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Ken Cowan playing Thalben Ball

Thalben-Ball Variations on a theme of Paganini | Ken Cowan

Ken Cowan is seen here playing George Thalben Ball (1896-1987) Variations on a theme of Paganini. George Thalben Ball was well known as one of the great organ virtuosos of his time, widely admired by his colleagues. If one wants to hear just one example, his 78rpm (therefore unedited) recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from Alexandra Palace is staggering even to modern ears used to digitally edited recordings. Liszt and Brahms for example, had explored various aspects of piano technique by composing variations on the theme from Paganini’s twenty-fourth caprice for solo violin.

In his pedal variations, which were composed about one hundred years later, Thalben Ball adapts the same famous Paganini theme by employing such technical demands as three and four-note chords, arpeggios, glissandos and rapid passagework for the organist’s feet.  A demanding study at any age, it is interesting to note that Thalben Ball himself recorded this work when well into his ’70s, apparently unfettered by time.

I first heard Thalben Ball’s own recording of his Paganini Variations as a boy when my father played it for me on a cassette. However, the music was out of print, and it was during college years that I finally obtained a copy.  Hearing Olivier Latry play it as a concert encore some years ago finally enticed me to learn the piece, its familiar theme offering such broad appeal.  The variations, like many concert études, are studies in angles and efficiency- angles because you have to figure out the best position of the feet to accomplish the required chords and arpeggios, and efficiency because of the stamina required to play the whole set without fatigue. One might sum it up as a former teacher used to repeat to me slowly and clearly: “min-i-mal motion… min-i-mal motion…”

The pipe organ Our Lady of Refuge Church in Brooklyn was built by the Kilgen Organ Company of Saint Louis, Missouri in 1933 and installed at Our Lady of Refuge in 1934. The organ had fallen silent for many years. In 2007 it was removed from the church to Alliance, Ohio. There A.R. Schopp’s Sons all of the wind chests were re-leather, all of the pipe work cleaned and repaired. David Schopp did an extraordinary job restoring all of the reeds in the organ. No changes were made – only corrective voicing. In 2013 the organ was shipped back to Brooklyn and was reinstalled by Quimby Pipe Organs, who also upgraded the console. The organ was dedicated by Olivier Latry in October 2013.

Many more recordings of Ken Cowan can be found in our shop.


Organist Ken Cowan is a member of the keyboard faculty of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University where he is Associate Professor and head of the organ program. Ken is also Organist and Artist-in-Residence at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX. Previous positions have included Associate Professor of Organ at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, where he was awarded the 2008 Rider University Distinguished Teaching Award. In May of 2015 he recorded this video on the restored Kilgen Pipe Organ at Our Lady of Refuge Church in Brooklyn.

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