John ELLIS: Organ Music
John ELLIS (1943-2010)
Music for Organ: Volume 1: Allegro and Passacaglia (1995); Variations on “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (Mechlin) (1999); Three Hymn Tune Voluntaries (1995); Suite in A (Divertissement) (1998); Concert Waltz (1999); Three Short Voluntaries (1994); Meditation on Rockingham (1996); Coventry Carol Meditation (1998); Finale-fantasia on Orientis Partibus (1996)
Ronald Frost (organ)
rec. St Anne’s Church, Manchester. No date given
DIVINE ART DIVERSIONS DDV24141 [62:19]
John ELLIS (1943-2010)
Music for Organ: Volume 2: Variations on Picardy (2005); Scherzo-Fantasie (2002; Festive Voluntary (2006); Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (2000); Toccata (2002); Minuet (2002); Three Pieces for Organ (2003); Organ Symphony (2009)
Robin Walker (organ)
rec. Bolton Parish Church. No date given
DIVINE ART DDA25087 [67:04]
Music history has furnished us with many examples of composers who either through enthusiasm or necessity have pursued other career paths that preceded or ran concurrently with musical activities. Borodin was a professional chemist, Rimsky-Korsakov was an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy and Miaskovsky a military engineer. In the UK Wilfred Josephs was a dentist before taking up composition full time, whereas Denis ApIvor was a consultant anaesthetist who found the time to write over a hundred works.
To this illustrious group we can now add the name of John Ellis, who retired in 2002 after a professional life as a consultant paediatrician. In addition to his medical work, Ellis found time to play organ and piano, eventually obtaining the ARCO under the tutelage of William Morgan of Bolton Parish Church. Much of Ellis’s music is for the church: anthems, cantatas and especially organ music. Despite coming late to composition there is not a hint of the novice. These two volumes from Divine Art attest to the composer’s skill and subtle originality. Although broadly tonal the music shows considerable variety harmonically, ranging from the modally expressive to the quartal piquancy of Hindemith. Modulations happen by sleight of hand; the pivot chords provoke marvel, whilst melodies are plastic, limpid and show the influence of plainsong.
Works in variation form dominate the first disc which is a welcome reissue of a Dunelm recording made by Jim Pattison in 2000. When Ellis is not making modally inflected melodies of his own he is borrowing them from plainsong and hymnody in order to create sets of variations, hymn preludes and meditations. In doing so he is carrying on a tradition that goes back before the time of Bach. That such melodies can constantly be renewed in this way is a testament to a timeless beauty that can capture the imagination of each new generation of composers. Take Ellis’s Variations on ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, an absolute gem of a work that he wrote in 1999. The peerless melody inspires an array of delightful textures and ingenious working out, culminating in a maestoso closing chorale. In a sense this work encapsulates what I love about Ellis’s music: its fluidity, its ease of skill, its quiet surprises, its occasional grandiose outbursts. Another piece that shows many of these qualities is the short three movement Suite in A from 1998. Here the composer’s harmonic ingenuity is to the fore and it is most enjoyable to hear allusions to the harmonic worlds of Vaughan Williams (parallel triads), César Franck (chromatic inflections) and Billy Mayerl (added note chords in the finale) yet within the context of a relatively ‘light’ piece. Of the more dramatic pieces on volume 1, the Allegro and Passacaglia stands out for its bold thematic material and its imposing structure. Here the allusions might be to Marcel Dupré and although the music sounds fine on the restored Glyn and Parker organ of 1730 (renovated by Sixsmith and Sons, 1996) at St. Anne’s Church, Manchester, it would be interesting to hear Allegro and Passacaglia on a Cavaillé-Coll or the William Hill organ (renovated by J.W. Walker and Sons, and more recently Geoffrey Coffin) at York Minster, an organ whose gothic splendour thrilled me in the awesome 4 CD set of Francis Jackson’s music on Priory. However the St. Anne’s organ is a lovely and powerful instrument; the latter quality can be heard to good effect in the Finale-Fantasia on Orientis Partibus. Hymn tunes play an important part as starting points for pieces in John Ellis’s organ oeuvre; no doubt such works are for use during contemplative moments of church services. In one case however dark thoughts enter; the Coventry Carol Meditation is sombre and disturbing with the well known tune planted in a bed of slowly revolving dissonance; a moving response to the words of the carol – ‘Herod the King, in his raging, Charged he hath this day; His men of might, in his own sight, All children young, to slay. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, And ever mourn and say; For Thy parting, nor say nor sing, By, by, lully, lullay.’ Ellis has made a small masterpiece with this meditation.
Volume 2, which is a new recording for Divine Art by Jonathan Haskell, features organ music that John Ellis has written within the last ten years. The extensive and authoritative notes chart the history of the fine instrument at Bolton Parish Church, one that Ellis must know well from his time with William Morgan. The original organ is a Samuel Green instrument of 1795 with new work by Grey and Davison (1852), William Hill (1880) and further additions since. It is fitting however that the first piece on the disc, Variations on Picardy, begins with the French 17th century melody being played on one of Samuel Green’s original stops from 1795. Ellis has not lost his fascination for old melodies and hymn tunes; a lovely example is the Passion Chorale, a setting of the Lutheran hymn, ‘O Sacred Head’. Here is quiet contemplation amid searching harmonies. Veni Creator turns up again in this volume; this time it is given a gracefully leaping dance step. It is easy to hear why the composer loves this ancient melody as it seems to bring forth much inspiration from him. There are some substantial works here that use themes that are entirely Ellis’s own. The relentless Toccata from 2002 is splendid; its 3+3+2 additive rhythm propels the music joyfully as themes loom up from the pedal board. The texture suggests Widor but the music is very much Ellis. In the Three Pieces for Organ, Ellis demonstrates his kinship to the shape and speech rhythm of plainsong without actually using plainsong melodies. His melodic structures are infused with resonances of the Gregorian style, most noticeably in the opening Interlude. Here are also chromatic byways that recall Howells. The following Recessional has delightful Tippett-like syncopations and at the climax what I take to be the new 2008 clarion makes an appearance, landing on an added ninth at the final chord. It’s a thrilling effect. The concluding Meditation makes use of a beautiful clarinet-type stop. It is an improvisatory piece that allows the organist to conjure up many curious sounds during its flowing meander with even a diversion into almost atonal territory. The major work on the disc is the Organ Symphony from 2009. It is surely one of the best organ works of recent decades; bristling with confidence in the inevitabilities of its own style. The rhetorical opening carries all before it in a tumult of bold rhythmic gestures and flamboyant decoration. Here Ellis throws down the gauntlet to the great past-masters of organ composition and is not found wanting. The first movement seems to grow organically, no pun intended, sprouting ever more growth as it goes. This improvisatory feel does not in the least lead to formal laxity; the material is handled with great control and economy. It would require an entire essay to properly give the prospective listener an idea of this work, so these brief words will have to suffice. After the opening movement in the free fantasia style described above, a brief and fleeting scherzo appears. A moto perpetuo, it temporarily tries to dispel the deep conflicts of the first movement. The slow movement is rapt, intense, with that Howells-like ruminative quality again. The harmonies underlie and point the contour of the long melodies over them. During the journey a calm radiance is almost achieved at times but the overwhelming mood is of a searching regret. The finale is a passacaglia whose theme begins in the treble and proliferates downwards. Highly chromatic at first, the music reaches a hard one resolution as blazing dissonant chords crown the work, before the final defiant octave unison.
John Ellis has found two marvellous champions of his music in Ronald Frost and Robin Walker. Their playing is first rate and they both bring out many colours and contrasts in their use of different registrations. Most importantly they clearly believe in the music and give it their all. The recordings are excellent and the notes include extensive biographical details and complete specifications of the organs. I like the way the stops of the Bolton Parish Church organ have been assigned dates so that the reader can chart the growth of the instrument through the ages. The discs are both very reasonably priced and lovers of organ music should not hesitate to purchase them, they will not be disappointed. I look forward to hearing more of John Ellis’s music in the future.
David Hackbridge Johnson
Gary Higginson has also listened to Volume 2
I should begin by repeating immediately the same declaration I made in my review of the first volume of John Ellis’s Organ music, recorded at St.Anne’s Church Manchester (Divine Art DDV 24141): he was a friend of mine and a erstwhile colleague in the ‘Lakeland Composer’s Group’ for several years. We knew each others music and his style is very familiar to me. This is the third commercially available disc of his works. Very sadly John died in April this year (2010) and we have lost a wonderful musician. As an organist based in the Manchester area he concentrated on organ music but there are also several choral pieces. He was a man of a quiet and unassuming nature. One of his last works saw him moving in new directions. It was an elegant Flute Sonata which was premiered in Kendal in May 2009.
Volume 1 was re-released last year on the Divine Arts label and this present volume was devised with the organ symphony as its climax and focal point. The first work is typical of Ellis: it is a set of Variations on Picardy, otherwise known as the early medieval hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’. Each variant explores differing tonal qualities of the rich and beautiful organ in Bolton Parish Church. The composer knew the instrument so well. Each imaginative delving into the tune ends with something strong and decisive.
I remember hearing John play his lively Scherzo-Fantasy. Brief and reminiscent of Langlais, it is in a flowing compound time. To quote the booklet notes, it was inspired by Bach’s Fugue No 4 from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier.
The Festive Voluntary does what is says on the tin and has a bright almost out-of-doors feel which reaches a strong and exuberant climax.
The Two Hymn-Tune Preludes may, especially at the beginning of the first, remind some people of Howells. The first - Passion Chorale - is suitably sombre and even improvisatory being based on ‘O sacred head’. It is slightly lacking in character. The next - Veni Creator - is a reminder that there is a fine set of variations on this famous plainchant on volume 1; this playfully weaves the chant around a rhythmic counterpoint.
A happy and flowing Toccata follows. This is a canon and is in continuous quavers building to a fine climax. The ensuing Minuet is paired with it and is quite up-beat and perhaps not as “dream-like” as the booklet writer (who may be the performer himself) would have us believe.
Tonality is key to Ellis’s music but in the first of the Three Pieces for Organ the opening Interlude is ambiguous and achieves a thoughtful, questioning atmosphere. It has long melodic lines which are passed between the hands. The second, ‘Recessional’, is described, rather enthusiastically in the booklet as “explosive”. In its use of fanfaring fourths it has a Mathias-feel although is, in its middle section, much more lyrical and searching. The longest of the three is the closing and rather amiable, ‘Meditation’. It is quite similar both in speed and tonality to the first piece.
In case you thought that Ellis could only compose miniatures, and then only pieces based on already conceived ideas, the organ symphony should dispel your concerns instantly. In the weeks before he died he sent this CD to our Lakeland Composer’s March meeting and we listened intently. It is a work he had, in his extraordinary modesty kept very quiet about. The first movement which carries the most weight is a dramatic Fantasia and seems to be immediately on a different plane from much of Ellis’s other music. Its opening discords create a searching and passionate atmosphere. It would be a difficult to analyse so I won’t attempt it as it’s so free in form. The all too brief second movement is marked Scherzo and is Toccata-like. It ends in a final rushed flourish of exultation after searching around for direction. The Adagio is in a sort of ternary form with a mysterious first section which has a sinuous and delicate melody often projected over oscillating, tonally ambiguous triads. The B section has a little more movement and determination which reaches a choral climax linking back to the opening. The finale is a Passacaglia. This chromatic and slithery line, stated first in treble, grows through ten repetitions into a fine climax having been taken on a journey into various surprising and sometimes disturbing areas. Without a doubt this is John Ellis’s masterwork and the more I have heard it the more it surprises and amazes me. Any organist interesting in something new and challenging should track it down. Robin Walker is a marvellous advocate.
The accompanying booklet is a model of its kind. It possesses succinct but useful comments on the music as well as biographies of both the composer and performer. They also feature in the good quality coloured photographs in the centre-fold. There is photograph and history of the organ along with its detailed and vast specification. Robin Walker handles the instrument superbly. When he is not making CDs he is Director of Music at St.Mark’s Florence!
The organ symphony is Ellis’s masterwork and the more I have heard it the more it surprises and amazes me.[GH]
Lovers of organ music should not hesitate to purchase these discs - they will not be disappointed [DHJ]
[John Ellis passed away earlier this year]