Noël en Duo [5'17]
Noël sur les Flûtes [7'13]
Noël Grand jeu et Duo [5'22]
Louis-Claude Daquin was born in Paris to a reasonably well-connected family. On his mother’s side he was related to Rabelais, on his father’s to the Rabbi of Avignon (who had converted to Christianity before he died in 1650). His great uncle was one of Louis XIV’s doctors and a King’s Counsellor. His father was a painter who travelled widely but with little commercial success. Louis-Claude was one of five children, but the only one to reach adulthood. Little in his background would seem to have pointed to a musical career but Daquin showed a precocious talent at the keyboard as a very young boy; he was given some early lessons by a chaplain at the Sainte-Chapelle and informal instruction in composition by Nicolas Bernier. At the age of six he is said to have been heard by the King himself: the Dauphin predicted that he would become ‘the leading man of his age’. At the age of eight he reportedly directed (under Bernier’s guidance) a performance of his own Beatus vir for a large chorus and orchestra at the Sainte-Chapelle.
His keyboard skill rapidly won him a variety of posts: in 1706 he became organist with the Hospitaliers de St Antoine and assistant to Marin de la Guerre at the Sainte-Chapelle. His first adult success came in 1727 when he defeated Rameau in a flamboyant competition to become organist at St Paul. Louis Marchand heard him play there and they became friends. As Marchand was dying in 1732 he is supposed to have said to his organ at les Cordeliers: ‘Farewell, dear widow: only Daquin is worthy of you.’ Daquin duly succeeded him. His crowning professional achievement came in 1739 when he was appointed as one of the King’s personal organists. In first performance of this role he ‘surpassed himself and astonished the whole Court’, according to the Abbé de Fontenay, leading the King to extend his personal compliments and to spend no less than a quarter of an hour discussing the prodigy with the Comte d’Eu (who was to become a patron to Daquin). He became organist at Notre-Dame in 1755.
Our knowledge of Daquin’s life and character depends heavily on his son, who collected and published letters about leading figures of the day. If his biographers are to be believed, Daquin was a man of simple tastes, unimpeachable probity, great piety and independence of mind, who was above ambition or commercial interest, achieved glory without seeking it, and loved art for its own sake. He was even on friendly terms with his greatest rival, Calvière. How literally we take such hagiography is a matter of judgement, but there can be no doubt about his skill at the keyboard. He was recognized as the finest improviser of his day—even winning the approval of Rameau. His hallmarks were the precision of his playing and his ability to treat both hands equally. He carried on playing until the very end of his life: according to Sébastien Merlier in his Tableau de Paris Daquin wowed a large crowd just three weeks before his death with an improvisation on Iudex crederis, at which his playing ‘instilled such vivid impressions in their hearts that everyone went pale’.
Daquin is reported to have composed a variety of choral and orchestral works as well as keyboard music but only two works survive. The first (from 1735) is a book of harpsichord suites dedicated to his pupil Mlle de Soubise, which includes, among a range of virtuoso showpieces, imitations of a cuckoo and a storm. The second (from about 1740) is the collection of twelve Noëls on which his fame principally rests. They were dedicated to the Comte d’Eu (Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Prince de Dombes, son of the Duke of Maine, and a prominent figure at the Court). He was an important patron for Daquin, whose generosity, according to his biographers, was to prevent the composer from dying a poor man. Both the harpsichord suites and the Noëls reveal Daquin as a composer contrasting to his immediate predecessors, Lalande, Charpentier, Couperin and Rameau. Less concerned with structure or form, with modulation or genuine counterpoint, he aimed more towards pictorial immediacy and virtuosity for its own sake. His ability to break a melody into its component fragments and develop them in dazzling passagework, without losing sight of the original melody, was unsurpassed. The form of the Noël suited his particular skills perfectly.
Collections of Christmas verses, some with music, began to appear in France in the fifteenth century and spread widely in the sixteenth. Noëls—vernacular Christmas verses—had featured at Christmas Mass since medieval times. In the course of the seventeenth century, organists came to use them as the basis of extended improvisations, filling whatever time was available before midnight. Instrumental and vocal arrangements of carols were also used. The first surviving collection of variations for organ is by Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue (1676), in effect the founder of the genre; others by Nicolas Gigault (1682), André Raison (1714) and Pierre Dandrieu (1720) followed. After Daquin there were further sets by Michel Corrette (1753) and Claude Balbastre (1783). In his indispensable book La Musique d’orgue français de Jehan Titelouze à Jehan Alain (Paris, 1949), Norbert Dufourcq notes that: ‘The Noël with variations required a special manual skill. Not just any comer could acquire it. The point was not to prove originality. The whole point was spirit—and fingerwork. Plenty of Frenchmen of the time lacked for neither. That is why they were past masters in this facile art, far removed from the true French organ style and which borders on descriptive music … sketches in fresh colours, pictures with clear outlines, the Noëls of a Pierre Dandrieu, of a Michel Corrette, or a Dornel, of a Daquin, have no counterpart that we know of in the entire corpus of organ music.’ As Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained in his Dictionary of 1768, Noëls ‘should have a rustic and pastoral character matching the simplicity of the words and of the shepherds who were supposed to have sung them while paying homage to Christ in the crib’. Daquin, Dufourcq concludes, was ‘le roi des Noëlistes’.
Daquin’s Noëls are described on the title page as being for ‘organ and harpsichord, most of which could be performed on violins, flutes, oboes, etc’. There is no doubt that they are written with the sonority of the French Classical organ in mind, but many could be played on one or two harpsichords, and the simpler ones on other combinations of instruments. Almost all the melodies are known from other sources, but often with a variety of texts. Christopher Hogwood, in his 1983 edition, has tentatively given a title to all but one, but notes that our knowledge is too thin to be able to read any but the broadest programmatic meaning into the settings. The mood varies from the boldness and brilliance of No I to the tenderness of No VII (with its lilting melody over a chromatic bass) and the final overwhelming weight of No XII, with its use of the great pédale de trompette.
Many of the Noëls employ a cumulative variation technique in which the figuration becomes increasingly rapid as the piece progresses, producing an effect of ever greater brilliance. Stunning echo effects are achieved, as in Nos I, VI and X, by hopping from manual to manual (grand orgue, récit, écho). The pedal-writing in Nos II and IX implies a wide compass similar to the viola da gamba; this is accommodated by using the 4-foot flûte on its own.
The French organ tradition
Central to the distinctive character of the French Classical tradition is the plein jeu, the rich and full texture which came from what Fenner Douglass has called ‘the controlled brilliance of mixtures which were neither strident nor piercing’. It is supplemented by other tonal groups arranged in an orderly way; and in particular by distinctive reed sounds, the jeux d’anches, including the full-length trompette, the cromorne and the voix humaine. Favourite textures were the jeu de tierce and the cornet (built around flute stops sounding the third and fifth in the scale).
The organ of St Rémy, Dieppe
Félix Raugel (in 1932) described the organ as having a ‘rounded, mellow and pure sound’. He noted that the pleins jeux, which were so often mediocre, were given superior treatment here; and that the voicing, while well-supported and full, was not strident. It has survived the inevitable updatings and ‘restorations’ remarkably well. After only minor revisions in the eighteenth century, restoration by Ducroquet in 1846 left the mechanism and specification largely untouched, but installed new bellows to increase and improve air-flow. The tuning was raised to modern pitch in 1880. Rather more substantial alterations were made in 1886, when Brière, reflecting the general distrust of ancient manufacture, removed the two demi-claviers, the récit and the écho, replacing them with a modern récit expressif. Other changes were made to suit the Romantic taste of the period, and in 1915 still further ‘improvements’ were made by an amateur.
In 1930 the organ restorer Victor Gonzalez was commissioned to report on the organ. He found much of it in the same state as it had been for two centuries. He proposed three tranches of improvements, designed (as they then saw it) to keep the original specifications and sonorities so far as possible. Only the first tranche was carried out (in 1936–1938). Writing for the organ’s bicentenary in 1939, Dufourcq found it largely intact, and Parizot’s voicings scarcely changed despite the successive alterations. One of the principal reasons is the high tin content (some 75%) of the alloy used for the pipework.
In 1992 the Caën organ-builder Jean-François Dupont undertook a complete historic reconstruction of the organ. Since about 70% of the original pipework from 1739 survives, and with the organ at Falaise as an additional reference point, it has been possible to return this important instrument to its former glory, adding only the pedal soubasse to Parizot’s original scheme. The organ sound is greatly enhanced by the fine acoustic of the church.
David Ball © 1995