in: Reviews

April 30, 2015

A Poetic Piped Farewell


Veteran local organist Nancy Granert chose Adolphus Busch Hall for her farewell to the Harvard community she has been serving with distinction since the late 1970s. The final work in her recital with flutist Ellen Hinkle, Charles Callahan’s fittingly titled Valediction, A Biblical Poem for Flute and Organ, passed as a lovely and contemplative anthem of departure, perhaps an apt depiction of how the essential Nancy must be feeling.

The 1958 Dirk A. Flentrop organ has been famous since its first days as the site of E. Power Biggs’s series of recitals, Columbia LPs, and national radio broadcasts; its influence on organ design has been immense. Former Assistant University Organist and Harvard Choirmaster Christian Lane provided a fine précis of the instrument here. The piece that sounded most idiomatic and vivid on it this afternoon was Bach’s Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, S.731. The organ seemed to be speaking in the language of its builder and perhaps of the instruments Bach played. The solo cornet was noble and clean, the accompanying voices leading inevitably, in Bach’s best fashion.

And yet, Carson Cooman, research associate in music and composer in residence at the Memorial Church and a prodigious player on and composer for this instrument, had some very interesting thoughts about what works on the Flentrop

Certainly the Flentrop (from 1958) does play Bach effectively, though the notion of it as a “Bach organ” in some sort of “ideal” way is based on thinking from its era, and our scholarly knowledge has certainly grown and changed in the decades since. If we look at the stoplists of organs that Bach himself designed and liked, as well as now actually experiencing more and more historical instruments (restored to excellent original condition—allowing us to play, hear, and record them), we see notable differences. As just one brief example, there are many people today who find the wonderful 1730 Tobias Heinrich Gottfried Trost organ in the German town of Waltershausen to be among the most authentic “Bach organs” today; its tonal design has many significantly different features from what one finds in 1950s neo-Baroque instruments like the Busch Hall Flentrop. As just a first obvious thing, when one looks as the Trost stoplist, one sees features like many rich 16′ and 8′ manual stops, with great color variety.

For more on the general subject of Bach organs, this book is a very good primer.

For me personally, another significant factor is temperament. Neo-Baroque organs (like the Flentrop) were nearly all designed in equal temperament, which is not one of the temperaments of organs (some in varieties of meantone and some in various well temperaments) on which Bach’s organ music would have been heard in its time. I am just not very interested in hearing Baroque and earlier music in equal temperament anymore. We know that is not how it was conceived, and I find it robs the repertoire of color and life.

While neo-Baroque organs like the Busch Hall Flentrop do play Bach fine, I believe those organs particularly shine when playing music specifically inspired by that sort of organ design. There were organ composers in the 20th century who were inspired by the installation of these neo-Baroque instruments and consequently wrote music to exploit their features.

In the USA, composers who were deeply influenced by those sounds and style included a number of European émigrés: such as Gerhard Krapf, Jan Bender, and Harald Rohlig. At last week’s Busch recital, at my suggestion, Thomas Sheehan played one of Jan Bender’s pieces (from 1965), and in hearing it on the Flentrop, we were both reminded just how good that kind of music sounds on the organ (not to mention the fact that Bender’s registrations all work perfectly as suggested). Tom commented to me that when he had been practicing the piece on the organs in Memorial Church (neither of which is a neo-Baroque instrument, despite the C. B. Fisk Op. 139 organ of course possessing eclectic influence from many traditions, including the neo-Baroque), he thought the music was fine, but then the first time he read through it on the Flentrop, suddenly it came to life in a new way, and he realized what a strong piece it was. (For me, I feel this same kind of revelation when I hear Bach played on an instrument like the Waltershausen Trost; a very different experience from hearing it on the Flentrop.)

We find effective music too even from slightly earlier European composers like Hugo Distler (all of whose music could be played extremely well on the Flentrop). And in American-born composers like Daniel Pinkham whose mature organ music is all conceived with these kind of principles underlying it.

All these composers wrote music that made explicit use of the specific tonal design, clarity/balance, and colors of neo-Baroque organs (or later designs that came out of this tradition; particularly true in the case of Pinkham: the influence of the organs of Charles Fisk—who had worked with Flentrop—was seminal in Pinkham’s compositional development). You can’t play most of this 20th-century music effectively on actual Baroque organs, because the pieces are designed for equal temperament, modern keyboard/pedal note compasses, and aspects of tonal design that true Baroque instruments in restoration (or very historically modeled contemporary organs, like the ones that Taylor & Boody, among others, sometimes build) do not have. But this music shines especially bright when played on the kind of organs that inspired it.

The concert opener, Callahan’s Aria for flute and organ, led one to muse on how the beauty of organ flute stops, even those as sweet as Dirk Flentrop’s, cannot compete with the real thing. Hinkle’s modern flute shone with color and registrational coloration in the context of reflective restraint while the organ supplied sedate harmonies and occasional answers to the flute’s calls.

In Bach’s Sarabande and Gigue from the Suite in C Minor S. 997, the contrast of the smooth legato of the modern flute and the chiffy articulations of the organ jarred this listener somewhat. According to Granert’s notes, the only evidence for Bach’s intended instrumentation comes from a copy in lute tablature. If the players did not quite execute a jig in the second part, the composer’s wit nevertheless came through.


Nancy Granert at Memorial Church

A plaintive solo line on the Krummhorn opened Jehan Alain’s Chorale en Mode Phrygien. The organ spoke with a clarity that was astonishing after hearing the interlocutor Zachary Fletcher’s reverberant opening announcements. The piece continued in a quiet, meandering  mode with chiff almost functioning as a percussion section. Yet this work, along with earlier Liebster Jesu, testified most strongly to the instrument’s marriage with its handsome confines.

Alain’s Andante from Trois Mouvements brought back the flute for a song without words. A mysterious, repeating drone from the organ immersed the flute in a pleasant harmonic instability.

Afterward we learned from Granert that the Phrygian mode can be thought of as an eight-note scale beginning on E. But who were those phrygging people? Without missing a beat, graduating classics major and outgoing chairman of the Harvard Organ Society Zack Fletcher intoned, “The Phrygians were an Indo-European people living in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey. They and their languages are now extinct. Some associate them with the Trojans of classical antiquity, though this is not verifiable.”

In closing we salute the departing Nancy Granert and Zachary Fletcher with thoughts that their musical and academic communities have valued them highly. The Flentrop will speak to us again when the lunchtime series resumes in October.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


  1. “a fine précis of the instrument *here*” leads to no such web page.

    It does now- ed

    Comment by Jim Swist — May 1, 2015 at 9:54 am

  2. Actually, Hugo Distler’s organ music was written with an early baroque organ in mind, so said Professor Arvid Gast on his recent visit here: Lübeck’s St. Jakobikirche Stellwagen organ! Distler served as director of music at the Jakobikirche during the fairly brief time that he was writing organ music.

    Comment by Cheryl Ryder — May 2, 2015 at 3:59 pm

  3. >> [Cooman] I am just not very interested in hearing Baroque and earlier music in equal temperament anymore. We know that is not how it was conceived, and I find it robs the repertoire of color and life.

    Can it be that this is more a theoretical reach than a sonic issue which would survive blind testing? There are many Bach youtube videos of that Trost played by the estimable Hans Andre Stamm, so readers can readily check out their shine for themselves, e.g., to see if it is any more pronounced than the variation among different instruments. It’s wonderful-sounding, for sure.

    Good luck in an idealistic quest, but I would bet that, church requirements aside, not a lot of organbuilders today sit there thinking, ‘Gosh, I really want to build a good Pinkham organ.’

    Comment by David Moran — May 2, 2015 at 8:04 pm

  4. Cheryl: I would contend that the St. Jacobikirche Stellwagen in the 1930s, when Distler was composing the organ music, had attributes from over the years (including equal temperament, which it had since 1786) that provided significant differences from the condition when it was built. Thus, Distler’s pieces organ were written with equal temperament in mind. It was not until 1978 that the Stellwagen was restored to an original condition and restored to an unequal temperament. Also, the wonderful Op. 18 Distler organ pieces, the 30 short pieces and the trio sonata, were explicitly written for the (idea of — he wrote them before the organ actually was built, just based on his design/specifications) the decidedly neo-baroque home/studio organ built for Distler by Paul Ott in 1938. For anyone interested more in the minutia of Dister’s organ music and its history/organs, David McKinney’s 2006 DMA dissertation is a useful source.

    Comment by Carson Cooman — May 3, 2015 at 12:25 pm

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