Fanfare interview on "The Roots and the Flower" with Jens E. Christensen
September 25, 2021
JAMES A. ALTENA
An Interview with Organist Jens E. Christensen
BY JAMES A. ALTENA
For decades Jens E. Christensen has been one of Denmark’s leading organists. From New Year’s Day 1989 until his recent retirement on August 31, 2021, he held the post of titulaire of the organ at the famed Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) at Christianshavn, in the historic old central district of Copenhagen. He has also toured widely as a recitalist, appearing in France, Russia, and Japan among other venues; taught for many years as a faculty member of the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen; and published several scholarly articles, and made recordings for the Kontrapunkt, Danacord, Helikon, and OUR Recordings labels. Martin Anderson previously interviewed Christensen in 40:4, but that was devoted to the life and works of Axel Borup-Jørgensen rather than the organist himself. This interview with Fanfare appears in conjunction with the release of a new CD devoted to organ works of Robert Schumann.
1) You studied organ at the Royal Danish Academy of Music under Grethe Krogh, graduating in 1973. But let’s begin with your background before that. Did you grow up in a musically inclined family? What were the musical influences and training of your youth? What originally drew you to the organ? And, what made you decide that you wanted to be a musician for your life’s calling?
My family had a great affection for classical music, but unfortunately was without any
professional musicians. I learned to listen to music early on. When I could read, I became very interested in reading about music, its background and aesthetic dimensions; for instance, after listening to a concert I was eager to read the reviews about it. I started to play the piano, and after a musically inspiring year in Cambridge and London in 1964, I decided to study musicology at Copenhagen University. In those prosperous years doors were open for studying music practically as well as theoretically. I enjoyed tutoring from excellent piano and harpsichord teachers. But the turning point came in 1967, when I got Grethe Krogh as my organ teacher. As an excellent pedagogue she had the gift of always finding the right musical challenge, one difficult but not too hard. So, within a short span of time I graduated and had my debut in 1973 in Our Saviour’s Church.
I imagine that the organ has a special appeal to me, as it contains its own universe of sound. The organist plays the role of both as a conductor and a musician, and if you are lucky to play an organ with rich colors on the palette in a room with a poetical echo, the interpretations are plentiful.
2) Did you have any other teachers besides Krogh who significantly shaped you as the musician you are today? What specifically did she, and they, contribute to that process of formation and guidance?
Before my graduation I spent a year studying with Santiago Kastner in Lisbon, who taught me to play the clavichord, and who introduced me to the abundant Iberian musical world with its spicy dissonances and rhythmical subtleties. Also, at my debut I played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major, Ligeti’s Volumina, and Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”; Werner Jacob in Nürnberg was the ideal coach for that project.
3) When did you yourself become a faculty member of the Royal Danish Academy? What courses do you teach there? How many organ majors do you mentor, and what are the skills and values (musical and otherwise) that you seek to cultivate in them?
When I graduated, I became Grethe Krogh’s assistant, and later I also enjoyed the pleasure of training scores of students for their final examinations and debuts. From the teachers already mentioned, and also from Marie Claire Alain, I tried to convey their human and artistic impact to the next generations. I made it clear to the pupils that it is important to be inspired by the great conductors and orchestras. For 30 years I sat at the Easter Festival in Salzburg, listening to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductors. Every year, when I came home, listeners maintained that they could sense a difference in my playing. Another aspect in my teaching was the importance of contemporary music. Very often when you have played modern music, your ears are fresh for the classical music, and vice versa: “Modern music washes the ears.”
4) You became the organist of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) at the start of 1989, but you first performed there in 1976. What other appointment did you hold in the interim? Was it always your ambition or dream to become the organist there, and how did you finally come to assume that post?
After my debut I constantly dreamed of becoming the organist of Our Saviour’s Church, with its fabulous organ from 1698 in the North German style and a room with the ideal spatial circumstances—a Greek cross with huge vaults. The reverberation time is not too long, and the listeners are relatively close to the organ. In 1989 the dream came true.
5) What were your regular responsibilities at Vor Frelsers Kirke for church services, recitals, and so on? Did you also direct a choir there? And did you have any responsibilities related to the church’s 48-bell carillon, one of the most famous in Europe?
Apart from the church services, where I also conducted the choir, I was able to practice and study both old and new music. As the organ is so interesting, many foreign players are invited to give their interpretations of the potential possibilities of the organ. The great carillon of the tower presently is being played by my colleague Lars Sømod.
6) At the time of this interview, the world is still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic (presently the delta variant). How has this affected your teaching and performing activities, and how have you and your students adapted, in terms of online and/or in-person instruction and performance? What are the current plans, if any, for resumption of more normal activities?
During the Covid-19 pandemic we had to teach online, but now we are returning to more normal activities.
7) You have been a major advocate of contemporary organ music, particularly that of Scandinavian composers, presenting world premieres of over 80 works by composers such as Per Nørgård, Axel Borup-Jørgensen, Steen Pade, Ib Nørholm, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Peter Brask, Sven Erik Werner, Karsten Fundal and Nicolai Worsaae. What attracted you to this repertoire in the first place? What do you look for in a piece of music that makes it of interest to you? Are there particular schools or styles of contemporary music that you actively seek out, or else avoid? And, how do you build audiences for new repertoire?
Contemporary music plays an important part in our church. My predecessor Charley Olsen played Messiaen’s organ works, and also works of the Danish composers Niels Viggo Bentzon and Leif Kayser. I have also enjoyed playing music by living composers, and relished the exchange of views with them. I also think that I have always experienced the joy of falling in love with the piece I am actually practicing.
8) Of course, your repertoire is not limited to contemporary music either. The artist bio in your new release mentions that you have a special interest in “old Iberian and Italian repertoire.” What are the special qualities of this pre-Bach music that intrigue you? Do you seek out mean-tone organs to play it? How do you go about realizing performances of it upon modern instruments?
When I practice early Italian and Iberian music, I take advantage of my studies with Kastner. It is wonderful to play mean-tone organs, as the contrapuntal texture becomes more evident. But when I play on the organs of today, I must use my imagination to convey the same experience.
9) Let’s turn now to your newly released CD of organ music by Robert Schumann. First off, it will doubtless come as a surprise to many people to learn that Schumann composed any organ music—or, to be more precise, three sets of keyboard works (opp. 56, 58, and 60) from 1844–46 for which Schumann designated either the Pedalflügel (pedal piano) or the organ as alternative performing instruments. Usually, when these works are heard at all—they are among the more neglected aspects of Schumann’s oeuvre—they are heard in adaptations for one or two pianos. Again, what attracted your attention to this repertoire, and what made you decide that you wanted to record the opp. 56 and 60 pieces? Also, whereas other organ recordings of the opp. 56 and 60 pieces present those as intact sets, you have chosen to intermix them, with two fugues from op. 60 followed and/or preceded by three studies from op. 56. What is the logic to this approach, and what prompted you to think of it in the first place?
The organ in Our Saviour’s Church and the acoustical circumstances give rise to a poetical dimension of the Schumann pieces, and the six Studies and six Fugues intermingled create a story from zero to climax. Apart from the order of the pieces on the CD telling a story, I believe that the intermingling also conveys a freshness to the pieces.
10) As the name of the set suggests, the op. 60 pieces evince Schumann’s particular fascination with Bach at this stage in his career. In addition to his employment of various techniques of Baroque composition—fugue, canon, retrograde and inverted treatments of themes, and so on—what other aspects of this music do you find remarkable? Also, do you detect influence of other composers besides Bach (his friend Mendelssohn, for example) on Schumann in composing for the organ?
It was a source of great pleasure to the newly married couple Robert and Clara in 1840 to study Bach’s counterpoint (Clara was a composer as well). And certainly, Mendelssohn also inspired them as a friend and composer.
11) In addition to a couple of recital discs, your previous recordings were variously devoted to works by Borup-Jørgensen, Gorécki, Gubaidulina, Kollontay, Lorentzen, Nørgård, Nørholm, the complete organ works of Carl Nielsen and Franz Syberg, a disc of early Iberian organ music, a disc of hymns by Hans Adolph Brorson (1694–1764) with bass Aage Hauglund, and Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, Book III of the Clavierübung, and Die Kunst der Fuge. Do you regard any of those as being of special significance?
If I were to give special significance to any of these preceding recordings, I would single out perhaps Bach’s Clavierübung, Book III, and Per Nørgård’s Organ-Book.