A good place to begin an exploration of Sir Herbert Brewer’s organ music is with the totally unpretentious, but thoroughly delightful, miniature Auf Wiedersehen. For listeners who know Brewer’s important and deeply moving Gerontius transcription this slight piece will be a complete contrast. Lasting just under three minutes, this number is more suited to the theatre organ than that of a great cathedral. Brewer was transcribing ‘himself’ in this piece: dating from 1908, the original was scored for violin and piano. It is wistful, with more than a hint of sadness, however it is a perfectly contrived little piece that never fails to delight.
Move on to the ‘Marche Héroïque’. The liner-notes assure us that this is one of Brewer’s most ‘popular’ pieces. Certainly, this work lies neatly in a trajectory from Sullivan’s marches to Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’ by way of Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance’. This is a stirring march with a memorable ‘trio’ section which is ‘triumphant’ in its recapitulation. It is an impressive way to bring any recital or CD to a conclusion. These two pieces define, to a large extent, Herbert Brewer’s musical aesthetic – quiet, introverted character pieces and big, powerful works that are typical of the Edwardian and Georgian era.
A few words about Brewer will be of interest. For more information, the listener is referred to his autobiographical sketches Memoirs of Choirs and Cloisters (1931) which is a delight to read and is full of fascinating anecdotes and period detail.
Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer. After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral. In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth.
I do not intend to comment on all twenty pieces on this essential CD; I present a few notes on some of the works that caught my aural imagination.
Many of Brewer’s organ compositions are ‘secular’ suggesting a civic organ rather than one in a cathedral or a large parish church, although the restrained mood of some of the more poignant numbers does make them ideal voluntaries.
‘Reverie’ is based on a delightful melody for the ‘oboe’ stop. The ‘dream’ is more something ‘classical’ rather than ‘liturgical’, suggesting a warm summer’s day. It is one of the loveliest pieces here. Similarly, the Elgarian ‘Impression’ (1916) is reflective in its mood, making use of some lovely rich harmonies. The registration gives a deliberately unfocused mood to this piece.
Mention must be made of Cloister-Garth (1926): I always think of this piece in the same breath as Easthope Martin’s Evensong – painting a picture of the cathedral close, with just a hint of something a little more romantic. The work was dedicated to Walter Alcock (Daniel Cook has issued a CD of organ music by this composer, PRCD1008) who was a long-time organist at Salisbury Cathedral.
The ‘Meditation on the name of Bach’ is a well-wrought work that is in a long line of such pieces that pay homage to the great man. My only complaint is that it is too short. Once again it is quiet and introverted.
‘Solitude’ is a short piece lasting a mere two minutes, however Brewer presents some profound music that hints at sadness and melancholy. Cook has suggested that the ‘sparse texture of the work, creates a startling, almost depressive character reminiscent of the darkest outpourings of Louis Vierne.’ It is truly beautiful - both moving and evocative.
More extrovert than these miniatures is ‘A Thanksgiving Processional’ (1926). Interestingly, the march-like opening section seems to suggest a ‘big’ tune to follow, but what Brewer delivers is a gorgeous meditation for the clarinet stop. The work builds to a powerful conclusion, including upward scale passages and powerful chords in the return of the principal theme.
Equally impressive is the opening track on this CD, ‘Triumphal Song’. This was composed on 1901 and dedicated to Ivor Atkins who was organist at Worcester Cathedral (1897-1950). Once again the composer makes use of the ‘P&C’ March form with the main theme being contrasted with a contemplative trio. The march is restated with tremendous power and glory. This piece may have been used as a recessional at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1899.
Daniel Cook notes that the much more complex ‘Paean of Praise’ (1922) is composed in the form of a ritornello and fugue. He suggests that the piece was written to explore and reflect as many different colours of the then newly rebuilt Gloucester Cathedral Organ. The fugue is (and sounds) difficult: Cook suggests that this is the reason why the work is not as popular with organists as it deserves. After the fugue the opening lugubrious chordal sequences make their expected return (ritornello). The success of the formal structure of the ‘Paean’ is repeated with the ‘Introduction and Fugato’ which is a truly lovely piece: once again it is too short.
Finally, ‘Carillon’ (1918) was composed for the Little Organ Book in memory of Sir Hubert Parry. The two composers were staunch friends and this work is certainly a fine tribute to Parry.
Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a Welsh Connection. Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory, including the complete works of Herbert Sumsion (Volume 1 ~~ Volume 2), Charles Villiers Stanford (still in hand) and the above-noted selection of music by Walter Alcock on Priory PRCD1008.
As always with Priory CDs the sound is perfect. I can enjoy this music as if I were sitting in the nave of the great Salisbury Cathedral. Daniel Cook has prepared the liner-notes, which are a considerable achievement bearing in mind that there is precious little in the literature about either Brewer or his music. Four pages of these are dedicated to the organ specification and its history. This instrument was originally installed in 1877 by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and has had a number of rebuilds, cleans and restoration. The great Victorian composer and organist John Stainer considered that this instrument was ‘even finer than the organ Father Willis had designed for St Paul’s in 1872’. Father Willis himself considered that it was his finest creation.
This is a CD to explore slowly, taking a few tracks at a time. Soon the power and charm of the music will sink into the mind. Here is a composer who has written music that is very much of its period. What he has added is a considerable depth of thought and emotion into nearly every piece. He has created an inspiring and well-wrought body of work that demands the attention of all organ enthusiasts and lovers of British music. This is an album that has been long overdue.
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