This month we’ve asked Bruce Barber to share his thoughts on Alexandre Guilmant.

The relationship between Rush Hour Concerts and the Great Organ at St. James Cathedral was firmly established 15 years ago during the first Summer Concert Series, and this joyous match has continued every year since. It’s a natural, really. This pairing, established through the vision of Debbie Sobol and William Crosby, then the Organist and Choirmaster of the Cathedral, allowed chamber music (at the highest level) to find a home in this glorious Cathedral where for over 150 years the Great Organ had presided, virtually solely.

The organ, either large or small, is often overlooked as a collaborative instrument, save for perhaps the glorious continuo writing by the great Baroque composers, especially Bach and Handel. One could even say that some of the great orchestrators of the 19th and 20th centuries remembered the organ and used it in their compositions (one thinks of Strauss, Scriabin, Mahler,Saint-Saëns) as simply another instrument on the rich palette of orchestral color available to them. Usually in such works the organ is either reserved for the great climaxes or gently underlays intimate part writing for other instruments.

Through the centuries, however, the organ has established itself as not only a collaborator but also as an instrument ideally suited to play the music of other genres through transcription. Bach transcribed many of his own cantata movements, as well as concerti by Vivaldi, for solo organ. Even large orchestral works, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in d minor, sound spectacular on solo organ.

Alexandre Guilmant was one of the most notable organists and composers of his generation – a generation that would give rise to the great French symphonic school of organ playing and composition, culminating in the revered works of Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé and Tournemire. Appointed organist at the historic Église de la Sainte-Trinité, and at the same time teaching organ at the renowned Conservatoire de Paris, Guilmant was a prolific composer of organ sonatas (precursor to the Widor / Vierne organ symphonies), sacred choral music, chamber works and even symphonic music.

It should come as no surprise then that Guilmant would take a theme from a movement of arguably the most beloved oratorio known, Handel’s Messiah, and turn it into a work for solo organ…a Grand March no less! Similarly and several decades later, the English symphonist Ralph Vaughan Williams would take a theme by the English Tudor choral composer Thomas Tallis and compose his stunning work Fantasiaon on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The theme from the Messiah movement that Guilmant chose is the brief chorus “Lift up ye heads, O ye gates” — the musical style, a Grand March, appropriate for such noble text: “Lift up ye heads, O ye gates, and the King of glory shall come in.”

As one might imagine, the work is imbued with nobility and grandeur….such as can readily be found on the organ, the King of Instruments.

-Bruce Barber, Director of Cathedral Music at St James Cathedral
To learn more about Bruce Barber, click here.

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