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Richard Apperley discusses New Zealand organ repertoire


Richard Apperley discusses New Zealand organ repertoire

Commentary or analysis


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SOUNZ asks Richard several questions about New Zealand organ music Links to mentioned works, composers, scores & CDs are at the bottom of the page.

Richard writes:

My first encounter with New Zealand organ music came while I was studying with Douglas Mews at Victoria University. I was preparing for a tour to the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2002 with the choir of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, and was intrigued by the idea of performing music by our own composers while on tour. Douglas promptly pointed me in the direction of Douglas Lilburn’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, and over the coming months brought several pieces by his father (Douglas Mews snr) for me to learn, including a few pieces that he himself had not played. This whetted my appetite and prompted me to explore the collections at SOUNZ, the Alexander Turnbull Library and by contacting various organists and composers around the country asking for music they had come across. These searches quickly unearthed a huge amount of music - much of which I’m still working my way through!

Tell us about the experience of putting your volumes of New Zealand Organ music together? I had a huge amount of fun researching organ music for my two volumes of New Zealand organ music published by Fagus Music (UK). I spent many an hour at the Alexander Turnbull Library digging through boxes of music in the hope of discovering new works, and I came across many delights in the process. One of the most exciting discoveries during this time was the music of Maughan Barnett. Barnett was, among many things, Organist of Napier Cathedral, Organist and Choir Master of St John’s Presbyterian Church, Wellington and in 1908 became the first Wellington city organist. I discovered references to a number of his organ compositions but was only able to find fragments of two - a Fantasia on National Airs (written for the opening recitals of the Wellington Town Hall Organ in March 1906) and a nearly complete set of variations on the hymn tune Mendelssohn (sung to the words of Hark the Herald Angels Sing). The variations on Mendelssohn were missing only a few bars, and what did exist excited me hugely - the music was extremely well structured and was clearly inspired by the music of Léfebure-Wély, a 19th century French organist. Timothy Hurd QSM completed the missing music, and this is now published in the second volume of NZ organ works. I was also excited to come across works by some of our leading composers - David Farquhar, David Griffiths, David Hamilton and Vernon Griffiths to name but a few.

Reading through correspondence and diary entries from both composers and performers was hugely enlightening. Of particular interest to me was researching the background behind Douglas Lilburn’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor. This work was written as Lilburn’s entry for the Philip Neill Memorial Prize in 1944. The short-listed pieces were to be played at Christchurch Cathedral, but the organist gave up on the piece after a dozen or so bars claiming it to be unplayable. Despite this it was awarded first prize. The work lay forgotten until David Kinsella, an Australian Organist, rediscovered the work and gave its first public performance in Hamilton in 1988, and repeated it later in the year at a concert in the Wellington Town Hall. Lilburn was not happy with Kinsella’s performance - in a letter to Charles Sullivan in 1988 he commented “I was not happy about his view of the fugue as being a gigue, with bouncy phrasing - this was not what I had in mind, rather a serene flow.”

What are some of your stand out experiences in working with New Zealand composers and premiering new works? One of the highlights of my career was working with David Farquhar as I prepared to play his work From Heaven I Came - With Song and Dance (Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch) at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols held at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. We spent a few hours together choosing the registrations that best fitted his view of the work and discussing various musical aspects and the background to the work. This was a real privilege, and I am pleased that I still have all his registrations annotated for future performances - often these are markedly different to what I would have selected myself!

While researching music at SOUNZ in 2002/2003 I came to know Emma Carlé well, and she quickly became enthused about writing for the organ. This lead to, a collaborative composition for organ and Javanese gamelan written by both Emma Carlé and I Wayan Gde Yudane. This work was recorded by myself and Gamelan Padhang Moncar and has been released on CD. We also performed this work at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul in a concert entitled 'Mixtures - music for organ and other'. Another work that featured in this concert was Rumi by Jack Body. This was written specifically for this concert, and was written for organ, spoken words, chant, wine glasses and Iranian flute. The piece was largely improvisational in nature, and it was quite a privilege working with Jack exploring different colours and patterns for the work.

Dedica is a work I commissioned from Tecwyn Evans. I have always been intrigued by using the organ (possibly the least percussive instrument!) in a percussive manner - finding ways to create rhythmic drive and clarity on an instrument that doesn't do this easily. I knew Tecwyn's work Geräuschvoll well before commissioning this work, and having spoken with Tecwyn I realised that he pushes both the organ and organist to the absolute extreme, achieving sounds and textures that really shouldn't be possible! This work remains one of my favourite New Zealand organ works, despite being a marathon of a piece to prepare and perform.

Have you noticed any themes or stylistic commonalities across New Zealand works, and how does the New Zealand organ repertoire fit into the wider world of global organ music? It is difficult to point to any particular stylistic aspect that distinguishes New Zealand organ music from that of other countries, but there does seem to be a strong interest in New Zealand in using the organ in combination with other unusual instruments, or even using the organ itself in unusual ways. Over the past decade I have performed NZ organ works alongside a Gamelan ensemble, wine glasses, Iranian flute, soprano saxophone, drums and carillon bells. I’ve also played pieces that have required stops to be manipulated slowly to produced undulating effects, turning the organ motor off while playing and even playing the case of the instrument percussively! There doesn’t seem to be quite as much interest globally in exploring the diversity of the instrument as there is in New Zealand.

As in much NZ music written for other instruments, Maori melodies and native bird song occur frequently - for me most notably in Anthony Ritchie’s A Folk Lament and Tecwyn Evan’s Dedica.

The English influence of many of our foremost composers (Lilburn studying with Vaughan Williams, Farquhar studying at Guildhall, Vernon Griffiths at Cambridge etc) has had a huge influence on the style of writing in the early - mid 20th century. The influence of Vaughan Williams in particular on the Lilburn Prelude and Fugue in G minor is very clear and this distinctive voice has been passed on to composers later in the century. Only a few early 20th century composers found clear inspiration outside of the United Kingdom - Maughan Barnett is one clear exception having been influenced by Romantic French composers such as Léfebure-Wély. It has only been in the past few decades that our composers have branched out from the familiar style of writing to really explore our own national voice.

What New Zealand organ pieces are 'essential listening', and why?

Douglas Lilburn - Prelude and Fugue in G minor Quite possibly the most important organ work by a New Zealand composer, and one of the first NZ organ works I learned and fell in love with. It’s also the most recorded - each CD listed below presents a very different take on the work! On CD "John Wells: From the Land of the Long White Cloud" (Ribbonwood Recordings) On CD "Pink and White: New Zealand Organ Music" (Atoll) On CD "New Zealand Organ Music - Richard Apperley" (Organism)

Edwin Carr - Organ Sonata This unfortunately hasn’t been recorded yet (but this is something I hope to rectify over the coming years!). This is an extremely well crafted organ sonata, and really deserves to be better known than it is. It is a technically demanding work and shows clear influence of contemporary British composers.

Helen Caskie - Three Pleasant Pieces The title of these works do not give the music justice - these are gems of pieces that work well both in a liturgical setting but also as quiet pieces for a recital. They are full of unusual twists and maintain interest throughout. On CD "New Zealand Organ Music - Richard Apperley" (Organism)

Tecwyn Evans - Dedica One of the most challenging works in the NZ organ repertoire - both for organist and organ! This work explores what is possible on the instrument and pushes the player to the limit. It is a very sectional work, often with sudden contrasts, but flows as a cohesive whole. On CD "New Zealand Organ Music - Richard Apperley" (Organism)

David Farquhar - From Heaven I Come - With Song and Dance (Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch) This Christmas work has long been a favourite, and always draws positive comments from those listening. It is idiomatic of Farquhar’s writing, and his style translates extremely well to the organ. He is very specific about organ registrations, and obviously wrote with very clear colours in mind. On CD "Pink and White - New Zealand Organ Music" (Atoll)

Where to next? I am always on the lookout for new organ works to play, and am currently exploring the possibility of commissioning another large scale organ work to add to the repertoire. I am always excited when I am contacted by composers who would like to learn about the organ and write music for the instrument - if you are interested then please do get in contact with me!

Author note

Richard Apperley, May 2013