A substantial audience was on hand (although it was odd that there were few, if any, university-age members, given the proximity of Raleigh’s Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral to NC State University) to hear cathedral organist David Danielson Eaton play an interesting and demanding program of organ works ranging in time from Sweelinck (1562-1621) to two composers of our time (Robert A. Harris, born in 1938, and Christa Rakich, born in 1952 (the recital program states 1950; her compositions give the later year).

The recital opened and closed with major works by J.S. Bach: the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, and the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544. The Fantasia was well-played; Eaton left time for reverberation to die down between sections of the recitative-like passages. His tempo for the Fugue was excellent, neither too fast for the acoustic nor too slow for the music’s forward thrust. The B minor Prelude and Fugue, a sharply contrasting work to the previous one, ended the program with an interpretation less idiomatic than the one Eaton chose for the recital’s opening. There was no alternation between levels of sound in the Prelude, the Fugue was far more legato than one might expect, and its conclusion was muddied by being drowned in the bottom-heavy full organ sound of the Fisk instrument.

The organ’s sound, of course, is not determined by the performer, other than by the choice of which stops to use. It must be said that this organ is decidedly not designed for performance of Baroque music, whether Germanic or French. In an extremely reverberant acoustic which by its very nature emphasizes lower sonic frequencies, it is bottom-heavy, with some 70% of its sets of pipes at 8′, 16′, or 32′ pitch (8′ pitch = the same pitch as the standard piano keyboard; 16′ pitch is an octave lower, 32′ pitch is two octaves lower). It lacks the brilliance of higher-pitched sets of pipes: two of its four divisions have no mixture stops; its Swell division does not have a single off-unison high-pitched harmonic stop such as a 2 2/3′ rank, a staple of most Swell divisions and constantly called for by composers old and new. Eaton’s choices for a Pedal Division reed sound to undergird the Bach Fantasia did not include a Fagott/Bassoon stop which would have served him well; his choices were between a Trombone and a Bombarde, either of which was too heavy to properly balance the rest of the music. When Eaton wanted to close the B minor Fugue with a logical increase in volume, that increase served only to blur Bach’s unsurpassed contrapuntal conclusion.

The program’s second work, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck‘s Fantasia Chromatica, was masterfully played. Its almost-200 bars of music, although related to the Middle Ages Dorian mode, are musically far ahead of Sweelinck’s time, beginning with a fugal line of six descending half steps of a standard music scale: D, C#, C♮, B, B♭, and A. Using the lighter flute stops of the organ, Eaton kept the pace of the music moving through its combination of early-Baroque forms and late-Renaissance cadential riffs. It was good to hear this too-often-neglected work played by one who understands it thoroughly and has the musicianship to make it effective.

The recital’s newest work followed, dated 1/21/21 (reverse those numbers if you choose ☺). Rakich, among her other talents, has long taught organ improvisation. When one turns out particularly well, she often writes it down. Her Eleven Variations on Heinlein are published in a series of “homage” works, in this case “Hommage à J. S. Bach.” “Heinlein” is the name of a hymn-tune, also known as “Aus der Tiefe ruhe ich,” depending on the hymnal in which one finds it. Indeed, it is patterned after one of Bach’s organ partitas, or chorale variations, reminiscent of his “Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gutig” especially in the 8th variation. The set of mostly short movements gave Eaton a chance to use many of the organ’s beautiful flute sounds, including one where adding the tremulant brought a new color to the ear. The concluding variation was a full organ four-voice fugue played by the hands, with the chorale melody played in the pedal in augmentation (i.e., the chorale melody played in note values double that of the original tempo) using 32′ stops. While it was the easiest work on the program from the standpoint of required technique, it was played deftly and musically, a treat to the ears.

From Rakich, Eaton turned to Reger. That is, from simple neo-Baroque composition to full-blooded Romantic organ music. While for some reason Max Reger‘s (1873-1916) Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor has no opus number, it is one of his more frequently performed organ works. One hopes to be paid by the note whenever performing Reger’s larger compositions, and this one is no exception. Beginning and closing with organo pleno (full organ), its outer sonorities give true meaning to the frequent non-musical phrase about how someone has “pulled out all the stops!” After the brief Introduktion (only two pages of score), Eaton began the Passacaglia on the quietest of stops, then, following Reger’s registration indications, built up the sound in each of the twelve repetitions of the theme. His pedal trills in the ninth variation were exemplary along the journey to the thundering climax of the final variation, where Reger turns from D minor to D Major. This work was more suited to the Fisk sonorities in its fortississimo close, although that sound remained thickly ponderous.

Before the final Bach work, Eaton brought Robert A. Harris’ 2020 work inspired by a sermon preached by Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Curry spoke about the death of George Floyd (before the eventual conviction of Derek Chauvin for murder and manslaughter) and about how the USA might find hope and reconciliation amidst its current divisiveness and social and racial conflicts. At several points in his sermon, Curry quoted words from the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Moved by Curry’s words, Harris immediately began composing his “Elegy for the Time of Change,” wanting to underscore with his music the fervent hopes expressed by the bishop. As Curry had interpolated the spiritual’s words at different points in his address, Harris interpolates fragments of “There is a Balm in Gilead” into his musical sermon.

Eaton’s performance was poignant and effective, as the music’s commentary on the world in which we live and the hopes for deliverance from its evils made its way through the great space of the cathedral into the thoughts of those who listened. You can hear Eaton’s recording of this music on the cathedral’s organ here.

One suggestion for future musical events at HNJC: please have printed program notes, or, if that isn’t possible, make sure that verbal remarks are amplified through the entire speaker system of the building. While Eaton spoke with a microphone from the organ loft, no sound came from the speakers in the front of the nave.

[Note for non-organists: An “eight-foot stop,” or “8′ stop” is a set of pipes which sound at the same pitch as a piano, around A=440 Hz. Its name comes from the length of its lowest pipe, which is 8′ tall. A 16′ stop speaks an octave lower; a 32′ stop speaks two octaves lower. Many higher pitches are usually included, as high as 1′ and (rarely) as low as 64′.]