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Music at Services at the Cathedral of St.Machar for October 2020

Choral Music

We usually have a thriving choir, which includes Choral Scholars, singing at the Sunday morning Service, with an extensive repertoire, ranging from medieval plainchant to pieces which have been written in the twenty first century.

Alas, because of the restrictions of the Covid 19 pandemic, we are not permitted to have any singing in our Churches at the moment. The place where the Anthem usually comes in the Service, will be replaced by organ music, and the same will be the case after the Sermon. This music and the items before and after the Service will be linked a liturgical theme.  Until we are allowed some singers, I hope these choices of music be of help to contemplation of these two vital texts.

While we are not allowed to sing together during this extraordinary time, the choir meets weekly via Zoom, and if there are any potential new members, please don’t hesitate to contact the Music Director (rogerbevanwilliams@g.mail.com)

The Organ

The present organ is not the first one there has been in the Cathedral. Because of the lack of evidence, it is difficult to be certain what sort of instrument there might have been before the Reformation. But if St. Machar’s was as many other similar buildings, both in Scotland and elsewhere, there would have been an organ most probably of some considerable size, fixed to the building. According to the distinguished historian Leslie Macfarlane, we learn of two organ books in the Inventory of 1436 – which lends further credence to the presence of an organ in pre-Reformation times.  At the turn of the sixteenth century, during the time when William Elphinstone was Bishop, it seems likely that such an organ would have been a large instrument, sited possibly in the Choir or in one of the Transepts.  Given that Bishop Elphinstone had come to Aberdeen after living in both Paris and Louvain, it seems very probable that the instrument would have been as splendid as the Bishop’s enlarged foundation of Vicars Choral. This organ would most probably have been built on medieval Blockwerk principles, with loud and magnificent sounds, and would have been played on Sundays and major feast days.

The organ in use today is a splendid example of a romantic instrument built by ‘Father’ Willis.  It has three manuals and pedals and was originally built in 1891 with a third manual added in 1898. The organ was at first sited in front of the east window, but was moved to its present position in 1928, at which time some tonal additions were made. In 1973 there was a rebuild, with some further tonal modifications, carried out by the firm of Noel Mander of London.  The three ranks of Willis pipes that were at that time taken off and kept in storage, were brought back onto the Choir organ in July 2018, with assistance from the Bach Choir. This most recent work has restored some of the quieter sounds that the organ originally possessed.  The organ has a rich resonance and a variety of tonal sound that was characteristic of this most celebrated of Victorian organ builders.

In recent times, since the first Organist, Sydney Townsend, was appointed in 1891, there have been only nine Organists, including some very eminent figures. These include George C. Dawson (1893-1916), Arthur Pirie (1916-1920), Marshall Gilchrist (1920-1938), John B. Dalby (1938-54), David Murray (1954-81), and James Lobban (1981-2006), after which Mike Thomson held the post until 2016.

1. October 4th.

Music before the Service: Canzona: Whatever God ordains is best: S.Karg-Elert(1877-1933)

Music between the readings: From Heaven above, behold I come: S Karg-Elert

Music for Contemplation: Sarabande: O my soul, rejoice with gladness: S.Karg-Elert

Recessional: Marche triomphale: Now thank we all our God: S.Karg-Elert

This Sunday would usually be our Harvest Festival so the organ music reflects ideas of gifts and celebration. All the music today is by the German romantic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. Born in Oberndorf am Neckar, Sigfrid was the youngest of twelve children. The family moved to Leipzig in 1882 and it is there that the youngest child received his early music education at the Conservatoire. Encouraged by Edvard Grieg he wrote voluminously for the organ and harmonium – works that were by and large ignored in Germany until his success in England.  He is now one of the most included composers of organ recitalists. All the pieces to be heard today are based on German chorales with the Canzona developing the concept of antiphonal departments of the organ.  From Heaven above, starts very quietly but builds to a terrific climax. The Sarabande has more than a passing likeness to the opening movement of Greig’s Holberg Suite, while the final Marche Triomphale on Luther’s great hymn – Nun danket alle Gott - is justly one of the most celebrated pieces of this wonderfully niche composer.

2. Sunday Oct. 11th.

Music at beginning: Chorale Prelude: Erbarm’ dich. BWV 721: J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

Music between readings: Chorale Prelude: Liebster Jesu, BWV 731: J.S.Bach

Music for Contemplation: Chorale Prelude: Liebster Jesu, BWV 706: J.S.Bach

Music at end: Toccata (Plymouth Suite) P.Whitlock (1903-1946)

The music today reflects the sense of help in adversity with the opening Chorale Prelude and the pieces within the Service. ‘Erbarm dich’ is one of the most expressive pieces that even Bach wrote.  It comprises a uniform texture of a melody poised over the gently throbbing chords of deliciously piquant harmony. The two Chorale preludes to be heard in the Service, are both based on a hymn that we still sing today – to the words Look upon us, blessed Lord.

The Toccata by Whitlock is the final movement of his Plymouth Suite and is a splendidly virtuosic work, using the whole of the organ.

3. Sunday Oct.18th.

Music at beginnng: Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639: J.S.Bach

Music between the readings: Aria: Flor Peeters(1903-1986)

Music for Contemplation: Adagio (Jesu, dulcis memoria); Flor Peeters

Music at end: Es ist das Heil uns kommen Her, BWV 638: J.S.Bach

The music today reflects a sense of calling upon God to help – I cry to Thee, is the translation of the Introit with two very beautifully written Arias for the music in the Service. Chorale preludes on Ich ruf zu dir, and Es ist das Heil, are both taken from Bach’s collection of Chorale Preludes designed to cover the whole liturgical year- the little organ book, or Orgelbüchlein. This heartfelt cantilena is one of the few compositions which carries articulation marks by the composer. The two pieces by the Belgian organist who, years ago, visited this cathedral to give an organ recital, are both quiet pieces, showing how wonderfully expressive an organ can be.   

4. Sunday Oct.. 25th.

Music at beginning: Kyrie: Gott, Heiliger Geist, BWV 672: J.S.Bach;

Music between the readings: No.7 (Expressions): J.Langlais(1907-1992)

Music for Contemplation: No. 9 (Expressions): J.Langlais

Music at end: Kyrie, Gott, Heiliger Geist, BWV 671: J.S.Bach

The music at the beginning and end of the Service is based around the Kyrie – Lord have mercy upon us – by Bach – intended to remind us that in more normal times this last Sunday in the month would be a Communion Service.  The two pieces of music within the Service are both beautifully poised and heartfelt pieces from the French organ repertoire of the twentieth century. Two Bach pieces are taken from the third part of the Klavierübung and make quite different statements, the opening one as a quiet piece, and the end piece as a positive statement of faith. The two pieces by the French composer, are both taken from a book of occasional pieces composed by Langlais (who many years ago visited this cathedral) and his pupil Naji Hakim.  They are all short, character pieces of great atmosphere.


(RBW 28.9.2020)