Christopher Marks plays rarely heard and never-before-heard works by the French-inspired composer of 20th-century New York City, Seth Bingham. Marks plays the 4-manual Schoenstein organ of 110 ranks at First Plymouth Congregational Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, bringing to reality the symphonic style of these works.
Reviews Jonathan Dimmock in The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, April 2013:
"Seth Bingham has much to say, and Christopher Marks is just the person
to deliver that message to us. Marks has chosen the Lied Organ at First
Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska (Schoenstein, op.
126) to demonstrate an astounding ability to turn the organ into a
massive symphony orchestra. Throughout this disc of really interesting
and frequently quite difficult music, Marks changes tonal color with
panache and alacrity. His musicality seems to flow effortlessly. I was
very impressed with the musicianship displayed here and the caliber of
compositional craft. Highly recommended!"
Harmonies of Florence, Op. 27
Florentine Chimes • Primavera • Savonarola • Twilight at Fiesole • March of the Medici
Memories of France, Op. 16
Carillon de Chateau-Thierry • Pastorale • Mid-Lent in Paris
Sailing Over Jordan
At the Cradle of Jesus
Hymn Fantasy on “Riverton”
Ut Queant Laxis, Op. 61
Organ Music of Seth Bingham, Volume 2 “Memories of France”
by Christopher Marks
This second volume of recordings of Seth Bingham’s organ music presents a wider range of compositional style than did the first volume. The comparison of one of his early pieces recorded here, Memories of France, with one of his late works, Ut Queant Laxis, shows a fascinating evolution over his long career as a composer. His earlier style is orchestral and infused with impressionism, while his later style is more angular, dissonant, and reliant on the clarity of counterpoint.
Especially prolific as an American composer of organ music, Seth Bingham (1882-1972) studied organ and composition at Yale University and spent a year in Paris studying organ with the great Charles-Marie Widor. The French style heavily influenced Bingham’s earlier compositions, which often sound more French than American and frequently resemble music of French contemporaries such as Marcel Dupré and Louis Vierne. Bingham held teaching positions at Yale, Columbia University, and Union Theological Seminary. He held the position as music director at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City for nearly 40 years. He was also a frequent contributor to major organ journals such as The Diapason and The American Organist.
Bingham was an avid European traveler. His impressions of two of his favorite places are captured in two suites on this recording, Harmonies of Florence and Memories of France. An early visit to Florence, in 1926, elicited the following reaction, recorded in his unpublished memoir: “In a city where one cannot turn a corner without meeting some beautiful monument or building, we were on the go from dawn till dusk ‘doing’ Florence in a glow of excitement.” This visit was surely the inspiration for the colorful Harmonies of Florence, Op. 27 (1929). He believed this to be one of his strongest compositions and mentioned that it was popular among performers. The movements are strikingly colorful, varied, and descriptive, and were published with short “Program Notes” from the composer.
“Florentine Chimes” is a delightful carillon piece for organ (like his later and equally successful “Bells of Riverside”, recorded on Vol. 1 of this series). His note reads: “Cathedral bells, palace bells, church bells, cloister bells – all mingle in melodious clangor many times a day in Florence.” Bingham admirably captures the clangorous pealing of bells with rich harmonies and carillon-like motives.
“Primavera,” in Bingham’s words, is “[a]n attempt through music to capture something of the fleeting, rhythmic joy in Botticelli’s great painting.” There is no question of the fleeting, rhythmic joy of this piece, which was dedicated to his friend Louis Vierne. As a performer, though, I find it difficult to take inspiration from the Botticelli painting, which resides in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. The painting supposedly celebrates love and marriage, but the whimsy of Bingham’s musical setting seems at odds with the weight of the mythological figures and darker colors of Botticelli’s masterpiece. Nonetheless, the listener is encouraged to seek out an image of the painting while listening, to come closer to the experience Bingham was portraying.
“Savonarola” depicts Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the priest and leader of Florence who was famous for instigating the “bonfire of the vanities.” Savonarola collected items (especially artwork and books) that he deemed immoral and burned them. Florence eventually turned against him; he was excommunicated, branded a heretic, and sentenced to death. Bingham writes that this piece shows “the tragic conflict between frivolous Florence and the stern Dominican preacher-monk. A bronze tablet in the Place of the Signoria in Florence marks the spot where Savonarola was burned, on May 23, 1498.” Explicitly programmatic, the work’s opening theme appears to represent the “frivolous” Florentines, interrupted by a stern modal theme surely representing Savonarola. The two themes come in conflict and then a prayerful section (full of faux Renaissance counterpoint) ensues, depicting Savonarola in meditation before his execution. A rowdy march to the town square builds in intensity, until Savonarola’s theme is enveloped in musical “flames” for a burning climax.
“Twilight at Fiesole” captures the picturesque sunset view from the town on a hill overlooking Florence. Bingham’s note: “The changing light, reflected from the Apennine heights above the valley of the Arno, gradually melts into a luminous dusk; the quiet is broken by the sound of a convent bell.” This lyrical piece – reminiscent of Vierne’s “Clair de Lune” – offers an opportunity to exploit the expressive solo and accompanimental sounds of the organ and calls for use of the harp stop in the middle section. Bingham and his wife must have loved Fiesole – his memoir mentions a two-month stay in “this heavenly spot” in 1932.
The program note for “March of the Medici” is especially descriptive: “The Medici’s heralds, retainers and men-at-arms debouch on the Place of the Signoria; they are followed by an ever-increasing number of courtiers; Lorenzo the Magnificent swings by in gorgeous array, and the procession disappears out of the further corner of the square.” Lorenzo’s procession is marked by the imperious trumpet tune in the middle of the piece and the unexpectedly quiet ending faithfully depicts the gradual disappearance of the pompous company of courtiers.
Memories of France was a four-movement orchestral suite. Bingham arranged three of the movements for organ, two of which were published individually. The other, “Mid-Lent in Paris,” exists only in manuscript at a collection in the New York Public Library. (Evidence exists of an arrangement of the remaining movement, though it has not yet come to light.) These were all early pieces, likely written around 1921. “Carillon de Chateau-Thierry” is a memento of his visits to the town of Chateau-Thierry, where his brother-in-law lived and where he and his wife visited shortly after their marriage. (He dedicated the work to his in-laws.) In his memoir, he relates the following:
"In the steeple of St. Crepin Church was a peal of three bells (E, G, F-sharp) which the wind wafted toward me in ever-varying crescendos and diminuendos, sometimes reaching a climax of intensity. On this I wrote a 'Carillon de Chateau-Thierry' as a four-hand piano duet. It was later incorporated into an orchestral suite, Memories of France, and finally published as an organ solo. Curiously enough it eventually played a decisive part in my career."
The last sentence refers to a 1922 meeting with Daniel Gregory Mason, then head of the music department at Columbia. Bingham and his wife played the piano four-hands version of the "Carillon" for Mason, after which Mason hired Bingham to teach at Columbia, where he remained for three decades. This is not the only ostinato piece that Bingham wrote: a similar piece based on a four-note theme, “Rondo Ostinato” from the Baroques suite, is recorded on Vol. 1 of this series. His creativity in composing around a very simple three-note idea is most impressive, though the registration indications in his published organ arrangement are untypically prosaic. For this recording, I took more inspiration from the orchestration and the seemingly limitless capabilities of the Schoenstein organ at First-Plymouth.
“Pastorale” is an interestingly impressionistic piece with a somewhat ambiguous form. Two main themes are recontextualized in a variety of harmonies and textures. Opportunity for orchestral color and variety is abundant – not surprising for a piece that was originally for orchestra.
“Mid-Lent in Paris” does not depict the sobriety usually associated with the penitential season of Lent. If this music reflects his opinions, it seems Bingham felt the Parisians were quite decadent during Lent. One can hear the bustle of traffic (including car horns) in the streets. The middle section is a waltz (to be played “seductively”). At the end, the merry-making breaks off abruptly and is followed by what sounds like a distant chant tone coming from a church, almost an admonishment of the frolicking that had been going on. The short coda picks up the frivolity again, ignoring the brief call to Lenten worship.
The suite Pioneer America also began its existence as an orchestral suite. It draws on a variety of American tunes from all origins – Native American, Puritan, African-American, and even cowboy songs. Lamentably, most of the suite is rather unsuccessful. In a critical evaluation of Bingham’s organ music published in the February 1951 issue of The Diapason, Walter Blodgett justifiably calls this suite “too conscious an effort to be American” and “embarrassing to the king of instruments.” The “Indian” movement comes across to modern ears as a painful stereotype; the cowboy and Puritan arrangements are uninspired. Though my intention in this recorded series is to present complete sets, the completist listener will have to be satisfied with only one movement from Pioneer America. The lone gem in this collection is the simple and heartfelt setting of the spiritual “Sailing Over Jordan,” dedicated to the memory of Booker T. Washington. It is rare enough to find an organ setting of a spiritual that to find one so tasteful and affecting (especially in such rough surroundings) is noteworthy.
I have assembled the next three pieces into a suite of sorts, centered around the Nativity. Annunciation uses text from Luke as its inspiration. It was commissioned for performance by Mildred Andrews in 1957 at the International Congress of Organists in London but was not published until 1970. Here we have the first hint on this recording of Bingham’s later style. Though never atonal, there is much more chromaticism and a more mature development and combination of themes. The piece adequately captures the mystical nature of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, incorporating an old English tune, “The Salutation Carol,” inspired by the same text. Bingham might not approve of the inclusion of Nativity Song (1941) in this impromptu suite, since it was not, in fact, written for the Nativity of Christ, but in celebration of the birth of Bingham’s first grandchild. Still, it makes an appropriately meditative Nativity piece. The main theme of the piece is assembled from the initials of the parents of the new child. In a thematic move typical for Bingham, two themes are presented, each with its own section, then combined subtly for the final section. The lovely and simple At the Cradle of Jesus (1943) completes the set. This little-known piece would make a welcome addition to the Christmas Eve repertoire of many church organists.
Hymn Fantasy on “Riverton” (1957) appears to be based on one of Bingham’s own hymn tunes. The modal, chant-like tune, set to the text “Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness,” is printed at the top of the score but never stated clearly and completely in the organ setting. This hymn-fantasy is essentially a set of variations, with the melody being treated very freely throughout, often dissolved and fragmented in transitional sections. Though the tune won’t be familiar to the listener, it is fairly easy to latch onto. As is typical for Bingham, opportunities for colorful registration are numerous. Also typical is Bingham’s tendency to build towards an apotheosized presentation of the main theme, evident also in Annunciation and Ut Queant Laxis. The modal melodies, quartal harmonies, extended triadic harmonies, and increased use of dissonance are all part of Bingham’s later style.
Ut Queant Laxis (1962) is similar to “Riverton” in its treatment of the hymn on which it is based. Though it is a loose set of variations on the Latin hymn to St. John the Baptist, it incorporates other themes as well. The most notable motive is the six-note hexachord (C, D, E, F, G, and A) derived from the first notes of each phrase of the hymn tune. This tune is particularly famous for being the basis of the modern solfege system, originated by medieval theorist Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century. Contrapuntal techniques are an important focus of the piece: the hymn theme is presented in canon early on; later, there is a fugue derived from it; and the climax of the piece is an augmentation canon, with the hymn simultaneously in the soprano and in double-length notes in the pedal. Dedicated to Frederick Swann, this is the last substantial piece that Bingham wrote.