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Dupré: Symphonie Passion
Vierne: Organ Symphony No. 3
J. Thomas Mitts, Organist
Orgues Létourneau Op. 66, Augustana Lutheran Church, Washington, D. C. - [OAR-952]
$15.98

J. Thomas Mitts, head of the organ department at Shenandoah University Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Virginia, plays two great French Romantic works on the decidedly French style organ built at Augusta Lutheran Church, Washington, D. C., by Orgues Létourneau in 1999, employing electric stop and combination action and mechanical key action.
Marcel Dupré: Symphonie-Passion, Op. 23 (composed 1924)
Louis Vierne: Symphony No. 3, Op. 28, for organ (composed 1911)

CD cover: detail of painting Passion by Patti Borden

Notes on the Music

by J. Thomas Mitts

 

Dupré Symphonie-Passion

     At his first recital in America Marcel Dupré improvised a symphony in four movements, an event the New York press termed “a musical miracle.” The Symphonie-Passion was improvised two weeks later on December 8, 1921, at the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. In his memoirs the composer reflected on that occasion:

     “I will never forget that evening, when, having received themes for the improvisation, I found that several of them were plainsong melodies, Jesu Redemptor, Adeste fideles, Stabat mater, and Adoro te. In a flash I had the vision of a symphony in four movements:  the World Awaiting the Savior, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, all of which eventually became my Passion Symphony, which I commenced to compose on my return to France. When my plan was announced by Dr. Russell the whole audience stood up, and I played in a state of excitement that I have rarely known.”

     The World Awaiting the Savior begins solemnly in D Minor, depicting anxiety and restlessness through a series of dissonant chords in an irregular time structure that proceeds relentlessly – and is silenced abruptly. In the ensuing calm the first plainsong melody, Jesu Redemptor omnium (“Jesus, Redeemer of the World”), is announced and then developed in canon. The uneasiness of the opening section returns, evermore distraught, until overwhelmed by the triumphant restatement of the plainsong, again in canon, this time presented in the major mode accompanied by brilliant chords. After three startling outbursts of increasing dissonance, the final D Major chord resounds with crystalline clarity.

     The Nativity, which presents a striking contrast to the opening movement, is a triptyque that follows the biblical narrative: the first section evokes a pastoral setting with a haunting oboe solo in an Eastern mode; the second section suggests the procession of the shepherds and the magi with a “walking” bass; and the third section depicts the manger scene with Adeste fideles (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”) first combined with motifs from the preceding sections and then restated in F-sharp Major, a key often used to depict sublime moments and supernatural events. The movement ends as the faint “Hallelujahs!” of the angels echo in the still and peaceful night.

     The Crucifixion is also in three parts: the march to Calvary, the crucifixion, and the vigil at the foot of the cross. The procession begins with a jagged ostinato (repeated) bass, over which a stark, slow-moving theme unfolds. With each repetition of the theme the music becomes louder and more dissonant, the agony more excruciating, until the theme thunders out in a canon at the fifth, at one beat’s distance, between the upper voices and the bass. At that point the central part of the drama occurs: the Crucifixion, climaxing in three loud cries and seven cluster-chords. In the final section the plainsong Stabat mater dolorosa (“At the Cross Her Station Keeping”) is used to portray the long agony of Jesus’s death in the presence of his mother. All motion ceases except for the repetitions of a falling second, a time-honored gesture used to depict grief and weeping. The chant is presented alternately in choked phrases in the treble voice and single-note gasps in the lowest bass notes. The movement ends in abject silence.

     The opening section of the Resurrection portrays events preceding the dawn of that first Easter. The plainsong melody Adoro te devote (“Humbly We Adore Thee”) is presented very softly in long notes in the bass, accompanied by sinuous melodies developed contrapuntally and restated several times in higher registers. Short fragments of the plainsong are then emitted in more urgent rhythms in a tense and dissonant development, acknowledging that fact that before Christ rose from the dead he first descended into hell. But this is transcended by a recapitulation in toccata style in which Adoro te appears again in long notes on the pedal reeds (trombones and trumpets) supporting a series of canons increasing in complexity and tension, finally exploding into a cascade of exuberant, exultant chords.

Symphonie-Passion is one of Dupré’s great achievements, and one of the first great works of ecclesiastical, symphonic program music for the organ. In his discussion of the Passion Symphony Abbé Belestre asserted, “During the centuries, the organ has shared the exultation of peoples’ spirits. It prays, weeps or exults with them. Since Dupré, it speaks, and with what dramatic eloquence, of the crucified Jesus.” Georges Humbrecht, the maître-de-chapelle of St. Sulpice, Dupré’s church, said quite simply that during Mass “When Dupré improvised he prayed.” As for any other organist, “He improvises, but he does not pray.”

 

Vierne: Troisème Symphonie, Op. 28

     Louis Vierne composed his Third Symphony in 1911 after a period filled with personal loss and anguish: he was passed over for the position of Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory by Eugène Gigout; he and his wife of ten years, Arlette Tasklin, were divorced; his mother died on March 25, 1911; and his dear friend and mentor, Alexander Guilmant, died only four days later.

In all this he relied closely on the support of his former student, Marcel Dupré, at whose summer home Vierne completed work on his 3ème Symphonie. While the work is the most compact of his six symphonies, Vierne pours into it his torment and remorse, and it becomes, by many peoples’ account, his most successful symphony. It is dedicated to Dupré, who premiered it during a recital tour of England.

     The first movement, Allegro maestoso, is in sonata form and begins boldly with an elegiac theme in octaves, marked by sporadic rhythms and punctuated by diminished-seventh chords. A calmer and more lyrical theme follows, supported by chromatic harmonies swirling in serpentine lines. A brief but impassioned development ensues, and a surging crescendo leads to the culmination of the movement: a repeat of the expository material and a coda concluding the movement with the same fervor as it began.

     The Cantilène is in ternary (ABA) form, one frequently used in the second movement of a sonata, and features a lyrical melody in the Locrian mode (distinguished by the tri-tone). After a more chromatic middle section the Locrian melody returns, this time accompanied by roulades on the harmonic flute. The Coda recalls the middle section and concludes the movement with a quiet variation of the first theme.

     The Intermezzo in D Major is a scherzo in the spirit of Berlioz. The impish, almost sinister staccato chords are based primarily on the whole-tone scale and give way to a more lyrical theme set over a dancing bass.

     The Adagio in B Minor, a Song without Words, is inspired by the long winding melodies of Wagner and Franck. The piece is based completely on material heard in the first few measures. The melodies are melancholic and full of desire for resolution, which is exquisitely realized when they serenely reappear in the major mode in the Coda.

     The Final in F-sharp Minor is a French Toccata in sonata form, based on a melody that recalls the opening theme of the first movement. The second, more lyrical theme of this exposition is in the chromatic-mediant key of B-flat Major. After a sometimes tempestuous development section the opening theme returns in bold augmentation in the pedal, the contrasting lyrical theme is then pitted against the more agitated figuration of the Toccata, and in a grand peroration the symphony ends triumphantly in F-sharp Major.

 

J. Thomas Mitts

     Enthusiastic reviews applaud the “virtuoso performance by organist J. Thomas Mitts” – a “sensitive soloist who precisely spelled out the virtuoso passages” in his appearances as recitalist, soloist and accompanist with orchestras and choruses. He has performed on numerous concert series and for chapters of the American Guild of Organists and The Organ Historical Society, and has been a featured artist in organ festivals in France, Belgium, and Russia.

     Dr. Mitts is Associate Professor of Organ and Director of Church Music Studies at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He also serves as Organist and Choirmaster at Augustana Lutheran Church in Washington, D. C.

     Additionally, he is active as an accompanist, arranger, and conductor, and for several years was associated with the Adas Israel Congregation and The Master Chorale of Washington.

     Dr. Mitts' educational background includes the Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Louisiana State University and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Iowa. While in college he won numerous awards, including finalist or winner in several organ playing competitions. Dr. Mitts has held academic appointments at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, the University of New Orleans, and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

 

The Organ

     The organ was built by Orgues Létourneau, Ltée., as the firm’s 66th opus and was installed in the church in 1999. The key action is mechanical (direct linkage from the key to the valves which open to admit wind to the pipes). The stop action is electric, thus permitting a comprehensive combination action to control the stops. The manuals may be coupled either electrically or mechanically. The Octaves graves in the Récit “couples through” to the Grand Orgue when the manuals are coupled, but does not couple through to the Pedal, nor does it affect the stops of the Grand Orgue.

Orgues Létourneau Ltée, Op. 66, 1999

Augustana Lutheran Church, Washington, D. C.

 

Grand-Orgue

16 Bourdon

8 Montre

8 Salicional

8 Flûte harmonique

8 Flûte à cheminée

8 Flûtes célestes II

4 Prestant

4 Flûte à fuseau

2 Doublette

2-2/3 Cornet III

1-1/3 Fourniture IV-VI

8 Trompette

Tremblant

Réc. au G-O

 

Récit (expressive)

8 Montre

8 Cor de nuit

8 Viole de gambe

8 Voix céleste

4 Prestant

4 Flûte octaviante

2 Octavin

1-1/3 Larigot

2 Plein Jeu V

16 Basson

8 Trompette harmonique

8 Hautbois

4 Clairon Harmonique

Tremblant

Octaves graves

 

Pédale

32 Soubasse (digital)

16 Contrebasse

16 Soubasse

8 Octavebasse

8 Bourdon

4 Basse de choral

32 Contrebombarde (digital)

16 Bombarde

16 Basson (Réc)

8 Trompette

Tirasse Grand-Orgue

Tirasse Récit

<B>Dupré:</b> Symphonie Passion<BR><B>Vierne:</b> Organ Symphony No. 3<BR><B>J. Thomas Mitts</b>, Organist<BR>Orgues Létourneau Op. 66, Augustana Lutheran Church, Washington, D. C.
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