Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: Dedicated to… oh he died.

Composers often dedicate their works.  Most of the time the dedicatee would be members of the aristocracy, kings, wealthy patrons and the like, hoping for their support for the composers’ music.  Sometimes, however, the dedicatee would be friends or peers.  Rachmaninoff famously dedicated his second piano concerto to Nikolai Dahl who helped him with his depression, and Mahler dedicated his Symphony of a Thousand to his wife Alma Mahler.

Saint-Saëns intended to dedicate his 3rd Symphony (Organ Symphony) to Franz Liszt, who was 24 years his senior and one of the early supporters of his music.  The composer’s popular opera Samson et Dalila, for example, owed its Weimar premiere to the efforts of Liszt after not seeing any interest from French opera houses of the time.  When Liszt heard Saint-Saëns play the organ at La Madeleine in Paris, he declared him the greatest organist in the world.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  Liszt died on 31 July 1886, shortly after the premiere of the Organ Symphony on 19 May of the same year, before the score was published – with the inscription “Á la Memoire de Franz Liszt” – to the memory of Franz Liszt.

Come hear us perform Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony”, Poulenc’s Gloria and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: The birth of a favourite

A few weeks ago we talked about Poulenc’s open commission for an “orchestral work of major proportions” which he turned into a 6 movement Gloria.  Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, which we will be performing in our upcoming concert, was not an open commission – but the composer got to write what he wanted anyway.

In 1886, the Royal Philharmonic Society invited the composer to give a performance in London of one of his concertos, old or new.  Eventually, however, the two parties reached an agreement whereby the French composer would create an entirely new symphonic work under the commission of the Society.  Being considered by many as the greatest living French composer of the time certainly had its perks.

*with* organ… but that’s fine.

Thus born was his Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, the third and last of his completed symphonies published with an opus number.  Thanks to the composer’s inscription of it as Symphonie No. 3 “avec orgue” (i.e. “with organ”), the symphony later became dearly known as the “Organ Symphony”.  The fact that this is a symphony where the pipe organ is used, rather than a true symphony for organ, does not affect the popularity of the work.

The composer considered the Organ Symphony as one of his greatest works, packed with innovation of the time.  In his own words:

I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.

Come hear us perform Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony”, Poulenc’s Gloria and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: Benedictine monks playing soccer?

Gloria Laudamus Te

The second movement caused a scandal; I ask why?  I was merely thinking, in my writing, of those Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; and also of some serious Benedictine monks whom I saw one day playing soccer.

Thus spoke Poulenc in response to criticism on the second movement of the Gloria.  Marked Très vif et joyeux (very lively and cheerful), the score certainly calls for a mood vastly different from what usually associated with a Gloria.  The music itself was also surprisingly cheerful and somewhat carefree.

From the short trombone call at the beginning of the movement (that was actually a bouncing of notes between TWO trombones), to the short-long-long-short rhythm of the choir when the “Laudamus te” text is introduced, to the ostinato rhythm of the orchestral accompaniment and the frequent and abrupt key changes, nothing showed the usual seriousness of the religious text.

Except, perhaps, for the very brief chant-like passage and the short strings section that followed for the text “Gratias agimus tibi” that sounded a bit more serious.  Soon though, the music would revert to the carefree bouncing of phrases between the upper and lower voices of the choir.

It was therefore unsurprising that early audiences and critics were disturbed by this joyful second movement, prompting Poulenc’s comparison with the soccer-playing Benedictine monks!

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Fantasia & Fugue in C minor: Deal? No deal!

Many say that Elgar’s Cello Concerto was his last notable work.  After the premiere of the Cello Concerto in late 1919 and his wife Alice’s death in 1920, it seemed like he has lost the willingness to compose.  His wife has always been a source of inspiration and support to Elgar.  Her death and the lack of public demand of music from him (his work went out of fashion) led to the refocus of his attention to other hobbies.

Instead of any new major works, Elgar turned his attention to orchestrating the works of the old masters.  He was no newcomer to transcribing – before he committed to pursuing a career as a composer he used to transcribe such works for the various performance groups he was associated with.

No deal!

When Elgar met with his long-time friend Richard Strauss in 1920, the 1st World War was still on people’s mind and they were eager to heal the rift.  He suggested a joint project to orchestrate Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537.  Elgar would do the Fugue whilst Strauss would do the Fantasia.

Nothing came of the deal.  Whilst Elgar did finish orchestrating the Fugue, Strauss did not.  Subsequently, when he was asked to “write something” for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival, he remembered this incomplete orchestration and set about to do the Fantasia as well.  Thus the orchestrated version of the Fantasia & Fugue was born.

Come hear us perform Elgar’s magnificent orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: Taking errors to a whole new level

Poulenc's Gloria 2nd movement error

It is common to find the inevitable odd error in even the best edited scores.  With Poulenc’s Gloria, however, there are hundreds of errors, ranging from wrong notes and text to misprinted clefs and misprinted rhythm.  The initial responsibility was not entirely on the shoulders of Edition Salabert, the publisher of the scores, although the failure to subsequently update and correct their scores cannot be denied.

Part of the reason for such messiness was the composer’s habit of working with his musical shorthand with much crossing out.  His frequent revision made accuracy practically impossible.  The original manuscripts and the first recording in 1961 differs.  The manuscripts for the full score and the vocal score differs.  To make things even worse, the composer has made changes during the 3 years the initial published scores took to be engraved and printed!

The revised edition isn’t any better

The scores are so “famous” for its errors that various journal articles have been published on the topic.  The articles were meant not only to detail the errors but also to urge the publisher to publish a corrected edition.  That was not to be, unfortunately, as the revised edition of the score (1996) was just as packed with errors.

As such, corrections need to be made prepare the scores for performance.  Librarians of professional orchestras often create their own set of part scores, incorporating all known errors and changes.  Fortunately, Professor Lee Barrow of the University of North Georgia has published an errata list on both editions of the scores based on his work with the manuscripts of the Gloria.  His work was extremely helpful for anyone who is planning to perform this very popular Gloria.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: You pay, I decide what to write!

Poulenc Gloria

In 1959 when Poulenc decided to write his Gloria, he has just seen the success of his operas “Dialogues des Carmélites” and “La voix humaine”.  Having failed to find a satisfactory libretto for yet another new opera, he decided to return to the choral genre.  His friend Pierre Bernac sent him the text and translation of the Gloria, and the decision was made.  Then came the question of money: who’s going to pay for it?

It happened that around that time the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in touch with Poulenc for a possible commission.  The composer, unwilling to conform to the initial instrumentation requirements, has been declining this commission for an “orchestral work of major proportions”.  Once he decided to compose a Gloria, however, he turned back to the Koussevitzky Foundation.

I’m taking it, but only under my terms!

His offer was this:  he will take the commission, but instead of a purely orchestral work, he would write a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano and orchestra that is 20-25 minutes in duration.  With some negotiation and possibly the help of conductor Charles Munch, the Foundation agreed to leave the terms open, and Poulenc wrote his Gloria over the next year.

The American premiere in Boston and the European premiere of the finished Gloria happened within a few weeks of each other.  Surprisingly, the reception differed vastly in the two regions.  In Paris, reviewers complained that the work was not as good as his Stabat Mater, and BBC reviewers found it “unworthy of its dignified text”.  In America, however, the Gloria was met with high praise and the New York Music Critics Circle Award.

Regardless of such polarized opinions, Poulenc’s Gloria is now frequently performed choral works and a mainstay of the choral repertoire.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.