Prepared by Ken Meltzer
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor for Solo Organ, BWV 537 (ca. 1708-17) (orch. Elgar)
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig, Germany, on July 28, 1750. The first complete performance of the Elgar orchestration of the Bach Fantasia and Fugue in C minor took place in Gloucester, England, on September 7, 1922, Edward Elgar, conducting.
Approximate performance time is nine minutes.
In addition to his incomparable talents as a composer, Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the finest keyboard virtuosos of his day. Bach’s mastery extended to both the harpsichord and organ. Bach’s technique was so superb that he was able to execute the most difficult passages with a minimum of visible effort. As Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel, described:
Bach is said to have played with so easy and so small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible. Only the first joints of the fingers were in motion; the hands retained, even in the most difficult passages, its rounded form; the fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than in a trill, and when one was employed the others remained quietly in position. Still less did the other parts of his body take any share in his playing, as happens with many whose hand is not light enough. He rendered all of his fingers, of both hands, equally strong and serviceable, so that he was able to execute not only chords and all running passages, but also single and double trills with equal ease and delicacy.
Bach’s employment as an organist occurred during his early years in Arnstadt, Mülhausen and Weimar. It was during the Weimar years (1708-1717) that Bach composed the majority of his music for organ, including, in all likelihood, the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537.
British composer Edward Elgar’s lavish orchestration of the Bach Fantasia and Fugue spanned the years 1921-22. In April of 1921, Elgar orchestrated the Fugue portion, which premiered in Queen’s Hall in London on October 27, 1921, Eugene Goossens, conducting. Elgar was hopeful that Richard Strauss would orchestrate the opening Fantasia. But when that did not occur, Elgar orchestrated the Fantasia as well. The Bach/Elgar Fantasia and Fugue in C minor premiered at the Gloucester Festival on September 7, 1922, under Elgar’s direction.
Dona nobis pacem, A Cantata for Soprano and Baritone Soli, Chorus and Orchestra (1936)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, England, on October 12, 1872, and died in London, England, on August 26, 1958. The first performance of Dona nobis pacem took place at the Huddersfield Town Hall in Huddersfield, England, in on October 2, 1936. Albert Coates conducted the Hallé Orchestra and Huddersfield Choral Society.
Approximate performance time is thirty-six minutes.
Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his cantata, Dona nobis pacem, in 1936. The Huddersfield Choral Society commissioned the work as part of the celebration of its 100th anniversary. At the time, storm clouds were gathering throughout Europe with the rise of the Nazis and Fascists. War seemed more and more inevitable with each passing day.
Vaughan Williams had been a first-hand witness to the horrors of war. Following the outbreak of World War I, Vaughan Williams, 42 years old, enlisted in the Army. Vaughan Williams worked in the field ambulance unit, transporting the wounded from the battlefield in the Neuville St. Vaast region.
Vaughan Williams was devastated by the deaths of many of his friends in battle, including the promising young British composer, George Butterworth (1885-1916). Vaughan Williams confessed to Gustav Holst:
I sometimes think now that it is wrong to have made friends with people much younger than oneself—because there will only be the middle aged left and I have got out of touch with most of my contemporary friends—but then there is always you and thank Heaven we have never got out of touch and I don’t see why we ever should.
Toward the end of his life, Vaughan Williams said of the great American poet, Walt Whitman (1819-1892): “I’ve never got over him, I’m glad to say.” Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Vaughan Williams set Whitman’s Civil War poem, Dirge for Two Veterans, for chorus and orchestra. The Dirge became the centerpiece of the 1936 cantata, Dona nobis pacem.
For the remainder of the cantata’s text, Vaughan Williams incorporated two more Whitman Civil War poems, a portion of a House of Commons speech by John Bright given during the Crimean War, and the Old Testament. In addition, a portion of the Latin Mass serves as a recurring leitmotif, and the source of the work’s title.
The trajectory of the text and music of Dona nobis pacem reflects hope for a brighter future. That optimism was sorely tested by the events of World War II. Vaughan Williams conducted Dona nobis pacem several times in England during the War and the music was, according to his widow, Ursula, “full of particular meaning for those days.” Events since that time have done nothing to diminish the power, beauty, and relevance of Vaughan Williams’s composition, or the haunting eloquence of the soprano’s repeated prayer to “grant us peace.”
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Opus 78 (“Organ Symphony”) (1886)
Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, France, on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers, Algeria, on December 16, 1921. The first performance of the “Organ Symphony” took place at St. James’s Hall in London, England, on May 19, 1886, with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Society.
Approximate performance time is thirty-six minutes.
Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Third Symphony at the request of the Philharmonic Society of London. Saint-Saëns had been contemplating a new symphony for some time. A few months after the 1885 commission, the composer informed the Philharmonic that the work was:
"...well under way. It will be terrifying, I warn you...This imp of a symphony has gone up a half-tone; it didn’t want to stay in B minor and it is now in C minor. It will be a treat for me to conduct it. Will it be a treat, though, for the people who hear it? That is the question. It’s you who asked for it. I wash my hands of the whole thing."
The premiere of the Third Symphony took place in London’s St. James’s Hall on May 19, 1886. The evening was a great personal triumph for Saint-Saëns. The composer led the Philharmonic Society of London in his new Symphony, and was also the soloist in his Fourth Piano Concerto.
The London audience’s response to the Symphony was generally positive. After the concert, Saint-Saëns was given an audience with the Prince of Wales, later crowned King Edward VII. The January 9, 1887 Paris premiere, again conducted by Saint-Saëns, was yet another success. After the performance, as Saint-Saëns descended the podium, composer Charles Gounod proclaimed: “There goes the French Beethoven!”
The Saint-Saëns Third, with its stunning orchestration and ingenious thematic manipulation, is one of the most important French symphonies of the second half of the nineteenth century. Camille Saint-Saëns did not compose another symphony during the final thirty-five years of his life. As he remarked: “I have given all that I have to give...What I have done I shall never do again.”
The Third Symphony comprises two principal sections, each with two parts. Part I begins with a brief slow introduction (Adagio), leading to the principal Allegro moderato, and a restless string figure that will appear in various guises throughout the Symphony. In the slow-tempo portion of Part I (Poco adagio), the organ accompanies the violins, violas, and cellos, as they play the affecting principal melody.
The opening portion of Part II (Allegro moderato), serving the function of a traditional scherzo, opens with a dialogue between the strings and thundering timpani. A quicksilver Presto episode introduces, according to the composer, “a fantastic spirit.” The final portion of the “Organ Symphony” (Maestoso; Allegro) brings the work to a majestic close.