Marcel Dupré (1886–1971) is among the most prominent figures in French organ music of this century. Through his compositions, his many students, and the legacy he left as a performer, he is the epitome of a musical giant. The overall picture of him as recitalist, prolific and brilliant composer, formidable improviser, deft master of form and harmony, fluid contrapuntalist, and teacher of pervasive influence is hardly one of remote hearsay, for he was a familiar presence to many people.
The Prelude and Fugue in B, Op. 7, is the first in a volume of three preludes and fugues written in 1912. The melody of the toccata-like prelude at first booms forth in the pedals, then surges up into the manuals where it undergoes elaboration and transformation through a number of keys, and finally embeds itself in canon between the manuals and pedals. The arpeggiated fugue subject is imbued with an ambivalence of rhythm that leads fluency to its travels through numerous distant keys and its emergence into syncopated rhythmic guises. Its arrival at a climax, fittingly, calls on the organ’s entire resources.
Eugène Gigout (1844–1925) was a native of Nancy and had his first schooling in the shadow of the cathedral there. He entered the Niedermeyer École de Musique Religieuse in 1857, remaining in that Parisian institution for twenty years. As a very gifted student and extempore performer, he drew considerable aid and support from Saint-Saens, his most important teacher; and, at the tender age of 19, he was appointed Organist Titulaire at the Church of St. Augustin, Paris.
The Scherzo is one of his three best-known organ works and perhaps his most charming as well: The melodic and harmonic content is extraordinarily simple, allowing the organ’s divisions to arpeggiate and play against each other. Gigout, who enjoyed a busy schedule as a touring recitalist throughout Europe, may have used this small work for recitals which allowed him to show the flutes of an instrument to their advantage. One does not need an organ of enormous tonal resources to perform the piece, but the abundance of color in the St. John the Divine organ imparts a freshness to it that is not lost in the grandiose building.
A native Belgian, César Franck (1822–1890) must be considered the founding father of the French organ tradition (with the co-parentage of organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll). These two men, augmented by the swelling ranks of performers and builders who embraced the new school of musical aesthetics, steadily filled the churches, cathedrals, and concert venues of France with advanced instruments suited to the compositions that, by the 1860’s, had begun to burgeon on the shelves of music stores.
The Choral in A minor is Franck’s final work. Though weighed down by lingering effects of a bus accident in April of 1890, he made his way up to the organ at the Church of St. Clotilde, where he was Organist Titulaire, to verify and annotate the registrations and dynamics of this piece. At his death that November, the manuscript lay by his bed. The trio of chorales constitute an altogether unprecedented fantasy form in which a few contrasting themes, the chorale of each predominant among them, evolve and develop in symphonic fashion. In his third chorale (the A Minor) an energetic, almost tortured opening, contrasts arpeggiated chords with chromatic progressions until a sweet, lyrical theme, with sensuous underpinnings from strings and the more evocative other flues, enters to put the opening briefly behind. An uncertain major/minor balancing act ensues, with the ambivalence eventually escalating into grandiloquent statements from all divisions. The instrument’s full tonal resources then unite to call forth related fragments of the themes, again with no commitment to major or minor, in an irresistible, massive progression toward the end. The final chord is affirmatively in the major.
The organ masses of Renaissance and Classic times were suites of interludes to be used in the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic mass. Olivier Messiaen, (1908–1992) nearly all of whose organ compositions bear religious titles, intended this mass to accompany and underpin the actual observance of the service. The Communion and Sortie, both taken from the Pentecost Mass of 1950 fall in the middle of a three-year period often termed as his experimentative stage. It brings together numerous devices with which he was fascinated at the time, and which continue to be elements of his musical compositions even to this day: plainchant, birdsong, mystical religious symbolism, added note values, ametrical rhythms (Indian), and ancient Greek rhythms. The composer stated that the "Pentecost Mass is a result of twenty years of improvising; moreover, after writing this piece, I have never improvised."
Communion is subtitled "Birds and springs of water." It quotes from the Book of Daniel: "Springs of water, bless the Lord; birds of the sky, bless the Lord." The song of the nightingale, drops of water, and song of the blackbird figure in this movement. Much of Messiaen’s music freezes the passing of time—as if the entire work is but a frozen moment in eternity. The largest and smallest pipes of the organ (sounding its highest and lowest pitches) bring the movement to an end, clearly symbolizing infinite and the all-embracing love of Christ in the eucharist.
The turbulent, joyful Sortie quotes from the Acts of the Apostles: "A mighty breath fills the entire house." The rush of the wind at the start and end frame a central section depicting, in an ecstatic song of the skylark, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The first version of Dupré's Cortège et Litanie, Op. 19, was a ballet sketch for eleven instruments. Only later did it take shape as an organ work. (It is fortunate that it did, for it has become an enduring element in the instrument’s repertoire.) After being inspired by one of his own improvisations, Dupré decided to set this music onto paper while on a return voyage from North America in 1922—the first of many profitable forays of this sort. A solemn chorale on the softest strings of the Choir division opens the piece. Soon, a tolling bell (The Erzähler of the Great division) can be heard, lending a somber tone to the atmosphere. The Litany unfolds from a single flute, played on the Gedeckt of the Swell division, into a rising crescendo that ennobles each statement of the four-measure phrase. The close, heralded by massive texture and chordal magnificence, is a proclamation of triumph.
Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937) was Organist Titulaire at the massive instrument in the Church of St. Sulpice, Paris, for 64 years. He was among the first professional organists of international stature. As consultant, editor, lecturer, composer, writer, teacher and acclaimed virtuoso, he toured throughout Europe. His rather extensive opus list encompasses excellent chamber works (only now being recorded), dramatic works, and sacred music. As successor to Franck and Dubois at the Conservatoire and as a noted critic, he became a key voice in music— but also, peripherally, in other areas—throughout French-speaking Europe. His six organ symphonies are the first musical compositions to bear this title. The Fifth Symphony could not have a more ingenious opening movement. The F minor Allegro vivace starts briskly with a propulsive chordal theme followed by five variations. An F major chorale-like section modulates through successive keys which, in time, produce a tension resolved only at the end: B flat, A flat, E flat, and a triumphant F minor once more. Though reed stops do get a workout in parts of the movement, it is the flues that shine here. The magnificence of the organ at St. John the Divine is clearly apparent with this music.
Fifty-five years after Franck last played the organ at the Church of St. Clotilde, Jean Langlais (1907–1991) became organist there. His organ output was staggering in quantity, diverse in nature, and explorative of every formal idiom known to the composer. The two works on this recording display Langlais’ diversity to good effect. The soft chords of the Cantilène form a gentle, sensuous background over which floats a simple line of a serene melody on the Flugelhorn stop. A fugal interlude on the Clarinet stop flows into the opening theme, but with a distant, celestial 4' Flute to impart a slightly strange, ethereal mood to the end.
Trumpet Tune (the actual title is indeed in English) is dedicated to Jonathan Dimmock, who commissioned it for the organ of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There is not a large body of repertoire for the enormous and distant major reed at Saint John the Divine (called the State Trumpet); so specially written or improvised works are required to make full musical use of it. The composer was enthusiastic about the challenge of writing for such a rare, powerful combination of full organ and State Trumpet (or, as the late E. Power Biggs once termed it: "The loudest sound this side of Hades!").
Trumpet Tune confronts the performer with the unusual dilemma of how to maintain a musical pulse and still allow for the nearly one-second delay between the time the big reed speaks from beneath the large Rose window in theWest end, and the time it is heard at the console some 500 feet away. For the recording engineer, an entirely different problem arises. If each end of the cathedral is set up with microphones to yield immediate images of both the full organ or the State Trumpet, there is also the arrival (nearly one second later) of sound from the other end of the building. The murkiness and confusion resulting from that would be highly unmusical. To solve this problem and to attempt something unlikely to be duplicated in future recording projects, microphones were positioned at the point half-way down the nave where the sound from the main organ and from the State Trumpet arrive simultaneously.What results is a wide-angle sonic snapshot of the entire cathedral from its heart.
—Jonathan Dimmock & Christopher Greenleaf