Three charismatic French giants of the organ: Widor, who would hold 'salon' parties in his organ loft; Vierne, so committed to his art that he continued to perform literally to the end, dying mid-recital in Notre-Dame; and Dupré, of whom it was declared 'He will be an organist' even as he lay in his cradle.
The achievements of these men in the world of sacred choral music are impressive. All of the music on this fantastic recording was originally composed for performance in the church of St-Sulpice, 'one of the noblest structures in Paris', the place which inspired Vierne and Widor to write their awesome Mass settings. Both works call upon two organs, the grand orgue being employed at times to devastating effect. Widor also uses a second choir, the 200 or so Seminarians from the adjoining school. All is reproduced here to create a startling result.
Also recorded are various motets, including the rarely performed set of Quatre Motets by Dupré, which includes the decidedly uninhibited Laudate Dominum.
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In the middle of the nineteenth century the sorry state of church music in Paris was a source of bitter controversy. The passion for opera and ballet that dominated the musical life of the city had become firmly entrenched even in the churches, where organists deficient in both taste and technique gratified their undiscriminating clergy and congregations with music that was either sentimental or vulgar, or both. Castigating most of his contemporaries as ‘musicians without brains, performers without fingers’, Saint-Saëns used to delight in recalling a memorable conversation from his days as an organist:
One day a vicar of the parish tried to make me understand the point of view of the public at La Madeleine. He emphasized that the public basically consisted of rich people, who were devoted followers of the presentations of the Opéra-Comique. It was therefore necessary to respect their taste in music. Monsieur l’Abbé, I replied, when I hear sermons coming from the pulpit in the style of the dialogue at the Opéra-Comique, then I will play music in a similar vein—but not before.
Adopting a frankly cynical attitude, which he passed on to his successor Fauré, Saint-Saëns survived for twenty years at La Madeleine, perhaps remembering that only ten years earlier his mentor, the erudite Alexandre Boëly, had been dismissed from his post at a neighbouring church for playing too many fugues.
The most successful representative of the popular style was Saint-Saëns’ predecessor Lefébure-Wély, who in 1863 took control of the largest organ in Paris, at Saint-Sulpice. Adored by the public, he was reviled by many critics, accused of ‘prostituting our organs to the barcarolle, the galop, the valse, and the polka’, and of debasing the ritual of the church with musique érotique. His greatest fan was the Abbé Hamon, Curé of Saint-Sulpice, who contributed a fulsome preface to Lefébure-Wély’s magnum opus, L’Organiste Moderne: ‘I am happy to see these delicious pieces, that have delighted us so often, preserved in print … I congratulate myself more and more to see our beautiful organ in such good hands; the Instrument inspires the Artist, and the Artist does honour to the Instrument.’
But behind the scenes, times were changing, and a bloodless revolution was being planned. The mastermind was none other than the great organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who built or rebuilt most of the organs of Paris (and many in the provinces) during his long career, including La Madeleine (1846), Saint-Sulpice (1862) and Notre-Dame (1868). In Northern Europe a true tradition of organ-playing, centred round the music of Bach, still survived, and Cavaillé-Coll arranged for two young Frenchmen to go to Brussels to learn this tradition from the Belgian organist Lemmens. When the two protégés—Alexandre Guilmant and, a few years later, Charles-Marie Widor—returned to Paris, they had mastered a rational technique of organ-playing that placed them in a different league from all their contemporaries. However, it seems to have been Widor who made the greater impression. On New Year’s Eve, 1869, he was deputizing for Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, and Cavaillé-Coll happened to be in the organ-loft when they received news of the sudden death of Lefébure-Wély. Cavaillé-Coll sprang into action, and within a few days Widor was installed as titulaire of Saint-Sulpice. At last this great masterpiece of the organ-builder’s art was in the hands of a real musician with the technique and the intelligence to play it in the style it deserved. Widor’s career at Saint-Sulpice was to last for sixty-four years, during which he became a pillar of the musical establishment, serving for thirty-seven years as a Professor at the Conservatoire and twenty as Perpetual Secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. When he retired in 1933, in his ninetieth year, his place was taken by his disciple Marcel Dupré, who had already been acting as his Assistant since 1906. Dupré remained at Saint-Sulpice until the day of his death, on Sunday 30 May 1971, so between them these two great organists covered an amazing span of 101 years.
Before the young Dupré came on the scene, Widor had employed a number of other gifted pupils as his Assistant, and the most notable of these was Louis Vierne, who filled this role for eight years, from 1892 until 1900, when he entered and won a competition for the post of Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It was here that he was to make his name, and here that he died at the console, in the middle of a recital on 2 June 1937. But his small output of choral music dates from his years at Saint-Sulpice, and thus—like all the works in this recording—was written for performance in the splendid setting of what Edward Gibbon called ‘one of the noblest structures in Paris’.
A massive baroque church, the interior lined with arcades of Roman arches and Corinthian columns beneath a heavy vaulted roof, Saint-Sulpice is magnificent, but entirely lacking in what the French would call ambiance mystique. The ritual here was celebrated with great ceremony, for this was the official parish of the Catholic Church in France. The main Seminary of Paris was situated in the adjoining square, and the presence of a choir of some two hundred Seminarians lent a particularly grandiose flavour to the liturgy. Concealed behind its ornate and monumental façade, with carved columns echoing the stonework below, the Grand Orgue occupies the whole of the upper west wall of the church; it was here that Widor ‘reigned for sixty-four years’ (his own phrase—he liked to make comparisons with Queen Victoria). Occupying pride of place in the middle of the gallery, the enormous semi-circular console was kept immaculately polished; the whole loft was covered with luxurious red carpet, and a cupboard behind the organ was transformed into a tiny but elegantly furnished ‘salon’ where Widor would entertain his guests before and after Mass, or during the sermon … Artists, writers, politicians and aristocrats gathered here to admire his phenomenal virtuosity and legendary improvisations, and elaborately coiffured ladies were usually seated beside him while he played.
The traditional musical establishment of a large French cathedral or wealthy parish church is very different from its Anglican counterpart, where the Organist and his full-time Assistant are both also professional choir-trainers, and organ and choir function as a single liturgical unit in the chancel. In France these responsibilities were divided, geographically as well as professionally. The Titulaire du Grand Orgue, presiding from his organ-loft or tribune at the west end, was the most distinguished member of the musical staff. At the other end of the church, and often a considerable distance away, the maître de chapelle trained and conducted a professional choir of boys and men (numbering about forty in Widor’s time), with its own choir organ and its own organist. With the aid of an excellent choirmaster and choir organists of the calibre of Gabriel Fauré (from 1871 to 1874) and André Messager, the liturgical music at Saint-Sulpice in Widor’s heyday was much admired: ‘… the most beautifully religious it is possible to imagine’, according to an enthusiastic contemporary, ‘… an incessant exchange between grand and chancel organs, choir and priest … Widor plays a strain; it is taken up, as if continued, by the chancel. Again, this time the grand organ echoes, again the other responds, the great sweep of the vocal ensemble merging absolutely, now uniting, then separating, imploring, majestic, tender, prayerful! …’ The high standard of the choir also attracted more discriminating listeners, and the author Huysmans, who described the process of his conversion to Catholicism in a minutely detailed series of autobiographical novels, was a regular visitor. Horrified by the oppressive architecture of the church, and appalled by the worldly clerics, he would creep after dark into a secluded corner behind the High Altar, where the distant thunder of the organ, the chanting of the plainsong and the angelic voices of the boys stirred him to the depths of his tortured soul.
Widor was a cultivated all-round musician; a popular figure in the salons of Paris, he wrote quantities of elegant and idiomatic chamber and piano music and songs, not to mention symphonies, ballets and a number of operas. But his mission at Saint-Sulpice was to establish a dignified style of choral and organ music which would satisfy his own high standards without alienating the congregation. The music must be monumental, as befitted the setting, and all picturesque effects must be rigorously excluded. Between 1872 and 1880 he published six of his ten pioneering Organ Symphonies, and several choral works, in which he made striking use of the impressive resources at his disposal—the organs at each end of the church, the four-part choir, and the massed chorus of Seminarian baritones (presumably displaying more enthusiasm than vocal skill). The earliest work in this programme is the hymn-like setting of Tantum ergo (1874), which is discreetly accompanied by the Choir Organ; the choir of baritones sings the first verse, with the four-part choir joining in to elaborate the second. But the other works are dominated by the majestic tones of the Grand Orgue; dating from 1876, Tu es Petrus and the Easter motet Surrexit a mortuis are very grand indeed, employing the dramatic antiphonal effects which are also such a feature of the Mass of 1878. When it first entered the repertoire at Saint-Sulpice, the Mass was well received: ‘… it has the strength of Bach and Handel, combined with the penetrating grace of Mendelssohn, the whole animated by Catholic sentiment. The Agnus Dei is one of the most delicate and inspired of Widor’s creations’, wrote one critic. When Widor was an old man, Vierne confessed that there was still no other organist who could match ‘his authority, his sense of grandeur, his imperious mastery’, and these qualities are already evident in the choral works. Vierne also described Widor’s style as ‘plus décoratif qu’émotif’, implying perhaps a lack of real substance, and a comparison of their respective settings of the Mass is instructive in this respect. Widor’s setting is designed to reinforce the splendour of the liturgy without extending it to an inconvenient length, and concision is achieved through minimal repetition of the words (indeed, the Benedictus verges on the perfunctory). The work impresses by its sheer magnificence, but Vierne’s Messe Solennelle is undoubtedly of greater musical interest.
This contrast can be explained to some extent by Vierne’s own background. The revolution in musical standards had taken another great step forward in 1872, when César Franck became Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire. Franck had no interest in instrumental technique, but his instinctive musicality inspired a whole generation. Hypersensitive, almost blind, but highly talented, Vierne was already a student in the Organ Class when Franck died in 1890, to be replaced by Widor, whose star was now rising fast. The new Professor soon took his most promising pupil under his wing, and was amply rewarded. Acting as his Assistant both at Saint-Sulpice and at the Conservatoire, Vierne rapidly became a complete master of his art, combining the musical inspiration he had absorbed from Franck with the technical mastery he learnt from Widor, and passing them on to the next generation through his own teaching. Commissioned by the maître de chapelle of Saint-Sulpice, Philippe Bellenot, (‘who was very fond of me’, Vierne recalled), the two motets are among his very earliest works. If the Tantum ergo is beautifully written but rather anonymous in style, the Ave Maria is an exquisite miniature of real individuality. At the end of the decade Vierne began to flex his compositional muscles in earnest in his First Organ Symphony (1898), and then in his Messe Solennelle for choir and two organs (1899). With the aid of propulsive rhythmic figures in the accompaniment of Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus, which give the music a continual sense of forward momentum, Vierne allows himself more time than Widor, more time for thematic development, and more time for imaginative expression. Perhaps the influences are still slightly undigested; the shadow of Widor looms large over some sections, while passages such as the central ‘Christe’ of the first movement are strongly reminiscent of Franck. But there is no doubt that the whole work is animated by real inspiration; following the awesome solemnity of the Kyrie and the triumphant Gloria and Sanctus, the mysterious antiphonal harmonies of the Benedictus sound a completely new note in the French church music of the time, and the long-breathed phrases of the Agnus Dei, again echoing from choir to Grand Orgue, bring the whole work to a wonderfully serene conclusion.
Probably on account of its large scale, this Mass never entered the general repertoire, and the first performance did not take place until December 1901, at Saint-Sulpice, with Widor playing the Grand Orgue. Soon afterwards, in 1905, the Separation of Church and State in France caused a major crisis for church musicians. Funds were decimated overnight: at Saint-Sulpice the Seminary moved out of Paris, and at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame the choir was reduced to four paid men and a motley collection of choirboys from the local school. The indefatigable maître de chapelle, Abbé Renault, gradually built up the choir again and they learnt the Kyrie of Vierne’s Mass, but the composer remarks ruefully in his Souvenirs that ‘we never ventured any further’ …
The four rarely performed motets by Marcel Dupré form a fascinating postscript to the other works. Dupré was the son of a distinguished organist, and his path in life was mapped out almost from birth, for he was only three days old when the bearded figure of Alexandre Guilmant peered into his cradle and pronounced: ‘He will be an organist.’ Acquainted from an early age with both Cavaillé-Coll (who called him ‘le petit prodige’) and Widor, Dupré became the most gifted student of his generation. He studied the organ with Guilmant and Vierne, and composition with Widor who, having lost his first protégé, was to treat him like a son for the rest of his life. Dupré was barely twenty years old when he suddenly found himself Assistant at Saint-Sulpice, playing the organ that was to remain his greatest joy until the day of his death. It was about ten years later, during the First World War, that he wrote these motets. Dedicated to Bellenot, the first piece (choir and organ) is an ardently lyrical, almost sensual setting of O salutaris hostia; maybe an uneasy combination to modern ears, but it is certainly a good tune. The enigmatic Tantum ergo (choir and two organs) seems to be a deliberate departure from more conventional versions of this text; the converging chromatic lines recall Vierne’s Kyrie, and the dedication to Abbé Renault may indicate that Dupré had Notre-Dame in mind, for it was about this time that he began to deputize there during Vierne’s protracted absence due to recurrent problems with his eyes. The third piece (boys’ voices and organ) is a sombre, dark-hued Ave Maria, very different from Vierne’s innocent vision, with a striking premonition of Poulenc at ‘ora pro nobis’. The final Laudate Dominum (choir and two organs) is an exultant outburst of praise, with another memorable tune; toccata figuration on the Grand Orgue and some unconventional and demanding vocal writing contribute to the impressive effect of the whole. There is a distinctly vulgar streak in this uninhibited romp, which almost brings us full circle; Widor’s reaction has not been recorded.
David Gammie © 1997