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On Composing for the Organ

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Composing for "The Monster That Never Breathes"

“Today’s organists are trained to be exceptionally versatile musicians. One moment they’re improvising a buoyant cadenza for a Handel concerto, and the next they’re conjuring up images of the beast of the Apocalypse through the music of Messiaen,” says Paul Jacobs, chair of the Juilliard organ department. “Historically, most organ music has been written by skilled organists themselves. Today, the organ, the most complex of musical instruments, might seem daunting to some contemporary composers. But fruitful collaborations between composers and organists, have, fortunately, become commonplace at Juilliard.”

Juilliard organists

Among the Juilliard composers whose works will be performed are (top row, from left) Joseph Rubinstein, Philip Lasser, and Wayne Oquin and (bottom row, from left) Jan Stoneman, Eric Segerstrom, and Samuel Adler. Photo credits: top center and right: Liz Linder and Alexander Barrio; nottom row from left: Hans Günther Kaufmann, Harrison Linsey, and Jack Mitchell

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On October 23, Juilliard organists will play works by Juilliard composers including four world premieres and one New York premieres. To commemorate this historic occasion, The Journal asked the Juilliard composers (with the exception, of course, of Vincent Persichetti, the former composition faculty head who died in 1987) a few questions about composing for the organ. For veteran composition faculty member Sam Adler, it wasn’t a new experience—he’s been writing for organ since taking his first job after his Army service as music director at a Reform temple in Dallas and ever since, he said, “the organ for me has been an inspiration and one of my favorite instruments for which to write.” For a number of the other composers, however, writing for organ was a new experience.

In addition to Persichetti and Adler, the composers are graduate studies faculty member Philip Lasser (D.M.A. ’94, composition), ear training and graduate studies faculty member Wayne Oquin (M.M. ’02, D.M.A. ’08, composition), and composition students Ryan Dodge, Joseph Rubinstein, Eric Segerstrom, Sean Smeed, and Jan Stoneman. 

Stravinsky said the organ is “the monster that never breathes.” Do you agree?
Philip Lasser: Yes, but it’s an awesome monster that never breathes. And because it never physically breathes, we add breath through phrasing and counterpoint. This is what Bach did and as a result created a surprisingly vocal musical world.
Sean Smeed: I think he’s referring to the organ’s monstrous ability and power and the difficulty of controlling it musically. The musical passages must be clear and articulate, or else the hall swallows up the sound. The orchestration of the stops must complement the notes or else the piece could sound unbalanced and different than what the composer had in mind. There is also not a lot of space for “musical breath” with such a massive instrument—and his breathless quality can give it a very foreign, almost robotic sound.
Wayne Oquin: He was answering the question why he himself had never composed for the organ. I think it’s a shame that a composer of his caliber, who wrote so elegantly for winds and brass, never composed for the “king of instruments.” What a gift that would have been to the musical world. 
Joseph Rubinstein: I think Stravinsky was getting at the fact that once a pitch is sounded on the organ, it sustains at the same volume until the player releases the key. This quality gives the organ a particular forwardness and intensity that perhaps Stravinsky heard as “monstrous.” This breathless intensity is something I quite enjoy about the organ, and one of my favorite organ pieces, Steve Reich’s Four Organs, exploits it to particularly exciting effect.
Jan Stoneman: Of all the instruments, is the organ is by far the biggest—and the only one I know of that can sustain a note for weeks without “breathing.” The middle section of my organ solo, “Celestial X,” however, was meant to evoke the sound of a distant, dusty old music box, which to me is a warmer, more nostalgic image than that of a monster. The distant, dusty old music box was an image I couldn’t have expressed on any one other instrument in quite the same way—I would’ve needed an orchestra.

Does writing for organ present any unique challenges?
Smeed: I think the trick is to treat the organ like any other musical instrument since it can be manipulated to sound like almost anything, from a brass choir to a solo flute, and dynamically it can range from barely audible to overwhelmingly loud. Oddly enough, repertoire for the organ is some of the most pure, non-affected music written. 
Oquin: Organs vary radically, and what may work well on one organ in a given acoustic may not be desirable or even possible on another. They also don’t all have the same stops or even the same number of manuals, which means that writing for the organ is a bit like trying to hit a moving target and that a composer can never fully foresee all of the instrument’s possibilities.
Ryan Dodge: There is a bit of a learning curve when first trying to understand stops and registration (as well as in some other regards), but a background in other keyboard instruments clarifies the bulk of the organ’s idiosyncrasies. 
Lasser: Creating a true legato is difficult and a legato sense in a densely harmonic way is also difficult. Also, so many organs are so unique that it can be difficult to transport particular sounds from organ to organ.
Eric Segerstrom: Personally, writing for the organ was a huge challenge as I was fairly unfamiliar with it before writing this piece. There’s no sustain pedal, so you’re limited to using whatever notes your hands and feet can physically hold down at one time. And intricately rhythmic passages that may sound great on piano won’t necessarily work on the organ. 
Stoneman: When I started, I wanted to make all kinds of elaborate changes in texture and volume as the piece progressed. This, however, soon got in the way of getting the music on paper, and so I focused more on the development of all other aspects, adding detailed timbre and volume instructions only in the process of rehearsing with the organist.

Has writing for the organ influenced how you write for other instruments?
Oquin: One of my favorite organ quotes is from Robert Schumann: “Miss no opportunity to practice on the organ; there is no instrument that takes such immediate revenge on the impure and the careless, in composition as well as in the playing, as the organ.” In composing for the organ, I immediately realized what Schumann meant: it requires from both composer and performer a mastery of technique. On the organ there are no shortcuts; every note will be projected, every note matters. Writing for the organ has helped me to take a few steps farther down a long path of finding my own creative voice, refining my harmonic language, and reconsidering the purpose of every single note. 
Stoneman: It’s given me a subtler understanding of overtones. Organists often pull out an octave stop with different intentions than when I write in octave doublings in my score.
Smeed: It certainly plays a large role in my conception of orchestration. The organ is often called the one-man symphony, and there are definitely similarities in composing for organ and orchestra. It’s little wonder that some of the great orchestrators have been organists themselves.
Rubinstein: I’ve written a lot of a cappella choral music, but until I began writing this piece, I never quite understood why the organ so frequently accompanies a choir. Now I understand the timbral similarities and look forward to writing music for choir and organ.
Segerstrom: Writing this piece was incredibly influential. My main instrument is percussion, and because of my background in rhythm, many of my compositions feature a strong rhythmic drive. While rhythmic passages are doable on the organ, I had to approach them differently and rely even more on strong harmonies and melodies in the absence of constant rhythmic intrigue.

Why do you think more composers don’t write for the organ?
Stoneman: A violin can play and a voice can sing anywhere, from the subway to the airplane, while organs are less flexible. And when you do have an organ, you don’t necessarily have anywhere near the same sound quality as the organ or the imagined organ for which you wrote the piece.
Segerstrom: I think that composers don’t write for the organ because it’s so unfamiliar to them. There are multiple keyboards and buttons, and to a composer who has never approached the organ before, it’s a little intimidating trying to figure out how to write for such a monstrous instrument. Also, every organ is different, so a piece written for a certain organ will sound totally different on another. 
Rubinstein: I think it’s something of a feedback loop—since American concertgoers (including composers) don’t get to hear the organ performed as often as other instruments, they become less accustomed to its unique qualities, and begin to assume that it’s an oddity and not a concert instrument to begin with. 
Lasser: Many don’t have access to one—or to someone who plays the organ. Also, it’s associated with religion, and many composers don’t want what they write for the organ to be interpreted or thought of liturgically. I have written very lush and seductive works for the organ, and they are not in the least religious, though I have also written liturgically based works for the organ.
Smeed: I’ve always found the organ repertoire, as well as the organ itself, to be very moving and profound, but it may not be for everybody. It’s also very difficult to be naturally exposed to the organ unless you grow up around them. I would like to believe that all composers would enjoy writing for organ if they really tried. Why shouldn’t they?

Was there anything you were able to express in writing for the organ that might not have been possible with other instruments?
Lasser: Absolutely. It has a unique ability to be majestic and to flow somehow in slow motion even when the notes are flying by. Of course it is a powerful instrument capable of tremendous force and grand statements, but it is also an excellent voice for intimacy and noble loneliness as well as deeply personal reflection.
Rubinstein: With its breathless quality and potential for generating massive amounts of sound, the organ allows for a particular intensity of expression. 
Segerstrom: Because notes can be held out indefinitely without any change in dynamic or timbre, chords can be built out of single notes that are held out unlike any other solo instrument. Also, the pedals give you a sort of third hand.
Dodge: Due to the organ’s rich polyphonic and especially fugal repertoire, writing for it got me to focus more closely on counterpoint and allowed me to compose with a larger scope than usual due to the extra contrapuntal capabilities provided by the pedals.
Oquin: I am continually amazed by the organ’s range of expression, its endless shades of color, dynamic, timbre, texture, and tone. 
Smeed: There is a very old, very spiritual power in the organ, and if you find the right notes, it can bring your music to life in a way no other solo instrument can. No other instrument can shake your bones like an organ.

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