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The organ voluntaries

Voluntary – adj. spontaneous, free; without compulsion or obligation; a piece of music played before, during, or after a church service; an unwarranted fall from a horse. (The Chambers Dictionary, 2003 ed, p.1706)

I expect you are familiar with the monthly Music List, which sets out the music to be prepared by the choir and organist and sung at the 9.15 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. Sunday services. I won’t bore you here with the intricacies of juggling the needs of the different choirs with appropriate music for the day, taking into account the exigencies of rehearsal time and judgment of the complexity of the music: let that be a subject for another Bridge.

You’ll have noticed that one of the items is the outgoing organ voluntary. Some might say that this is a piece of music intended to speed members of the congregation on their way and deter people with any thoughts of a peaceful few minutes in church after the service. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, and as we are authoritatively assured above, there is nothing compulsory about listening to it, whatever some organists may say.

In compiling the list of voluntaries for September, from four organists including me, not for the first time was I struck by the richness of the fare. Music by J S Bach (1685-1750), unsurprisingly, appears several times, in the form of preludes, fugues and a chorale prelude. The fugue, where a theme is presented on its own and then imitated at a different pitch in another line, has been a staple of organ and church music for centuries. In September we hear one of JSB’s most mature works, the Fugue in E flat major (from his snappilytitled ‘Keyboard Exercises’), a solemn but optimistic exploration in three sections of an austere theme, culminating in a grand peroration. In the Allabreve we hear two themes presented simultaneously combined with varying ideas in a most fluent Italianate outpouring of imagination.

A Prelude is usually just that: a composition to precede a Fugue, but a movement in its own right. JSB’s C minor Prelude is a large-scale tragic work, alternating heavy chordal passages with fugal interludes. A Prelude and Fugue in G minor attributed to JSB combines these qualities in miniature. And we hear a Prelude on the hymn ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, a piece whose alternative title is the Fugue upon the Magnificat. It’s just that: an immense fugue taking the traditional plainsong theme of the Magnificat, for hands only until the last page, where the plainsong enters in long notes played by the feet, truly a fugue on top of the Magnificat melody.

The principle of thematic imitation appears elsewhere in September too, in the form of music by the early seventeenth century composers Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). Though called by other titles (such as Fantasy and, even, A Voluntary) these magnificent compositions employ the imitative characteristics of what later was to be known as the Fugue.

The odd one out is a violin concerto by the Italian composer Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709). Not well known today, he was influential in his own day in the development of the structure of the concerto (in particular, the alternations of lengthy passages in different keys of orchestra and soloist). His concerto in C minor was arranged for the organ by Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), a cousin and friend of J S Bach, and we’ll hear this at the end of September. Historically, it illustrates an significant stage in the development of musical structure (technically the ‘ritornello’), which was to The Organ Voluntaries – Rhidian Jones reach one of its final flourishings in that tragic C minor Prelude by JSB mentioned above.

All of us who play the organ at All Saints Church are gratified that members of the congregation take the trouble to listen and to comment afterwards. In turn we hope that we may adorn the services with suitable and worthwhile music. (And your listening forces us to practise, too!)

Finally, I recall, years ago, being asked to play part of the William Tell Overture at a wedding. As you know, the mark of a musician of an older generation is that he or she can hear this piece by Rossini without thinking of The Lone Ranger. The famous bit (you know it: diddle-dum diddle-dum diddle-dum dum dum) is a superb example of the musical style known as the galop (yes, only one letter l), which Chambers defines as ‘a lively dance or dance tune in double time; a lively sideways slipping step used in dancing’. It is standard fare in the dance music of nineteenth-century Vienna – music by the Strauss family and their contemporaries and rivals – and was a popular dance amongst the terpsichorean cognoscenti.

I diligently practised this, hoping that indeed most people would have left the church by the time I got to the difficult bit. Well, they didn’t. And that day, two things came home to me: first, the truth of the adage that unless you have learned something really thoroughly, when you come to play it to a congregation, it can fall apart at the awkward bit; and second, that a voluntary can also be a fall from a horse, which is most certainly what it felt like that day.

And so back to the practice of scales and arpeggios ……

This article, written by Rhidian Jones, featured in the Autumn 2019 edition of The Bridge – the magazine for All Saints’ Church in Marlow. Pick up your free copy in church or download it here.

All Saints Marlow - The Bridge 2019