Edwin Henry Lemare
Organ Symphony in G minor
I. Allegro moderato
II. Adagio cantabile
It’s a wonder why this symphony is almost forgotten and is so rarely played in recitals today.
The symphony was published in 1899 (in the late Victorian era) by Edwin Henry Lemare when he was only 34 years old. At that time he was organist at Saint Margaret, Westminster Abbey, the small church just beside the Abbey. Just three years before in 1897, EHL had a completely new organ built at Saint Margaret which suited his needs for orchestral playing perfectly and the symphony was almost definitely composed at this instrument.
It’s important to put EHL and his professional life in perspective as a key to listening to his music. He was extremely popular as a recitalist and his concerts at Saint Margaret were so well visited that the audience stood like herrings in a barrel. He was a supreme musician lauded by his collegues and other musicians as the premiere organist of the world and reached the “common man” in concerts like no other organist has ever done. He later became City Organist in different cities in the States and always had an audience between 3,000 to 10,000 people. So his style and compositions often lean towards a “popular sound” – eg. his (in)famous Andantino in D flat major. The symphony kind of sums up the way EHL thinks of organ playing and in a curious way points towards his American years only a couple of years later.
The symphony is cut very classically with four movements; the first, Allegro Moderato, being a strict sonata and quite “grave” in style. It shows EHLs brilliant contapunctual skills in an elaborate fugue and the combination of all ideas in the coda.
The second movement, Adagio Cantabile, is a beautiful cantabile with a long and quite “lush” melodic line. The middle section evokes the sound of a Sailors Shantie with a very folk song character.
The third movement is a highly virtuoso scherzo, and like the typical French scherzo it isn’t a scherzo with humour, but a scherzo with drama and energy. Please note the very “sweet sounding” middle section, it almost evokes the style of Leroy Anderson!
The fourth movement, the Finale, is the longest, which starts off presenting the main theme for the movement with a fugue and then through different variations shows EHL’s excellent skills working with limited melodic material. Every time one thinks he simply can’t come up with another idea, he just adds more and more variations. Towards the end he combines all the main ideas from the first, second and third movements, and it all ends with an extremely well balanced coda full of bravour and high tense energy.
EHL was as many probably know perhaps the greatest transcriber for the organ of all time, eg. in many ways his transcriptions of the Wagnerian operas are still unsurpassed. His repertoire compassed almost everything, and this is very evident in this symphony, where he uses the musical traditions from both Germany, France and England.
There are places which harmonically resemble Brahms and even Wagner. He uses figurations from the French toccata-style and in general the rhetoric of the Guilmant sonatas and the Widorian symphonies. Then he of course uses typical English “thumbing”, a technique which he like no other excelled in and above all this symphony sounds nothing but English all the way through. All these techniques and stylistical ideas he uses to compose maybe the greatest (and only, some may say?) organ symphony of the Victocian Era.
The symphony was recorded Oct. 14th to 16th 2009 at Aarhus Cathedral