Robert Parkins took us on a flying tour of organ history at Duke Chapel on the afternoon of Sunday, March 26. Employing the Brombaugh organ in the Memorial Chapel and the great Flentrop organ, he played examples of “Preludes, Fugues and Passacaglias” (the title of the program), all of which relate in some way to the development of polyphonic music that flies – to be overly pedantic about the root meaning of the word fugue.

The first part of the program with Parkins at the Brombough, featured 16th- and 17th-century music from Germany, Italy and Spain – mostly short pieces, and mostly written for church settings. Parkins is a recognized and highly regarded interpreter of the music of this period. Heinrich Scheidemann (c.1595-1663), organist at St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg, employed elemental imitative music (the seed of the fugue form) in his Praeambulum in D Minor, which opened the recital. We heard a Frescobaldi canzon to be played after the reading from the Epistle – a beautiful tune with ethereal whispers. Next was “Pasacalles I (1st tone)” by Juan Cabanilles (1644-1712), which reminded me of a fantasy with lovely filigree that seemed a perfect accompaniment to the woodcarvings above the pulpit in Duke University Chapel. Johann Pachelbel’s choral prelude “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” uses the tune we are familiar with as Old 100th. Closing the first portion of the program was a more extended work, the Passacaglia by Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-93). This jewel of south German organ music consists of continuous variations on a repeated bass line, building in intensity to the final statement.

After Parkins moved to the Flentrop, we heard music by Louis Couperin (1626-61), Guillaume Gabriel Nivers (c.1632-1714), and then André Raison (1650?-1719). Of Raison’s “Trio en Passacaille (2nd tone),” Parkins writes in his program notes: “This otherwise unremarkable liturgical verset would hardly be noticed if it had not been borrowed later by J. S. Bach.” It was this theme that Bach used in his towering masterpiece, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, a performance of which followed the Raison. Throughout the chapel, you could feel that sense of awe from the first simple statement through every embellished variation over the repeated theme and then through the astonishing fugue. The music soars and you soar with it. No matter how often you have heard it or how familiar you are with it, this music is amazing, offering something new and fresh with every hearing. Parkins was inspired by it, filled with the power of the music.

Where do you go from there? One could say the musical world recognized that the art of organ composition and performance had reached such a high plateau with Bach that it fell into a period of decline after his death in 1750, so Parkins chose to leap ahead nearly a hundred years to Robert Schumann’s tribute “Fugue on the Name BACH,” Op 60/3, composed in 1845. Using the German nomenclature, the theme becomes B flat-A-C-B (natural). It is a quiet, reflective piece, one of many that uses this mode of tribute.

Next in the chain we heard Joseph Rheinberger’s Introduction and Passacaglia (from Sonata No. 8). An esteemed composition teacher, Rheinberger composed 20 sonatas for organ; the eighth is one of the more successful ones. He models his Passacaglia after the basso ostinato in the Passacaglia of J. S. Bach. It is powerful music, taking up where Bach left off; while not going further, it rises with more modern compositional tools to the level of the Leipzig Master.

Parkins took another tack with “Le Jardin suspendu,” a chaconne by Jehan Alain, who died at 29 as a soldier in the early days of WW II. A member a famous family of French organists and musicians, Jehan held great promise and contributed to the legacy of the French renaissance of organ music in the 20th century. Inspired by the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Alain paints a dreamy picture of the artist’s ideal, perpetually pursued and elusively just beyond reach.

To close the program, another tribute piece was chosen. This time it was Maurice Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on the Name ALAIN (Op. 7), composed in 1942 as a memorial to Jehan. The name ALAIN becomes, in musical terms, A-D-A-A-f. Duruflé’s prime interests in Gregorian chant and the music of J. S. Bach find expression in all of his works. The principal subject of the fugue, based on the ALAIN motive, is joined by a second subject in 16th notes as the work builds to a glorious climax. After this, the concert ended with enthusiastic applause, and bravos. We walked out of the chapel on solid ground, but we knew we had been flying this afternoon with the artistry of one of the Triangle’s rich treasures, Robert Parkins, University Organist since 1985.

This was the last of the 2005-2006 Organ Recitals in Duke University Chapel, presented on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This season we heard Olivier Latry, Mary Preston, Frederick Hohmann, David Arcus, and Robert Parkins. The recital series of free concerts is made possible by the generous support of the Marvin B. and Elvira Lowe Smith Memorial Fund, established by their daughter, Alyse Smith Cooper. Next year’s series holds promise for more exciting organ playing in the chapel. We look forward to it and hope you will too.