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Program Notes - La grande École d'orgue française

Thursday, December 11th, 1890 marked a turning point in the history of French organ music: Charles-Marie Widor began to teach at the Paris Conservatory. Widor was organist at St. Sulpice Church, and had studied with Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens in Brussels. Louis Vierne, then a student at the Conservatory, described the first impression he had of his new teacher: “He was a young man, appearing even younger than his actual age, quite tall, well-built, with a slightly military allure: a navy blue suit, a soft hat, a polka-dot ascot tie, with a well-off and distinguished look, slightly cold.”¹ Widor's teaching was different from his predecessor's, César Franck. He granted a more important place to interpretation, the structure of improvisations, technique and the lois d'exécution. According to Vierne, the principles can be summed as: “rigorous legato in all the voices, precise articulation of repeated notes, the tie of common notes, punctuation, breathing, phrasing, dynamics: all was dissected, commented, justified with a wonderful clarity.”²


Widor's Sixth Symphony was completed in 1878 and premiered on August 24th, 1878, during the inaugural concerts of the organ of the Trocadéro.³ Widor always rejected the sonata form for freer, more personal structures that only have little in common with the prescribed one,⁴ like in the case of this Allegro, which does not have a second theme.


The French organ school will have been influential for several decades in France, first with Widor, then, as of 1896, with Alexandre Guilmant, another of Lemmen's pupils and Widor's successor at the head of the Conservatory's organ class. Marcel Dupré also perpetrated the tradition by teaching at the Conservatory from 1926 to 1954. Dupré's students comprised Jeanne Demessieux, Pierre Cochereau, Jean Guillou, Gaston Litaize, Jean Langlais, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Olivier Messiæn, Jehan Alain, Rolande Falcinelli and André Fleury.


Fleury had been organist at St. Augustin Church in Paris, the Cathedral of Dijon, the Cathedral of Versailles and St. Eustache Church in Paris, where he shared the position with Jean Guillou. He wrote the Prelude and Fugue three years after having been awared the First Prize of the Conservatory. We find in this Prelude and Fugue, a binary-ternary alternation that is omnipresent in Duruflé's writing. 


Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire studied at the same time at the Conservatory; first with César Franck, then with Charles-Marie Widor. If the students were “hostile”⁵ to Widor's arrival, Vierne quickly grew fonder of his new teacher. He therefore became Widor's assistant at St. Sulpice Church, before becoming organist at Notre Dame Cathedral. Vierne was born partly blind. He was still able to write his music himself, with the help of thick glasses and a special paper with large staves. He however had to play from memory. He finished his Fourth Symphony just before the war, in 1914. He died while he was improvising at Notre Dame 's organ in 1937.


Tournemire, on the other hand, hated Widor all his life. We shall compare his first impression of Widor with Vierne's (previously mentioned): “I shall never forget the arrival on tip-toe, like a ballerina in a tutu, of the organ class' new teacher. His detached appearance, his escaping forehead, his long neck, everything of an egg on an eggcup, a multicoloured suit of the time's first maker that would cover only part of his behind, the ‘ad hoc’ vest and pants, all made the character immediately intolerable.”⁶


Even as a student, Charles Tournemire was considered to be a brilliant improviser. The complexity and the virtuosity of the Choral-Improvisation on the Theme of the “Victimæ paschali” (1931) testify to this. When listening to the recording of Tournemire's improvisation, we realise that it was not merely transcribed by Maurice Duruflé. It was, in a way, “revised” by Duruflé who was professor of harmony at the Conservatory. Beats were added to avoid time signature changes, notes that Tournemire might have played if the keyboard had 61 keys were added, motives were developed. The “Victimæ paschali laudes” is the sequence for Easter sunday. 


Nadia Boulanger studied composition with Widor at the Conservatory. (Widor had taken over the composition class when he handed the organ class to Guilmant.) She also privately studied the organ with Vierne and Guilmant. The Prelude in F minor (1911) is one of her rare works for the organ. She ceased composing in the early 1920's, after the death of her sister Lili, whom Nadia considered to be more talented, and decided to dedicate herself to teaching. She taught at the Normal School of Music and taught piano accompaniment at the Conservatory. She was also active as a choir and orchestra conductor.


It was suggested to Maurice Duruflé—who was from Louviers—to study in Paris. Duruflé therefore went to Paris twice a week to take organ lessons with Tournemire who enchanted him with his personal musical language. Duruflé became Tournemire's assistant at Ste. Clotilde Church in 1920. 


One day, Tournemire told Duruflé that he was ready to pass the admission audition at the Conservatory. Duruflé did not share his opinion, and was introduced to Vierne, of whom he took lessons. With Vierne, he studied the improvisation of fugue in a more rigorous fashion, and free improvisation in a more disciplined manner. Duruflé became substitute organist at Notre Dame Cathedral from 1927 to 1937. It is said that Vierne thought of Duruflé as his spiritual son. In his Memoires, Vierne wrote: “To me, Maurice Duruflé seems to be the most brilliant and authentic organist of the younger generation. We are in the presence of a well-rounded subject; a first-class performer, an improviser with an abounding and vivid imagination, highly sensitive and poetic. In addition, he is a rarely gifted composer. [...]”⁷ At the Conservatory, Duruflé studied the organ with Eugène Gigout and composition with Paul Dukas. 


Duruflé harshly criticized his works and constantly revised them. The Prelude and Fugue on the Name of Alain was published in 1943, then revised in 1947, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1970. He wrote, according to himself, “with difficulty and slowness.” Duruflé did not believe in inspiration: “[...] I, instead, believe in a process by elimination, a slow labour, tedious and often discouraging, but that over time can provoke a sort of doubling of self, a state in which one does no longer feel his own presence. It may then happen that one has the impression of writing as if the solution was dictated. This strange and fugitive feeling, that belongs to the subconscious mind, can only be triggered precisely by a constant effort to eliminate all that seems unacceptable.”⁸


The Prelude and Fugue on the Name of Alain was written during World War II, and is dedicated to the memory of Jehan Alain, who died heroically for France in 1940, during the Battle of Saumur. Duruflé had established the equivalent of the name “Alain” by prolongating the German nomenclature of notes. The principal motive of the prelude and the theme of the fugue therefore begin with the name “Alain” (A, D, A, A, F.) The second part of the prelude also comprises a quote from the theme of “Litanies” by Jehan Alain, played on the chromorne. The fugue is actually a double fugue with the first theme exposed on foundation stops, and the second theme in sixteenth notes played on a light plenum, on the Swell. 


Jehan Alain was a friend and classmate of Duruflé at the Conservatory. The theme that Alain used for his Variations on a theme by Clément Janequin (1936) is the song “L'espoir que j'ai.” Here is what Alain wrote on the manuscript he dedicated to Aline Pendleton: “Modern music, or at least what we shall call modern music in 1937, is more related to early music than romantic or classical music. By the simple game of musical orthography, we should be able to seamlessly pass from one to the other, and preserve the freshness and tenderness of XVI century music.”⁹


Marcel Dupré, mentioned earlier, taught the organ to Jehan Alain at the Conservatory. An accomplished performer, improviser, composer and teacher, Dupré gained fame by accomplishing the feat of performing the complete organ work of Johann Sebastian Bach from memory. Here is how Louis Vierne presents Marcel Dupré in his Memoires: “End of July, 1896, as we were spending some fifteen days on a holiday at some friends' home in Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, my brother and I took a sudden interest in seeing the church's organ. It was a very old instrument, strangely composed, with an incomplete Swell and a French-style pedalboard. ‘Nothing here’ was our response, not without a hint of regret. The following Sunday, at Mass, we were surprised to hear at the Offertory, the little Fugue in G minor by J.S. BACH—delicate and not easily undertaken by anyone—played perfectly, with an excellent legato, a precise articulation and beautiful flow. [...] We saw coming down a man who was slightly limping, followed by a little boy in a navy suit, a lovely face, with a clear look, soft and intelligent, with a lively allure, but no arrogance. I stepped forward, introduced myself, and asked who had played the Offertory. ‘My son,’ replied the man. ‘This lovely little man?’ ‘Yes, dear Sir.’ ‘How old is he?’ ‘He just turned ten.’ ‘Stupefying! Incredible! Not a mistake and an impeccable rhythm! and on the French pedalboard! It is unheard of.’ [...] And this is how I came to know Marcel Dupré and his family.”¹⁰


According to Xavier Darasse, “Dedicated to the memory of his father, Albert Dupré, organist at St. Ouen de Rouen Church, [Évocation (1941) evokes] the memory of liturgical services and solemn processions that marked his early years and his parents' life; the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument also being an inspiration for this poem.”¹¹

Translation by Francine Nguyen-Savaria

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1. In memoriam Louis Vierne, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer & Cie / Secrétariat Général des Amis de l'Orgue, 1939, p. 28

2. Ibid., p. 29

3. CANTAGREL, Gilles et al. Guide de la musique d'orgue, Paris, Fayard, 1991, p. 791

4. Ibid., p. 430

5. In memoriam Louis Vierne, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer & Cie / Secrétariat Général des Amis de l'Orgue, 1939, p. 33

6. TOURNEMIRE, Charles. Éclats de Mémoire, Paris, édité par Marie-Louise Langlais, 2014, p. 15

7. In memoriam Louis Vierne, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer & Cie / Secrétariat Général des Amis de l'Orgue, 1939, p. 80

8. BLANC, Frédéric. Maurice DURUFLÉ : Souvenirs et autres écrits, Biarritz, Atlantica-Séguier, 2005, p. 48.

9. ALAIN, Marie-Claire. Notes critiques sur l'œuvre d'orgue de Jehan Alain, Paris, Alphonse Leduc, 2001, p. 57 

10. In memoriam Louis Vierne, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer & Cie / Secrétariat Général des Amis de l'Orgue, 1939, p. 69-70

11. CANTAGREL, Gilles et al. Guide de la musique d'orgue, Paris, Fayard, 1991, p. 334

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