Here, it’s a good time to look at the top ten works for this mighty beast of wind and metal.
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
The kind of bloodsucking phantoms and cackling vampires that populate schlock-horror flicks have a curious tendency to leap to the organ and play something portentous as they lure victims to their doom. This Toccata and Fugue – possibly by Bach, though recent critics have questioned this – is generally what they play. They’re not the only ones to respond to its power. The critic Hans Keller described the opening as ‘a lightning flash’ followed by ‘a thunder of broken chords.’
Henry Purcell: Trumpet Tune in D major
Not much is known about this stirring tune (which is played using the ‘trumpet’ stop on the organ, hence the title), but it was probably written during Purcell’s time as organist of Westminster Abbey. It’s a favourite at weddings, along with Jeremiah Clarke’s celebrated ‘Trumpet Voluntary’, which was also attributed to Purcell for a long time.
S. S. Wesley: Choral Song and Fugue
Mid-19th-century England was labelled ‘the land without music’ by a snooty German critic. It’s true there wasn’t as much going on as in Germany or France, but there were pockets of wonderful creativity, especially in cathedrals. The composer S. S. Wesley (1810 – 1876) is a celebrated example of a composer working in this tradition, and his rousing ‘Choral Song and Fugue’ (1842) has never lost its popularity. Buffs may spot the playful similarity between the fugue tune and the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41.
Léon Boëllmann: Toccata from Suite gothique
No single instrument can create a sense of rising tension and explosive release quite as effectively as the organ, and the final movement of Boëllmann’s Suite gothique of 1895 is a study in how to build excitement on the instrument. The piece is so flashy as to verge on the crude – but goodness, it’s effective. Imagine a young woman tied to railway tracks, and a train hurtling towards her, and you’ve got the idea.
Charles-Marie Widor: Toccata from Symphony for Organ No. 5
How many new brides and bridegrooms (including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) have walked out of church to the strains of this joyous, hurtling Toccata? Millions, probably, and little wonder. There are few pieces more exuberant, or more unashamedly full of sunshine and smiles – just right for the celebration of a new union. The term ‘symphony’, incidentally, doesn’t mean that the piece was originally written for orchestra. Widor simply wanted to suggest the epic, symphonic scope of the instrument.
Louis Vierne: Finale from Symphony No. 1
Widor’s assistant at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris was Louis Vierne, who went on to become an equally celebrated composer of organ music. The finale of his Symphony No. 1 for organ (1899), which manages to be both grand and light-hearted, has become another wedding favourite.
Olivier Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur
As well as creating grandeur, the organ is a wonderful instrument for meditative and contemplative sounds – perhaps because organs are so often found in religious spaces. This extensive cycle of nine ‘meditations’ inspired by the birth of Jesus was composed in 1935, and was influenced byMessiaen’s love of nature and stained glass, as much as by his strong Christian faith.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3
By the nineteenth century, the organ was as associated with concert halls as with cathedrals, and composers were quick to exploit its potential as a member of the orchestra. One of the most successful was Saint-Saëns in his ever-popular ‘Organ Symphony’ (No. 3), whose final movement is dominated by the sound of the organ. The sharp-eared among you will spot that a melody from this movement was turned into the pop song ‘If I had words’, used in the film Babe.
Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
The extraordinary opening passage of Strauss’s 1896 tone-poem will forever be associated with Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s not hard to hear why Kubrick chose it to conjure up the majesty and terror of the boundless universe. The rumbling low C at the beginning – the lowest possible note on the organ – creates an extraordinary physical vibration when experienced live.
Gounod: ‘Seigneur, daignez permettre’ from Faust (Act IV)
Operatic composers, as well as symphonic ones, also began to use the organ in the nineteenth century. A celebrated passage occurs in Gounod’sFaust (1859). The pregnant, unmarried Marguerite has been cast out by her friends and family and cursed by her dying brother. She comes to church to ask God’s forgiveness, unaware that the evil Méphistophélès is plotting to stop her. The appearance of the organ at around 0:42 provides a wonderful sense of foreboding and doom. The instrument returns with a heavenly C major chord when Marguerite is redeemed at the end of the opera too.