Twentieth-Century Organ Music

Article excerpt

TWENTIETH-CENTURY ORGAN MUSIC TWENTIETH-CENTURY ORGAN MUSIC, ed. Christopher S. Anderson. New York and London: Routledge, 2012. xvi, 349 pp., ill. ISBN 9780415875653.

Review Feature by Lawrence Archbold

Organists do not lack for books that survey their repertoire. From exhaustively detailed lists of publications and manuscripts from around the Western world (such as Klaus Beckmann's Repertorium Orgelmusik: 1150-2000) to equally wide-ranging prose accounts of the history of organ music (Organ Literature: A Comprehensive Survey by Corliss Arnold is but one of several in a variety of languages), such projects invite players to learn about composers of organ music and their compositions. Especially in the case of student organists, readers may thereby come to appreciate the value of a reliable works list and discover the resources with which program notes might be written.

Twentieth-Century Organ Music, edited by Christopher S. Anderson for the "Routledge Studies in Musical Genres" series, presents twelve essays by as many authors, noting that, despite previous surveys, the organ repertoire of the 20th century has never before been the sole topic of an entire volume. Moreover, the editor proposes to understand the repertoire survey as encompassing an exceptionally wide range of topics. Indeed, Anderson sets forth ambitious, even daring, aims for this book: "to situate the music in a multidimensional context" certain that "the organ's music has had as much to say about the values of its culture as has the music of any other 20th-century repertoire." Abandoning the threadbare binary oppositions of "'sacred' versus 'secular'" and "'academic' versus 'practical,'" the book seeks "critical, original contributions to a history of 20th-century music generally" (p. xv). Of course, not all twelve of the essays in the volume achieve this goal; bringing the study of organ music into the world of contemporary musicology is a bigger agenda than one book can accomplish. To try to do so, however, is a noble quest. What makes this book important is that it does in fact try and sometimes even succeeds.

The first chapter in the volume looks to the instrument itself as a place to begin. "The Organ in the Twentieth Century" by James L. Wallmann provides an account of the multitudinous styles of 20th-century organbuilding more generous than might be expected from a repertoire survey. Categories are abundant and useful: the author teases apart organ types such as Romantic, symphonic, and orchestral, demonstrates the wide variety found in Orgelbewegung instruments, contrasts eclectic ideals with those that are "historically informed," and concludes with the "neo-symphonic" organ as a late-century specialized style. Such emphasis on the special qualities of these many instrument types invites investigation of the idiomatic qualities (or lack thereof) of corresponding repertoire. The essay edges closer to the social and cultural explanations sought by the editor in its concluding "Internationalism and Regional Developments" section, where we learn that "Economic conditions, war, and national pride prevented the development of any international styles in the first half of the 20th century" (p. 29).

The reader must, however, turn to another essay, that by Peter Williams, to understand more about the interplay of the organ and its cultural context. Peter Williams's "The Idea of Bewegung in the German Organ Reform Movement of the 1920s" (the only item in the volume that has previously appeared in print) demonstrates how the nexus of ideas and opinions that characterize this movement embodies both a "national movement" and "cultural centrism" (p. 116). Williams casts a critical eye over the leaders of this trend in organ-building and calls into question their attitudes toward Bach, historical performance practice, editions, scholars outside Germany, and many other matters. With such a multifaceted look at a relatively narrow topic (in comparison, say, to that addressed by Wallmann), he is able to make sense of claims such as those made by J. …