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Sounds Spontaneous

Sounds Spontaneous cover picture

Improvisations Through the Church’s Year by Malcolm Archer and David Bednall at the organ of Blackburn Cathedral

Advent (Veni Emmanuel)

Advent (Creator alme siderum)

Christmas (Nöel nouvelet)

Epiphany (O magi venient)

Candlemas (Ave maris stella)


Passiontide (Pange lingua)

Palm Sunday

Maundy Thursday (Ubi Caritas)

Good Friday (Passion Chorale)

Easter (Victimæ Paschali)

Ascension (Llanfair)

Pentecost (Veni Creator Spiritus)

Trinity (O Lux beata)

Corpus Christi (Vexilla Regis)

All Saints (Mount Ephraim)

All Souls (Requiem æternum and In paradisum)

Christ the King (Te Deum)

Total playing time 77m 21s

Sounds Spontaneous

Sounds Spontaneous

Improvisation has always played an important role in music, with many celebrated composers, including Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Messiaen being renowned for their prowess. However, into the modern age, perhaps with the increased accuracy of musical notation and the decline of the impromptu concerto cadenza, instrumental improvisation faded in importance, over-shadowed by an emphasis on interpretive mastery. Two areas where it has retained its central position are Jazz and the Organ.

Organ improvisation in the 19th and 20th century witnessed some towering figures, including the composers Franck, Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé and Langlais. Undoubtedly the most influential of these figures is Pierre Cochereau (1924 – 1984), the legendary titulare of Notre Dame. His status is owed in part to his vast recorded legacy - all his improvisations at Notre Dame from 1963 are recorded, and this gold-mine is slowly being released. The French school continues to flourish through such artists as Naji Hakim, Phillipe Lefebvre and Pierre Pincemaille.

There is a strong tradition of English improvisation too, with Herbert Howells and Percy Whitlock having both been renowned improvisers. During the era of silent film, improvisation was an essential skill amongst cinema organists to mirror the onscreen action. Recently there has been a renaissance in English improvisation through artists like David Briggs, himself a pupil of Jean Langlais and famed for improvisation in any number of set forms, as well as for silent films such as King of Kings and Phantom of the Opera.

Improvisation on the organ can be broadly divided into two categories - that which is for the liturgy, and that which is for the concert hall. There are of course, many over-lapping features between these, so the distinction is not sharp. The afore-mentioned figures were, and are masters of both categories, but there are certain differences in aim and method, which Cochereau broadly categorised as follows:
Concert improvisation is the art of creating the impression of a pre-composed piece. Of course, it should retain the excitement of spontaneous creation, but the impression should be of a clearly structured and thought out piece. The theme may be pre-chosen, given by the audience, or even taken from a mobile telephone ring-tone! The job of the improviser is to create the illusion of a composition - “improvisation is the illusionist’s art”.

The second area is improvisation for the Liturgy, to extend a procession, to announce the Gospel, to cover a delay in the action, and countless other occasions. All too often in Britain this is regarded as mere “filling-in”, a form of liturgical wallpaper whose function is simply to cover the sound of moving feet. Liturgical improvisation at its best should reflect and enhance the mood and meaning of the occasion and season, and this was our aim on this recording.

The inspiration for this recording came from listening to Cochereau’s monumental “Testament Musical”. These awe-inspiring improvisations on the St Matthew Gospel were his final musical creations, as he died the day after recording the last of these. In them he illustrated and commented on the preceding reading, something which should be the aim of the improvisation after the Gospel reading during the Mass. We decided to improvise an illustrative meditation for each of the church’s main feasts and seasons, as well as for a few particularly important readings. Our aim was to match the mood and character of the occasion, and to help in this we used a large number of Gregorian chants. This is a criminally over-looked resource in much English improvisation, containing a wealth of beauty and appropriate expression. All but five of these improvisations are based on chant, and a further three use other seasonal melody.

We also wanted to illustrate different styles and functions - some that would be useful for a Gospel fanfare, others for Communion, an Entrée for a major feast, a large-scale Sortie, and some that simply reflected on the season. Whether we have been successful must of course be judged by the individual listener, but we hope there are some ideas for those who have to improvise liturgically to try and make their offerings a more relevant and integral part of the service.

We chose the Blackburn organ for this project for its versatility, wealth of colour and power to overwhelm. These factors, combined with the sumptuous acoustic make it a most inspiring instrument on which to improvise, and we would like to thank Richard Tanner and Blackburn Cathedral for allowing us to record there. We would also like to express our gratitude to the Royal College of Organists for their assistance in the making of this recording.

The church’s year begins with Advent, and two sides are represented here - the powerful imploration for the coming of the Saviour, illustrated with a paraphrase on Veni Emmanuel, and the more meditative and penitential aspect with Creator alme siderum, or Creator of the stars of night, illustrated with decorative figures while the pedals give the melody at 4’ pitch. For Christmas, the famous melody Nöel nouvelet, which has been used by many composers is presented in a set of four variations in a neo-classical style. This melody is also associated with Easter, but is an old French Christmas carol.

Two gentle meditations follow - the Magi gathering in adoration around the crib for Epiphany, founded on O magi veniet, and Candlemas (The Presentation in the Temple), traditionally a Marian feast, is built around the sublime and much loved Ave maris stella.

For Lent, a free meditation on the Gospel reading relating Jesus’ temptation by the Devil in the wilderness. An almost line by line account is given, with the Devil being assigned the tutti reeds, and Christ the strings. The flutes at the end recall the angels. As Lent turns towards the Passion, a Bach-style decorated Chorale Prelude on Pange lingua sets a more solemn tone.

Palm Sunday and the Entry into Jerusalem is evoked with the relentless motor-rhythm tread of a march, ending triumphantly with Christ’s arrival in the city. Maundy Thursday and the washing of feet with its theme of God’s love is suggested with a meditation on Ubi caritas, a theme immortalised by Duruflé in his polyphonic setting. As the mood darkens, another austere chorale prelude presents the Passion Chorale from the end of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. This theme was that used by Cochereau (with an impromptu and secretly arranged brass group) in the very last of his St Matthew improvisations.

The most important feast of the year seemed to suggest a more extended improvisation. The great Easter Sequence Victimæ Paschali forms the basis of this fantasy, much inspired by the examples of Tournemire and Cochereau, and the musical language of Langlais. The tutti presents the full theme in solemn and mysterious exaltation, followed by a development and brief restatement. The mood slows to an adagio, which is blown away by a restatement of the theme on the plein-jeu, followed by a depiction of the resurrection on the tutti. These ideas are developed until at the climax the theme Lasst uns erfreuen - All creatures of our God and King seemed appropriate to bring triumph to the movement. The opening is then briefly recalled to bring a unifying close.

Ascension is the next feast and is illustrated here by a meditation upon Llanfair. Pentecost is represented with an illustration of the “wind of the Spirit”, building to a climatic sounding of Veni Creator Spiritus.

Trinity naturally suggested a trio, here on the theme Lux beatus Trinitas using a French Classical combination of stops. For Corpus Christi or Holy Cross, the other great Passiontide theme Vexilla Regis is decorated on the cornet.

For the joyful feast of All Saints, the hymn tune Mt Ephraim is given a French neo-classical treatment on the grand jeux, making much use of notes inégales. Its companion and emotionally opposite feast All Souls inspired a mediation on the strings and gentle foundations upon two themes from the Requiem mass – Requiem aeternam and In paradisum. The first is heard at the opening, while the second appears at the emotional climax of the movement after a luminous key change on all the strings.

The recording is brought to a close with the feast of Christ the King, and the Gregorian Te Deum Laudamus. This is presented first on the tutti, and then motivically developed over a driving pedal ostinato, leading to a recapitulation. The coda uses motives from the chant combined with decorative scales until a massive chord ends this fantasy and tour of the church’s year.

David Bednall
Wells 2004

Malcolm Archer

Malcolm Archer was appointed Organist and Director of Music at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2004, succeeding Mr John Scott. He previously held similar appointments at Wells Cathedral and Bristol Cathedral, and prior to that was Assistant Organist at Norwich Cathedral. He directs the world-famous choir at St. Paul’s in their busy schedule of services, concerts, recordings and tours.

He has an international reputation as a choir trainer, conductor, organ recitalist and composer, and his many recordings on Lammas and other labels have received critical acclaim. He is also frequently invited to direct choral courses and workshops in North America, and as a recitalist he has played in nine European countries, Canada and the USA, where he is represented by Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists. His organ recordings cover repertoire as diverse as J S Bach and Olivier Messiaen, alongside his own compositions.

Malcolm Archer is a prolific composer, with well over two hundred and fifty published works, and he receives frequent commissions from both sides of the Atlantic. Recent commissions have included works for the Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester, and a work for the 350th Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St. Paul’s.

Malcolm Archer studied at The Royal College of Music (where he was an RCO Scholar) and Jesus College Cambridge, where he was Organ Scholar. He studied the organ with Ralph Downes, Dame Gillian Weir and Nicolas Kynaston, and composition with Alan Ridout and Dr Herbert Sumsion.

David Bednall

David Bednall is a student of Dr. Naji Hakim and David Briggs, and is currently Acting Assistant Organist at Wells Cathedral.

He was born in 1979 and studied in Sherborne and then at The Queen’s College, Oxford where he was Organ Scholar. In 2000 the Chapel Choir toured Paris under his direction, singing at Notre Dame and other venues, and released a live concert CD.

In 2000 he was appointed Organ Scholar at Gloucester Cathedral under David Briggs and Ian Ball. While there he spent periods as Acting Director of Music and Acting Assistant Organist, was closely involved in the Three Choirs Festival, and was involved in two recordings – as Director on Lux Aeterna with the Cathedral Choir, and as Accompanist on the critically acclaimed Comfort and Joy with the Saint Cecilia Singers.

He was a prize-winner in Improvisation and Performance at the examination for Fellow of The Royal College of Organists in 2002, and has given recitals at L’Église de La Trinité, Paris, Westminster, Wells, Bristol, Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Truro, Blackburn, Coventry, Manchester and St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, as part of the Fringe Series. Additional engagements have included recitals at Westminster Abbey, St Mary’s, Redcliffe, Sherborne Abbey and performances of Vierne – Symphonies IV and V.

He has performed all the major works of Olivier Messiaen as part of the Liturgical Year, completing the cycle with Livre du Saint Sacrament. He has recently completed his debut solo CD for Lammas of Hakim, Messiaen and Vierne at Blackburn Cathedral, and a CD of liturgical improvisations with Malcolm Archer. He is Director of Cantilena choir, and is also in demand as an accompanist. In this capacity he has appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival accompanying Britten – Canticles II, III and IV, and has just made a CD of the songs of Michael Head with the tenor Richard Rowntree for Lammas. He is also increasingly interested in composition, having written a number of choral and organ works, and has just completed a commission for the Youth Choirs of Blackburn and Carlisle Cathedrals.

The Organ of Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Parish Church was built in 1826, and organs by Gray (1826 and 1831) and Cavaillé-Coll (1875) were placed on the west wall of the church. The building was re-consecrated as a Cathedral in 1926, when the Diocese of Blackburn was established, and ambitious plans to extend the building were drawn up. When the large transepts were completed in 1953, Henry Willis III was commissioned to move the organ to a bridge at the East end of the Nave. In 1964 the organ was taken down so that a temporary wall could be built, dividing the nave from the transepts to enable work to begin on restoring the nave, whilst the remainder of the cathedral could be used for worship. J.W. Walker and Sons removed the organ and lent the cathedral a four-rank, totally enclosed, extension organ, which served well for five years.

A scheme for a new instrument was drawn up by John Bertalot (the Cathedral Organist), in consultation with Francis Jackson and Bert Collop (managing director of Walker’s). William Thompson, a generous benefactor from Burnley who had already given large sums of money for the restoration of the Nave and the building of the Lantern Tower and Spire, was asked by John Bertalot to give £30,000 to pay for the new organ. On 20th March, 1968, an envelope arrived from him with a cheque for 30,000 guineas (£31, 500) made out to John Bertalot. The new organ was dedicated on 20th December 1969. It was voiced by Walter Goodey and Dennis Thurlow. John Hayward, the artist, consulted with Walker’s to produce the stunning highly coloured organ “cases”, including swell boxes which are in full view, and a doubly mitred Serpent, coloured green and gold.

The organ swiftly gained an enviable reputation for its vibrant tonal quality, most notably the fiery reed stops. However, from as early as 1983, serious problems became apparent, particularly in relation to the wind system and action. At the same time, the Lantern Tower also required major work, thus delaying work to the organ. In 1994, shortly after Gordon Stewart’s appointment as Director of Music, David Wood took over the care of the organ. Some short term problems were attended to and the console was modernised.

In October 2000 an appeal was launched to restore the organ. I was keen that all of the 1969 tonal features should be retained, but that the opportunity should be taken to provide various extra colours to enhance and better equip an instrument that is expected not only to accompany liturgy on a daily basis, but also to present the complete range of solo repertoire in a stylistic manner. For example, I felt that an Oboe on the Swell and a Fifteenth on the Great were essential additions. Also that a reed at 8’ pitch on the Positive and a Vox Humana would be useful and that the organ really needed additional 8’ foundation pitch, more gravitas on the Pedal and extra 16’ manual tone. In order to address these desired tonal additions and to bring the organ into proper working order, I devised a scheme to restore and enlarge the organ, in consultation with David Briggs, John Bertalot, Canon Andrew Hindley, Greg Morris and David Wood. The organ was restored and enlarged between July 2001 and June 2002, during which time a Rodgers digital instrument was used.

The entire instrument has been cleaned and overhauled. A Fifteenth on the Great and a Cliquot-style Cromorne on the Positive have been added. The new Solo department has been positioned above the Great, with new stops: Flûte Harmonique 8’, Viola 8’, Viola Céleste 8’, Flûte Octaviante 4’ and Voix Humaine. The old Swell Cromorne has been moved to the Solo, and renamed “Clarinette”; in its place on the Swell is a new Hautbois. Two new ranks of pipes have been made available on the Pedal: a 6 2/5 Grosse Tierce and 10 2/3 Grosse Quint. Two new digital ranks, by Walker Technical Company USA, have also been made available on the Pedal: 32’ Sub Principal and 16’ Flûte Ouverte. A wealth of octave and sub-octave couplers have been provided. A new 4 manual console has been built by Wood of Huddersfield, in the style of the original 3 manual console. A new Cymbelstern and star have been added and safety features for maintaining the instrument have been incorporated.

David Wood and his colleagues have developed the instrument with great skill; they have breathed new life into all the wonderful original colours which had been sounding tired for some years and have blended new ranks into the organ in such a sensitive way. The result is an incredibly versatile and reliable instrument with a tremendous range of dynamic and tonal colour, coupled with a sense of sheer power, but also great subtlety and tremendous beauty. There are few organs in the world that can demonstrate the entire solo repertoire with such a convincing sense of style. It is also a fantastic organ for the liturgy, capable of accompanying choir and congregation in a sensitive manner. The full range of the organ’s capabilities was shown off to great effect at the opening recital by David Briggs on 6th July 2002. This recording provides further evidence!

Richard Tanner
Blackburn, 2004

Recorded in Blackburn Cathedral on 2nd and 3rd August 2004 by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter

Produced by Richard Tanner
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews