Dom André Laberge, o.s.b. is the organist of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (Québec, Canada). He first studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal where he had Bernard [...]
They spoke about it
Handel’s reputation as improviser seems to be one of the few constants in his life in England. In fact, his organ improvisations no doubt contributed to the success of the oratorio, a genre that could have suffered, attendance-wise, from its lack of pure vocal virtuosity and dramatic representation. It is underestimating the importance of improvisation not to include its mark in any general analysis of a composer’s creative process (this holds true, at least, until the later part of the 19th century).
In Handel’s case, this statement is even more justified since a great number of his works may actually have originated as keyboard improvisations, later orchestrated. Part of the process can be seen at work in this letter by Thomas Morell, Handel’s librettist, in which he describes his collaboration with the composer:
… Upon 3 days [I] carried him the first Act of Judas Maccabæus, which he approved of. ‘Well’, says he, ‘and how are you to go on?’ ‘Why, we are to suppose an engagement, and that the Israelites have conquered, and so begin with a chorus as Fallen in the Foe or, something like it.’ ‘No, I will have this’, and began working it, as it is, upon the Harpsichord. ‘Well, go on.’ ‘I will bring you more tomorrow.’ ‘No, something now, So fall thy Foes, O Lord that will do,’ and immediately carried on the composition as we have it in that admirable chorus…
Improvisation was an essential feature of the organ concertos. In performance, not only was the organ part improvised or ornamented — certain organ parts are obviously simple frameworks —, but the concerto itself was often preceeded by an improvisation, “[its] harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly expressed; the passages concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity.” (Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776).
The indication Organo ad libitum (or simply ad libitum) is a constant feature, with a few exceptions, of the concertos, especially those of op. 7. This indication has various meanings. In some cases, it means that a complete movement should be improvised, usually a slow movement, sometimes followed by a fugue (as in op. 7 no. 3: Organo (Adagio e Fuga) ad libitum). At other times, what is asked for may be the completion or continuation of a sequential passage (this is probably the case in the first Allegro of op. 7 no. 4), or the ornamentation of aria-like passages (op. 4 no. 1, 1st mvt). Finally, ad libitum may be a way of asking for a greater freedom of tempo — a form of rubato — as in the already ornate cadenza at the end of the first movement of op. 7 no. 4.
However, as noted by the editors of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, some of these ad libitum indications are probably remnants of previous stages of composition, and are therefore superfluous. The Concerto op. 4 no. 1 originally belonged to Alexander’s Feast. Not only, as mentioned before, is the organ part of the first movement a simple framework meant to be ornemented, but it also contains figured notation, which indicates that the addition of inner voices might also be asked for.
The concertos Op. 7 no. 1 and no. 3, as well as the Concerto in D minor, rely heavily on borrowed material. The Concerto in D minor is entirely based, with a few modifications, on a Telemann flute sonata (Musique de table, first set). The Concerto op. 7 no. 1 (only concerto that requiers a pedal board) was composed in 1740, and its material is derived from Muffat’s Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo. As for the Concerto op. 7 no. 3, it borrows its material from some of the Op. 1 masses of Franz Johann Habermann. This concerto, Handel’s last instrumental composition (1751), is sometimes refered to as the “Hallelujah” Concerto, for reasons obvious at first audition. It should be noted that in this recording only the first of the two Menuets is performed, that is, the only Menuet that actually contains an organ part.
The Anglican Church of Frelighsburg, in the South of Québec, has had a Samuel Warren organ for a very long time. The organ-builder, a Montréal resident, probably built this choir-organ of eight stops in 1854. The organ-case blends perfectly with the neo-gothic style of the church. The instrument has retained a surprising freshness and it has not undergone any changes since its installation. The trumpet stop, the only one which did not function at the time of this recording, has its own pipe works. The stop called clariana, a narrow principal of the dulciana type, uses low-pitched pipes from the bourdon. In 1874, the parish of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, Québec, was equipped with a ten-stop Déry organ that for more than a century did not require any major repairs event though in winter the church was heated only on Sundays.
The organ, therefore, really did need a complete restoration, and this was carried out by the firm of Guilbault-Thérien. this instrument was the first built by Napoléon Déry, and eloquently demonstrates the intelligence and taste of the organ-builder. The experience no doubt enabled him to later build more supple and quieter actions than that found in the Saint-Roch organ. Its rich sonority is surprising, even by today’s standards, given the limited resources from which the organ was built.
The Organ builder: Samuel Warren
Samuel Russell Warren (Triverton, R.I. 1809 – Montréal 1882) received his organ-building training in Appleton in the United States. He settled permanently in Montréal in 1836 and very quickly achieved a wide and lasting reputation, building more than four hundred instruments. He taught his apprentices, his sons Charles S. and Louis Mitchel, who themselves became well-known in Canadian organ-building. Warren was, in fact, the first professional organ-builder, and he laid the basis for the development of the organ-building industry Canada.
He also introduced new organ components such as Barker’s pneumatic lever (1851), the hydraulic bellows (1860) and relatively new stops such as harmonic flutes and free reeds. Unfortunately, the large instruments Warren built no longer exist or have been reworked. But the choir-organs in the churches of Chambly, Frelighsburg and Dunham have resisted the ravages of time and also of fashion.
The Organ builder: Napoléon Déry
The workshop of Napoléon Déry was situated in the Faubourg Saint-Jean quarter of Québec City. In spite of the fact he only produced a small number of instruments, several of them have survived in almost their original condition in the churches of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies (1874), Saint-Joachim (1885), Saint-Isidore (1889) and Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse (1897). The instruments of Neuville (1880), Cap-Santé (1884), and particularly Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Québec (1886), built by Déry but subsequently restored by Casavant, have kept a considerable number of their original pipes.
Déry imported his fine quality pipes from a London organ-builder, Pierce, who probably prevoiced the works before shipping. Contrary to many of his contemporaries, Déry preferred mixtures without thirds and with relatively light principals, a combination which gives his plenums great clarity.
– Antoine Bouchard
Composition of the Instrument (S. Warren)
Swell-Manual 8′ Open Diapason 8′ Stopped Diapason 8′ Clariana 4′ Principal 4′ Harmonic Flute 2′ Fifteenth 8′ Trumpet Pedal 16′ Bourdon Pedal Coupler Octave Coupler Composition of the Instrument (N. Déry) Manual Diapason 8′ Open 4′ Principal Twelfth Mixture 11 8′ Bass Diapason 8′ Treble Diapason 4′ Flûte d’Amour 4′ Bass Flauto Traverso 4′ Melodia 8′ Oboe (viol) Pedal 16′ Bourdon Pedal Coupler Octave Coupler
The sixteen Handel concertos included in this series were performed on antique Québec organs. The small size of these instruments suggested the limited scale of the orchestra. Mechanical noises are common in organs of this period and should not come as a surprise to listeners. These noises are represented here as faithfully as is the music.
© Alex Benjamin
Translation: Rachelle Taylor