Like the choir, the organ inhabits an in-between space in the history of classical music. Due to its inextricable relationship with the Church, it is overwhelmingly associated with sacred music. Yet it also figures in the tradition of secular music. In this article, we look at the different ends to which the organ has been put by composers down the centuries, using the videos from the ever-growing Bachtrack At Home archive to illustrate this journey.

Baroque forerunners and J.S. Bach

The organ has been used in the music of Western Christianity since the medieval period, and as such its repertoire is one of the largest of all solo instruments. However, instrument-specific keyboard music did not come into play until the 16th century, when English composers such as Tallis, Byrd and Gibbons began to score organ parts to accompany their choral works. Moreover, with the advent of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period, the experience of church music became more inclusive and participatory, and consequently the organ was increasingly used to add sonic weight to sacred music.

In France, composition for organ was largely restricted to small-scale, liturgical works, while in Italy composers such as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Antonio Bertali wrote ambitious sacred pieces that used counterpoint – combining two or more independent melodic lines. Bertali was Kapellmeister at the Imperial Court in Vienna, and wrote a number of large-scale works featuring the organ during his tenure here, such as the Missa Redemptoris, seen here performed by the Italian ensemble Concerto Palatino. In works such as these, however, the organ merely forms part of the continuo, and does not feature prominently.

In England, Handel did much to further the cause of composition for organ, writing a number of concertos for the instrument. Yet nowhere was the organ taken to heart more keenly than in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria. It was here that counterpoint-obsessed composers made organ writing increasingly sophisticated, and where the most notable organ builders practised their trade. Johann Pachelbel was a prominent figure in the German school of organ composition, but when it comes to the Baroque period, there can be no greater name than J.S. Bach, who wrote extensively for the instrument while holding various musical positions in churches across Germany.

It is notable, in fact, that Bach was known far more as an accomplished organist than a composer during his lifetime, having studied the instrument since his schooldays. The organ allowed Bach to explore a greater range of textural possibilities, and he was enamoured with the power of instruments built by the likes of Arp Schnitger and Zacharias Hildebrandt. His employment as an organist began in 1703 when he was appointed to the New Church in Arnstadt, which had recently been furnished with a new organ that allowed Bach to play compositions in a wider range of keys. By the time he was appointed as director of music at the ducal court in Weimar in 1714, the composer was prolifically producing original works for organ, many of which would be collected in his Orgelbüchlein, or “Little Organ Book”. This collection of 46 works for organ was comprised of chorale preludes – essentially instrumental versions of Lutheran hymns which were developed and ornamented.

Though the majority of these pieces only necessitated the use of one keyboard and pedal, the compositions of the Orgelbüchlein nevertheless form some of Bach’s most sophisticated writing for the organ. Alongside these sacred works, Bach also steeped himself in writing secular works for the organ, a strand of his output that yielded some of his most enduring compositions, such as the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. An example of this vein in Bach’s output can be seen in the introduction and final piece in this concert by Musica Amphion and the Gesualdo consort, where organist Wolfgang Zerer bookends the performance with the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, which itself derives from Bach’s unaccompanied Violin Sonata in G. Here the contrapuntal elements, only hinted at in the earlier violin piece, are brought to life by the keyboard and pedal work of the organist. The second half of this concert, meanwhile, showcases an even broader range of Bach’s organ writing, bookended with the ornate Prelude and Fugue in C Major – its introductory runs spanning almost the entire range of the organ – and including the early chorale prelude Vater unser im Himmelreich.

Organ music from the Romantic period to the present day: a French connection

The organ fell somewhat out of favour with the major composers of the Classical era. While Mozart wrote a select number of works for the organ, and Haydn explored the instrument’s potential as a solo instrument in the concerto form, little in the organ repertoire of the Classical period is considered seminal. Indeed, it wasn’t until the late Romantic era that the organ returned to prominence. Mendelssohn and and Josef Rheinberger composed extensively for organ, particularly in the sonata form, blending the tonalities of Romanticism with the contrapuntal style of Bach and his like. However, during this period it was largely France that held claim to innovation in the organ world.

A French organ designer named Aristide Cavaillé-Coll created a unique pedal which would allow the organist to control the shutters of the swell box – the part of the organ which encloses the pipes and controls the loudness of the sound they produce. Now, the player could easily control and traverse the dynamic range of the instrument, from its very quietest to its loudest capabilities. For composers such as the Belgian-French organist César Franck, this opened up a whole new vista of compositional possibility. It was Franck who, with his Grande pièce symphonique of 1862, introduced the notion of the organ symphony – a work scored only for the organ but which retained the dynamic scope and multi-movement form of a traditional symphony. Camille Saint-Saëns would complicate this notion further, however, with his own Symphony no. 3 in C minor, commonly known as the “Organ Symphony”. This was a full-blown symphony in the conventional sense, though the composer took the unprecedented step of using a pipe organ in two of its sections (it is organised into two movements, though it sounds like four) to add tonal colour. During the “Maestoso” and “Poco Adagio” sections, the organist plays low pedal notes which are almost inaudibly low. In the finale, these low notes combine with rumbling timpani to create a thunderous bottom end, and the organist reiterates the plainchant-derived themes of the symphony to add to the overwhelming effect. Watch this performance by the Gürzenich Orchestra to see how the “Organ Symphony” translates to the live sphere.

César Franck’s innovations in organ composition would have a knock-on effect for other French composers leading right down the the present day. One of his followers, Louis Vierne, went on to write some of the most well-loved pieces in the repertoire of this period. Essentially blind due to his severe cataracts, Vierne was nevertheless a tirelessly devoted organist, having been appointed to the role of principal organist at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1900. When the cathedral’s organ was in dire need of refurbishment in the aftermath of the Great War, Vierne undertook a four-month tour of the U.S. to raise funds. While there, he composed much of what is now considered his defining work, the 24 Pièces de Fantaisie, comprised of four suites with six movements each. Illustrating the continuity between old and more recent French organ composition, this concert by Olivier Latry brings together pieces from Vierne’s 24 Pièces and work by the contemporary organ composer Jean-Pierre Leguay. Vierne’s “Feux Follets”, with its quirky harmonies, is contrasted with the ringing“ Carillon de Westminster”, a harmonically rich fantasy on the chimes from the clock tower of Westminster Palace.

In 1937, however, Vierne achieved his life’s ambition and died suddenly while performing his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1937. At his side was the next link in the chain of French organ composition: Maurice Duruflé. Vierne took Duruflé on as his assistant at the cathedral in 1927, and the pair remained close until the former’s death. With his somewhat free-ranging melodic lines, Duruflé continued the tradition in organ writing, laid down by Franck, that entailed an almost improvisatory feel: here was organ writing that could soar. In this concert by Latry, one can hear the rapidly unfolding melodic patterns in Duruflé’s Toccata from his Op. 5 Suite. Also performed is the Cantabile from Franck’s Trois Pièces pour Grand Orgue, an 1878 piece which accommodates a wide range of dynamics and timbres, as well a piece by the blind 20th century French organist Gaston Litaize. Full of queasy, uncomfortable dissonances, Reges Tharsis (1984) is an indicator of where organ composition went in the years after Vierne’s death. Duruflé’s Requiem, though mainly a choral piece, was born out of the composer’s experimentation on the organ with themes from Gregorian chant, and the instrument still plays a prominent role in the sombre composition. See it performed here by the Netherlands Radio Choir. 

As compositions like those discussed above show, the organ is inextricably bound up with church music, yet it has also been used by composers to further explore the possibilities of symphonic forms. From the huge organ repertoire of Bach to the experimentation of the late Romantic and 20th century French composers, there is a wealth of interesting organ music waiting to be discovered.