1984/91 JETS D’ORGUE for large organ

JETS d’ORGUE I, II & III (1986-1991)

A composition in three parts for large organ.

Jets d’Orgue is a musical celebration of the acoustic and technological riches of large organs in large spaces. The organist and his assistants are like the crew of a big aeroplane: their combined expertise and effort serve to lift a seemingly clumsy machine off the ground into its element where it suddenly takes on the appearance of an agile space-ship. Acoustical space and musical space-time unite in a multi-dimensional spectacle that unfolds as its many variables are activated and explored.

Organs have fascinated me from my earliest childhood. When my mother took me for the first time into the church where my father was organist and conductor, the organ roared through the vast space like a mighty natural event. He must have drawn all the stops for the occasion because my ears were buzzing and the music caused strange side-effects which I interpreted as the response of the space itself.

This fascination developed further when I learned to play the organ myself, my feet still hardly able to reach the pedals, and started to discover the the instrument’s machinery. Throughout my life I have entered cathedrals, marvelling at or listening to these almighty constructions full of pipes which were waiting to reveal all their potential I imagined in there, while fantasising about a totally different music spilling out of them. Music which would reveal itself more as the raw power of nature than as the politely groomed lackey of strict ritual, and which would display in all its glory the riches that were kept hidden inside.

As the title suggests – a wordplay on the French jets d’eau – Jets d’Orgue is based on a vision of the organ as a fountain of sounds: thousands of pipes spraying their sounds through the vast space of a cathedral in an orgy of colours and patterns, densities and velocities, variations and combinations. Contrary to most instrumental families each individual organ has a unique identity due to a variety of specifications which can differ wildly from instrument to instrument. To make maximum use of each instrument’s idiosyncrasies I therefore had to design a coding system for registration, which can be applied to each individual organ. Certain effects, which are specific to a particular organ, could not be prescribed as such. To be able to mobilise these, the instructions in the score had to be in a format which would call on them implicitly.

Jet d’Orgue is composed of three movements separated by pauses. Although each movement can be played on its own, my preference goes out to an integral performance: the full Monty so to speak. Each movement consists of three sections which, again, have a three-part structure made up of segments. The first segment is always a ‘jet’: a cascade of sounds and colours which gradually transforms into a middle segment in which (per section) homophony, two- or three-layered polyphony prevails respectively. The last segment of each section is devoted to a choice of characteristic organ effects or practices.

Three movements, therefore nine sections, all starting with a ‘jet’ in their first segment. Each second segment is a homophonic music, a combination of two ingredients, or a mixture of three distinct layers. The organ effects in each third segment concentrate on ‘mannerisms’ which can be seen as ‘typical’ of the organ or of organ playing. In one of them I let myself be inspired by the characteristic arrangement of voices in foot lengths, notably those in octaves, fifths and thirds. The mixture voices are the ultimate consequence of this phenomenon. I exploited this in three so called ‘heterophonies’ for which I reserved one end-segment per movement. In these I tried to break out of the rigidity of this arrangement by creating quasi-mixtures.

This simple, large-scale architecture serves ultimately one goal: as a canvas for maximum variety and as a space in which to bring out the riches of each individual organ to their maximum potential.

A recording has now been made on the magnificent Müller organ of the Grote of St. Bavo in Haarlem and was released on CD in 2010 on the label Quintone. A performance such as this would never have been possible were it not for a genius like Jan Hage to undertake such an enterprise. His advocacy of Jets d’Orgue is not only rooted in a deep musical conviction but is also the product of a technical skill that inspires awe and respect. By making the music his own, the whole architecture radiates a consistency that keeps it erect as a monumental structure. Together with his teammates Jeroen Koopman and Arjan de Vos, who executed the complex and relentless changes in registration at the stops, a document has emerged which can be regarded a milestone in organ literature and a standard for future performances.

Jan Vriend
Tetbury, February 2010.

Jets d’Orgue was first performed in its entirety in St Paul’s Cathedral, London in July 1993. The organist was Gottfried Sembdner who had already performed part 1 in the Netherlands. Principal organist and music director of St Paul’s, John Scott, gave the following reaction when he first heard a radio recording of that movement:
May I say how immediately striking I find your work on first hearing. You have a most original voice and the virtuosity of the performance is self-evident. (April 1992).
After the performance in St Paul’s, at which he operated the registration sequencer, he wrote:
I am glad that we had the opportunity to present your wonderful composition in St. Paul’s and I was full of profound admiration firstly for the unique feeling you have in writing for the instrument and also, of course, for the phenomenal efforts on Gottfried Sembdner’s behalf. (…) It is truly a landmark composition in terms of the organ repertoire.
(August 1993)

Jean Guillou, titular organist of the St Eustache in Paris, wrote after listening to the recording of part 1:
C’est avec le plus grand intérêt que j’ai […] écouté l’enregistrement de votre œuvre qui m’a, en effet, totalement convaincu. Je la garde bien en mémoire cette œuvre afin de voir, dans la future, de quelle manière nous pouvons l’intégrer parmi les concerts de St Eustache…

Here is what Jan Hage had to say about his experience with Jets d’Orgue:

Jets d’Orgue – a short history of a ‘Celebration of the organ’.

When, in 1993, I returned to the Netherlands after two years of organ studies in Paris, I decided to invest the sudden luxury of some spare time in the study of a relatively new piece about which I had heard positive noises from knowledgeable sources. Aside from exuding all the omens of a very good new piece, the attraction for me rested on its very demanding complexity, almost impossible to play. As a notorious ‘note cracker’ who played among others the most demanding music by Messiaen and having played Xenakis at my final exam, this was something to get my teeth into. Moreover it transpired that the only other organist who played it, one Gottfried Sembdner, had only performed part 1 in the Netherlands. In the meantime I met up with Jan Vriend at the old Gaudeamus House in Bilthoven, who had come over for an interview – it marked the beginning of an enthusiastic collaboration which resulted later in a few more compositions for organ: Grosse Fuge for organ and percussion in 2001 (commissioned by the Percussion Group The Hague) and Bachanalia in 2009 (commissioned by the Radio Matinee in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw). On 27 July 1994 I played the Dutch premiere of movements 2 and 3 in the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam. Soon an integral performance of Jets d’Orgue followed in the St Peter in Cologne. Another performance, including a radio recording of the complete work, took place in 1997 in the Domkerk in Utrecht as the opening event of the annual Dutch Music Days.

Significant for the composition’s demanding score and the absence of interest in this music in the world of organists is, that after so many years Sembdner and I are still the only ones to have adopted the piece in their repertoire. Jets d’Orgue is a bit of a side-slip in Dutch organ literature. Even though part 1 was written in 1985 i.e. some 25 years ago now, it has only enjoyed relatively few performances and in reviews of Dutch organ music it very often isn’t even mentioned. That may be due in part to the afore mentioned level of complexity: each time you pick it up again it requires months of preparation to re-conquer each bar and it feels as if you have to learn to play the organ all over again. Jets d’Orgue is the work of an important Dutch composer who, completely ‘obsessed’ by the organ, invested a number of years of his life in the exploration of the instrument and the exploitation of all its possibilities,  all this on a scale and with an ingenuity that doesn’t have its equal in Dutch organ music. Therefore the work also deserves international recognition as a mile-stone.

It is fascinating to see how the three part composition reflects the development of Vriend’s musical thinking. Part 1, originally conceived as an independent piece for organ, bears all the hallmarks of the sound world of Xenakis, whom Vriend admired and tried to emulate at the time. Here we find sound eruptions whose appearances, as it were, grow or decay in a statistical manner along lines of gradual transformation. Exactly this unforgiving approach in which ‘everything is pulled out of the bag’ and neither organist, nor organ or stop-assistant is spared, conjures up an unprecedented and sensational sound panorama full of novelties.

Parts 2 and 3 represent a new phase in which both idiomatically and conceptually references are made to tradition. We see the re-appearance of motives and themes, harmonies based on diatonic scales, structures less linear and more block shaped. Vriend furthermore draws on existing music of masters such as Bach and Beethoven. He quotes their music, lets himself be inspired by it and regurgitates it at leisure in his inimitable fashion into music in which tradition is both kept alive and renewed. In the other two compositions I mentioned, this aspect stands out even more emphatically: in ‘Grosse Fuge’ Beethoven is centre stage; in ‘Bachanalia’ it is Bach who dominates. In Jets d’Orgue 3 several such quotations appear, of which the most important is the beginning of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony which becomes the subject of a long series of variations.

Finally worth mentioning is a passage in part 2 where the stop-assistants are asked to improvise on a sequence of slow changing chords. They transform the world-famous Müller organ in this recording into an amazing sound generator.

Jan Hage
March 2010.