Damin Spritzer records her third volume of organ works of René Louis Becker (1882-1956), the prolific Alsatian-American composer, teacher, and organist who worked 52 years in St. Louis, Illinois, and Michigan. The CD is the first recording of the beloved and now completed 1938 Kimball organ at St. John‘s Cathedral, Denver, its original 96 ranks intact and restored, with the antiphonal added as planned in 1938 but not installed until 2016, with 17 ranks. The organ is featured on the cover of the July 2017 TAO. Damin Spritzer's previous two volumes of Becker's works received stellar reviews.
The 10 works composed by René Louis Becker and recorded in Volume 3, all for the first time, are:
Marche Militaire, op. 62
Marche Nuptiale, op. 1, no. 2
Allegro Risoluto, op. 68b
Postlude in F-sharp Major, op. 69d
Sur la Rivière, op. 77b
Meditation, op. 51, no. 5
Clair de Lune, op. 75b
Rêve des Anges, op. 53a
Idylle Angélique, op. 71 duet with Adam Pajan
Pastorella, op. 81b
In Chapel, op. 81d
Song of Joy, op. 81e
Melodie Elégiaque, op.
René Louis Becker’s Organ Music
by Damin Spritzer
The elegant organ music of René Louis Becker has been a joy to rediscover, as although he received recognition from many colleagues and published prolifically during his lifetime, his music fell out of common memory for decades. Becker’s music is described perfectly in this quote from famed organist Albert Riemenschneider, who said, “True to the heritage of his native land, [Becker] combines in an unusual degree the best characteristics of the French and German schools. His melodies are always singable and beautiful and his earnestness and seriousness as shown by his sonatas is equaled only by his great command of rhythmic treatment.”1 Esteemed conductor and editor Nicolas Slonimsky also referred to Becker as, “…one of the foremost authorities in church music.”2
René Becker’s grandfather (Jean-Baptiste,3 1813-1865), and father (Edouard, 1838-1895) were also organists. His father held positions including Chartres Cathedral and the Strasbourg Cathedral4 (from 1871 to 1875). René was the second-to-last child in a large family, and trained at the Strasbourg Municipal Conservatory of Music (from 1896-1904): piano with Ernst Münch and Fritz Blumer (a student of Franz Liszt), harmony with Carl Somborn (a student of Josef Rheinberger), and organ with Adolph Gessner.5
In 1904,6 René joined his two older brothers, Lucien (an organist) and Camille (a tenor and organist) in St. Louis, Missouri, where they founded the Becker Bros. Conservatory. He also taught pianoforte at the St. Louis University7 and Gregorian Chant at Kenrick Seminary.8 In 1912, he moved to Belleville, Illinois, to become the organist for St. Peter’s Cathedral until 1915, when he moved to Alton, Illinois. He remained in Alton until 1930 as the organist for Ss. Peter and Paul Church.9 1928 saw his last published organ piece, and in 1930 he moved again and became the organist at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit, Michigan10 until 1942. He left Detroit after 1942 and went to his last church position at St. Alphonsus Church in Dearborn, Michigan,11 for eight years. René Becker passed away at his home in Detroit12 after suffering from the Parkinson’s disease that was the cause of his death13 on January 28th of 1956 at the age of 74.
His estate contained more than 180 documented individual pieces for solo organ, and he published more than 70 between 1908 and 1928. Surviving organ works include 34 marches, 15 toccatas, three large-scale sonatas, three extended fugues, numerous smaller works styled as preludes, postludes, finales, chansons, and fantasies, etc.
As Becker held several positions during his career in America, he was associated with instruments by Kilgen, Estey, Hook & Hastings, Casavant, and Austin. However, there is no “Becker organ” and his registrations almost never exactly match stops or manuals on the specific instruments he knew in his church positions. The 1938 Kimball organ at St. John’s Cathedral is an ideal venue for presentation of these works as Becker might have heard them during his lifetime.
Notes on the Program
All selections on this disc are world premier recordings. A companion volume to my first and second discs of Becker’s music (also for Raven), this recording showcases the stunning Kimball organ in Denver in a program of Becker’s stand-alone compositions.
Sur la Rivière, op. 77b was dedicated to the well-known concert organist Edwin Lemare, who was one of the most highly regarded musicians of his day and a contemporary of Becker. Lemare was known for his own compositions which were often designed to be showpieces for the abilities and colors of the instruments he played, and thus this dreamy, programmatically-titled work in E-flat seems indeed like something that Lemare would have enjoyed performing. Sumptuously melodic and full of surprising modulations, it is a vehicle for the remarkable strings and foundations of the Kimball organ, both front and back organs, and in particular features the French Horn in the solo division.
Also in E-flat, the Meditation, op. 51, no. 5, is a classically inspired piece and one of several written by Becker that exemplify his exceptional lyricism. The Flauto Mirabilis in the Solo Division is used for the melody in the outer sections, contrasted with the Swell Voix Humaine in the middle section.
The Allegro Risoluto, op. 68b is a crashing and dramatic piece in E minor, full of intensity and drive. Composed in a way that lends itself to being performed as a dialogue between the newly-installed solo Tuba in the antiphonal organ and the main organ in the nave, the rhythmic opening theme is developed extensively and then contrasted with a gentler melodic section in ternary form in the dominant key of B major. The original theme returns and leads to a majestic “Chorale Maestoso.” From a program in the family archives, it is known that this piece was premiered by Clarence Eddy in 1919 in Burlington, Iowa.14
Translated as “Light of the moon,” or “moonlight,” Becker’s Clair de Lune, op. 75b in D-flat represents not only a beautiful and unique piece of music, but also joins a list of well-known works by the same title by contemporary composers including Joseph Jongen, Claude Debussy, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, and Gabriel Fauré; Louis Vierne’s famous piece with this title was not composed until 1926, whereas Becker’s was published in 1924. The Swell Oboe on the main organ is the featured solo stop in the outer sections of this work, contrasted with the strings in the Choir. A haunting series of rising sequences is registered on the most delicate strings of the Kimball at 16'and 8' for a smoky, mysterious effect, and the flutes of the organ are used throughout the middle section in F-sharp minor.
Among Becker’s few works based upon Gregorian chant, the Postlude in F-sharp Major, op. 69d, is one of fifteen toccatas that he composed for the organ. The chant incipit provided on the first page of the score forms the basis for the entire work. Interestingly, the chant bears a similarity to the well-known hymn Houston (“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”). This virtuosic toccata incorporates fragments of the chant throughout in both the soprano and pedal, ending with pedal octaves for a final dramatic statement at the close of the piece.
It is a lesser-known fact that Becker also played theatre organ during his career, for certain in Alton, Illinois, as there are newspaper clippings about it in the family archives. The F-major Idylle Angélique, op. 71, is a unique piece in his oeuvre, being a charming and virtuosic set of variations with textures and harmonic language that are faintly suggestive of programmatic theatre music. Highly pianistic with swooping arpeggios and an opportunity to use the original percussion stops of the Kimball, this “angelic idyll” was dedicated to his wife, Angela, and is heard here as a duet with Adam Pajan.
In addition to featuring Becker’s first works on this disc (op. 1, no. 1, etc.), the Pastorella (B-flat), In Chapel (D major), and Song of Joy (C major) are excerpted from a set of five small pieces that were among his last organ publications. The Pastorella is dedicated to his older brother, Lucien, who was a prominent organist in both St. Louis and later in Portland, Oregon. It is a charming work and provides an opportunity to use many of the smaller solo reeds in the Choir Division of the Kimball, including the Bassoon 16' and the Orchestral Oboe. The second two works were both dedicated to a St. Louis friend named Elmer H. F. Ruhe. In Chapel is a delicate and poignant piece and a showcase for the various and numerous sets of Kimball strings in the front and back organs. The boisterous Song of Joy utilizes the principal chorus and Trumpet of the new Antiphonal Organ, completed in 2016.
Programmatically and musically, it seemed fitting to include op. 1, no. 2, and op. 2 on this disc of individual organ pieces. Though these organ works were published in 1916 and bear the earliest opus numbers, Becker’s publishing began a decade earlier, in 1906 (piano works) and in 1908 with the first publication of organ works, 12 Compositions for Organ, op. 16 (two pieces are included in CD Vol. 2). Performed here as a dialogue between the new Oboe of the Antiphonal Organ and the Swell strings of the Main Organ, the Melodie Elégiaque, op. 2, is a mournful and plangent elegy in D minor, again dedicated to Clarence Eddy.
1 Albert Riemenschneider, Baldwin-Wallace College Bulletin, School of Music, Vol. 4, No. 4, Sept. 1916, private collection of the Becker family, Birmingham, MI.
2 Slonimsky, Nicholas. Private collection of the Becker family, Birmingham, MI. May 4, 1956.
3 Gene Scott, “La famille Becker” Musica et Memoria, www.musimem.com/becker.htm (accessed September 2011).
4 M. J. Erb, “Episodes de la vie d’un musicien d’Alsace (IV)”, L’orgue 42 (1947): 7.
5 Becker, René Louis, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Fourth Edition, New York, G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940, page 76
6 J. H.T. Mize, ed., “Becker, René Louis,” The International Who is Who in Music, Fifth (Mid-Century) Edition, (Chicago: Sterling Publishing Company, 1951), 64.
7 Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Rev. Ed., (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940), 76.
8 Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 5th Ed., (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1958), 108.
9 Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Rev. Ed., (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940), 76.
10 Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Rev. Ed., (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940), 76.
11 J. H.T. Mize, ed., 64.
12 “In Loving Memory: René L. Becker, Musician, 73” Detroit Sunday Times, 29 January 1956
13 Julius Becker, interview by author, Birmingham, MI., 13 May 2010.
14 Eddy Concert program, private collection of the Becker family, Birmingham, MI
Since 2015, Damin Spritzer has served as Assistant Professor of Organ at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and continues to serve the Cathedral Church of Saint Matthew in Dallas, Texas, as Artist-in-Residence for the Cathedral Arts series. She performs internationally with recent concerts in France, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Chicago, Methuen, New York, Los Angeles, Charleston (SC), Ft. Worth, Houston, Lubbock, and many others including presentations for chapters of the American Guild of Organists, diverse musical festivals, and conferences.
This third volume of the organ music of René Louis Becker follows two previous ones. In 2011, Raven released Dr. Spritzer’s first commercial recording of his organ works. It was recorded in Pithiviers, France, in 2010 at the recently renovated Cavaillé-Coll organ of the church of Saint-Salomon-Saint-Gregoire. Choir & Organ magazine gave it five stars, writing that “Damin Spritzer serves both instrument and music well, alert to the music’s lyrical mien and harmonic muscle, negotiating the III/49 machine with an easy command of drama and a real feeling for Becker’s melody-led, cleanly-executed music… A second volume is eagerly awaited.” The AAM Journal wrote, “The music comes alive under her touch!... This recording is a delight...” A review from Classical Music Sentinel praised the recording, “…Damin Spritzer drives the music along with plenty of forward momentum which adds a singing quality to the melodic lines and an assured rhythmic movement to the toccatas and marches... the final glorious chord of the Marche Triomphale will make you glad you’re alive.”
Her second volume of Becker’s organ music was recorded in Orléans, France, in 2013 at the Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, and received four stars from Choir & Organ, and the following praise from Classical Music Sentinel: “…Spritzer jumps right into the action with an assured confidence and refined musicality that quite simply reinforces the high level of craftmanship and beauty inherent to the music of composer René Louis Becker... The opening Toccata in B-flat alone, which could easily intimidate many organists with its agitated left-hand and busy pedal work, moves forward at quite a pace under Spritzer’s command, and thus reveals its determined musical lines all leading to a powerful finish… her choice of registration for the softly tender Cantilène, Op. 63, demonstrates an organist who knows how to balance colors on a sonic canvas… Both volumes belong on the shelves of all organ music enthusiasts.”
Becker having been the topic of her doctoral dissertation, she edits a continuing multi-volume critical edition of Becker’s organ music for Wayne Leupold Editions which will market a monograph on the composer as published by the Leupold Foundation. Her Doctor of Musical Arts degree was received from the University of North Texas, and she received her MM in Organ Performance from the Eastman School of Music and her BM in Organ Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Leupold Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of pipe organ music and culture, and is active in the American Guild of Organists.
Known also as an organbuilder and voicer, Adam Pajan’s concert performances have taken him across the United States and internationally to places as diverse as Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland. He was twice a finalist in the Longwood Competition, receiving the Firmen Swinnen Second Prize in 2013. He won First Place in the Ruth and Clarence Mader National Organ-Playing Competition, the Arthur Poister Scholarship in Organ Playing, and the Albert Schweitzer Organ Festival National Competition. Dr. Pajan received his BM degree magna cum laude at Furman University, his MM degree from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and his doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. Since 2014, he has served as organ faculty at the University of Oklahoma. He is Director of Music and Organist for the parish of St. Mark the Evangelist in Norman, Oklahoma, conducts the Oklahoma Master Chorale, and is active in the American Guild of Organists.
The Platt Rogers Organ, W. W. Kimball Co., Opus 7231, 1938
Once the largest producer of parlor reed organs in America, making 403,390 of them between 1880 and 1922, W. W. Kimball of Chicago built more than 7,300 pipe organs after opening a pipe organ department in 1890 and closing it in 1942. The 1938 Kimball at Saint John’s Cathedral is the company’s last large organ, their final essay in what a grand organ should be. The organ bears the plate “To the glory of God and in loving memory of Platt Rogers (1850-1928),” the gift of Senator Lawrence and Margaret Phipps to honor Mrs. Phipps’ father. It is the largest, tonally intact, American cathedral organ built in the 20th century and prior to World War II.
That the St. John’s Kimball organ retains all of its original voicing and pipework — every single original pipe is intact, a remarkable survival — tells a story of careful maintenance by only three individuals or firms since 1938 as well as fortuitous impediments to major changes considered in the 1980s and 1990s. Restored exquisitely in 2008-2012 by the Spencer Organ Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts, the approach to the restoration was purposely conservative and respectful.
The chancel organ has 96 ranks and 5,961 individual pipes. The console was always prepared for an Antiphonal, and one was finally installed in 2016. This new, 17-rank section is a collaboration between Spencer Organ Company and J. Zamberlan & Co., also involving Jonathan Ambrosino as consultant and in voicing. The Great and Swell are comprised mostly of pipes from a defunct 1899 Kimball in Pittsburgh. Other vintage and new material fill out the rest, including the (liturgical) West Gallery cases built by Zamberlan, a 32' Bourdon, and a spectacular hooded Tuba. All combined, the instrument now contains 113 ranks and 7,057 pipes. The builders report on their work in the July, 2017, issue of The American Organist. This recording is the first to feature the now-complete and restored 1938 Kimball.