless, even in the absence of the kind of response I have to the organ music of Bach and Buxtehude and to the French school of the later 19th century, I heard an authentic, instinctive organ composer  whose music had genuine interest and vitality, played with as much imaginative use of the cathedral organ’s resources as could have been expected.

All this might well be influenced by my youthful brush with the sonatas. I had a good friend at secondary school whose family moved to Christchurch in the fifth form. There he took up the organ, and during my visits during holidays, we often shared the manuals and pedals in the organ loft of St Paul’s church, Papanui; among other stuff, there was a volume of these sonatas, bits of which we, or rather, he, found his way through. But I fear they made little impression on me.

This time, Mendelssohn certainly made more impact on me, but not quite to the degree urged by Michael Stewart.


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