Three Hymn Tune Fantasias

[i] Prelude and Fugue on 'Iste Confessor' [ii] Improvisation on 'Slane' [iii] Toccata on 'King's Lynn'

forces: Organ
duration: [i] ca 16'00" [ii] ca 7'00" [iii] ca 6'00". [In toto, a little over half an hour if the hymn tune originals are played before the successive movements.]
published by: Peters Edition

A complete recital performance of the Hymn Tune Fantasias by Christopher Keady [Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, USA] can be heard here, starting at 26’45” into the complete video:


The ACIS [ALP 67065] performance by Christian Wilson of movement 2 – Improvisation on ‘Slane’ – can be heard here:

A performance by Simon Hogan of movement 3 – Toccata on ‘King’s Lynn’ – can be heard here:

Composers' Note

These pieces were privately commissioned by Nicholas Jardine, formerly Head of English at Haileybury College and an accomplished amateur organist. He requested some works founded upon English hymn tunes, but left the choice of those tunes to me. Being naturally attracted to the modality of earlier examples, I steered clear of Victorian hymnody. I avoided undue bias towards minor keys in two ways: first, by choosing for the middle movement the Irish tune Slane, whose major-key tonality is inflected by folk tradition more than by 19th-century classical principles; and, secondly, by exploiting the Dorian mode in the opening Prelude & Fugue on Iste Confessor, where a balance is struck between G major and D minor. The Prelude inhabits primarily the former and the Fugue the latter, but both seek to embrace the authentic modal sense of a fulcrum that allows the music perpetually to lean either way.

The Prelude deliberately suggests aspects of mediaeval practice, with hints of organum (the parallel doubling-up of melodic lines at the 5th and octave) and glimpses of the hymn melody embedded in the unfolding discourse. My intention was to avoid overt exposure of the tune, saving that for the closing stages (where, with any luck, it might seem inevitable yet not wholly foreseen). The Prelude remains fairly muted, proceeding some way before the pedals are involved. It evokes the spirit of variation form by presenting a starkly unadorned statement at the opening, like a verset, then announcing a flowing line of triplet quavers, against which the initial theme is further explored. After rhapsodic exploration of elements of the hymn tune, the Prelude resumes the manner of its opening, subsiding finally onto an unresolved E. This is then contradicted by the rising D-A of the Fugue subject, a distilled version of the hymn tune.

The Fugue takes its cue from Bach’s great triple fugue in E flat, BWV 552 (the spuriously-nicknamed ‘St Anne’), in which a series of expositions based on the main subject unfolds against countersubjects evolving from one another like a set of variations. It also nods towards Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain. Adhering rigorously to consistent countersubjects, the Fugue explores various stretti (entries of the subject and its variants which overlap instead of lying end-to-end), before reaching a junction where the second of its three sections begins. (The leaning towards Bach is fairly explicit at this point.) Gradually a set of fugal subject entries builds up from the pedals to the top of the texture, whereupon the hymn tune begins finally to emerge more obviously. The third section resumes exploration of the triplet quaver figure from the Prelude, now placing it in modal D minor rather than G major. Initial imitative entries soon give rise to free toccata-like figuration, and the quavers destabilise things by insisting on their repeating groupings against a prevailing minim pulse. Finally the entire tune is stated by the pedals. From this emerge the latter stages of the hymn tune in majestic chordal form. An energetic coda hints once more at the material of the Prelude. The final chord is an obvious salute to Jehan Alain’s iconic Litanies, but also a logical summation of the modal process at work throughout the Prelude and Fugue.

The Improvisation on Slane presents flowing triplets which are a rhythmically ironed-out statement of the hymn tune’s opening contour. In deliberate contrast with the foregoing music, this movement is rhapsodically contemplative, its motivic hints of the tune emerging incidentally and imposing only a subliminal kind of unity. The opening stages should, I hope, hint at the complete tune for some time before it actually arrives. When it does, it is heard in its customary tonality of E flat, but transposed within this so that it begins on the fifth of the scale rather than the keynote, thus finding different harmonic possibilities. A further rhapsodic passage intervenes before the theme is heard complete. This time, its final stages dissipate into free variation, taking the music down a tone before allowing further free exploration of its content to become more overtly folk-related (an improvisatory passage perhaps loosely evokes Uillean pipes). The Improvisation ends not on a chord of E flat but on a bare fifth of B flat, confirming the open-endedness implied by its opening.

The Toccata on King’s Lynn features the least-known hymn tune in the set. Of mediaeval provenance, this probably owes its appearance in the English Hymnal to the appeal which it must have held for Vaughan Williams during his editing task in 1906 – at which point it acquired words by G. K. Chesterton. The movement opens with a broad introduction confining itself to the hymn melody’s opening line. The main part of the toccata explores fragments of the tune in various guises against a persistent jig-like rhythm, offsetting them by means of more complete melodic lines from the pedals. Hints of the introduction, including ‘retrograde’ (backwards) statements and inversions of its opening notes, finally lead to its actual return, this time higher than before and in more climactic form. There is a headlong coda but the music refuses to settle finally into the major key, preserving the hymn tune’s austerity in an unresolved final chord which perhaps recalls and balances that of the earlier Fugue.

The Hymn Tune Fantasias are conceived to be played separately or as a single work. The Prelude & Fugue form an integral design, but could be presented as opening and concluding voluntaries framing a single service. Above all, the music deploys counterpoint to an extent relatively seldom attempted by organ composers these days. I hope that this conveys both my indebtedness to a compositional past and some sort of worthwhile adherence to an honourable tradition.

© Francis Pott, 2017                              

Composers' Note


Francis Pott’s Fantasias speak of a different compositional world entirely [from music by Jean Guillou, reviewed in the preceding paragraph]. The three well-known tunes – Iste Confessor, Slane and King’s Lynn – are treated with all the composer’s customary finesse and restrained elegance. Textures are transparent, counterpoint perfectly argued, and while a large instrument will add drama it should be just possible to manage all three on a resourceful two-manual. Slane is perhaps the easiest of the set, but none is hugely difficult, and the writing is laid out so thoughtfully that neat solutions to technical difficulties are always close at hand. A distinguished contribution to the great tradition of hymn-tune preludes.

Stephen Farr, Choir & Organ, 2017


Of interest here are the first recordings of La Chiesa del Sole and the Three Hymn Tune Fantasias. Dedicated to the [memory of] the late John Scott, the former is characteristically rich and intricately crafted, beginning as a free fantasia and ending with a fugue metamorphosing into a triumphant toccata. The latter boasts an involving Improvisation on the Irish tune Slane and a forcefully austere Toccata on the English mediaeval hymn King’s Lynn

Michael Quinn, Choir & Organ, May-June 2018.




Francis Pott Organ Works

Christian Wilson

Acis APL 67065  x   2017

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