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Professor Pott completes two major new works for the organ

Francis Pott

The period since 2016 has seen completion of two major new works for the organ by Professor Francis Pott, Chair in Composition.

Where it started

Celebrating his 60th birthday in August 2017, Francis began attracting attention as a major composer for the organ when in 1981 he was winner of the Gerald Finzi Memorial Award for composition with Mosaici di Ravenna, a 14-minute diptych responding to the interiors of the Church of Sant’Apollinare in the Italian village of Classe, outside Ravenna, and the Basilica of San Vitale within Ravenna city. The following year his 10-minute work, Empyrean, an imaginative response to the famous Octagon in the crossing of Ely Cathedral, received First and Second Prizes in the Lloyd’s Bank Composition Award at the Cornhill Music Festival in the City of London, going on to receive performances across the UK by several of the country’s most prominent organists. Empyrean was published by United Music Publishers Ltd in 1989 and has been commercially recorded three times.

Receiving a standing ovation

The work which placed Francis firmly on the map as one of the UK’s most significant composers for the organ was Christus (1986-1990), a Passion Symphony in five cyclically-conceived movements. This epic work lasts just over two hours and was greeted with a ten-minute standing ovation on the occasion of its world première performance by Iain Simcock at Westminster Cathedral on 11th April 1991. Hailed in Musical Opinion the following year as ‘clearly one of the major works for organ in our century’, the piece has received two recordings, one by Simcock and the other by Jeremy Filsell, and has been performed on over thirty occasions by eight of the world’s finest virtuosi, including the two just mentioned. In April 2001 The Times acclaimed Christus (after a recital performance by David Goode) as '…not a work beholden to any other: rather, an astonishingly original composition, compelling in its structural logic and exhilarating in performance; all in all, a stupendous achievement', and after Filsell’s recording Gramophone described the piece as '…an inspired work on a grand scale that gradually reveals its greatness'.

A succession of major works for organ has followed Christus, and these are now appearing at regular intervals as a consequence of the contract signed by Francis with Edition Peters in December 2013. Most recent among these have been La Chiesa del Sole (completed in November 2016) and Passacaglia (August 2017).

World première

La Chiesa del Sole was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Manchester Cathedral to mark the inauguration of the new Stoller organ - a development awaited ever since wartime damage had left the old instrument partially incapacitated. The 25-minute work will receive its concert world première performance from the internationally celebrated organist Thomas Trotter, in a recital at Manchester Cathedral on 14 September 2017. The music fulfils a 40-year-old wish to respond compositionally to the 11th-century Basilica of San Miniato, overlooking the Tuscan metropolis of Florence from its hilltop in 'Oltrarno', the district so named because it lies across the River Arno from the main part of the city (where the composer lived for some months during 1976). Soon after the concert première, Acis Recordings will release a performance of the same work by Christian Wilson, part of a disc recorded on the Marcussen organ in the Chapel of Tonbridge School, Kent, in March 2017.

Originally a form of Spanish dance in triple time, ‘Passacaglia’ came to denote a variation based work that unfolds above a repeating ‘ground bass’. The supreme example of the genre is commonly acknowledged to be the C minor Passacaglia, BWV 582, in which a fugue is integrated into the latter half of the music.

Francis’s Passacaglia takes Bach’s as its model, featuring a fugue against which the ground bass gradually reasserts itself in the pedal line. A sombre as well as an elaborately-structured work, it is preceded in the score by a superscription from the Psalms: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ - taken in this context as a reference to the endless melancholy procession of dispossessed migrants across Europe in our own time. For this reason, and in token of Bach’s influence, the final stages of the work being about a muted reference to J.S.Bach's chorale prelude on Am Wasser Flüssen Babylon (BWV 653), against further repetition of the ground bass.

Future plans

Under terms of the composer's contract with Edition Peters, this work will be published during 2018 or in early 2019. Commissioned by the organist Sebastian Thomson as part of his unfolding Angels of Creation project, it will receive its première from him in Westminster Abbey on 15 July 2018, and is likely to be recorded by him on the Convivium label thereafter.

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