by Paul Emmons, Organist
As organist, harpsichordist, conductor, composer, and teacher, Anton Heiller was a highly versatile and honored musician in mid-20th-century Vienna. His performances and recordings of the organ works of Bach were among the most magisterial ever heard. Heiller was often asked to end his American organ recitals with an improvisation on a submitted theme. He graciously complied, producing stunning creations on a moment’s notice, but regarded the feat as a mere stunt and placated his conscience by charging a lower fee for the event– a scruple which probably only encouraged further such requests!
Heiller’s Ecce Lignum Crucis (Behold the Wood of the Cross) is based upon the Gregorian chant melody for these words in the Good Friday rite. It appears three times, each time in a higher key, just as it is sung liturgically. I believe that the dramatic middle variation evokes the hammer blows as the nails are driven into Our Lord’s flesh. By contrast, the exquisitely tender third variation may remind a listener of Michelango’s sculpture “The Pieta.” It juxtaposes the Ecce lignum Crucis melody with the German folk song “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three angels are singing), which Heiller’s friend Paul Hindemith had made familiar to us in his symphony Mathis der Maler.