Concertante: A Divine Madness

For Organ and Orchestra

The first page of the full score

There are many instruments that have a vast repertoire of well known (and well loved) concertos and concertante pieces, written by leading composers of the day, pitting them against the might of the symphony orchestra, normally with spectacular results. However, the organ and orchestra seems to be a combination that has not captured the imagination of the ‘major composers’ in the same way over the years. Take away the concertos of Handel and Poulenc, and I would conjecture that most concert-going public would struggle to name any examples at all. I find this surprising, to say the least. On the face of it, who would not want to delight in the amazingly varied sound pallets offered by the combination? So when I was offered the opportunity to write for the combination, I jumped at the chance.

My research told me that there are actually a good number of (undeservedly) lesser known examples of the genre written over the last seventy years, and I immediately sought these out to see how their composers had approached the task. It seemed to me that many pay homage to the Poulenc concerto, either in their harmonic language or the forces used. In a bid to avoid falling into this trap, I listened to the Poulenc concerto once before I started, and then hid the CD. Instead, I looked to the music of seventeenth century South American composer Juan de Araujo and much more recent composers Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti and my old composition tutor Simon Holt (to whom the piece is dedicated) for inspiration. I also took into account the other pieces in this half of the concert. I felt that something energetic from the outset was needed, and gradually the music took shape. 

The final page of the full score

The energy of the first section rarely dissipates, with driving rhythms and an incessant throbbing accompaniment embellished by fanfares and flourishes. A slower, quieter and much more measured section follows, exploring some of the varied tonal colours of both organ and orchestra. However, this cannot last, and the energy is once again ramped up as the organ and orchestra resume their battle for supremacy – as I wrote, it certainly felt that the two forces try to inhabit the same space in a way the other combinations (for example piano and orchestra) do not. I did wonder if this was one of the reasons for the dearth of well known organ concerti. A few short brass fanfares lead to an extended section for organ solo, where the player has the opportunity to show off both their dexterity around the different keyboards and also their pedal technique. Eventually the orchestra rejoin proceedings with a restatement of the opening. This actually heralds the beginning of the end, with grotesque fanfares on the organ and a headlong dash for the finish line which gets as close to chaos as is possible while still ensuring players (or conductor for that matter) are not lost along the way.

The title comes from a quote Richard Lea, the soloist for the premiere, gave about the piece for publicity material – “As with all Mike’s music, this piece seems to me completely original, and contains some really fiery music, maybe a sort of divine madness?”

You decide.

A MIDI performance of the Concertante

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