“As the conditions of life become more and more hard, mechanical and impersonal, music must bring ceaselessly to those who love it its spiritual violence and its courageous reactions. With our music we share the common desire to be satisfied with nothing less than sincerity, generosity, and good faith. We aim to promote a living music.”
La Jeune France: Messiaen, Lesur, Baudrier, and Jolivet (1936)
Firehead Organ Works is a place where an advocacy for new music composed for the organ takes material form. Each of our composers has contributed concert works, chorale preludes, music for liturgy, partitas, fantasies, etc. These works are written by organists for organists with a keen sense of what’s possible in terms of registration, articulation, choreography, and all this in the context of a given acoustic in which the instrument stands.
Firehead Organ Works primarily represents organ music by Frederick Frahm, Huw Morgan, and Michael Bonaventure. In recent years, the catalogue has been expanded significantly by the addition of music by Jared Isaac Aragón, Neil Thornock, and others. The music posted herein is decidedly contemporary, well departed from common practice tonality, architecturally diverse, and above all authentically and idiomatically crafted for the organ.
Consider just a few works from the catalog:
Frederick Frahm‘s works for organ offer a contrast of style for performers and audiences. From the introspective La Morte Meditata to the floral Chaplinesque, from the ecstatic Firehead to the exuberant Fantasies for Organ, here is music which prefers to stand as an architectural edifice in sound.
This music is initially built in smaller gestures or episodes. Laconic and fragmentary statements are then arranged into a sequence which seeks to inspire a static dialog through juxtaposition and symmetry. Austere and concrete, and the listener is asked to continually reconsider the relationships between events as the work unfolds.
At the core of the composition, there is a desire to portray structure and silence and contradiction and relationship in a way that symbolizes our humanity. This music is not about the weaving of events from top to bottom or left to right, it’s about gathering images and icons into a shared space and proclaiming a new context for the assembly. Expression here is often subtle, and the music is rarely edited for rubati and complex registration changes. Passages are directly repeated and punctuative pauses provide for a space between distinct ideas which allow the music to take on a processional character, a solemn gathering of many participants into a single action and purpose. To hear this music well, one must search for patterns, discern the assimilation of disparities, and discover a comfort in ritual articulated by silence.
Huw Morgan‘s ethereal Haven stands in stark contrast to his fiery Ffanffare. The first work unfolds gently with delicate stops in the high registers, the music comes down to earth for a moment, evokes the ringing of bells, and concludes with a florid and expressive ‘song’ about heaven. It’s a dreamy piece– there’s a certain something about it that entices may performers into repeat performances. And it’s an unusual new work for organ where there isn’t a note out of place-everything seems right-an accomplishment we have come to expect of this composer’s craftmanship.
The Ffanffare, a commanding piece replete with dramatic flourishes for the trumpet stop, compels us to witness where the music might go for we easily engage with the narrative character of the score. Charged with driving rhythm and bold registrations this piece is a joyous and irrepressible paean to the universe, and one that asks of us to aspire to noble things.
This is very much the nature and candor of Morgan’s music- he is a storyteller. We revel with him in the joyful sounds the organ can make, we delight at his ability to artfully recast a chorale melody to give it a new manner and dress, and we wonder that he can fill the room with a gentle veil of sound that allows us to just be.
An extraordinary addition to our catalog comes in the form of Preludes, Interludes, and Postludes (in eleven sets so far) by Scottish composer Michael Bonaventure. The utilitarian title belies the utterly astonishing nature of these brilliant triptychs for organ. Intended for parish organists of some skill as performers, this music is difficult to compare to existing repertoire. The scores are profoundly expressive pieces which can be terrifying, exuberant, primal, enigmatic, and transcendent works of art. This music commands your attention, and it requires your fortitude for there are important things to discuss here.
Bonaventure’s ability to make music that only the organ can do puts him in a small contingent of composers of like talents. Many composers of remarkable skill have shied away from the prospect: Stravinsky was bored with sustained tones, Schoenberg was hardly a ‘connoisseur’, and Dello Joio was frustrated that no two organs were alike. For Bonaventure, this is a natural instrument rife with expressive and artistic potential.
Frankly, church organists need to consider how this music, this collection of truly compelling compositions, can speak to that which cannot be said, and find ways to make use of these works in the service of liturgy. Too often music for worship is manifest pablum, trivial and therapeutic, but our complex world demands that we respond more vigorously. Here are pieces that seek to fully dramatize the power of the Spirit to move us and inspire us, and to enable us to flourish on the breath of God.
Lastly, some advice and encouragements:
Performers, please strive more to bring new music to your audiences. Yes, there is good historic art and much of it worthy of repetition. Some of the finest music written by human beings has been scored for the organ! But history has no context without the present, and the present without history has no perspective. We feel that repertoire for the organ should exist in a living gallery with a rotating collection rather than a musty antique store full of worthy but well-worn sundries.
Audiences, be fearless in your pursuit of new music; request and require it on programs. Learn to listen repeatedly to a new work; you may discover a new way of hearing and understanding. Participate in the conversation over what is and is not worth repeating. Do not dismiss a new piece of music out of hand on your first hearing; a good piece will have something to say – try harder to listen with an open mind.
Composers, make new music for the organ. Learn to master it’s tonal palette. Pour all of your expressive and creative power into music that can command a cathedral space and be played by hands and feet. Consider writing chamber works that use the organ; learn about tuning temperaments and the additional expression they bring to your palette; ask organists to play for you and watch them do so at the console.
And young musicians, Robert Schumann has the best advice for you:
“If you walk by a church and hear the organ playing, go inside and listen.”