Echoing Organs: Vaughn Williams, Rowley, and Wilberg

There’s a sub-sub-set of organ music that I’m rather fond of, although it is quite out-of-date by today’s standards.

For lack of a better name, I call it “English Cathedral Music.” These are organ works composed or arranged from around the 1890s through the 1940s, mostly for Church of England worship or written by organists who were employed by English churches. They are often contemporaries of Holst, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, William Walton, and the like. If you are familiar with the first two composers, you can often hear echoes of their harmony patterns and use of folk melodies (or local hymn tunes) in the other composers’ works.

Most American organists don’t perform English Cathedral music, or do it very rarely. The style is solid, not showy, and can be a bit blah for the academic-trained organist. We tend to focus on Baroque, Romantic, and modern composers, and if we are doing church works, arrangers who composed for organs that are not as large, or with as much reverberation, as stone cathedrals. I’d call it an acquired taste, and I have acquired it. There are days for Rieger and Buxtehude, for Widor and Virgil Fox. There are also days for Alec Rowley and his contemporaries.

Rowley lived from 1892 – 1958. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and won several awards for composition and performance. Much of his non-organ work was written for groups of amateur players, like the older chamber music tradition (Tafelmusik). His work is still played today, although there are few recordings (CD-type) of his organ works.

Here’s his “Fantasia on Veni Emmanuel.”

This is “Benedictus,” a meditation.

Alas, there’s not a recording to the Finale for Rowley’s Second organ Symphony. If you listen to the theme, and are familiar with Mack Wilberg’s “Let Peace Then Still the Strife,” you will hear the same chord progression in the orchestral bridge.

Is it deliberate on Wilberg’s part? I’m not certain, probably not, but the mood is the same, and in many ways, Wilberg fits into that Cathedral Music tradition, in terms of the goals of his music, and his use of folk material. Granted, the Church of England in the early 20th Century and the Latter-day Saints of the late 20th Century are a bit different, but the same wellspring supplies their musical traditions.

The portion of Wilberg I’m thinking of is at 2:56. The exact chord pattern starts at 3:14.


4 thoughts on “Echoing Organs: Vaughn Williams, Rowley, and Wilberg

  1. Lovely! I too, am fond of english composers. And especially, I think, C Hubert H Parry, with his flair for vocal and choral as well.

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