Reviews Charles Huddleston Heaton in The Diapason, July 2009:
Christopher Marks, assistant porfessor of organ at the University of Nebraska, has done us all a service by reviving the consistently attractive and imaginative organ music of Seth Bingham (1882-1972). It is, as Dr. Marks accurately observes, an amalgam of the French and American symphonic styles (Prof. Bingham's wife was French, and he studied with Widor, Guilmant, and d'Indy), and to judge by the splendid playing, Marks is an ideal interpreter for the music.
I will confess to a favorable prejudice for this splendid music; during the 1950s I was privileged to know the courtly Prof. Bingham and to have him as a teacher in a composition class at Union Theological Seminary. One summer I was substituting at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church some months after Bingham had ended his 38-year tenure there. A venerable custodian asked if I had known him. When I answered in the affirmative, the custodian said, 'Everything he played was a splendid gem.' To me that was the highest possible praise.
In these four collections are twenty-eight pieces, a few being less than a minute in length. Some, such as the 'Rhythmic Trumpet,' probably are still familiar to many, but all deserve repeated hearing. Let us hope that Dr. Marks's musical playing and understanding will bring renewed interest in these significant compositions."
Reviews James Hildreth in The American Organist, February 2010:
On a par with the likes of Sowerby, the organ music of Seth Bingham (1882-1972) has been sadly and unjustly overlooked in the present time. A distinct, colorful blend of French and American characteristics, it is sophisticated, substantial, innovative, pithy, powerful, and beautiful. This disc is a most welcome presentation of four of Bingham's works. Pastoral Psalms, Op. 30, in five movements, is the most evocative, with intriguing titles such as "Forgotten Graves," "Black Cherries," and "Voice of the Tempest." Five Pieces, Op. 36, consists of a Prelude and Fughetta, Agnus Dei, Introduction and Toccata on "Leoni," "Night Sorrow" (an orchestral transcription), and "Bells of Riverside." The most familiar work is the five-movement Baroques Suite, Op. 41. Perhaps the finest discovery here is the eleven movement Variation Studies, Op. 54, a masterful compendium of compositional techniques and creative registrations. The landmark Schoenstein, with its rich palette of gorgeous sounds, is the perfect instrument for this music. Christopher Marks is an ideal interpreter. His consummate musicianship and faultless technical acumen yield compelling, brilliant performances. This is exciting music and playing; it deserves to be heard far and wide, and will surely win many friends for the organ. Volume 2 is eagerly anticipated.
Pastoral Psalms, Op. 30
Unto the Hills
Voice of the Tempest
Beside Still Waters
Five Pieces, Op. 36
Prelude and Fughetta in F
The God of Abraham Praise (Introduction to Toccata on Leoni)
Toccata on Leoni
Bells of Riverside
Baroques, Op. 41
Variation Studies, Op. 54
This CD is the first volume in an integral series of the organ works composed by New Yorker Seth Bingham (1882-1972), organist at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church for 38 years and professor of composition at Columbia University. In his second CD on the Raven label, Christopher Marks plays the 1997 Schoenstein organ, op. 126, of 144 stops on four manuals at First Plymouth Congregational Church, Lincoln, Nebraska.
This series of recordings has been made possible by the DCAGO Foundation, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln where Christopher Marks teaches, and Patricia Bingham Dale, the granddaughter of Seth Bingham. Two other granddaughters, Diana Bingham Earley and Rosalind Bingham Smith, and a great-grandson, Noah Albrecht, have aided with research and publicity.
Program Notes by Christopher Marks
The organ music of Seth Bingham (1882– 1972) represents a unique intersection between the French symphonic style and an American outlook and sensibility. His lifelong love of all things French (not least his wife, whom he met in France) and his formative studies with Widor, Guilmant, and d’Indy infused much of his music with the harmonies, textures, forms, and registration choices that were typical of French composers like Vierne, Dupré, and Langlais. Yet there is an unmistakably American quality to much of his music as well— the occasional folk-like theme, jazz-influenced harmonies, and in his later music, a certain angularity and dissonance that was part of the mid-century American sound. The music chosen for this recording, generally, shows more of the French influence, but also incorporates styles from other countries and other times, resulting in a sound that is unique and charming.
In the July 1965 issue of The American Organist, a review of an all-Bingham concert at St. Paul’s Chapel of Columbia University contained the following prophetic statement:
“It is assumed that Dr. Bingham’s music is well known to readers of TAO and does not require elaborate comment. But in the same way that even moderately enlightened musicians tend to look down upon 19th-century religious music of the Dubois and Guilmant variety, it is a safe bet that future generations of even moderately enlightened individuals will regard Dr. Bingham’s, and most other contemporary church music, in the same light.”
Perhaps readers from 40 years ago would indeed have known Bingham’s music well, but while today’s readers—the “future generations” predicted in the review—may not exactly “look down upon” Bingham’s music, most would not likely be able to name more than one or two of Bingham’s pieces, a fraction of his total output. Bingham published no fewer than 25 organ works, many of which contain multiple movements or separate pieces, and achieved a surprising consistency in quality. Yet, from a current perspective, his music seems to be less often used as concert or liturgical repertoire than that of his similarly prolific contemporaries, such as Dupré or Sowerby.
The Pastoral Psalms were published in 1938, fairly early compared with much of his other published music but late enough that his compositional skills were already well honed. Bingham provided his own program notes in the music, quoted here:
1. Unto the Hills
“Who shall ascend into thy holy hill? – Rise up, my beloved, my fair one – I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills – The strength of the hills is His also – The hills are girded with joy.” (The Scriptures)
(The first theme is based on a vigorous recurring dotted rhythm; the second is a legato phrase with imitations. The two themes combine near the end.)
2. Forgotten Graves
Along the uplands of the back country, the winding road leads you to the abandoned farm, to the little country graveyard overgrown with myrtle. You loiter among the headstones worn by time and weather, peering at the half-obliterated epitaphs. Snatches of old and well-loved hymns are there: “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”; “Rock of Ages”; “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” Some dim elegiac tune haunts the memory. Here once was pulsing life, young and ardent. Now, only the hushed twitter of the birds and a melancholy stillness.
3. Black Cherries (Allegretto Amabile)
Over against the deserted farm-house stands the gnarled and long-neglected cherry-tree, visited only by the robins or the rare passerby. Do you remember climbing among its leafy branches, tasting the delicious fruit and tossing the dark clusters to eager waiting hands beneath?
(A lilting reed-melody interrupted by a capricious staccato section.)
4. Voice of the Tempest
From a high hill we watch the storm break over the distant town and roll sonorously up across the valley toward us. We seek shelter from the blinding flashes and the savage, lashing rain. With exultant fury the tempest roars out its song – then passes on with low receding thunder.
(The principal motive is heard in swiftly rushing scale-passages becoming rather chromatic at times.)
5. Beside Still Waters
“He leadeth me beside the still waters – Many waters cannot quench love – Thou art a fountain, a well of living waters.” (The Scriptures)
“This music crept by me upon the waters – This mossy bank they pressed; that aged oak did canopy the happy pair.” (Shakespeare)
(The eighth psalm-tune is used in canonic imitation against the smoothly-flowing first theme of alternating flutes and strings.)
The influence of the French style abounds in Pastoral Psalms. The opening of “Unto the Hills” bears a striking resemblance to Vierne’s “Hymne au soleil” from the second book of Pièces de Fantaisie, but this is far more of an homage than blatant imitation. Further similarity to Vierne’s style can easily be heard in “Black Cherries.” “Forgotten Graves” relies more on the quiet accompanimental and coloristic solo stops of the American orchestral organ—the kind of stops found in the organ that Bingham designed for his church, Madison Avenue Presbyterian in New York. This organ was built in 1923 by Casavant as op. 1000, reusing some of the large Hook & Hastings organ which had been built in 1900 for the congregation’s new edifice. The intersection of the French symphonic style with the orchestral transcription style is typical of Bingham’s works, and is evident in the Casavant he designed. “Voice of the Tempest” is a very effective storm piece, and “Beside Still Waters” is the placid and straightforward calm after the storm.
French style also marks the Five Pieces. The Prelude and Fughetta in F is dedicated to French organist André Marchal. Its easily flowing lines and lyricism mask a deceivingly complex phrase structure, which is often the case in Bingham’s music. This gracefulness and the modal sound of the fugue subject are also reminiscent of French music. The “Agnus Dei” is a communion piece, more chant-like than most of his other music. The lush chords on the strings adopt an orchestral texture that shows up even further in “Night Sorrow.” Another interesting aspect to Bingham’s writing is that some pieces originally composed for organ come off at times as transcriptions. “The God of Abraham Praise” is a simple but elegant reharmonization of the hymn tune Leoni. Bingham wrote and published it after the Five Pieces were originally released, and it was included in some later reprints of the sheet music for the Toccata on Leoni. It is indicated “to be played as an introduction to Toccata on Leoni,” and so it appears here on this recording. It is a lovely reharmonization on its own, and the toccata works perfectly well without it, but they do indeed make a nice pair. “Night Sorrow” was originally an orchestra piece, later arranged for organ. Searle Wright wrote, “with the possible exception of ‘Night Sorrow,’ Bingham has published nothing for organ which is not thoroughly suited to the medium, which is not truly idiomatic—truly organistic.” “Night Sorrow” certainly will not succeed on many instruments, but on an orchestrally conceived instrument like the one on this recording, it shines and is perfectly idiomatic. “Bells of Riverside” is based on the carillon tune used to mark the hours at Riverside Church in New York City. Walter Blodgett said about the piece, “[t]here is no very good reason for playing it,” to which one can counter that there is no very good reason not to play it. An exciting piece, it develops an interesting variety of musical events from a simple carillon motive and deserves more recognition as part of the large repertory of organ “carillon” pieces.
Baroques is quite unlike anything else Bingham wrote in its single-minded use of the baroque style as a source of inspiration. The fact that he dedicated this suite to E. Power Biggs, a staunch champion of baroque music, is clearly consistent with this outlook. Blodgett wrote, “While this suite may be imitative, it is far from slavish, or sterile. Indeed, it is new wine of a good year in a strong old bottle.” It is fascinating to hear the baroque sarabande recast in Bingham’s harmonic language and with his sense of lyrical melody, or the idea of the French classic basse et dessus de trompette turned into the “Rhythmic Trumpet.” The Overture evokes, of course, Bach and in particular, the dramatic unpredictability of pieces like the G Minor Fantasia. The Rondo Ostinato is an oddity that bears no superficial relationship to baroque form or style except in its compositional focus on the possibilities inherent in the four-note ostinato (in a similar vein to the passacaglia) and its strict use of canon in the second half of the piece. Too often, pieces with such high-minded compositional intent fall flat, but here is an exception. The Voluntary hearkens back to the English voluntary of composers like John Stanley, with its processional outer sections and fugal middle. Its pomp and majesty are appropriately “English,” though the harmonies and counterpoint seem more Mendelssohnian than baroque.
It is hard to imagine why the Variation Studies have largely escaped notice. This well-crafted set of variations on an original theme explores a staggering variety of styles, registrations, and textures. The piece was dedicated to Harold Gleason and “edited and fingered” by Catharine Crozier. Bingham’s trademark use of imitation and homage is abundantly evident: the “Embellishment” variation is clearly a chorale prelude in the vein of Bach’s Nun komm der Heiden Heiland; “Dialogue (Rests)” suggests Langlais, with whom Bingham was good friends; “Dissonance” is Bingham’s nod to Messiaen; and, finally, there is very nearly a direct quote from the Franck A Minor Choral at the end of the “Arpeggio“ variation. Yet, as with Baroques and others, there is no question of slavish imitation, but a clever incorporation of style and texture into an undeniably Bingham style that merges elements from various countries, composers, and eras.
Christopher Marks is assistant professor of organ at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From 1999 to 2006, he taught organ and served as University Organist at Syracuse University. An active proponent of new music, Marks has premiered a number of commissioned organ works. His diverse stylistic interests also steer him toward a variety of other repertoire, especially that of the German Baroque. Equally comfortable with solo and collaborative playing, he performs frequently with ensembles such as the Boston Brass. He holds degrees from University of Richmond (B.M., piano), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (M.M., piano and M.M., organ), and the Eastman School of Music (D.M.A., organ), where he studied with Michael Farris. His performances have garnered top prizes in competitions, including the Arthur Poister Competition, the San Marino Competition, the Fort Wayne Competition, and the Mader Competition. His recent recording on the historic Walter Holtkamp organ at Syracuse University represents his varied interests, featuring music spanning four centuries that is rarely performed and recorded. The disc is entitled Discoveries (Raven OAR-790).
Seth Bingham (b. Bloomfield, NJ, April 16, 1882; d. New York, NY, June 21, 1972) prolifically composed orchestral, choral, chamber music, organ works, and songs throughout a distinguished career in and near New York City as professor of music at Columbia University 1920-54 and lecturer at the School of Sacred Music of Union Theological Seminary 1953-1965.
A student of Horatio Parker (composition) and Harry Benjamin Jepson (organ) at Yale University (B.A., 1904, B. Mus., 1908), he taught theory and composition there 1908-1919 and received the Heald Prize with poet Brian Hooker in 1907 for creating the Yale song, “Mother of Men.” The New York Times reported on December 13, 1907, that the Heald prize had been awarded after anonymous donors had increased to $300 the prize of $50 offered eight years earlier by Yale alumnus John O. Heald “for a song which would match either ‘Old Nassau’ of Princeton or ‘Fair Harvard’” in university spirit. Today, “Mother of Men” remains well beloved among those associated with Yale. Bingham had been home-taught and largely self-taught prior to his matriculation at Yale.
In Paris and Berlin 1906-07, Bingham studied with Vincent d’Indy, Alexandre Guilmant, and Charles-Marie Widor. While in Paris, he met Blanche Guy, a musician and singer who lived with her family in a wealthy suburb of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine. They married in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 3, 1907. The Binghams had two children, Alfred and Frances, and three grandchildren: Rosalind Bingham Smith, Diana Bingham Albrecht, and Patricia Bingham Dale. Bingham returned to France frequently and maintained an active acquaintance with French composers of the time, including Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé, Langlais, etc. In 1945-46, he served on the faculty of the United States Army's American University in Biarritz where he taught theory and composition.
Bingham was organist at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church 1913-1951, and had been organist and choirmaster at the Rye Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York, 1909-1910, and Temple Beth Israel in New York City, 1910-1913. His sacred choral works are well known and orchestral works and secular choral works were performed in his lifetime in New York and elsewhere. He received an honorary doctorate from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1952.
Much of Seth Bingham's music (published and in manuscript) and his memoir are collected at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts of Lincoln Center, New York.