Dear John, I notice that most recitals seem to be organized chronologically from early music to most recent. When or how did this tradition start? Is it okay to order a recital a different way? Does Bach always have to be towards the beginning? Kindly, Program Perplexed
Dear Program Perplexed,
What an interesting question you have presented! Indeed a short review of historic organ recital programs indicates that a chronological order of compositions has not always been in vogue. It seems to have found increasing favor during the early 20th century, the era of increased fascination with historical musicology. Edwin H. Lemare (1865-1934), often regarded as the greatest living organist of his time, saw the organ as the perfect instrument to play the latest orchestral works. In addition to performing selected works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Widor and others, Lemare transcribed many orchestral and operatic works, familiar folk songs and other tunes for the organ. Being popular with the public, these pieces attracted audiences to attend more concerts, where their appreciation of music continued to grow.
Following Marcel Dupré’s memorized performance in 1920 of the complete organ works of Bach, and concurrent with the growing Neo-Baroque movement between the wars, the works of Bach and other historic composers became enshrined in the repertoire of organ recitals. Influenced by pedagogical standards, several generations of organ students have learned to present chronologically ordered recital programs to fulfill graduation requirements.
Although perfectly logical, chronological order is only one of many possible ways to develop a recital program. Another way might be to start with a spirited work, such as Bonnet’s Variations de Concert, as recently did our Dean, Daniel Aune, in a brilliant recital; or perhaps open with a quiet composition which grows steadily to the instrument’s full sonority, such as the Jongen Choral; or possibly begin with a composition based upon a readily recognizable melody, such as Guilmant’s March on a Theme of Handel; or maybe Lemare’s transcription of the Overture to Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger. Quite possibly, adventurous programming might help us to recapture some of Lemare’s legendary ability to tailor a performance to please the masses.