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About this Piece

Composed: 1926

Length: 35 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp, strings, and solo organ

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Joseph Jongen used to refer to his Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra as "that unfortunate work." True enough, it did run into a number of obstacles on the way to its unveiling. Commissioned in 1926 by the Philadelphia department store owner Rodman Wanamaker, the work was intended for the inaugural of the restoration of the great Wanamaker Organ, an enormous instrument of 1670 pipes and 455 ranks built for Wanamaker's store in 1911. Jongen was set to travel to Philadelphia to play the premiere in early 1928, but his father died in the fall of 1927, and Jongen postponed his trip to the U.S. Delays in the restoration project pushed the premiere back again to the end of 1928; and the planned concert was scrapped altogether after Wanamaker's unexpected death in March 1928. The work had its world premiere in Brussels that year; finally, the U.S. premiere took place in 1935, at Carnegie Hall. Fortunate to have survived its difficult birth, the Symphonie concertante is now considered one of the greatest 20th-century works for organ and orchestra.

For the Symphonie, begun in 1926, Jongen calls on singing melodies and traditional forms, offers immediate emotional gratification, and requires an organist of almost superhuman capabilities. As Jongen's friend Eugène Ysaÿe pointed out, the Symphonie concertante might better be called a symphony for two orchestras, since "the role you assign to the King of Instruments and its abundant resources ... is not limited or restricted; it is clearly a second orchestra that enriches the first." At 35 minutes of almost non-stop, rigorous playing, this "second orchestra" can be manifested only by a veritable Jedi Master of the organ, one who has the brawn, stamina, and grace - in a word, the force - to stand up to the thickly scored orchestra and make the King of Instruments dance.

The sprightly opening movement defies the organ's potentially overwhelming strength with a richly textured yet weightless jaunt through a fugal figure begun in the orchestra. About this opening Jongen wrote: "Unlike many composers who have recourse to fugues at the end of their work, the present composer has introduced a fugue at the very beginning." And to great effect: The sonata-form movement is a conversation between two giants, alternating and combining themes. It closes with a surprisingly understated, quietly lyrical chord and pedal note.

The second movement begins as a scherzo with a quick, almost improvisatory passage for organ. This alternates with slower, more expressive music throughout, with a 7/4 meter that gives the movement a delightfully impish awkwardness, like twisted carousel music. This theme is transformed into a solemn song, and folds in hints of the first movement's opening fugal statements. After a great swell in the orchestra and a journey for the scherzo theme through a range of orchestral colors, this movement, too, ends quietly: organ, harp, and flute in arpeggiated dialogue, culminating with a delicate triangle stroke conjoined to the final organ pedal.

For the third and longest movement, Jongen said that he wanted "organ and orchestra to realize the best union possible" through a close interplay of instrumental colors. It begins with a sexy flute solo whose color rolls out into harp, woodwinds, and finally strings. Luminous calm builds ever so slowly toward a dark, passionate climax with an explosion of brass and organ. The mysterious sparkle of organ, harp, woodwinds, and strings returns, and the movement wanes again into peace.

The tranquility of the slow movement is shattered by the brilliant Toccata finale. It's the testosterone-driven showpiece for both orchestras, the gratification that has been so sweetly delayed for the first three movements. Written in the style of the great French toccatas of Widor and Vierne, the grueling and radiant moto perpetuo organ part carries the movement through a series of increasingly intense climaxes. Urgent calls and responses between organ and orchestra, particularly brass, ascend to a forceful coda, which blazes to the end.

- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.