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The English Organ Voluntary

by Gary D. Penkala

In Catholic churches in the United States only a few lucky organists are blessed with truly fine instruments. Many, though, are constantly searching for ways to make a "less-than-adequate" organ an effective worship tool. One solution, in terms of repertoire, is the use of early English organ music, particularly the voluntaries. These were written for modest English organs during their period of development and can sound quite good on some of our inferior organs of today.

The voluntary has its roots in 15th century Tudor England, with the beginnings of pure organ music (as opposed to accompanimental organ music). The three forms in use during this period were the meane, based on a chant melody; the pointe, an imitative piece based on a short, non-chant motive; and the voluntary, literally a "volunteered," improvisatory, freely-composed piece. The English organ of the time was quite small, having only one manual of two ranks, and no pedal. Saint Paul's Cathedral and the Chapel Royal employed famous composers of the time, Mulliner and Tallis.

In the 16th century the Act of Supremacy created the Church of England, and with it, divided the loyalties of the music world. Unlike John Bull, Thomas Tomkins and Orlando Gibbons who were forced to "choose sides," William Byrd managed to write for both the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Puritan influence in the 17th century was an extreme setback to organ music in England. The Puritans, in their radical abolition of music from the church, destroyed organs as "works of the devil." All musical development in England was to suffer, lagging far behind the European continent. While organs in Germany and Holland were quite advanced (Bach's organ at Leipzig had three manuals, 45 ranks and complete pedalboard), English organs were just beginning to acquire the second manual and still had no pedals. Prominent composers were Christopher Gibbons and John Blow, writing both single voluntaries and double voluntaries (for the new two-manual instruments).

During the 18th century the organ voluntary developed its familiar two movement form (slow/fast). Rudimentary pedals were added and manual stops included:

  • diapasons of several pitch levels with mixtures
  • flutes (really stopped diapasons)
  • a cornet (8', 4', 2-2/3', 2', 1-3/5')
  • reeds (trumpet, cromhorne, vox humana).

Among the composers of the time Handel and Stanley stand out as major contributors to the form.

The 18th century organ voluntaries are grouped in four classes:

  1. Cornet Voluntary – slow movement for diapasons, followed by quick movement for cornet stop.
  2. Trumpet Voluntary – slow movement for diapasons, followed by quick movement for trumpet stop.
  3. Echo Voluntary – slow movement for diapasons, followed by quick movement for cornet or trumpet stop, alternating with quieter passages on the Echo organ.
  4. Full Voluntary – slow introduction, followed by a quicker fugue, both played on full organ, with occasional passages for the Echo organ.

Other voluntaries may also have called for special stops (vox humana, etc.). Later composers of the voluntary (employing the new swell box) were Walond, Boyce and Wesley.

Many excellent collections of English organ music are available. Of exceptional merit is a series called Old English Organ Music for Manuals, edited by C.H. Trevor, published by Oxford University Press. You can also find much usable music at IMSLP [International Music Score Library Project].

Organists should note that until the 18th century pedals and swell boxes did not exist on English organs. Early English music published with pedal parts or swell indications is poorly edited and not in the least authentic.

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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