Old Citizen, Dr Geoffrey Alvarez’ organ symphony ‘St Paul’s Shipwreck’ premieres in London


19 May 2018
Geoffrey Alvarez (l) and Ton BellHeralding the latest in a body of internationally-acclaimed work, Old Citizen (1972 – 1979) Geoffrey Alvarez’ organ symphony ‘St. Paul’s Shipwreck’ sees him return to composing for ‘the beast that never breathes’ as Stravinsky described the instrument.

First performed in 2014 by Kevin Bowyer at The University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel, ‘St Paul’s Shipwreck’ is one of three works for solo organ by Geoffrey, who was inspired by the individuality of Charles Camilleri, the Maltese composer. The work is dedicated to Kevin Bowyer, one of the world’s most accomplished concert organists, who has made some distinguished pioneering recordings of Camilleri’s work.

Performed for only the second time this May, ‘St Paul’s Shipwreck’ was played by Tom Bell (pictured right with Geoffrey above) at its London premiere in St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music.

Geoffrey’s love of organ music took shape at City of London School, which he joined as a Worshipful Company of Musicians Scholar in 1972. He often played the organ for major events, recalling ‘Sir George Thalben-Ball [the distinguished organist] remaining in the Great Hall to hear my performance of Messaien’s Dieu Parmi Nous during the conclusion of a prize-giving ceremony, frequently glancing up at the organ loft.’

He loved the ‘theatricality’ of the rich organ works of composers such as Bach and Liszt but was discouraged from writing for the instrument after learning of Stravinsky’s rather disparaging opinion of it.

Geoffrey’s interest in composing for the organ was rekindled when he met organist David Briggs, a contemporary, during rehearsals for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1977.  Transfiguration, Geoffrey’s short toccata for solo organ was the result, premiering in 1980 at the Chapel of St Mary and Katherine at Solihull School, played by Briggs.

In his programme note, Briggs mentions the influence of the composer Messaien, into whoseGeoffrey Alvarez with the Lord Mayor in 1976 receiving second prize for the Open Class keyboard competition. ‘colourful universe’ Geoffrey had been ‘seduced, hearing Anthony Gould, Head of Music at City of London School play various works by the French master, a world whose numinous harmony was the first I had heard that often seemed to float upwards and upwards on Titianesque clouds.’ (Photo rightGeoffrey Alvarez with the Lord Mayor in 1976 receiving second prize for the Open Class keyboard competition.)

By this time, Geoffrey was studying Piano, Violin, Composition and Conducting at The Royal Academy of Music as a Leverhulme Scholar, the only conductor, apart from Sir Simon Rattle, to be accepted on the postgraduate conducting course whilst still an undergraduate.

He continued his studies at the University of York, where he gained a Doctorate in Composition in 1986, having helped rebuild the university’s New Music Ensemble. A return to London in 1990 took him to Goldsmiths College, where he taught Ethnomusicology and Classical Performance/Analysis. In the same year he was awarded a composition prize in the Royal Overseas League Music Competition.

Numerous works in other media ensued in the following decades from a nine-hour dream in five operas based on the Kogi of Columbia, La profecia ultima del rey, to a hundred-minute song cycle H
ölderlinfenster for soprano Carola Schlüter who sang his cycle susurritos sonrosadas with the Ensemble Phorminx in Darmstadt and Tübingen to the miniature lute pieces Teares and Lamentaçions, published by the English Lute Society. His composition prowess was acknowledged as a prizewinner in the 2006 Tansman Composition Competition in Łódź, Poland, playing part of his piano concertino with the Arthur Rubenstein Philharmonic Orchestra of Łódź.

Geoffrey’s flirtation with ‘the beast’ wasn’t over, however. His passion for the organ was re-ignited many years later, after a consultation with composer Luciano Berio in his Florence home in 1994. ‘He told me that I could compose, but that I needed to go on a sea voyage, which I took to be a metaphor to explore and expand my artistic horizons.’

Indeed, it was during a trip to Malta in 2011 as adjudicator at a composers’ competition, that ‘led to a sea change’ in Geoffrey’s music that he says was totally unexpected. ‘The dramatic nature of the natural ochre landscape and the human monuments had for many years inspired the local composers to write works of burning intensity of cyclopean scale, many refusing to blindly adopt the current contemporary trends.’ (Photo leftGeoffrey Alvarez and the adjudication panel of the APS Bank's Second National Music Competition for Maltese composers in Malta in front of the Neolithic temple to the Great Mother, Ħaġar Qim including Theodora Pavlovitch from Bulgaria and (far right) Polish composer Pawel Łukaszewski)

Charles Camilleri was godfather of this Maltese school and Geoffrey was drawn to the grandiose, baroque and passionate aesthetic of his organ work Missa Mundi, inspired by the writings of the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Geoffrey’s decision to ‘explore similarly vast musical landscapes’ saw him return to ‘the beast’ for his next major composition, ‘St Paul’s Shipwreck’.

Describing the symphony, Geoffrey says: ‘The saint is represented by a quote from the plainsong versicle of The Alleluia from the Mass of Commemoration of St. Paul, Apostle…. The point of departure for the work is the opening pedal solo suggesting the brooding anger of the sea which boils over into leaping figures … redolent of storm clouds. It is heard ten times in total throughout the work, each time with harmonisations representing different atmospheric states. It is only at the end of the piece, after stylised thunderbolts redolent of Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous figure, and further turbulence, that the leaping figure is finally drenched with blazing Mediterranean sun, while the spirit of Tippett sings as Noah’s messenger-bird, hovering over the face of the waters at earlier moments of relative repose.’

Following the work’s premiere in Glasgow, an arrangement for symphonic brass and organ entitled ‘St Paul’s Shipwreck and the Serpent’, intended for Ely Cathedral’s annual concert, proved too long for the programme and had to wait until 2016 for its first outing, appropriately as it turned out, at The International Organ Festival at St Paul’s Co-cathedral in Valletta, Malta.
(Photo below: Malta 2016: Geoffrey with brass players of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra following the premiere of St Paul's Shipwreck in a version for Brass and Organ in St Paul's Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. Photographer: Mario Casha)

Malta 2016: Geoffrey Alvarez with brass players of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra following the premiere of my St Paul's Shipwreck in a version for Brass and Organ in St Paul's Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. Photographer: Mario CashaInspired by Kevin Bowyer’s performance of the original work and the alchemical researches of Adam McClean and Glasgow University’s Ferguson Collection of alchemical manuscripts and incunabula, Geoffrey went on to write Citrinitas, an Alchemical Emblem for organ.

Citrinitas’ is the third, yellow stage, in my alchemical Magnum Opus,’ said Geoffrey. ‘It is interpreted in many ways, from the chemical processes to the development of the psyche. ….the first stage is the Nigredo, the Prima Materia…., my La noche oscura del alma, the dark night of the soul, which I wrote for chamber orchestra and harpsichord. The second stage is the Albedo or Whitening, my Whitening Winds for symphonic winds. Citrinitas, the yellowing, is a process associated with ageing and I have written this work for the organ.’

Geoffrey completed his Magnum Opus with Les Noces Chymique, The Chemical Wedding, which is his thirteenth symphony for orchestra and organ.
Whilst most of his organ works were written for the traditional church instrument, he was recently asked to compose a work including the Hammond organ which resulted in a current project, the recording of Draco, a work for twelve winds and Hammond organ for the Arcomusica label by Pablo Rojas as part of his Bóreas Ventus series of recordings in Granada, Spain and a performance in the Auditorio Manual de Falla later in 2018.

Many of the works mentioned in this article are available here.