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Brilliant Offerings by Francesco Cera on Wellesley’s “Sweelinck” Organ


A substantial audience in the Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College on the rainy Saturday night (April 17) was in for a real treat: an organ concert by Francesco Cera, Honorary Inspector of Early Organs for Rome and the Lazio region, an outstanding artist of early keyboard music who thoroughly understands both the instruments and the repertoire. Fortunately, given the wide volcanic cloud drifting eastward from Iceland, Cera was already in this country for master classes, workshops, and recitals this past week at Arizona State University and Oberlin College Conservatory. In his native Italy he is well known for his extensive experience as organist and harpsichordist specializing in “early, early music,” particularly of the early 17th century, and as a conductor of vocal ensembles. Cera was ably assisted as registrant by the Handel & Haydn Society’s John Finney, who knows this particular instrument well.

I suppose everybody in the audience was supposed to know all about the Wellesley organ, op. 72 (1981) from Charles B. Fisk’s shop, because nothing about it was said in the program notes. A full illustration, history, description, and stop-list is here. This was the last organ that Fisk himself finish-voiced before his death in 1983. The stops includes a Zimbelstern (“cymbal-star”), the twirling many-pointed musical decoration visible in front of the pipes, which was engaged near the end of the last work as a festive, superimposed coda. The organ is tuned in 1/4 comma mean-tone, which means that the thirds, fifths, and octaves are tuned in a smaller ratio than the current (“just intonation”) norm. This obviously has implications for the overtones, which can jangle under certain circumstances (to be avoided). Music written after the time of Jan Pieterzoon Swelinck (1562–1621) can sound pretty terrible on this organ unless carefully selected. Tuning of the reeds was still underway as the audience arrived.

“The Golden Age of the Organ from Venice to North Germany,” included works by Julio Segni, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo, Heinrich Scheidemann, and Melchior Schildt, in geographic as well as chronological order. The earliest, a Ricercare by Segni (1498-1561), from the anthology, Musica Nova (Venice, 1540, RISM22), wisely appeared second in the program after our ears were opened to the organ and could listen more closely to this music of more limited means, cadences in open fifths, many points of imitation, and delicate scalar runs. The opening Toccata avanti la Messa della Domenica, by Andrea Gabrieli, is indeed a prelude, as the title suggests: short, for full organ, and replete with ornamental runs. This was followed by two more of his works, a Ricercare terzo, and Canzon francese, Je n’en dirai mot, bergère, the latter a free transcription of a chanson, and both full of seemingly improvisatory ornamentation and rich counterpoint. Merulo’s florid Conzon la Bovia, was one of the first of this genre to be written independently of a vocal model, and his Toccata del duodecimo toni is a free ranging romp, if you will, for full organ.

In sharp contrast next appeared Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon la Spritata, almost a showpiece for the organ’s upper registers, followed by his Fantasia del sesto tono featuring the more mellow eight-foot stops. Scheidemann’s Canzona fell to a substitution, one of his six D-minor Preludes, an amazing contrapuntal work with sequential chromaticism that one thought surely would have been improbable on this organ. On the contrary, the brightness of the sound made the piece all the more thrilling. The final work comprised all five versi of the Magnificat primi toni, by the Hanoverian pupil of Swelinck, Melchoir Schildt (1592-3–1667). Three of the five are based on chorale tunes, in either the tenor or the soprano; the other two are free form (Fantasia and Ricercare cromatico). The whole work, considered the composer’s most significant, is a demonstration of the many formal devices common to the North German organ composers of the period: chorale variation, canonic counterpoint, antiphonal sections — phrase by phrase, and chord by chord — and long, exploratory passages that unfold in wonder and amazement.

Francesco Cera is a most gifted and informed interpreter of this music, starting with his choices for, and order of the program. But those factors would be merely academic without his artistry, his fluency of ornamentation, and his extraordinary ability to shape the music itself through clear articulations and registrations, where every inner voice is heard as part of its own contrapuntal line. I certainly hope he will be part of the announced 30th anniversary celebration of this instrument next spring.

I was saddened that not one of Wellesley’s Music Department faculty members was at this free concert (if I am not mistaken), nor were there more than a small handful of students (counting the four ushers). On the other hand, I was delighted to see the presence of Professor emeritus Owen Jander, to whose sole foresight, energy, and persistence, beginning in the late 1970s this organ owes its existence. He was clearly delighted with Cera’s performance and made his way up to the organ loft after the concert to tell him so in spite of his own current difficulty in walking. As always, generous in spirit and in deed.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area. Full disclosure: she was Music Librarian at Wellesley during the time this organ was commissioned and built.

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