Trying to compile a list of the greatest composers of organ music, is a little like putting ones head in the lion’s mouth. Given the influence of personal taste, period, and style, perhaps the question is almost a silly one to pose?
Even so, I think there will be universally agreed ‘giants’ of the instrument whose music is adored by a wide audience.
Is J S Bach the king of organ music composition?
Many organists will consider J S Bach as the absolute king. His output was prodigious, and the extraordinary mastery of melody line harmony and structure is breath-taking.
The mathematically logical and reassuring shape Bach gives to his work will comfort the listener, or it will irritate by the consequent predictability of its direction. Whatever you think on that point, it is brilliantly inventive and a world without Bach for an organist is almost inconceivable.
Charles Marie Widor: a different kind of organ composer
Moving on a couple of hundred years, I think I am on safe ground to put Charles Marie Widor firmly on the list. Here is genius of quite a different kind, no doubt in part driven by the very different instruments at his disposal.
Cavaille-Coll, arguably the world’s best organ builder, offered Widor instruments of enormous scale which allowed a symphonic style of composition. Here, structure does not dominate as Widor exploits an abundance of texture and sounds to entertain us with music that is more technically demanding to deliver. His monumental series of symphonies are works of great complexity with some truly amazing movements. Perhaps not all are of astounding quality, but it is only because the great movements are so unbelievably great that others disappoint by comparison.
The complete series of Symphonies has been brilliantly recorded by Joseph Nolan on the Signum label to very high acclaim. These recordings will confirm all that I say above.
Julius Reubke and Olivier Messiaen
Who next on our list of the greatest composers of organ music? The choices get harder. There are many composers who are well-known and respected for individual pieces, which may be held in high esteem for what are rather individual moments of glory.
Julias Reubke, who died tragically early, is a case in point. I have no doubt that had this man’s output been greater, he would be remembered for far more than his Sonata on the 94th psalm. Reubke manages to write in a style that is technically so difficult to play on the organ that it near defies logic. Yet he creates a work of amazing emotional intensity that stands as high as any other I can think of.
Moving to more recent times, it would be wrong not to refer to the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was organist at La Trinite, Paris, for over 60 years. I am not a great personal fan of the works of Messiaen, but his writing—which often mimics bird song with the use of the many colours of the great French instruments—has certainly received high acclaim. A lot of this owes to the performances given by his star pupil, Dame Gillian Weir.
A personal favourite by Maurice Duruflé
A personal favourite for me is the Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain by Duruflé. Jean Alain, brother of organist Marie Claire Alain, was a composer killed in the war in 1940, aged just 29. This tribute by Maurice Duruflé, with a short but haunting repeated melodic theme is ethereal and inspired. One senses the respect and sense of loss Duruflé must have had for his friend Alain.
Duruflé, of course, wrote many other great works but none have quite the same emotional impact for me as this work, finishing as it does with a rage symbolic of the pointless loss of a great musical mind. This is inspired writing of the highest order.
There are many other great composers of organ music, and some exceptional pieces of output from others less well known. The range is extensive, with the organ drawing—as no other instrument does—on the building in which it sits.
There are pieces that were no doubt written for a particular instrument, and separation of that piece from the building and its instrument can never quite create elsewhere what the composer had in his head at the time he or she put ink to paper. Such is the wonder and challenge of the organ and its repertoire.