Organ composition | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Organ composition

Anglo-canadianJudging by what has been published, organ music in English Canada has a short history confined to the 20th century. Several important compositions remain in manuscript, while many less worthy have found their way, unabashed, into print.

Organ composition

Judging by what has been published, organ music in English Canada has a short history confined to the 20th century. Several important compositions remain in manuscript, while many less worthy have found their way, unabashed, into print. The fact is that Canadian publications have been concerned mainly with music suitable for church use, while concert works have had a slender chance of finding a publisher.

A few pieces by 19th-century Canadians survive - among them two Preludes and Fugues by J.E.P. Aldous, a Concert Overture by J. Humfrey Anger, a student Prelude and Fugue by W.O. Forsyth, three pieces (G. Schirmer, 1890) by Charles A.E. Harriss, and a Grand Choeur by William Reed. It may be assumed that some of the fine organists who were raised in Canada or arrived and settled in maturity wrote works, for their own use, that remained unpublished and have been lost. From the evidence found, however, it may be said that organ literature in English Canada began with the arrival of Healey Willan in the 1900s.

Willan brought with him some youthful compositions already in print and in 1916 added the celebrated Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue which earned him an enviable reputation amongst concert organists. Willan's instant pre-eminence among English-Canadian organ composers of the time led eventually to a certain complacency on his part. Here was a situation in which it was fatally easy to produce a great quantity of music based on hymn-tunes, and well-fashioned preludes and fugues for local consumption, which in turn found many imitators much less gifted than Willan himself.

It is a pleasure, however, to come across isolated examples of hymn settings such as Florence Durrell Clark's Prelude on a 2nd Mode Melody of Tallis (Novello) or Graham George'sPrelude on 'The King's Majesty' (No. 1), in which the composer has caught a breath of inspiration from the original.

For music of originality one needs to look beyond the confines of the church to the campus, where the composer wrote for either gifted pupils or professional colleagues. Here mention may be made of Violet Archer'sSonatina, Gerald Bales'Petite Suite, Lorne Betts'Improvisations on B-A-C-H, and William France'sSuites and various short pieces. More modest contributions come from Hugh Bancroft, Frederick Karam, Kenneth Meek, and Sir Ernest MacMillan. Of the composers who have chosen a larger canvas and more advanced composing technique, Keith Bissell in his Sonata (1963) has produced an atonal work of real substance in which three movements grow organically from an initial theme of rising fourths, undergoing rich transformation in the elegiac middle movement and assuming an aerial lightness in the mercurial Vivace. Talivaldis Kenins is represented by his Suite in D, the Sinfonia Notturna, and the Introduction, Passacaglia and Toccata. Kenins is capable of sustaining rhythmic momentum throughout an extended movement, and his writing is notable for its diversity of texture. Gerhard Wuensch is another composer able to compose on a large plan. His Toccata nuptialis is a virtuoso work both in execution and in the demands made on the performer. His ability to think contrapuntally in his fugal writing is masterly - a gift shared to some extent by Graham George in his many compositions.

Walter Buczynski has made a significant contribution, especially in his Psalm for Organ. It is an extended work of considerable structural ingenuity and great expressiveness.

Two of the most prolific composers writing for the organ in the 1970s - Barrie Cabena and Derek Healey - revealed specialist knowledge of the instrument and sensitive ears for colour and registers. Their interest in the neoclassical instrument is apparent in their detailed registrations, though of the two men Healey is much more the romantic at heart. Cabena is best known for his 10 portraits for organ entitled Cabena's Homage, composed in 1967 as a commission by the RCCO. Each piece bears the name of a noted Canadian organist and aptly and wittily portrays its subject, though the 'in-jokes' can be appreciated only by the cognoscenti. Cabena's fluent technique and grasp of form are seen to advantage in his Sonata da Chiesa, in which each movement is based on a chorale. Three other works, Sonata Festiva, Sonata IX, and Sonata for Manuals, show the composer's predilection for baroque forms.

Derek Healey has a large number of compositions to his credit. He possesses a searching mind and an adventurous spirit. In a series of six voluntaries, composed from 1956 to 1962, he exhibits an interest in neoclassical writing, though No. 5 of the set (sub-titled 'To Montserrat Torrens: Barcelona') has a strong romantic bias. Partita '65 reveals a melodic gift and a penchant for caricature. In some of his shorter movements he has been influenced by the visionary paintings of Stanley Spencer, eg, in two of Three Quiet Pieces, the remaining piece being based on an Ojibway song. Of his more mature works Variants, Opus 23, is characterized by witty thought, pungent harmony and pulsating rhythm; Festus, Opus 33, is a bold experiment in musical mosaic; while Paraphrase: 'Discendi, Amor Santo,' Opus 28B, shows his most advanced stage of 12-tone writing. Two works, The Lost Traveller's Dream and Summer '73, Opus 44, carry the process of experimentation with organ sound still further - the latter being written for organ and tape.

Continuing to explore the less-traveled areas of avant-garde composition for the instrument, one discovers a number of pieces written by composers whose usual creative endeavours are for other musical media. In each case a freshness of approach to the organ as an abstract music resource results in fascinating and challenging works. Notable in this category are Three Pieces (1973) by Clifford Ford, Erro (1974) by John Fodi, and Sonic Landscape No. 4 (1977) by Barry Truax, in which both organ and tape parts were computer-generated.

A composer who has made a major contribution both in quantity and quality is Bengt Hambraeus, whose varied output ranges from the immense Icons (1975), a frescoe for large instrument (including chimes and celesta!) to the intimate Shogaku reflective of the delicate sonorities of the Chinese sho. Particularly noteworthy is his four-volume Livre d'orgue written in 1981 for the fine classical French organ built by Helmuth Wolff for Redpath Hall at McGill University. While formally modeled on the many 17th- and 18th-century examples of suites of pieces in a variety of styles, this music is avowedly late-20th century, abounds in felicitous textures and sonorities, and is also conceived as a progressive teaching aid for students interested in exploring new organ techniques.

Written for the same instrument, Six Etudes by Bruce Mather present fascinating challenges to both player and listener, and show the composer's talent for inventive coulours.

While works for organ and orchestra are infrequent in Anglo-Canadian output (reflecting the sad lack, until recently, of organs in our major concert halls), there are several worthy examples. Among recent compositions are Rhapsody for Organ and Small Orchestra by Gerald Bales, Kenins' Symphony No. 8, and the splendid Snow Walker by Michael Colgrass, written as the test piece for the first Calgary International Organ Festival in 1990.


Organ works written in Quebec at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th were intended mostly for church use. Representatives are R.-O. Pelletier's Dix Petits Morceaux pour l'orgue, Opus 3, and Six Pièces, Arthur Letondal'sPrélude grave, Offertoire, and Toccata, and similar pieces by Gustave Gagnon, Alphonse Lavallée-Smith, J.-Arthur Bernier, Joseph and Zénon Paquin, Omer Létourneau, Benoît Poirier, and Léon Ringuet. The works of these composers spring directly from the French tradition of Guilmant, Franck, Vierne, and Widor. Particularly successful in this genre is Amédée Tremblay'sSuite de quatre pièces pour grand orgue, of which the final Toccata has enjoyed an enthusiastic revival.

Also to be noted are Conrad Bernier's Esquisse and Prière en ut majeur, Alfred Tardif'sTriptyque marial, and Bernard Piché's Rhapsodie sur quatre noëls, Introduction et Fugue sur l'Ite Missa est alléluiatique, and other works. Claude Champagne, Auguste Descarries, and Georges-Émile Tanguay have written a few estimable pieces, and Conrad Letendre's works also have been admired and performed by his disciples.

The repertoire of the later 20th century has been enriched substantially by Raymond Daveluy, whose four sonatas and Concerto with full orchestra demonstrate a profound knowledge of the instrument and of contrapuntal writing. While his style derives unmistakably from the French school, the high discipline suggests Reger or Hindemith.

Among other notable contemporary pieces are Roger Matton'sSuite de Pâques, André Prévost'sCinq Variations sur un thème grégorien (Salve Regina), François Morel'sAlleluia in three parts and Prière, Maurice Dela'sPastorale and Suite, Otto Joachim'sFantasia, Réjean Poirier'sArcane, and Claude Vivier'sLes Communiantes. These works, in their blending of timbres and their unexpected sonorities, are authentically modern in concept, but again they suggest the influence of the French masters, though of a later generation: Marcel Dupré and Olivier Messiaen. Composers who have made significant contributions to the organ solo repertoire also include Raynald Arseneault, Claude Frenette, Marc Gagné, Alain Gagnon, Jacques Hétu, Rachel Laurin, Jean Le Buis, and Denis Lorrain.

Further Reading