The Popular Organist
A Brief Overview of the Life and Legacy of Edwin H. Lemare
By Jonathan Gradin
Edwin Henry Lemare
Edwin H. Lemare was a world-famous organist, composer and transcriber of orchestral works for the organ, and was often regarded as the greatest living organist of his time.
Sept. 9, 1865 in Ventnor, on
Lemare started composing piano music at age five, and by age six had played his first recital. His father bought him a small reed organ, putting him, in his own words, in seventh heaven. By age 12 he had become a very proficient pianist; however, he decided to make the organ his main instrument, as it suited his Romantic/orchestral musical style.
In 1878, at the young age of 13, Lemare was awarded a three-year scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music. During his time there he studied piano and organ under the likes of Sir G.A. MacFarren, Walter C. MacFarren, Dr Charles Steggall and Dr Edmund H. Turpin.
The 19-year-old Lemare got a great
deal of fame playing over 140 recitals—two a day—at
1886 Lemare gave bi-weekly recitals on the Willis organ in Park Hall,
this point on, however, Lemare's fame skyrocketed. In 1892, he accepted a
1894 Lemare, his wife and some friends went to
such opportunity came in 1897, when he—following his good friend, the Rev.
Robert Eyton—became organist at St. Margaret’s, a sizeable church with an organ
that fitted Lemare’s style. Here, Lemare played concert-quality services, which
had people lined up around the block! He would also host special concerts
there, including his famous March 1, 1898 performance of the first act of
Wagner’s Opera Parsifal; he performed straight from the orchestral
score. All the newspapers carried rave reviews of that concert. Even Felix
Mottl, one of the original conductors of Wagner’s opera at
I would not have thought the organ capable of producing in such detail the effects of the full orchestra . . . I have nothing to say except beautiful, beautiful.
In January 1899, the Rev. Robert Eyton, who had been a firm supporter of Lemare's music, resigned from St. Margaret's. The new rector, Rev. Herbert Henley Henson, was not prepared for, nor supportive of, Lemare's concert-like playing. Lemare normally did a lengthy improvisation during the offertory; therefore, on Henson's first Sunday, he played Eternal Father, Strong to Save, launching into a tone-poem depicting a ferocious naval battle and aftermath. Henson flipped his lid, drastically cutting back the music funding.
At around this same time, Lemare's relationship with Marian strained to the breaking point; the divorce was finalized in April 1900. Shortly thereafter he married Elsie Francis Reith, a clergyman's daughter.
After Christmas that same year,
Lemare, sensing his usefulness at St. Margaret's was ending, took a 100-recital
tour of the U.S. and Canada, lasting into 1901; he played many great organs
there, leaving him with a good impression and potential job opportunities. He
left St. Margaret’s in 1902, accepting a contract with the Carnegie institute
When the Lemares were on a trip to
Lemare stayed with the Carnegie
Institute until 1905. During and after this time he concentrated on concert
tours and special engagements, such as his August 1908 engagement at Ocean
Grove, playing their new Hope-Jones organ. In 1903 and 1906 he went on concert
In the years leading up to 1909,
Mrs. Lemare's health was failing, and Mr. Lemare couldn't let her get in the
way of his career. He filed for divorce that year; this had a mild effect on
his career, but he quickly rebounded. Two weeks later, he married Charlotte
Bauersmith, a young organist and fan from
By 1910, the 44-year-old Lemare
reached the zenith of his career, going on concert tours across the States as
well as in
1913, there was an opening for the post of organist at St. George's Hall,
that year Lemare went to
1915, Charlotte Lemare gave birth to a second child in
On Feb. 21, 1915, the Exposition
Unusually, the fair turned a profit;
consequently, the Exposition Company donated the profits to the City, with the
intent of transferring the organ to a permanent location in the newly
constructed Civic Auditorium. Lemare was hired to oversee the reinstallation
and revoicing of the organ, as well as being hired on as
After this he went across the
In 1925 Lemare accepted the post of
municipal organist there, playing the new four-manual
Lemare gave weekly concerts on Sunday from October to June. One problem he found was that to keep his audience, which was mostly made up of simple folk, he had to use a lot of popular tunes, simple songs like Pop Goes the Weasel, Dixie and Swanee River. In spite of this, he managed to draw record crowds five years in a row, educating them in the process. His contract, however, expired at the end of May 1929.
this time Lemare began to be overshadowed by a young man named Marcel Dupre,
who would go on to great fame as a symphonic organist and composer. Lemare was
getting old, and he realized that the mantle must be passed on to the younger
generation. He then retired to
The world’s most popular organist died virtually forgotten. The advent of higher-fidelity recordings somewhat obviated the need, in the public’s mind, for municipal organists and orchestral transcriptions. Also, currents were changing in the academic organ community. The pendulum was swinging back to baroque ideals, which were the antithesis of the symphonic organ ideal. Lemare—and many great organs of that time period—became victims of the changing tide; consequently, many of his works were forgotten until the 1980s, when the symphonic organ came to be accepted as works of art, representative of that unique era.
There were several reasons for Lemare’s popularity in life.
First, his technical genius and ability amazed people. Lemare perfected the art of thumbing, which had been used by his predecessor and source of inspiration, W.T. Best. Thumbing is a technique that allows a player to play a melody line and accompaniment simultaneously on two manuals, with just one hand. Lemare could, on a four-manual organ, play two melody lines with his right hand, two separate ones with his left, one on the pedals with his right foot and the bass line with his left. This technique came in handy when transcribing large, complex orchestral works, as it allowed him to maintain the separation of orchestral parts when necessary.
Lemare was adept at producing orchestral registrations, smooth stop changes and attack and phrasing effects, which had previously been unattainable. Lemare was able to simulate these effects partly because of the invention and widespread adoption of balanced swell pedals, which, unlike the previous designs, stay open at whatever position the organist leaves them in, allowing for almost infinite possibilities for expressing the melody. The trend towards the symphonic organ sound in the late 1800s and early 1900s went hand-in-hand with Lemare’s philosophy of the role of the organ. Sir Malcolm Sargent, the famous English composer, said, “Lemare did something I never thought possible. He made the organ dance.”
His earlier piano training helped him immensely in this symphonic style, both in fingering and his staccato and rubato effects, which were noticeably absent from other organists' playing.
Lemare believed that the organ's proper place was as a solo instrument, upon which almost any music could be played. He also saw it as a way to bring quality music to the masses; orchestras were too expensive for many towns, and the common people could not afford to attend the concerts. An organ recital was inexpensive because there was only one performer to pay, rather than a large symphony.
Lemare felt that in order to be recognized as an ‘artistic instrument,’ the organ had to be ‘properly built and properly played.’ This meant not only raising the standards of organ-building, a passion Lemare shared with George Ashdown Audsley, but also, and arguably more important, raising the standard of playing, through education and certification.
Lemare saw the organ, especially the modern designs being built, as the perfect tool for the masses to hear the latest orchestral works, as well as the literature. His belief in this concept is evident in his concert programming, which regularly featured four major types of music.
First, he tried to feature at least one work by J.S. Bach, who was relatively unknown to organ audiences. Lemare, in true Romantic fashion, played Bach with expression and nuance, making the music come alive. Typically, he would play a virtuoso piece, such as the ‘Gigue’ Fugue in G major (BWV 577) or the Prelude and Fugue in D major (BWV 532); however, sometimes he would play the Prelude in B minor (BWV 544), substituting the conventional Full Organ registration with soft strings, bringing out the melody in a haunting, emotional fashion.
Lemare, primarily early on in his career, played many Romantic organ works by such composers as Felix Mendelssohn, Charles-Marie Widor, Rheinberger, Guilmant, and others, helping to spread their popularity to the masses. In later years, however, he tended to feature his own compositions, which were in that same style.
A big part of Lemare’s popularity was due to his ability to simultaneously improvise on several themes submitted to him by the audience; consequently, this played somewhat of a major role in his concerts. Usually he would do his improvisations near the end, keeping the audience’s attention from fading.
Transcriptions were possibly the most important part of Lemare’s repertoire, with good reason. In his mind there simply was not enough literature from the Romantic era to do a literature-only concert; also, the average audience would get bored rather quickly. Transcriptions fulfilled Lemare’s previous mentioned concept of the organ as a means to bring music to the masses. In addition to orchestral and operatic works, Lemare transcribed a great deal of familiar folk songs and other tunes for the organ. These pieces, while maybe not as ‘good’ as the ‘serious’ music, would be popular with the crowds; therefore, they might be attracted to attend more concerts and, at the same time, hear the serious music.
This aspect of tailoring a performance to please the masses in this way has been lacking during the last 40 years because the purist academia started to look down upon such practices; consequently, recital attendance is next to nil in many places. Hopefully, though, the tide is changing with the new generation of organists.
Brief mention has been made of Lemare’s organ music, both original and transcriptions. He was a prolific composer, having published over 50 original organ compositions, at least 158 transcriptions of all types, church music, even an orchestral symphony.
One of Lemare’s most famous original pieces is his Andantino in D flat, although most would not recognize it under that title. American songwriters Ben Black and Charles N. Daniels added—without Lemare’s permission—words, forming the hit song Moonlight and Roses. Lemare received a share of the royalties after threatening legal action. Another famous piece is his Caprice Orientale (Op. 46), which uses a rhythmic pattern reminiscent of a Spanish dance.
Lemare’s biggest legacy is his organ transcriptions. These are some of the hardest transcriptions ever published, but they are arguably the closest to the intent of the original orchestral score.
These transcriptions ranged from Wagner (25 works transcribed) to Elgar and Brahms. The transcriptions included opera excerpts, traditional songs, orchestral and chamber pieces, even a surprising amount of piano music. A breakdown of his transcriptions by composer, genre and period can be found on the Performance Online website: www.performanceonline.org, in an article by Sverker Jullander.
A great many of these pieces have been recorded on CDs in recent years. Frederick Hohman has recorded his Lemare Affair series of CDs on the Pro Organo label (www.proorgano.com). These are also available through the Organ Historical Society catalog (www.ohscatalog.org).
All of Lemare's known printed organ works have been republished by Wayne Leupold Editions in two series: Original Compositions and Transcriptions; these are available online at www.wayneleupold.com, for the brave soul who dares to master them.
Special credit belongs to Nelson Barden, who has researched Lemare extensively; Frederick Hohman, for information on his Lemare Affair CDs; Vic Ferrer, For information relating to the San Francisco Exhibition; and last but not least, the members of PIPORG-l and Pipechat for assisting me with links, information, and contacts.
Barden, Nelson. Edwin H. Lemare. Published in The American Organist Magazine, January, March, June and August 1986.
Edwin H. Lemare page. ACCHOS website. http://www.acchos.org/html/links_edwin_lemare.html
Edwin H. Lemare. Chattanooga AGO website. http://www.agochattanooga.org/chattanoogaaustin/pages/Lemare.htm
Edwin H. Lemare Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Lemare
Ferrer, Vic. Behind the Velvet Curtain info page. http://vicferrerproductions.com/docum/velvet_curtain/index.html
Hohman, Frederick. Lemare Affair. Pro Organo CD 7007. Copyright Zarex Corp. www.zarex.com
Jullander, Sverker. Transcription as the Performer’s Strategic Tool: The Case of Edwin Lemare and the Organ. Performance Online. http://www.nunomartino.com/performanceonline/Jullander_uk.pdf
Municipal Organs Website. http://www.municipalorgans.net/Lemare.htm
Whitney, Craig R. All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters.