The Smith & Gilbert organ of Saint Cecilia Parish, Boston, is a very fine instrument that has been undergoing renovation, cleaning, and rebuilding piecemeal since the 1990s. The recital played by Timothy Edward Smith, designer of the organ, on Friday, October 19th, is one of several intended to raise funds for the installation of a new console to replace the present one, dating from the 1920s (as described by Smith, “older than income tax”).
Boston has been headquarters to many outstanding organ builders and is therefore blessed with a plethora of excellent organs. But even in such distinguished company, the organ of Saint Cecilia is notable for its uniquely close resemblance among American instruments to the definitive French Romantic organ created by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the 19th-century. Its chorus reeds, very powerful but never harsh, and rich, buttery 8’ foundation stops are the closest thing to the great organs of Saint Sulpice, Paris, and St. Ouen, Rouen, that I’ve experienced this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the organ is much aided by the gorgeously reverberant acoustic of Saint Cecilia, so like those of the great French cathedrals. Also in the French tradition, the church has a small antiphonal organ near the front of the sanctuary (playable both in situ and from the main organ console in the rear gallery) which is also useful for choral accompanying.
Smith opened the program with the Chaconne by Louis Couperin (1626-1661), the first truly renowned member of that musical dynasty. The double-dotted rhythms were in the style of a majestic French overture as though announcing the entrée of royalty. In Smith’s vigorous rendering, it performed a similar function for the recital as well as demonstrating that this organ, despite its Romantic aesthetic, has versatility. Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) was inspired by the groundbreaking organs of Cavaillé-Coll to invent the solo organ symphony, so it was fitting that we heard excerpts of one of them, Symphonie IV. The Andante cantabile was beguiling not only for its expressive rubato but for the beauty of the organ colors: Swell Gamba Celeste 8’, Great Diapason 8’ and Melodia 8’, and Positif (aka Choir) Flutes 8’ and 4’ and Clarinet 8’. If this gentle movement could almost serve as a lullaby, the Finale would certainly jolt any snoozer instantaneously back to full consciousness! The outer sections gave the audience its first taste of the stunning tutti, and Smith contributed a spirited account if slightly too fast to keep neighboring sequential chords from blending together in the wet acoustic.
Momentarily moving away from the Romantic, Smith played Le jardin suspendu (The Hanging Garden) by Jehan Alain (1911-1940). This beautiful neoclassical piece shows the influence of the French Classic period: its structure is akin to the chaconne, i.e., a repeating chord sequence, and it makes prominent use of mutations (stops that reinforce various harmonics, e.g., the fifth scale degree). In the opening section, despite the flute stop having only a single line against chords on the string celestes, the balance yet favored the flute. Smith created a dreamy atmosphere, though the large-scale voicing of the organ (swell-boxes remaining wide open almost throughout) somewhat sacrificed intimacy. Overall, though, it had the mesmeric effect of an Absinthe-induced vision, and the audience withheld applause for a long time after it, not wanting to break its spell.
Joie et clarté des corps glorieux (Joy and Luminescence of the Bodies in Glory) is a prime example of an Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) work that polarizes opinions on the composer, with precious little middle ground. Most of it is utterly extroverted, almost carnal: frolicking, repetitive (sometimes to the point of “broken record”) chords give way to sustained major chords with an added sixth; over these appear florid solos on the trumpet — in this case, the Solo Tuba 8’, a stop so powerful it has its own dedicated blower! The brief interludes of calm used a handsome cornet stop-combination to advantage. Smith plunged into this work as though with proselytizing fervor, and he may well have converted a few naysayers.
In a final trip back to the French Classic period, Smith gave a solid and deftly registered performance of the Offertoire from the Convent Mass of François Couperin le Grand (1668-1733), grand-nephew of Louis Couperin. Typical of such pieces, this was essentially a dialogue between grand jeu (literally, big combination — Great principal chorus 16’, 8’, 4’, 2’ with reed chorus and mixtures) and petit jeu (the Swell principal chorus without reeds) with interludes on other combinations. The rich Great principals made a striking contrast to the complementary Swell chorus, rather leaner and more transparent of texture.
Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944) was a brilliant French organist, the titulaire of St. Eustache, Paris, and the founder of the organ department of the Eastman School. His “Lied des chrysanthèmes,” first of three Poèmes d’automne, is a pleasant if unremarkable salon piece written when Bonnet was in his early 20s and proof (if any were needed) that not every outstanding performer is an equally gifted composer. Still, Smith made as convincing a case for it as possible with the lovely Romantic sounds of the St. Cecilia organ.
Bonnet’s nearly exact contemporary, Marcel Dupré, however, was a true triple-threat: a spectacular executant, composer, and improviser. In 1920 he improvised 15 short organ pieces based on antiphons at Notre Dame de Paris when the chairman of Rolls Royce happened to be in his audience. When told that these pieces did not exist on paper, the Englishman commissioned Dupré to write them down for publication. The result was the Vêpres du Commun, Op. 18, which Smith played complete. The most famous of them is the erotic “I am Black but Comely, O Ye Daughters of Jerusalem.” In Smith’s hands it was curiously metronomic and not as seductive as it can be, despite the lush sounds of harmonic flute and string celeste. “How Fair and How Pleasant Art Thou” was more satisfying: Smith was sensitive to its cross-rhythms and unpredictable harmonies, and the listeners once again could bathe in the refulgent foundations ensemble 16’, 8’, and 4’ (+ 32” in the pedal). “And His Mercy Is on Them That Fear Him” is an athletic fugue (the subject is almost entirely sixteenth notes), and Smith navigated its treacherous shoals impressively, particularly the sometimes acrobatic pedal part. “He Remembering His Mercy Hath Holpen His Servant Israel” is a mysterious and hypnotic piece with no 8’ sound (Swell 16’, 4’, and 2 2/3’ with Pedal 32’ and 16’), although with a tempo marking of Misterioso adagiosissimo I felt it could have been even slower to suggest timelessness (“as he promised . . . forever”). This piece has definite pre-echoes of Messiaen. In the last piece, Gloria, an archetypal French toccata, Smith yielded to temptation and coupled the Solo Tuba 8’ to the pedals only, and, as expected, it virtually obliterated any detail in the hands. So the piece may not have been ideally served, but those thrilled by staggering power that doesn’t sacrifice refinement were in nirvana. And when Smith finally did couple the Tuba to the manuals for the crashing chords of the coda, it bordered on apocalyptic.
I hope increasing numbers of people will take an interest in this unusual and wonderful organ in our midst. It must be said, the audience for this concert was disappointingly small, and the weather, drizzly though it was, is hard to blame. Organ aficionados, especially those who love French Romantic literature, spread the word!