God bless the internet and its users' bottomless curiosity, for otherwise I would never have found this secret rosace. Though a much longer celebration of the Public Domain Renaissance is coming I can say in few words and free from hesitation that the internet's infinite storage space and inexhaustible generosity has allowed once-forgotten pieces to float to the surface and craft a new digital repertoire, free from petty economics and codified tastes. Most of the music I've covered on this blog wouldn't have made it to my computer so easily without the help of YouTube, IMSLP and many other extraordinary free resources that you have no business ignoring if you love classical music and its potential futures. That being said, today's work was discovered only very recently but its craftsmanship and emotional heft made singing its praises top priority, and it was found only by the luck of random experimentation.
As I mentioned in my review of Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" organ composition is often a fly-by-night genre, its performers writing a handful of their own works and then moving on with their lives. As I bit my lips trying desperately not to call the compositional ambitions of these organists "pipe dreams" I remembered that a lack of prolificness is no guarantee of artistic failure ("Of course not!" huffed Abel Decaux.). Before I checked Worldcat I thought René Blin was one of these guys, but the case is not so much a lack of extant works as much of a lack of works people have bothered to put up on his IMSLP page. Blin's most notable accomplishment was his work as the organist and choirmaster at Église Sainte-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie for nearly 30 years, though he did publish a few dozen works for organ, piano and choir along the first half of the 20th century. However, only three of his organ pieces have made it to the loving embrace of the Petrucci Music Library, and while his Organ Symphony does look pretty impressive (or just long) I'd bet dollars to donuts that his Rosace en violet dans la pénombre du soir is his best bet for contemporary immortality.
I suspect that the New Digital Repertoire will include lots of eye-catching titles, and Rosace en violet dans la pénombre du soir (purple rose in the penumbra of the evening) is quite pleasing to the mind's eye as well as the ones in your face. When I was but a naive viewer of this work I took the title literally and imagined a purple rose bathed in the half-light of the setting sun. As wonderful as that image is to behold the excellent YouTube performance that I'm using today mentions stained glass, and I decided to do a bit of research. As you can imagine l'Église Sainte-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie has a lot of exquisite stained glass, and one window in particular got stuck in my eye for its obvious significance to my query:
Yep, those are purple roses, and my research into their meaning uncovered a lot more than I could have guessed. The miracle of the roses is a Catholic legend that has been attributed to many female Saints, including the Saint Elizabeth of Hungary that loomed large over Blin's work. I'm not exactly sure of the significance of purple roses in Catholic symbolism, though purple is the color of the Lenten Season and I found a Holy Cross church in Wisconsin that uses different colored roses in their Elizabeth Ministry program, wherein purple roses are reserved for special prayers for families. There's an air of pain and mourning surrounding the color in the Catholic faith, and while Blin's Rosace is similarly not an upper its inspiration may be much simpler than the baroque hullabaloo of Catholic symbology. Like the Simonds piece, Rosace is all about the Magic Hour, and soaking in the faint illumination of these flat-yet-deep roses could have been a profound experience for Blin, or at the very least melancholic. My research on flower symbolism revealed across the board that purple roses stand for enchantment and mystery, quite apt as they're a modern crossbreed and not naturally occurring, and Blin nails both those qualities on the head.
While written in a traditional-enough context of close-voiced liturgical composition Rosace finds its true colors in the brave new harmonic worlds opened up by the fin de siècle Catholic composition tradition helmed by Fauré and the French organ school (and even Satie's Messe des Pauvres in its own way). There was certainly room in French Catholic music for otherworldliness, as La Belle Époque was all about reviving Catholic mysticism in all its monolithic glory. Right away Blin drags and disjoints harmonic transitions to create modal dissonance and ambiguity. The intertwining lines snake through odd off-key notes, allowing the inverse motions to travel up and down the staff with gentle insistence and urgency. Once the first line of page 2 is near finished louder stops are pulled and a canon at the octave is deployed. The second line has one of my favorite details -
- as the bottom of the first phrase of the canon subject becomes the texture underneath the next phrase, a nearly invisible detail but a testament to Blin's organ writing. He also reverses the order of imitation, letting the left hand lead the way for a while, and any sense on paper that that's not as exciting as it sounds should be quelled by the fact that the canon subjects are intensely lyrical, and the slowly marching pedals only heighten the sense of voluptuous loss. These singing lines give way to glassy planing in a delicately exotic mode, the searching four-part chords intensifying and finally unwinding into a mysterious E sus-2 chord. Again, talking about the piece does little justice to its value to the soul, and thankfully the YouTubing organist Jonathan Orwig has a taste for unearthing fine French organ music from the turn of the 20th century. His performance also turns up on the piece's IMSLP page, meaning you can download it for free and keep Rosace on your mp3 player for those wee-hour bouts of introspection wherein all the best thinking is done.
While I may never turn to René Blin's other works his Rosace is a dark jewel of the French organ school, and as there's already more than one YouTube performance available we may be lucky enough to see it pop up in recitals and even commercial recordings. We need more pieces like it to surface for classical music to stay relevant and enchanting, and luckily the internet has assured that your new favorite piece may only be a few mouse clicks away.