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Complete Organ Music.

This edition of the organ music of John Blow supersedes that produced by the late Watkins Shaw (London, 1958; 2nd, rev. edn., 1972) by virtue of its inclusion of a larger number of pieces (only in his first edition did Shaw claim that his edition was 'complete'), its reliance on a larger number of sources, and its inclusion of the incipits of various doubtful and misattributed items. Barry Cooper's introductory material is exemplary, and his editing - with the minor exceptions noted below - first-rate.

Blow was the most prolific English writer of organ music of his time, and his output occupies a position between the multi-subject fantasia of the late Renaissance and the monothematic fugue of the High Baroque. This music, which is indebted to Bull, Christopher Gibbons, Frescobaldi and Locke, is of great interest, and some of the pieces are of the highest quality. Many of the voluntaries are in imitative style or else start with imitations which lead on to a freer idiom. Many, too, are in two sections, of which the second is livelier than the first; occasionally, the subject of the second section is apparently derived from some feature of the initial point (in Nos. 1 and 9 for example, while in No. 7 the second, third and fourth imitative portions are interrelated but do not derive from the opening). The 'fugal' style is not often strict, for parts appear and disappear ad lib, and - as so often in the keyboard music of the time - 'silent' parts are not accounted for by rests. Blow has a strong tendency to use imitations in whatever voices are sounding at the top and bottom of the texture at any particular time, only rather rarely using the inner voices for imitations. The shift towards the monothematic fugue is strongly evident in Nos. 6 (with stretto), 7 (a fine piece based on the descending chromatic tetrachord), 11, 13 (in which the tail of the subject is more important than the head), 14 (in which the tail of the subject is used by itself) and 20 (in which the two halves of the subject are used independently). Invertible counterpoint is briefly explored in No. 3 (where it is used at the twelfth as well as at the octave) and No. 5b. Sometimes there is a tendency to use a variation technique: in No. 20, for example, the canzona-style repeated-note idea eventually dominates the texture, and in Nos. 3 and 23 the scale is explored in detail as the basis of the whole piece.

Other styles apart from the imitative are used, though much less frequently: there are double-organ pieces and comet voluntaries that use little imitation, and the edition includes a series of metrical psalm-tune settings that are not found in Shaw's edition. These short harmonizations are clearly intended for accompanying congregational singing, as Cooper says, but it is misleading to consider them 'the nearest English equivalent to the Lutheran chorale prelude' (p. 95). If one is looking for such an equivalent, it is the settings of the Old Hundredth by Purcell and Blow (the latter included here among the 'Doubtful Works') that will supply it, rather than the harmonizations with twiddles that are given in the present edition as Nos. 31-47. The influence of the modes is still fairly strong: the lack of a firm tonal basis is often evident in the use of both real and tonal answers for the same subject (see Nos. 7, 10, 12, 19 and 23), and in some of these instances the subject is in turn changed to fit the shape provided by a tonal answer (Nos. 7, 19). No. 12 even has a 'modal' ending (to modern ears it cadences 'in the dominant') as well as an alternative 'tonal' one (in the 'tonic' to modern ears).

On the whole, the edition has been prepared with great skill and enormous care: I suggest, however, that bar 18 of No. 1 needs an editorial F[sharp] (last note of the right hand) and that bar 22 of No. 27 needs an editorial B[flat] (fourth note of the right hand): both are supplied by Shaw in his edition. Most players of Blow's day would, one imagines, resolve the dissonances that are left hanging in bars 15 and 20 of No. 24: since copyists did not always bother to write down what was obvious, the resolutions might have been supplied editorially in the present edition (British Library Add. MS 34695 in fact provides a resolution in both places).

The most serious editorial error is in No. 19 at bars 32-4. Here Cooper claims that his version of the manuscript sources is 'the most likely among several possibilities' (p. 91), whereas his solution to the problems posed by inaccurate copying in the sources is in fact nonsense. He obligingly provides a facsimile (p. xxxiii) of the relevant portion of one of the three sources, none of which is an autograph (there are no autographs of Blow's solo organ music): from this it is clear that there is an interval of a diminished fourth in the bass between the end of bar 32 (B[flat]) and the beginning of bar 33, not the diminished sixth that Cooper provides. (One can see why the sharps for the bass D's in Cooper's bar 33 are small - after all, the entire left hand is an editorial guess; but in fact the upper sharp should not be treated as an editorial marking, as the facsimile shows.) If 1[sharp] is used as the bass at the start of bar 33, the progression makes sense: Shaw uses this solution, although he changes the upper part of the left hand in the second part of the bar as compared with the sources. The F[sharp]'s, however, need to resolve on to C[sharp] (the naturals will have to be supplied editorially, for the key-signature has three sharps), rather than on to G[sharp] as given in Shaw's version. In the latter, the F[sharp]'s resolve on to the leading note (G[sharp]): indeed, the sources do in fact suggest G[sharp], and since Shaw does not include the second section of the voluntary, he clearly considered that the piece would end with a perfect cadence on to the tonic, A, rather than with a half-close. Call, though, is not at all impossible if the piece is to continue into a second section (indeed, Blow uses a final cadence 'on the dominant' elsewhere, as we have seen), since much of the writing so far has been in A Mixolydian; and G[sharp] makes much more sense musically than G[sharp]. Performers should thus be warned that they must play the bass of bars 33 and 34 of Cooper's edition a minor third higher if the passage is to make musical sense.

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Author:Pike, Lionel
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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