How to Interpret Registration Indications in the Works of Mendelssohn and Other German Romantic Organ Music?
Are you struggling with finding the best registration when playing German Romantic organ music, such as works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Reger, Liszt, Reubke, Rheinberger, and others? Read this article which will clarify some of the most common registration indications.
The following guidelines are taken from the Preface to the 6 Organ Sonatas, Op. 65 by Felix Mendelssohn which is written by the composer himself.
FF (Fortissimo) – Full Organ. With this indication you can use most of the stops on your instrument, including principals, flutes, and chorus reeds of various pitch levels. Add couplers if you want a bigger sound. However when in doubt, omit certain stops or couplers because there is the danger for the organ to sound too loud. In other words, listen how the instrument sounds in the room and make appropriate adjustments.
pp (Pianissimo) – Soft 8’ stop alone. Such register might be a soft sounding flute or a string stop. If you have many such stops available on your organ, try to find the one which has an original character.
F(Forte) – Great organ without some of the loudest stops. In this case you should probably omit the loudest reeds, such as Trumpets of 16’ and 8’ pitch level. A full principal chorus based on the 16’ (if available) with flutes of different pitch levels will do.
p (Piano) – Several soft 8’ stops combined. Two or more flutes and strings will usually sound nice. In some cases you can also use manual couplers.
Registration in the pedals. Use 16’ and 8’ stops together in the pedal, except where expressly stated otherwise. The composer specifically refers to the variation part of the 6th Organ Sonata, where you can find indication that a chorale tune (cantus firmus) “Vater unser im Himmelreich” should be played on the 8’ stop (perhaps the reed).
2 manuals – different tone color, without too great contrast. When registering pieces for two different keyboards, aim to use stops which are not too different in terms of volume level. Instead, choose the ones which produce a different sound character.
Suitable for other German Romantic music. It is interesting to note that Mendelssohn’s suggestions are valid not only for his music, but also for the works of other German Romantic Composers. This is based on the fact that the organs which were built at that time in the German lands share many similar concepts.
Follow these guidelines when registering organ music by German Romantic composers in general or pieces by Felix Mendelssohn in particular. As always, when adapting original registration indications to modern organs, have in mind the ideal sound that you want to produce and make necessary changes. If in doubt – choose the solution which is the simplest.
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The organ music of 19th century France and Germany forms a foundation of the entire Romantic organ repertoire. Every organist loves dramatic symphonic style of Franck, Widor, and Guilmant. Many are also fascinated by the chromatic expression of Reubke, Liszt, and Reger. The problem is that unless organists have very solid piano technique in addition to their organ training, the majority of the works are simply out of reach for them. So naturally many people wonder if there are some 19th century pieces which could be played easily, perhaps as a preparation for longer works. If you are wondering what music is appropriate for your level from the Romantic period, this article will show you 5 collections which you can choose to practice, play, perform, and enjoy.
1) 11 Chorale Preludes, Op 122 by Johannes Brahms. One of the most influential German late Romantic composers, J.Brahms did not write much for the organ. However, his Preludes and Fugues, and 11 Chorale Preludes on the most popular chorale tunes are included in the Romantic repertoire of every serious organist. These short chorale preludes are fairly easy to play and wonderful to listen to. Favorites among audiences of various generations, they can be successfully used in service playing and recitals alike.
2) Liturgical Organist, Op. 65 by Alexander Guilmant. The French composer A.Guilmant was largely responsible for making the organ widely known and popular among the general American audiences. This could be achieved because of his frequent concert tours across the Atlantic. Although his popular Organ Sonatas are much more advanced technically, this liturgical collection of short pieces might be used by the amateur organists. His musical style is conservatively Romantic, his forms are always clear, and his melodies are always vocal and beautiful.
3) Pieces in Different Styles by Alexander Guilmant. This collection, which consists of Books 1-6 of his "Pieces in Different Styles," contains 24 pieces, many for which Guilmant was well-known, written primarily for church services. This volume is copied directly from the 3rd Edition of 1892, and contains a wealth of historical information, making it an essential part of the organist's library. Includes pieces for meditative music, communion music, marches, scherzo etc. Perfect for any lover of Romantic organ music.
4) Pieces from the Organ School by Jacques Lemmens. The Belgian organist J.Lemmens is best remembered for having created the first modern and very influential method of legato organ playing. This book was highly regarded by all important French organ composers of the time, including Franck, Widor, Vierne, and many others. Besides numerous systematic exercises, in his method book Lemmens provides many wonderful short compositions that are highly practical for organists with modest technical abilities.
5) 30 Short Chorale Preludes, Op. 135a by Max Reger. The late German Romantic composer M.Reger, the creator of forbiddingly difficult organ music, could also take a different tack. His Thirty Little Chorale Preludes are intended for semi-professional organists always on the lookout for good organ chorales for use in Sunday church services. Reger selected the best-known tunes of his day from the Lutheran hymnal. Most of them are still in use today and form excellent additions to modern services.
Choose a few pieces from the above collections and start practicing them today. Do not forget to write in fingering and pedaling, take a slow tempo, work in fragments and correct your mistakes. After some time of such practice you will start to notice tremendous changes in your technique which will take your organ playing to the next level.
By the way, do you want to learn to play the King of Instruments - the pipe organ? If so, download my FREE video guide: "How to Master Any Organ Composition" in which I will show you my EXACT steps, techniques, and methods that I use to practice, learn and master any piece of organ music.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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