Thoughts on The Everlasting Crown
by Judith Bingham
I realise now that I was very lucky, as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in the early 1970s, to meet David Roblou, at that time a fellow student studying organ and harpsichord. He was the organist at St. Giles Cripplegate, a church in the City of London, and before long I was singing in the choir – the usual professional group of 4, sometimes 8 singers. I don’t suppose that I would have started writing for the organ until much later otherwise. As it was, it was being in the organ loft, sometimes turning pages, but always listening, that made me want to write something myself. My first efforts were a bit frightening I think! I was then (and now) mad about French Baroque music and my style combined a modernist approach with the excesses of French ornamentation and gesture. The organ pieces were full of roulades of notes and mad ornaments. When I look at the manuscripts now, David has crossed out a lot of the notes, presumably because they couldn’t be fitted in in the time allotted! I also registered every two or three notes differently, not realising what was involved to achieve that, or that the music would not sound the same, or even be possible, when transferred to another organ. I wrote him 3 pieces, but didn’t write a solo piece for the organ again until 1982. From then on, I was regularly writing for organ in church music, in solos, and in orchestral pieces.
There was no teaching in the Academy as to how you should write for organ, – at that time, in new music, the organ was largely an instrument that organists and church musicians wrote for and I didn’t know about Messiaen. Like a lot of young composers I meet now, I didn’t know what questions I should ask.
It was only finally in 2002 that I had my eureka moment, when I was asked to be a non-specialist judge on the RCO’s Performer of the Year. Sitting all day listening to lots of repeat performances with a score, I suddenly realised that the organ was not a horizontal instrument like the piano, but a vertical one. I realised that one hand could be playing lower down than another but still sound higher. I realised that the pedal did not have to be the bass line. I know! It had taken me a long time to clock all of this.
A few years ago, in the course of doing some research for a commission, I came across a 19th century American book called ‘Stories about Famous Precious Stones,’ by Adela E. Orpen. A book of dubious scholarship, it nevertheless had intriguing stories about some of history’s most famous gemstones. I thought straightaway that it would make a great organ piece, and ran the idea past various organist friends, who all said ‘what a marvellous idea!’ but were unable to commission. It went onto the back burner until 2010, when some friends asked me to write a piece for Stephen Farr, and Stephen asked for an extended work that could be the foundation for a concert. Having turned around various ideas, I suddenly remembered the gemstones and got out the book again. Many famous stones have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, and have an elaborate and mystical mythology: the famous diamonds like the Cullinan stones, the Koh-i-Noor, and the Orlov diamond have a savage and bloody past – as Sherlock Holmes says in The Blue Carbuncle:
Holmes took up the stone and held it against the light. “It’s a bonny thing,” said he. “Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old. In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallised charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?
But more than this, the stones themselves, undecaying, constant, represent aspects of monarchy and power, and this seemed an interesting basis for a piece. The seven famous stones I chose represent a quality of being royal: the divinity of the god-king, loneliness and vulnerability, over-weaning ambition, murder, piety, spectacle and conquest. In a way, these stones encode the qualities of royalty that we recognise as constant while the rulers themselves change. The large sapphire, known as King Edward’s sapphire, has been in the English crown for a thousand years and was reputed given by him to St. John, disguised as a beggar. It is still in our Imperial State crown, unchanged despite the thousand years of history that have swirled around it. So in my mind, I imagined a fantasy crown, set with seven famous gems that are all still around somewhere in the world today. The piece opens with a coronation scene. I subtitled the work ‘melodrama’ and it has been very much influenced by silent movies and early expressionist films, as well as old photographs of European, Russian and Indian royal families. The Russian element is strong in the work, with the Orlov diamond, presented to Catherine the Great, and the great spinel in the Imperial Crown that gave the last Tsar, Nicholas II, a headache to wear. Because of this I found one of the most powerful influences to be the Sternberg/Dietrich film The Scarlet Empress, which takes melodrama to an extreme level.
This is a long piece, lasting about 35 minutes, and explores the musical material that is presented in the opening ‘scene.’ A series of tableaux unfolds, some separate, some segue-ing into each other. Different styles of organ playing are reflected – the 3rd gem, a pearl called La Pelegrina suggested to me the private domestic playing of two manual organs, and has no pedal part, but the next scene (the ambition suggested by the Orlov diamond) is introduced by a pedal cadenza with doubling pedalling in places. There are two big thematic ideas that occur right at the beginning: the opening pedal melody, which is roughly in the shape of a crown, and the big rising melody that is constantly falling back over large distances. Although it needs a very good organist to play the whole piece, it is perfectly possible (and has now happened) to play 1, 2 or 3 movements, and some are deliberately much easier than others.
Most students who write for the organ start by writing for the church, and most –if they are not players themselves -learn through trial and error, which can be exasperating, if not actually distressing for composer and player! As the Church is such a big commissioner of new music, it makes sense to give student composers a rudimentary idea of the techniques involved, but also because writing solo organ music is full of new potential. Up to now, it has been dominated by Messiaen and the French School, but I think that time has passed and I hope that British and American organists will encourage young composers to continue to develop this wonderful genre.