Friday, December 18, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 6. Marcel Dupré's Variations sur un Noël

As the organ and religious music go hand in pedal you'd think there'd be piles of great Christmas-themed music, though I wasn't able to find as much (in the formal classical sphere) as I'd like.  One piece I'd love to show you guys but couldn't find a recording of on YouTube is Gardner Read's Chorale-Fantasia, op. 50, based on "Good King Wenceslas" and morphing that old chestnut with wicked modern harmonies and dense organ sonorities.  I found a good replacement piece in the Variations sur un Noël, op. 20 by Marcel Dupré, one of the most famous members of the great French organ tradition.  

Dupré was a disciple of Cesar Franck through and through, stretching tonality as far as it will go through intertwining, highly chromatic counterpoint and gnarly contrasts.  The theme might have a different name in France but I know it as "Now the Green Blade Riseth" and it gets a very sophisticated treatment here:

The chromaticism kicks in with the first variation, rolling and rambling and painting the town red.  It's a good example of harmonic shifts that wouldn't sound nearly as good played at a slower tempo but sound great whipped past at ear-massage speed.  When the piece does slow down we get to hear the haunting third variation, a canon at the octave:

This smashes right into planing dissonances:

It's not often that organ music aims to shock, so moments like this certainly stand out in the rep.  Other moments of inspiration come in the form of a triple canon at the fourth and fifth:

The rest is best left for you to discover, like extra presents hidden behind other presents, and the onus remains on me to find a way to show you the Gardner Read Chorale-Fantasia in recording form.  We're halfway there, aren't we?  Better make the green blade speedeth to the next article!  (sorry)


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