This recording from The Choir of Westminster Cathedral also features two of its admired former organists and the English Chamber Orchestra Brass Ensemble, all illuminating joyful paeans of praise by the profoundly religious organist and composer Jean Langlais.
Langlais studied in Paris and wrote for the choir and organ of Notre Dame. He also taught and played often in the United States, and many of his works were written for American performers and audiences. His music was inspired by his love of the Catholic liturgy and of Gregorian chant. Plainsong melodies feature prominently, making much use of parallel fifths and octaves which suggest a twentieth-century update of early organum.
The French organist and composer Jean Langlais was born on 15 February 1907 at La Fontenelle, Ille-et-Vilaine, in the region of Brittany. Blind from childhood, he received his education at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, where he studied piano, organ and harmony. His organ teacher was the great André Marchal, himself blind and a former pupil of the Institut, and, like so many French organists (including, eventually, Langlais himself) a skilled improviser.
With Marchal’s guidance, Langlais graduated in 1927 to the Paris Conservatoire where, under the tutelage of Marcel Dupré, he won a first prize in organ-playing in 1930. His composition teacher was Paul Dukas (composer of the popular L’Apprenti sorcier) and he made there the acquaintance of a promising fellow student, the young Olivier Messiaen. At the Conservatoire also he came under the powerful influence of Charles Tournemire, organist of Ste Clotilde and sometime pupil of d’Indy, who dazzled him with his legendary gift for extemporization, and whose compositions impressed him deeply—especially the vast L’Orgue mystique, with its imaginative use of Gregorian chant. Having won a number of prizes for composition, interpretation and improvisation, Langlais took up an appointment at his old school, the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, conducting the choir and teaching organ and composition. He became organist first of St Pierre de Montrouge and later, in 1945, of Ste Clotilde where his predecessors, apart from Tournemire, included no less a dignitary than César Franck.
In addition to his work in Paris, Langlais taught and played often in the United States, and many of his works were written for American performers and audiences. A man of profound religious conviction, his music was almost exclusively sacred, inspired by his love of the Catholic liturgy and of Gregorian chant.
The plainsong Salve regina (‘Hail, O queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope’) is one of the four Antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dating probably from the eleventh century and intended for singing at the end of Compline. By the thirteenth century it had become so closely identified with this rite that it was sometimes sung as a separate evening service, known in France as ‘Salut’, elsewhere as the ‘Salve’. It has since been the basis of many settings of the Mass and of other polyphonic compositions.
Langlais’s Missa Salve regina was first sung at Notre Dame, Paris, at Christmas 1954. It calls for unusual forces—male-voice chorus (TTBB), unison voices (boy trebles on this recording), two organs and an octet of brass instruments (three trumpets and five trombones). Two trumpets and two trombones play with the Great Organ (‘Grand Orgue’), the remaining brass with the Choir Organ (‘Orgue de Chœur’). The music is melodious and colourful, making much use of parallel fifths and octaves which suggest a twentieth-century update of early organum and give the music a solemn, monastic quality. The opening of the plainsong is prominent throughout the Mass.
The Messe solennelle, for mixed chorus and organ, was also inspired by the Catholic liturgy and tailored to the needs of the Mass. It was written in 1951, and although it is not based on plainsong the modality of the writing sometimes suggests it. Again Langlais employs parallel fifths and octaves, made more incisive by the addition of notes which create often harsh discords. The Kyrie, whose two main themes are foreshadowed in the organ introduction, is mostly homophonic, though the imitative entries which launch the chorus lines give it a contrapuntal feel. True counterpoint is reserved for the start of the Gloria, which begins as a fugue, albeit one which the organ from time to time interrupts. The Sanctus is marked by a sinuous figure in the organ accompaniment which twists and turns chromatically until its rhythm is taken up by the chorus in an energetic ‘Hosanna’, repeated at the end of the restrained Benedictus. The final section of the Mass, the Agnus Dei, is intensely chromatic, its melodic material showing a strange angularity, and its closing plea for peace (‘dona nobis pacem’) becoming increasingly urgent.
Between the Gloria and the Sanctus of the Missa Salve regina is inserted a short organ piece, Rosa mystica, the first of the Triptyque grégorien which Langlais wrote in 1978. Filling here the place of the Offertory, it is a free meditation on the plainsong and on the concept of the mystic rose—a medieval designation for the Virgin Mary. No time signature is provided, as the rhythm has the fluidity of speech. The Salve regina theme figures prominently on the pedals.
The second organ solo, La nativité, comes from the early Trois poèmes évangéliques of 1932. Though a continuous piece, it divides into sections—a tranquil opening portraying the crib (La crèche) leads to a quicker passage representing the angels (Les anges), in which there is consistent double pedalling. The remaining pages depict the shepherds (Les bergers) and the Holy Family (La Sainte Famille).
The final piece is the astringently modal Te Deum (Hymne d’actions de grâces) from the Trois paraphrases grégoriennes of 1934—a true paean of praise.
Wadham Sutton © 1988