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Which Is The Best Organ Voluntary?

Updated on May 5, 2012

Take your pick of ten great organ voluntaries

I love big pipe organs and the organ voluntary is an orgnist's chance to show off his ability and that of his instrument. Organ voluntaries are some the greatest pieces of organ music ever written. I've collected my personal all-time favourites in this lens so that you can listen to them free of charge. Hopefully, you'll also vote for your ownl favourite as the best organ voluntary.Picture: the pipe organ of St Germain, Auxerre (public domain)

JS Bach's Toccata and Fugue - The most famous organ voluntary of all

Johann Sebastian Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) is not just the most famous organ voluntary in the world, it is the most famous organ piece of all and indeed one of the best know pieces of music ever composed.

As an organ voluntary, it's quite common for the organist just to play the Toccata which is the best loved part of the piece and instantly recognisable. I've chosen Rafael Ferreyra playing the great Austin organ (IV-137) at Hartford Cathedral, CT (USA). The Toccata is noteworth for the palpably powerful deep notes so it really needs a great cathedral organ; the Fugue though needs a lightness of touch and a brightness, almost a brassiness in the trumpets, so I wanted a fast, light modern organ. Harford seemed to offer a great combination for this special organ voluntary

Bach's Toccata on 14 different organs

One of the things I like to highlight is that pieces can sound different played on a range of organs. Here is set videos of featuring versions of Bach's Toccata played on 14 different organs.

Buxtehude Organ Voluntaries

To my mind there isn't a stand-out organ voluntary by the German composer Dietrich Buxtehude, nothing that is totally great. At the same time, there are a lot of Buxtehude compositions which are played as an organ voluntary and which are good so it would have seemed wrong to exclude Buxtehude from this collection. So here is a pot pouri of Buxtehude organ voluntaries.

Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Georgege Frederic Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba is a common organ voluntary and often has quite a strident, powerful sound. It is, however, a Baroque piece of music and I wanted a much truer performance than most of those you can find on the Internet. I think have found it in this I this video which features Stephen Cleobury playing Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba on the organ in the Chapel at King's College, Camrbridge. I this video Stephen Cleobury plays by George Frederick Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba on the organ in the Chapel at King's College, Camrbridge.

If you want to contrast it with a typical thumping version of this organ voluntary, then try this one as an example. For me that is much too pedestrian, too ploddy an nowhere near light enough. Other people seem to like that version though!

Langlais: Esquisses Gothiques pour Deux Orgues - Organ Voluntary for Two Organs

Esquisses Gothiques pour Deux Orgues: III by Jean Langlais made it into the collection partly on merit and partly as a novelty for those who love organs - there aren't too many pieces for two organs. This is a recording from Uppsala Cathedral,and was an early performances on the new Ruffatti organ in the cathedral, The second instrument was the old main organ from 1869-71.

I like Uppsala Cathedral. Upssal is a university town about an hour north of Stockholm.. It is also centre of the Lutheran church and the Cathedral has very strong royal connections. I wish I'd heard both organs (two of four) playing together though. That is a very rare treat.

Old Hundredth - Arrange by Ralph Vaughn Williams

Many organ voluntaries are religious pieces and the famous Old Hundredth hymn tune is certainly a good example of the genre. As a hymn the words are taken from Psalm 100 but this is an organ voluntary - and organ solo if you like to call it that. I have chosen to feature Diane Bish, perhaps the most famous lady organist and very popular. Generall I don't like her style - I don't think her sense of timing and metre is up there with the ranks of organists like Olivier Latry when it comes to playing Bach and Widor; however, I thik Old Hundredth really suits her style and she pulls of the counterpoint quite brilliantly,

More Diane Bish organ music

Since I know Diane Bish is very popular, I thought I'd feature some more of her organ music. I've chosen a collection of hymns.

Purcell - Organ Voluntary on Psalm 100

This organ voluntary isn't as well known as some of the others I have featured but it merits inclusion I think because it is so stately. There is also some wonderful foot pedal work in this recording - just listen to those bass notes. The timing is quiet excellent.

Tournemire: Choral-Improvisation

Charles Tournemire might not be well known but his Choral Improvisation is a great organ voluntary. Once again I came close to choosing Olivier Latry on the great organ of Notre Dame de Paris but I think this performance is better. It is played on the organ of St Eustache church in Paris, France. I like it because the notes in the great chords are distinct - I think they blur a bit on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Notre Dame.

Trumpet Voluntary - Prince of Denmark March

Often erroneously attributed to Purcell, the Trumpet Voluntary was actually composed by the little-known English composer Jeremiah Clarke and is properly known as the Prince of Denmark March. (You can read about him in the Wikiepedia article below the video.) Although known as the Trumpet Voluntary, it is an organ voluntary and shows off the brass pipes of these great instruments. Clarke's pupilage as an organ scholar was at St Paul's Cathedral, London and it's fitting that the recording I have chosen is from St Paul's. Most of the organ voluntaries in my collection are played on the great organ, but this was recorded on the Baroque North Choir Division of the organ and is a stunning treat.

This organ voluntary is often played at weddings and, as much as I love the heavy, powerful music of Widor and Bach, this is my personal pick as the best organ voluntary. I hope you enjoy it.

Vierne - Carillon de Westminster

The Carillon de Westminster (or Westminster chime) is one of the most famous clock chimes but this a full organ voluntary by Vierne. You can hear the "bells" very cleary in the carillon at the start. In fact, in some versions played on modern electric organs the bell sound is even more distinct. As those who are familiar with my other organ lenses will know, I happen to love Cavaillé-Coll organs so for me this is the perfect recording of this unusual organ voluntary played by Ben van Oosten on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint-Ouen, Rouen (IV, 64). As the piece moves to its climax, the power of the organ really comes into its own.

Widor Marche Pontificale

This organ voluntary is played by Arthur Willis on the organ of Ely Cathedral in England's Fenland. It's a processional pieceand can feel out of place that suits ceremonial services.

Widor Toccata - From the Widor Organ Symphony No 5

Your turn: Am I right?

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    • Churchmouse LM profile image

      Churchmouse LM 

      8 years ago

      Almost any Sortie by Lefebure-Wely. They are such fun, so cheeky and joyful you can hardly help skipping out into the world :-)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I love Widor's Toccatta. What a great piece.

      By the way, I agree with you about the Queen of Sheba, the performance by Stephen Cleobury is much better than the other one you mentioned.

    • JulietJohnson profile image


      8 years ago

      For years it was Bach's organ music every time. Then I discovered Buxtehude, while listening to a cd of Bach's life with my then young children. Now.. I'm not so sure I have a favorite. This lens has some wonderful options to consider.


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