in: Reviews

May 8, 2011

The Unequalled Orpheuses of Wellesley

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Orpheus, the legendary hero of pre-historic Greece, is said to have been a singer unequalled with his lyre and to have possessed magical powers to inspire all living things. On Saturday, May 7, the Wellesley College Music Department presented James David Christie, organist, in a program entitled, “In Praise of Sweelinck, the Orpheus of Amsterdam: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Fisk Organ and the 50th Anniversary of C. B. Fisk Organ Builders.”

The “Orpheus of Wellesley”? Hard to say if on this celebratory occasion Orpheus was the Dutch composer, organist, and teacher Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), who was known in his time by that moniker. Or Orpheus could easily have been reincarnated in Wellesley’s incredibly gifted organist, Mr. Christie, who has been the organist at the BSO since 1978 and who also teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and Oberlin College. Perhaps Orpheus is the organ itself (specifically, Opus 72 among Fisk’s oeuvres), or Charles Brenton Fisk (1925-1983) himself. Or, I might even propose Catherine Mills Davis Professor of Music Emeritus Owen Jander, whose vision and persistence against difficult odds in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s brought this magnificent instrument to pass. Octogenarian Jander, who sat beaming in the back row, wrote a splendid essay for the program notes about the gestation of this instrument. An essay by Fisk’s widow Virginia Lee Stone (Wellesley, ’55), who is currently chairwoman of the board of C. B. Fisk, Inc., went briefly over the same ground, noting that what was learned from the study of seventeenth-century North German organs and from the firm’s continuing studies has become part of its corporate history “and a key element of C. B. Fisk’s unique style and sound.”

Unfortunately the program notes were not accompanied by the organ’s stop list on this occasion. A description and picture of the organ (with stop list) can be seen here — the console is hidden behind the Brustpedalia. The description also reveals that the instrument is tuned at a1=440 (modern concert pitch), but in 1/4 comma Meantone temperament. The latter means (among other things) that there is a difference between F-sharp and G-flat, D-sharp and E-flat, etc., and thus the black keys are split, adding to the organist’s difficulty. Although the organ is armed with an electric blower, for concerts of this nature a mechanical solution is preferred: a student calcant (“bellows treader”) is engaged to climb up, step on the upper lever of the bellows, and ride it down with her body weight. Both the calcant and the single registrant, who had to run constantly behind the instrument from one side to the other, were given well deserved applause at the end.

The concert, performed without intermission, was designed to alternate the music of Sweelinck with that of his more famous students. It opened with his joyful, free-form Toccata (C2), a relatively simple statement compared to what would follow. It was full of running scalar passage work, immediately letting the large audience know (if they didn’t already) about the clarity of both the instrument and Christie’s articulation. His tempi are just right, never too fast, but rather reveling in the brilliant but warm sounds this instrument can make. It was followed by a setting of the chorale tune, Da Jesus an dem Creutze stundt (SSWV 113), by Sweelinck’s pupil, Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). These “Psalms” were written, as he stated in the forward to their publication, “for organists to play with Christian congregations,” in alternation, not as accompaniment. Its six verses begin with a relatively straightforward presentation of the tune, but with a contrapuntal rather than hymn-like treatment. The next five verses display as many other techniques: e.g., the tune plus a running melody in two-part counterpoint, the melody in a low reed (the Krummhorn 8’?) plus contrapuntal plays above, and finally as a chromatic cancrizan taking full advantage of the instrument’s bright dissonances.

The second pairing featured Sweelinck’s Poolse almande, or “Polish allemande,” a homophonic dance in ABA form, with eight variations. Here the emphasis is on harmonic rather than contrapuntal variation. The Hanoverian Melchior Schildt (ca. 1592-1667) was represented by another dance piece, the Paduana Lagrima (usually known as his “Pavana Lachrymae” because it is an arrangement of the first piece in Dowland’s Lachrymae (1604), whose tune is familiar. It is full of seemingly improvisatory runs that just simply rippled out of Christie’s hands, a gentle stream in a quiet brook. We also heard Schildt’s chorale variations on Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, where the tune is designed as a cantus firmus with decorative fillips above, or harmonized in four parts with runs trickling over and under.

The third began with Sweelinck’s Fantasia à 3, which as the title implies, is improvisatory. The listener has to marvel at the clarity of Christie’s articulation in cascades of runs, of which, thanks to his creative use of registration over all, we never tire. Heinrich Scheidemann (ca. 1595-1663) is said to have extended the techniques of both Sweelinck and Scheidt. His four-movement Magnificat settings explore all eight of the tones, each in a cyclic form. We heard the Magnificat VIII Toni (WV 66), marked by many contrasts in a sort of call and response technique (with different stops engaged for each). Here Christie’s skill at registration really came to the fore in a calm but virtuosic display of timbres.

In his always affable manner, Christie announced that although he had planned to use every single one of the instrument’s thirty-four stops, he found he had omitted the trumpet (Trommeten 8′) and the cymbal (Zimbal II)—the latter much beloved because this organ features an external brass Zimbalsterne (cymbal star) at the apex of the center rank of pipes (see the picture referred to in the above). When the stop is engaged, the wind gently blows the star, causing it to twirl slowly and glitter in the soft light. To that end, he inserted into the program a short anonymous Dutch Almande from a manuscript known as the Suzanne van Soldt MS. (London, British Library, Add.29485, copied in 1599). Many smiles ensued, and we all understood that this performance also served in place of a well-deserved encore.

The final work was Sweelinck’s exhilarating Fantasia cromatica (d1) where the power of this instrument’s tuning comes into full display. The theme descends chromatically (by forceful half-steps), and after some turns at the bottom, re-ascends. This is then repeated with variations, culminating in a full and jubilant cadence at the end — a fitting conclusion to this landmark concert.

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.

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