John ELLIS (b.1943)
Music for Organ: Allegro and Passacaglia (1995) [10.59]; Pastorale in B (1998) [4.23]; Variations on “Veni Creator Spiritus” (1999) [7.21]; Three Hymn Tune Voluntaries (1995) [7.36]; Suite in A (Divertissement) (1998) [8.08]; Concert Waltz (1999) [7.31]; Three Short Voluntaries (1994) [5.50]; Meditations on Rockingham (1996) [3.10]; Coventry Carol Meditation (1996) [4.19]; Finale-Fantasia on ‘Orientis Partibus’ (1996) [3.40]
Ronald Frost (organ)
St. Ann’s Church, Manchester, 2000
DIVINE ARTS DDV 24141 [62.19]

This was actually the first disc of John Ellis’s music to appear. The second was of songs for voice and organ (DRDD0194) which came out in 2002. Both have now been transferred from the original Dunelm label by Divine Art.

John Ellis studied medicine in Manchester specialising in paediatrics. Like so many doctors, he discovered early on that music grabbed him just as much as medicine. It is no surprise then to find that he has been a church organist and composer for most of his life. Organ music and songs have been his predominant interest but he has recently had performed an enchanting flute sonata.

I should declare that both John and I are members of the Lakeland Composer’s Group and we have known each other for some time. I have got to know some of his music quite well and conducted some of his church music and he has played some of my music. Even so this disc had a few surprises for me.

St. Ann’s Manchester is a Georgian (sometimes called Renaissance) church of 1712 which is in the city centre. It has a 1730 organ situated in the north-west gallery having been located there at its 1887 restoration. Its full history is given in the booklet. The composer writes about the music but the authorship of the rest, including the profiles and organ history, is anonymous.

The disc opens with what is the longest and in many ways the most sophisticated work on the disc. It’s a very fine ‘Allegro and Passacaglia’ in which the link between the two sections is that the ‘Tema’ used in the latter is derived from the opening bars of the former. This truly is organist’s music and could only have been composed by an organist. Although the composer writes about key, G major here, it is not an entirely tonal composition but inhabits a hinterland of tonalities. These eventually pull together into a sort of Howells-like language without being in any derivative. The lovely Pastorale in B has been described as “unmistakably English” as it strolls, often modally through “a variety of keys”. A suitable pre-service preamble.

A similarly nebulous and highly chromatic tonality can be heard in the ‘Meditation on the Coventry Carol’ which highlights the painful background to the famous text. I can’t say that I go much on the ‘Positive Krummhorn’ stop selected for the main melody but Ellis wanted its curious noise to denote ‘Herod, the king in his raging’.

The Whitsun plainchant hymn ‘Veni Creator’ is a very beautiful and popular melody and has been used as the basis of masses and motets and variations ever since the early Middle Ages. Ellis’s variants are short - possibly too short to really get their point across. Even so they never outstay their welcome and instead offer the organist a chance to show off which Ronald Frost most certainly does, I especially liked variation 4 with its 8ft swell flute and 4ft flute on the pedals. The full organ specification is given in the excellent booklet notes on page ten.

‘Rockingham’ is the tune for ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. This is set unremarkably and simply using the clarinet stop coupled to 4 foot pedals. Ellis calls it a meditation which really is a sort of written out improvisational doodle - something organists must do regularly.

The ‘Three Hymn Tune Voluntaries’ are similar stock-in trade pieces. It was a neat and original idea to turn the melody ‘Seelenbräutigam’ into a French-style musette. The tune Kings Lynn which makes up the third piece was collected by Vaughan Williams for the English Hymnal which with its bold chords and tuba stop could also serve as a recessional voluntary. Talking of which the ‘Three Short Voluntaries’ were written, during a church service apparently, a dull sermon I suspect. They would be suitable for ‘the reluctant organist’ in so far as they are undemanding if somewhat unmemorable in the case of number one, the ‘Chorale’. The little pieces serve a purpose which organists have to do for much of their life. In fact the second one, ‘Air’ has an irresistibly French accent which is quite haunting.

The composer readily admits that the ‘Suite in A’ subtitled a ‘Divertimento’ is “lighter music”. The same could be said of the ‘Concert Waltz’ composed the following year except that the latter has a few more serious moments in its extended scenario. Light music for organ is not common. Ronald Frost, superb and committed throughout, makes the suite sparkle with such delightful colours that it made me wish that Ellis might one day orchestrate the work. It falls into three brief movements of which the third, a fleet-footed Scherzino, especially caught my imagination.

The disc ends with another hymn-based variations-cum-fantasia. This one is on the medieval theme ‘Orientis Partibus’, known in the old ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ as ‘Soldiers of the cross arise’. John Ellis retains the melody’s original modality and its rousing quality with the full organ, complete with a fine tuba stop, bringing the recital to a fine conclusion.

I have much enjoyed exploring John Ellis’s organ music some of which is available in print through ‘Fagus-Music’. It has charm, it is practical and is suitable for recital work or the Sunday-by-Sunday routine. The music is beautifully performed, recorded and annotated. Even for non-organists it would be well worth searching out.

Gary Higginson