Simon Johnson at the organ of St Albans Cathedral
Improvisations for Holy Week recorded live on Palm Sunday 2004
with readings by the Reverend Barnaby Huish
Reading: Luke 19.29-48
Meditation 1 Jesus enters Jerusalem
Reading: Luke 20.1-8 & 20-26
Reading: Luke 22.7-20
Meditation 3 The Last Supper
Reading: Luke 22.39-53
Meditation 4 Agony in the Garden
Reading: Luke 22.54-62
Meditation 5 Peter's denial
Reading: Luke 23.1-25
Meditation 6 Mocking, trial, sentencing
Reading: Luke 23.26-27 & 32-47
Meditation 7 To Golgotha, Crucifixion
Crucifixion (Symphonie-Passion) Marcel Dupré
Choral-Improvisation sur le "Victimae Paschali" transcribed by Maurice Duruflé
Total playing time 70m 20s
Early in 2004 I had the idea of improvising on the Passion as part of the observance of Holy Week at St Albans Cathedral; this disc consists mainly of a live recording of the resulting concert that I gave on Palm Sunday, April 4th 2004, which was itself called "Purple". This title refers not only to the predominant colour of Holy Week, but also to the notion that improvisation can be highly colourful.
I have always been fascinated by improvisation - the sheer energy, the unpredictability, the unknown, the nervous tension that is at times unbearable. It is amongst the most exciting organ music to experience, because as a listener you are there at the moment of creation - you are contributing to the atmosphere that shapes the music. It is that energy and atmosphere which I hope is preserved in this recording and the retention of these features was the guiding principle in releasing the readings and meditations exactly as they were heard on the day, rather than attempting to recreate such a specific ambience at another time in a silent cathedral. So tracks 1-14 are all one take.
Improvising on texts is a tradition that goes back centuries, and it is fascinating to track its path from the early alternatim versets of the 15th and 16th centuries to the present day, when Organists are increasingly expected to bring together the moods and themes of the service (readings, sermon & season) whenever the opportunity to extemporise presents itself. Creating music based on texts raises interesting questions: Should one attempt to depict specifics at the risk of being 'gimmicky' or try to portray overall moods with the danger of over-generalising? Should one look back to the work of earlier composers who have 'been there before' or treat the exercise as an entirely personal experience? Aided by some wonderful hymns and an inspiring instrument, both of which lend many ideas, what has been attempted here is an answer to these questions that brings together all of their elements.
Luke's Passion Gospel was chosen because his account was the principal one observed at the Cathedral in 2004. All of the meditations are a reflection on the preceding reading, so, in essence, this is a St Luke Passion for Organ.
The first meditation owes much to the music of Vierne, and makes use of Teschner's chorale melody Valet will ich dir geben (c.1613) - the tune which is now most commonly associated (in this country, at least) with the Palm Sunday words "All glory, laud and honour". Essentially the piece is cast in three sections which can be loosely associated with some sections from the preceding reading: the first section represents the triumphal entry into Jerusalem ("Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord"), whilst the second, minor, section concentrates on some of the darker elements ("My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers"). Finally, the grand style of the opening returns, as the last phrase of the melody is played ("All the people were spellbound by what they heard").
The second meditation reflects upon the dialogue in the temple by recreating the imitative chorale-style of German baroque composers. The chorale melody used here is Crüger's Herzliebster Jesu - which we sing to the words "Ah, holy Jesu, how hast thou offended?" (a translation of the original German words). The absence of accompaniment during the cornet cadenza at the end of the movement is reflective of the words "being amazed by his answer, they became silent".
The third meditation makes use of two themes in combination, the first freely devised, and the second being the plainsong hymn Pange Lingua. The overriding aim was to create music that speaks of the love between Jesus and the disciples at the last supper. The sound world is influenced by the music of Tournemire & Duruflé.
After an arresting opening ("this is your hour, and the power of darkness"), the fourth meditation is essentially about prayer, and this is implicit in the rising four-note motif that is heard. Some double pedalling in sevenths that continually fall contributes to the feeling of weight and anguish ("he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood").
The theme of the fifth meditation (Peter's denial) is based on a thinly veiled 'cock crow' motif, and the overall effect of the movement is one of betrayal as a haunting dream. Peter's bitterness is portrayed in an oboe chord cluster at the end of the meditation; this same chord also speaks of the terror that is about to ensue.
The sixth meditation is a graphic portrayal of the mocking, trial and sentencing of Jesus and the idea of a frenzied crowd is central to its conception ("but they kept shouting "Crucify, crucify him""). A central section makes use of the famous Tallis tune immortalised in Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. Originally it was a passiontide hymn contributed by Tallis to Parker's The Whole Psalter of 1567. In a more modern guise, it is used to F. Pratt Green's words "To mock your reign, O dearest Lord", and this is the sentiment that prevails here.
Finally, the seventh meditation is a slow march to Golgotha in three-time, building towards the crucifixion itself, which is presented in anguished chords and clusters. The Passion Chorale is evident throughout, and is heard most emphatically in a full statement at the end of the movement.
The remainder of the disc is devoted to music for the season that was itself improvised, and later transcribed.
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) had an extraordinary gift for improvisation that saw him travel the world as one of the finest exponents of the art. The Symphonie-Passion was improvised during his first recital tour of the USA, on December 8th, 1921, at the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. Dupré later wrote about the performance: "I will never forget that evening, when, having received themes for the improvisation, I found that several of them were plainsong melodies...In a flash I had the vision of a symphony in four movements, the world awaiting for the coming of the Saviour, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, all of which eventually became my Passion Symphony". Crucifixion falls into three sections: the march to Calvary, the Crucifixion itself, and lastly the vigil at the foot of the Cross. The imagery is particularly graphic.
To complete the journey from Holy Week to Easter Day, the recording concludes with the Choral-Improvisation sur le "Victimae Paschali". Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) was a profoundly religious, mystical man who eventually came to believe that all secular music was a waste of time ("organ music without God is a body without a soul"). Despite his humility, Tournemire was, nevertheless, a massive influence on all who studied with him. Amongst the foremost, and deeply devoted, of his students was Maurice Duruflé, who, in tribute to his master, transcribed five improvisations by Tournemire from a recording made at St Clotilde. "Victimae Paschali" perfectly encapsulates the power and energy of the resurrection and is justly considered to be a cornerstone of the Easter repertoire.
St Albans September 2004
Simon Johnson was born in Peterborough in 1975. He returned there as chorister and subsequently Head Chorister of the Cathedral from 1986-89. He was awarded a music scholarship to Bloxham School, before going on to hold organ scholarships at Rochester, Norwich, and St Paul's Cathedrals. He holds the organ diplomas of the Royal College of Organists, having won several major prizes at both.
At Norwich Simon enjoyed three periods as Acting Assistant Organist of the Cathedral, during which time he took part in the premieres of works by John Tavener, Philip Wilby and Diana Burrell. His work accompanying both the Girls' Choir and the Cathedral Choir is reflected in two CD recordings, and he played for both choirs on BBC Radio 2, 3, and 4. In addition to his responsibilities at the Cathedral Simon also gained a first class degree from the University of East Anglia, and founded the University Chamber Choir - a twenty-strong ensemble specialising in the performance of contemporary music.
Following a year working at St. Paul's Cathedral, Simon became Director of Music at All Saints' Northampton. His work there involved running the choir of men and boys, and also the separate girls' choir. He made two CD recordings with the choirs on the Lammas label, and undertook tours to France, Germany and Italy.
Since becoming Assistant Master of the Music and Director of the Abbey Girls' Choir at St Albans Cathedral in September 2001, Simon has accompanied the Cathedral Choir on tours to Haarlem, Angers & Rome, and accompanied them on BBC radio and television. With the Girls Choir he has toured the USA, made a highly acclaimed CD recording, sung newly commissioned works, performed to HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, and undertaken numerous concerts, most recently with Emma Kirkby and London Baroque.
The Reverend Barnaby Huish has been Precentor at St Albans Cathedral since January 2002. Previously he served as a priest in Darlington, County Durham. He is married with two young boys.
The organ at St Albans Cathedral has become famous throughout the world due to the St Albans International Organ Festival, founded by Peter Hurford in 1963. The Cathedral organ was rebuilt by Harrison and Harrison in 1962 to a design by Ralph Downes (Organist at Brompton Oratory), working in close collaboration with Peter Hurford (Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral from 1958 to 1978). The organ is a particularly versatile instrument, capable of reflecting all schools of organ composition, providing the daily accompaniment for the Cathedral Choirs, leading and accompanying congregational singing and being at the centre of the International Organ Festival competitions and concerts.
Early records tell us that an organ was situated in the Chapel of St Mary in 1380, and that an Organist named Adam was in post in 1302, when John de Maryns was elected Abbot. The distinguished composer Robert Fayrfax was Organist at St Albans Abbey from c1498 to 1502, but records are sketchy until 1820, when Thomas Fowler was appointed. No mention is made of an organ in an inventory dated 1 November 1552, and there is no record of an organ until 1820, when an instrument by Father Smith and John Byfield, originally built by Father Smith for St Dunstan's in the East in 1670, was installed.
A new organ was built in 1861 by William Hill, including the Father Smith Open Diapason from tenor C. The Abbey Church became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of St Albans in 1877, and in 1908 the organ was rebuilt with new oak cases (still in use today) by the firm of Abbott and Smith of Leeds. The organ was subsequently remodelled by Henry Willis and Son in 1929. It was decided in 1958, however, that the instrument should be completely rebuilt, this time by Harrison and Harrison of Durham. Between 1959 and 1962 services were accompanied by a two-manual organ with 13 speaking stops, placed on the centre of the nave screen. The rebuilt organ was dedicated by the Bishop of St Albans on 18 November 1962. The organ has been modified a little in recent years. In 1972 the nave of the Cathedral was reordered in response to changing liturgical needs, and at this time the manual mixtures were slightly raised in pitch and the console was moved to the centre of the organ loft with the organist facing west. In 1991 the Swell Cymbel was replaced by a three-rank Mixture designed by Mark Venning and Peter Hopps of Harrison and Harrison.
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Cover Photograph by John Peart