Yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon with Betsy McCreary, whose late husband, John McCreary, was my immediate predecessor at Iolani School and our colleague at St. Andrew’s Cathedral for over thirty years. Betsy had invited me to peruse John’s huge inventory of organ music with the thought of giving some of it to my students. I gladly picked up volumes of Bach, Mendelssohn, and collections such as The Church Organist’s Golden Treasury, but then turned down John’s vast library of organ transcriptions — music that had been originally composed for other instruments, like whole symphony orchestras — made “playable” on the organ. I mostly find organ transcriptions “unplayable,” — as I told Betsy this kind of music is too hard for me! John, though, was a master at it.
What was quite a find was John’s script for a program he gave for the local American Guild of Organists (AGO) many years ago. Betsy gave me permission to share it with you, as it is so John!
Good evening and welcome to this program of music not intended for the organ.
When I was in college the playing of transcriptions was unthinkable. We were taught that we must only play music specifically written for the organ. I wondered then where this great plethora of organ music was and I am still wondering. Whereas pianists can argue for days over who the greatest composer for the piano is (Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, etc.) organists do not have that luxury. We have only one A-plus. Yes, we have a few Bs and Cs and others, but there is no arguing over who wears the crown: Johann Sebastian Bach.
But I don’t want to play Bach exclusively, and I am in agreement with Duke Ellington’s quip “If it sounds good, it is good.” Bach himself, transcribed orchestral music for the organ, and heaven knows that his Toccata and Fugue in D minor has been transcribed for every possible combination of instruments, so turnabout is fair play.
And so we start with the March from Tannhäuser — a March is always good for a starter. Then a beautiful lyric melody from a Bach cantata — and then a transcription of a harpsichord piece by Couperin, which imitates the sound of a cuckoo much better on the organ than it possibly could on a harpsichord. Incidentally you will hear cuckoos in both parts, which is rather tricky. So if this audience goes wild, it will be because I had a lot of work to do.
The final number, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, is Wagner at his grandest. This is a full orchestra number from the only opera he wrote which deals with human beings instead of characters from German mythology.
John, like myself and others, was the recipient of several organists’ estates — that means that he had been given the music of organists who had passed on (I found music labeled “Richard Apel” — how many people remember him!) I too have inherited about a dozen organists’ collections of music, and my large organ music library is thankfully stored at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.
Many years ago, I was called by an attorney for organist Margaret Way, who said “Come pick up your music!” Huh? Apparently she willed me about 8 boxes of organ music and other organ memorabilia. Some of it I put out at a meeting of the local AGO chapter with the invitation to “help yourself.” I found some of Margaret’s music in John’s stash.
But guess what I else I found in John’s music — a piece by Giovanni Gabrieli I must have loaned him years ago, music for brass quartet and organ, with all my markings for organ registration!