David Briggs

Concert Organist and Composer

Composition Reviews and Comments

Here are some comments and reviews about David's compositions...

To date, we have heard three recitals on consecutive Tuesdays played on the new C. B. Fisk, Inc., organ at Harvard’s Memorial Church. David Higgs and Chelsea Chen, on April 10 and 17 respectively, played brilliant programs, and, for the many who attended both, it would have been reasonable to conclude that we now could pass judgment on this organ.

But wait! The two-week appraisals, good though they were, fell away in David Briggs’s recital Tuesday evening, April 24, when he played his own transcription of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The organ emerged as a living maker of sound in Briggs’s stunning performance. Fisk’s Op. 139, named to honor the memories of the organ company founder Charles B. Fisk and the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, longtime preacher at “Mem Church,” told us that it wants to play with passion, guts and precision and that it has an emotional personality backed up by capability. This organ indeed does have the potential aptly to reflect the lives and accomplishments of its namesakes. Harvard, and thereby all of Boston, has a new giant. It is a credit to Harvard and those who thoughtfully planned this dedication series of concerts that a Mahler symphony transcription was included.

John Ferris, University Choirmaster at Harvard when the 1967 Fisk was procured, wrote in his memoir about that year of the organ’s installation: “To save himself from the daily commute to Pigeon Cove, he [Fisk] often would stay at my house during the week. What a rare privilege this was for me! After a tough day’s work which often extended well into the night, we would sit up talking about organs, his passion for Mahler, and any one of a hundred topics. Not given to clichés or small talk, he was one of the few original thinkers I have ever met. Charles Fisk was a consummate artist and an extraordinary human being who left his mark on all who knew and worked with him.”

Prior to the performance, David Briggs spoke of the complexity and grandeur of Mahler’s music, in effect “music beyond music.” In the beginning of the Trauermarsch (first movement), we heard the organ’s reeds, from solo Trumpet to multiple combinations. Soon, however, in the first melody of the violins, we were listening to the singing quality of the organ’s diapasons, strings and flutes. Briggs beautifully played Mahler’s sonorous themes and built the architectural interweaving of phrases, so extraordinary in the Adagietto fourth movement, according to and with awareness of the organ’s gorgeous sound. It was in the manner of a conductor who is at one with an orchestra and the composer. Briggs’ choice of registration for the horn solo in the Adagietto was another highlight as were occasional solos on the Positiv division Clarinet and the Swell division Hautbois. At the introduction of the 56-note fugue subject in the Rondo-Finale, the organ was on the thrilling and familiar home stretch with Bach’s fugues and counterpoint providing the foundation. Two technical aspects of Op. 139 played a role in this concert. First is that this organ’s sound does not fade out in the treble as the pitches rise, nor is it shrill. For this reason melodies are satisfying and the organ plays through them as though it is singing. Charles Fisk, who was so interested in the wind in an organ, would love this. It may be that the organ took on lifelike characteristics because Briggs did so much registering by hand. For major sound changes, he used preset pistons; but to tweak the sound, which he did constantly, he pulled stops on or off by hand. On a three-manual, 52-stops organ it is a feat in itself to do this, involving many split-second decisions and hand movements: the draw knobs are on both the left and right sides of the keyboards. With this exquisite attention to registration, Briggs painted pictures in sound. Impressive too was the organ’s ability to keep up with Briggs in the extended fortissimo, furiously allegro passages.

Organists are thrilled whenever they have the sensation that the organ is playing itself and in hearing Briggs speak later about his experience in this performance, I believe this is how he felt.

Joyce Painter Rice (Boston Musical Intelligencer)

Gramophone Magazine (Critics’ Choice, Christmas 2010):
“It’s wonderful to hear new settings of familiar liturgical texts which are so emotionally powerful, thanks to David Briggs’s luminous choral writing and beautiful harmonic language in this Mass for Notre-Dame”. (Christopher Nickol)

Gramophone Magazine (Critics’ Choice, Christmas 2010):
“In Briggs’ Mass, here is music to set beside cherished choral masterworks by Fauré, Duruflé and Briggs’ own teacher Jean Langlais” (Richard Osborne)

International Record Review:
“There's only one word for this. Spectacular…. Stephen Layton has inspired his singers to heights of magnificence, relishing Briggs's penchant for rich, sumptuous harmonies and ravishing melodic lines, but at the same time moving beyond mere effect and rooting out the genuine musical intensity behind these finely crafted works…. The musical voice we hear in the improvisations is certainly present in the choral music, yet it's so finely crafted and idiomatically written that we realize that, as a composer, Briggs is no mere writer-out of inspirational ideas but a man with a well-honed gift for creating true music.”

BBC Radio 3 CD Review:
"An overwhelming, all-compassing audio experience - I can't resist it"

Gramophone Magazine (Editor's Choice, August 2010):
"I can confidentially say that this recording is one of the greatest CDs of sacred choral & organ music you'll ever hear. I'm not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes; listeners who are churchgoers & non-believers alike will find this disc a profoundly moving experience."

Classical Music Sentinel:
“All of you who have become convinced that any new music being written these days is only going to be either boring formulaic minimalism, atonal noise, electronic manipulation, or worst of all, tepid crossover attempts to draw a different crowd, can all breathe a deep sigh of relief. David Briggs (b1962) has come to the rescue with this jaw-dropping Mass for Notre-Dame, composed in 2002. The choral writing is just stunning in its rich harmonic colors, adventurous intervals, long flowing lines and cathedral filling 'grandeur'.”


from Mr Aaron Rain, a regular member of our Organ Concert audience at St James Cathedral, Toronto:

... I found your Three Motets for High Soprano and Organ to be as profoundly enchanting as any music I have yet heard for solo classical voice and solo instrument. I believe their beauty and grace would stand out even in the portfolios of the most respected 20th century composers of choral music, now dead and gone.

Shame on me for forgetting her name (Julia Morson, ed), but to me your soprano was perfection. Her tone was so fine, but even more importantly, her control and use of vibrato was unparalled. I hope to hear her again.

Your Prelude and Fugue I would love to hear again and again, while your DISNEY extravaganza displayed the rich and powerful harmony I have come to expect from you. I am extremely excited to hear your upcoming recitals.