In this amazingly troubled time for our world and this country I thought we needed something to distract us, if only briefly, from the avalanche of bad news that keeps hitting us from all directions. In my wilder moments I sometimes consider what music I might choose if I were ever to be asked to feature in the well known Radio programme Desert Island Discs.
I expect this programme will be familiar to nearly all UK readers but for those reading from afar this is a 60 year running series where well know personalities are invited to share their choice of music were they to find themselves ‘cast away’ on a desert island.
At this time many of us, especially the older generation, will find themselves isolated at home. Many others may actually crave to find themselves alone on a desert island until this pandemic has passed by. But we have to deal with the reality of the day and I for one need a distraction, so I have applied myself to the challenge of deciding on my top 10 pieces to live with in splendid and remote isolation. Strictly speaking, you are only allowed 8 discs but for this blog I have allowed myself an extra allowance.
Deciding on the Composers for my Desert Island Organ Discs
How and where to start this process. My first step was to decide on the composers that must be represented. The top half of my list selects itself:
- Johann Sebastian Bach
- Charles-Marie Widor
- Marcel Dupré
- Louis Vierne
- Maurice Duruflé
For my bottom half it is difficult not to allow a signature piece drive inclusion just as much as the overall style of the musician I include, and consequently these are :
- Alexandre Guilmant
- Francis Poulenc
- Percy Whitlock
- Léon Boëllmann
- Norman Cocker
A dominance of French composers but two British ones make the list.
Moving on to selecting music pieces
And now, at least in part the harder choice of which single piece to pick?
Some of the above had vast output while others offer much more limited choice. In the current climate I am for the most part going to offer a choice of exubernat music that sets an optimistic mood to help blow away the clouds that sit so heavily on the musical sector at the moment.
Our churches for the most part closed, choirs and musicians alike laid off as the Easter Music programme is axed. It can be difficult today to see past this distressing situation. So if you do listen to any of the performances I have chosen I want them to lift your spirits.
1. Johann Sebastian Bach
What a man! An inventive genius of huge proportion and output. What better than his Gigue Fugue to raise the spirits. Well perhaps it is not actually by Bach?
Barenreiter does not include the piece and their complete printed works. But I want to believe it is by him and until somebody proves otherwise. So that’s what I will take to remind me of him. Here is a very old recording by the great Virgil Fox who inevitably adds his virtuoso take on the piece.
2. Charles-Marie Widor
What a colourist! Of course with instruments of much wider tonal variety at his disposal it is no wonder he could write in a very different style to Bach, let alone the move into Romatic texture leaving the Baroque behind.
Again, we’re spoilt for choice. But its music to lift the spirits so what else but the Finale from the 5th Symphony. Here is a performance on the wonderful instrument at St Ouen Rouen.
3. Marcel Dupré
What a versatile composer and of course performer.
He sets a high bar with his Prelude & Fugue in G minor and despite being mainly in the minor key and certainly there at its conclusion, it leaves us with a sense of hope, but I have to admit it’s far more contemplative than either of my first two choices.
4. Louis Vierne
What an inventive mind at times! Some of his inventions are quite bizarre. The Finale from his first Symphony can not help raise the spirits. Here is a very energetic performance from a church in Finland.
5 Maurice Duruflé
Duruflé is included for my love of his Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain.
While it is by no means a toe tapper it has an optimistic tone reminiscent at times of a gentle sunrise peeping through a cloudy sky and of course ends with a furious and stimulating climax. Here is a lovely performance on the Saint-Sulpice organ. The organist works hard but so do the registrants!
6. Alexandre Guilmant
A fine composer but perhaps for ever destined to be thought of as division 2 in contrast to those above.
Guilmant’s finale from Symphony No1 is a fine and rousing offering, as indeed is the whole work. If all his output maintained this standard, he would have been division 1!
7. Francis Poulenc
Not well known for his organ output but his Concerto for Organ Tympani and Strings is a real belter. Judge for yourself as Poulenc sets out a piece that represents all the human emotions.
8. Percy Whitlock
Quintessentially English writing with inventive use of harmony, tempo and melody. There is so much from his writing to choose I was not sure what to pick but I finally selected Paean.
9. Léon Boëllmann
Boëllmann is in my list for his Prière à Notre-Dame which is within my playing reach. It reminds me of happy days playing it at most if not all the great organs I have been privileged to visit. It is a restful piece that sets a reassuring landscape to relax in.
10. Norman Cocker
I think we all love Cocker’s Tuba Tune (except when playing where it moves into 6 sharps!).
It is a jolly piece to conclude with as we finally dance out just as we danced in with Bach. What better Tuba than the mighty one at the Temple Church London played by James Vivian.
Share your own version of the Desert Island Organ Discs
So I hope this little exercise will engage your mind and allow you a brief distraction from all the angst that is flying around. Please do join in and share in the comments below, the choices you might include as alternatives or tell us about the ones you would agree with.
Let’s see if we can prepare a true universal favourites list ready for the time we can get back to work in our churches and celebrate beating this wretched virus through music that is truly great and uplifting in spirit.
And of course, there is the luxury item. Torn there between a grand piano that I could also sleep under and an organ in a dead acoustic. Neither great options in a sandy environment so I would have to hope for an early rescue.
And if I may end on a light-hearted note, we can take some consolation that at least our annual musical humiliation in the Eurovision Song Contest has been averted by its recent cancellation!
Keep Calm, Keep Safe.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.
Rev Tony Newnham says
Interesting selection David. I did once play the Cocker Tuba Tune in concert – the programme called it “Tuber Tune”!
Philip Bailey says
Thank you, some excellent recordings here.
Of course, DID castaways are only allowed eight – of the above, which would stay in and which discarded?
David Mason says
I think I would probably loose the Whitlock and the Boellmann but that’s partly because this is meant to be a rousing collection to cheer us up. Which would you sacrifice or replace?
Roger Bush says
Thank you for a wonderful collection of Desert Island Organ Discs, all of which I greatly enjoyed apart from the final Norman Cocker Tuba Tune. Have you heard Francis Jackson’s punchy recording of this piece at York Minster in 1964 from the ‘Great Cathedral Organ Series’? The Tuba Mirabilis there has been greatly reduced in pressure since then because its power was overwhelming but Jackson made full use of it at every opportunity on the LP. I’m afraid I was very disappointed by the Temple Church recording by comparison. I still treasure a copy of this York Minster LP, more so having spent a whole evening to myself playing this instrument some years ago.
Hugh John Penny says
Positively scared by the Durufle at that speed – wonderful!!
Mark Dancer says
Actually, re the Gigue Fugue, it has been included in the revised edition of volume six of Bärenreiter’s edition, you’ll no doubt be pleased to learn.