Christopher Marks, Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, teaching organ, music theory, and performance practice, performed the results of his research on the “American Classic,” 113 rank, 6334 pipes, Aeolian-Skinner Organ in the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Missouri, this past Sunday. (That’s a mouthful.) He is researching and recording the music of Seth Bingham (1882–1972) and the other music on the program set related music side-by-side, giving the auditors something to mentally compare and contrast while gathered to be entertained.
The first four pieces were from Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Fantasia super Komm Heiliger Geist, BWV 651, was the opener, followed by three settings of the same tune for manuals only, no pedals: Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr à 3. Canto fermo in Alto, BWV 675, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 717 and Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 677. Together, they served as a three set collection of variations on the theme, in ascending keys.
Dudley Buck (1839–1909) based his formulaic “Choral March (in Canon Form)” on the familiar Lutheran tune, Ein feste burg, with the canonic voices at the octave, interrupted, a few times by a verse of the chorale in a style the professor referred to as a mish mash between John Philip Sousa and and Martin Luther. Buck was born in Germany, but spent most of his professional years in America, putting his music into the historically significant category; the performance outshone the notes on the page.
“Canon in the Fifth,” by Horatio Parker (1863–1919) was another example of German-American counterpoint that was played well. Dr. Marks displayed a consistent knack for choosing voices that blended well, while differentiating voices so the audience could follow each melodic line.
American University Historical Sheet Music Collection is a source for, “Variations on an American Air,” by Isaac van Vleck Flagler (1844–1909). It is a really thought-out version of Stephen Foster’s tune, “Old folks at home.” One seldom longs for the sound of a banjo.
The last piece before intermission was,”Romance and Tarantella” (2014) by Kurt Knecht (b. 1971) A Lincoln, Nebraska denizen, whose music was a blend of styles, melded into a fun, modern-sounding piece, with little regard for stodgy Germanic rule-laden music. Harmonies are tame enough to sound consonant to a modern listener. The flip-flopping rhythms that work to keep a foot-tapping concert goer alert could be used on a TV dance contest with a lot of careful choreography. It was commissioned for the 2014 convention of the Organ Historical Society and premiered in August 2014 by Christopher Marks. He is modern enough that he twittered his appreciation to Dr. Marks for putting his piece on Sunday.’s program.
Joseph Jongen (1873–1953) was represented by Two Pieces, Op. 53, Chant de Mai and Menuet-scherzo. The former was a brook-like continuum of relaxing music in a modern wrapping.
To complete the American-slanted program were two selections by Seth Bingham (1882–1972) Passacaglia in E Minor, Op. 40 and “Prelude and Fugue in C Minor,” Op. 9, No. 1. The continuous melody in the passacaglia wandered from the pedals to manuals at times, but mostly, conventionally, stayed in the pedals. There was considerable satisfying development in the complementary voices, that left a comfortable sense of the whole program. The prelude and fugue was written under the tutelage of Charles Marie Widor, and shows that influence; there can be little criticism of a student composing something of his own in the style of a master, particularly when it comes off well.
The entirety of Sunday’s program, after the Bach, was a satisfying lesson in the development of American music. Bach’s creative ingenuity served as a launching point, the archetype used as an excuse for repetitive stodginess which developed into a new creativity that did not dump the old, but, also, did not try to re-create that which already existed. Dr. Marks skill on the “King of Instruments,” was so established as to create no listening anxiety, allowing for aural evaluation of each example, whether historically significant transitional piece, or an example of lasting literature, each was presented at its optimum.