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Ulalume: new Organ Concerto for James O'Donnell


‘I’m not an organist and I’m pretty sure I’d be terrible at it – far too much to do at once!’

These words, however, have not prevented Tom Floyd from writing his first Organ

Concerto, which will be premiered by James O’Donnell at the inaugural recital on the

newly restored Hill organ at St John’s, Hyde Park.

The London church’s Grade 2* listed instrument – affectionately dubbed ‘Betty’ – was

built by Hill & Son in 1865 at a cost of £830. In the aftermath of a major Rushworth &

Dreaper rebuild in 1925 and subsequent work by Bishop, the III/32 organ has been

restored to close on its original state by Nicholson & Co.

The concerto came about through chance meeting with the London church’s director of

music, Robert Greenhill: ‘Robert discussed the major project the church was undertaking

to rebuild and recondition the organ, and that they were looking to commission a

concerto, and asked whether I would be interested.’

It is rare for an Organ Concerto to be given a title, but Floyd has called his Ulalume, from

the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name. He explains: ‘In the poem the narrator

wonders through a dark, dank wood alone with Psyche (his soul) until eventually a bright

light breaks through the darkness. The narrator is drawn to the dazzling light, but Psyche

warns him that she does not trust the star and that they should turn around. The narrator

ignores her and follows the light, until it eventually leads him to a tomb upon which

is inscribed the name “Ulalume”, the name of the narrator’s wife. My concerto plays with

this imagery of darkness and light, playfulness and tragedy.’ The piece

is approximately 20 minutes long and follows the structure and mood of the poem,

opening with a slow, dark, atmospheric episode as the narrator wonders through the

wood, followed by fast and playful sections as he is enchanted by the mysterious light,

and an uneasy, funeral march-like section as he approaches the tomb. 

Given a relatively free hand in the scoring, Floyd settled on organ with wind and brass

ensemble, being attracted to the idea of drawing on the similarities and differences

between these sonorities and those of the organ. He admits, ‘I also worried about

balancing the organ with a string ensemble – and besides, Poulenc’s already done that

rather well…’ 

For non-organists, writing for the instrument can sometimes be a daunting prospect, and

Floyd is appreciative of the help James O’Donnell gave him: ‘He gave me some sage

advice not to try to write the piece too specifically for the new organ, but to focus on

writing the piece I wanted to write and to allow him to take control of the registrations

etc. It’s both a liberating and unnerving way to write music. Ultimately you are handing

over a huge amount of the colouristic decisions to the soloist, but I feel it’s important that

composers give space for performers to not just inhabit, but take over a composition. In

that sense this has been a natural extension of the way I already tend to work with

performers. And it was a fantastic experience to work with such a talented and

knowledgeable musician – I owe James a lot for his valuable contributions to the piece.’


Maggie Hamilton

Editor, Choir & Organ
Rhinegold Publishing Ltd

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