Jongen – Symphonie concertante for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 81

by Max Derrickson

We think of pipe organs today as magnificent powerhouses of music, which indeed they can be, but the origins of the pipe organ are rather humble.  Historians believe it was in the 3rd Century BC that a Greek engineer named Ktesibios took to solving the engineering problem of playing multiple pipes at once.  He invented the “hydraulis” which, as its name implies, used water pressure to regulate the flow of air through fixed pipes, and controlled their pitch by a keyboard.  It was the first pipe organ, and it soon captivated the entire Western world.  From there,     [. . .]

Joseph Jongen
(Born in Liège, Belgium in1873; died in Sart-lez-Spa, Belgium in 1953)

Symphonie concertante for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 81
1. Allegro molto moderato
2. Divertimento: Molto vivo
3. Lento misterioso—Appassionato—Tempo I
4. Toccata (Moto perpetuo): Allegro moderato

By the dawn of the 20th Century, the pipe organ was considered the most complicated music machine in human history.  Within a decade, electrical advancements would blossom the instrument into a “Symphonic Orchestra at a keyboard,” and give rise to pipe organs of gargantuan size.   One of the greatest of these was the organ built for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair boasting over 10,000 pipes.  After the Fair, the grand instrument was bought by the Philadelphia Department store magnate, John Wanamaker.  He built an entire seven-story building around it, added 1,800 additional pipes and several registers over the next two decades, thus creating the largest pipe organ in the world – becoming known as the “Wanamaker Organ.”  It is indeed [. . .]

In the 1920’s, with such an extraordinary instrument at his disposal, Wanamaker and his family were busy hosting all of the world’s great organists to give recitals in his Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia – an invitation near impossible to turn down for any organist given it held the world’s most magnificent organ.  In 1926, the Wanamakers commissioned the Belgian organist and composer, Joseph Jongen, to both compose and premiere a grand new organ concerto to be performed with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Jongen was considered one [. . .]

Before long Jongen’s Symphonie was being called the most important work for organ and orchestra in the 20th Century, and rightly so, although its charms are at once subtle and obvious.  Right away, Jongen launches into a serious, [. . .]  moments of hush and awe, darkness as well as profundity.

Soon after the fugue there follows a lush and romantic theme.  Jongen’s pacing [. . .]    in keeping with the organ tradition started by Bach, the finale is a full-tilt Toccata that is as Herculean to perform as it is exciting.

Most exceptional, however, is the overall concept of this Symphonie [. . .]

It took 80 years for Jongen’s Symphonie concertante to premiere in its intended space.  In 2008, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Rossen Milanov and with organ soloist Peter Richard Conte brought the work home with a “Grand Celebration” of the mighty organ, and Jongen’s mighty piece.  Anyone can hear the Wanamaker organ in the Philadelphia Department Store (now owned by Macy’s) free of charge, Mondays through Saturdays.