French Organ Music Seminar 2005


by Jim Skinner

(Part One of Two)

Just over a couple of decades ago, the distinguished American organist Christina Harmon played a recital in Nôtre Dame de Paris. She was convinced that fellow Americans might welcome an opportunity to see and, better still, play some of the legendary instruments in the French capital. Thus was born the French Organ Music Seminar (FOMS), now in its eighteenth year.

The event has grown to encompass not only Paris but the hinterland, and, this year, for the first time, northern Switzerland. For thirteen days, participants are able to see, hear and perform on organs that were the bailiwicks of such illustrious names as Dupré, Vierne, Widor, Tournemire, Guilmant and Couperin. Ms. Harmon's good friend, Marie Louise Langlais, widow of the composer Jean Langlais, and a professor at the Paris Conservatory, assists in a practical way by offering suggestions for interpretation as well as setting suitable registrations on the organs to be played. Her status in the French musical scene means she has a close relationship with the "big" names of the day, such as Naji Hakim, Jean Guillou, Daniel Roth, Olivier Latry and others in that league, and this, in consequence, opens doors that would otherwise be closed to a visiting enthusiast from North America.

FOMS is not for sissies. Events are scheduled morning, noon and night. Playing standards are high: this year's group included two doctoral students in organ performance from Yale, a thirteen-year-old who has already made a CD, and the prize winner of an international organ competition in San Marino earlier this year. However due allowance is made for ham-fisted, bumbling amateurs such as this writer. There is much climbing of narrow stairwells and through narrow doors to the various lofts, or tribunes, as they are called in France. The effort, needless to say, is hugely worthwhile.

This year, things got underway on a hot Sunday afternoon on July 3 in Nôtre Dame de Paris. Angela Craft Cross, a former FOMS member from California who happened to be in the city, gave the weekly recital at 4.00. There may be some prestige attached to performing in this historic edifice, but the ambiance is wretched, what with an ever-circulating crowd of talkative tourists, many bent on taking pictures of the organ loft and blinding the seated audience in the process with their flash bulbs. Forte musical passages usually drown out the sea of multilingual babble, but soft ones are simply impossible to hear. The instrument itself, after several millions of dollars in renovation and restoration (some Clicquot pipes were reinstalled), sounds impressive if a little shrill.

Monday saw the beginning of some serious visits and playing. First on the list was the Temple d'Esprit, one of the few Protestant churches in Paris with a turn-of-the-century Merklin that sounded marvellous for an instrument that had only fourteen stops in working order. A late June thunderstorm had caused the roof to leak and played havoc with some reeds. Next was Saint Etienne du Mont, Maurice Duruflé's church that lacked a grand orgue from 1930 to 1959, thus forcing the composer to play and create some of his best known works on the choir instrument for the best part of three decades. The formidable, eccentric Jean Guillou was at Saint Eustache in person for a spellbinding performance of his impossibly difficult Saga, Movement III of his Rhetoric of Fire, and Icarus by three of our group. His enthusiasm for the interpreters was in evidence.

Tuesday. I was scheduled to play Vierne's Preambule at 9:00 a.m. on the massive four manual Saint Augustin organ and Couperin's Tierce en Taille from the Mass for Convents at 9:00 p.m. in Saint Severin before Francois Espinasse, the titulaire and now recognized as the foremost authority on French baroque in the country. One of his tips: learn pedalling for all baroque music on the toes in case you run into authentic seventeenth and eighteenth century organs, where heel and toe playing is not infrequently impossible and unnecessary. Sandwiched between these visits was a recital by the (ahem!) more accomplished participants at Saint Roch at noon and a visit to Trinité after lunch where Naji Hakim, Messaien's choice as successor, holds sway. Bedtime was late and welcome.

Wednesday. One of the highlights of the Seminar was an illustrated discussion of that well-known controversy - tempos, registration and interpretation of the organ works of Cesar Franck. Readers of Marie Louise Langlais' article in a 2003 issue of the American Organist will be familiar with the topic. In a letter from the composer to a Brooklyn admirer in the 1880s, Franck included tempos for nine of his major works (excluding the Three Chorales that were yet to be composed). In every case his indications were for markedly faster times, some seemingly outrageously so: the Priere at 92 and the Final in Bb, with its opening two pages of solo pedalling, at a breakneck 112 for an eighth note. What was he thinking of? Had he misread the metronome using the bottom of the bar instead of the top? Highly unlikely considering he was a professor of music at the Conservatoire. Why did his pupil, Charles Tournemire, play some of these major works at a "normal" speed when he recorded them in Sainte Clothilde in 1930? Dupré was no faster and, in some instances, markedly slower than Tournemire. The panel at the Schola Cantorum seemed to incline towards these explanations: Franck composed much of his work in his home on a piano with a pedal attachment, and there was a tendency to play it relatively fast, especially since there was no church-like reverb. Also, as was common with other composers such as Messaien and Langlais, his own interpretations became markedly slower as he aged. A final thought. Franck's swell box at Sainte Clothilde was located on the extreme right of the pedal board, suggesting that he did much of his pedalling with the left foot. Unbroken pedal legato, then, is not mandatory in performing his works.

Thursday was a special day for the writer. It is not given to everyone to have two professors from the Paris Conservatory give you personal instruction for free, but that's what happened. For some inexplicable reason only four of us turned up there that afternoon and discovered we had the Doncroi-Gonzales, Spanish-built baroque organ to ourselves, with Mme. Langlais and her colleague, Sylvie Mallet, also an assistant professor there, on hand to go over our party pieces. Inégalité or not? The choice is yours, but it does give some of the music an added interest, especially in the two Couperin Masses.

That night we were privileged to attend a private recital by Daniel Roth in Ste. Sulpice, where he regaled us with stories afterwards. My favourite concerns the long-standing feud between Widor and Fauré. Widor was titulaire and Fauré choirmaster, with little love lost between them. One Sunday, Widor had to be absent from the tribune and "fixed" the massive 100-stop Cavaillé-Coll so that only the 8' trumpet on the Swell would sound. Fauré had to play the entire service on that one stop. Years later, when Widor was a professor at the Conservatory (and, apparently, a rather stuffy one at that) and Fauré was director, revenge of a sort was achieved. Some student had written on the blackboard, "Professor Widor is a fat old idiot!" By this time Fauré was director of the institution. Widor hied himself to his office to complain about the insult. With his elbow on the desk cupping his head and a twinkle in his eye, Fauré replied, "Yes, M. Widor, I think old is unfair!"

Photo of the organ at Les Invalides

Friday took us to Les Invalides, perhaps best known for the tomb containing Napoleon's body but also boasting a very playable instrument in the vast chapel. With titulaire Philippe Brandeis at my elbow pulling the correct stops, I essayed the Vierne Arabesque. Later that day we travelled to Saint Denis Basilica, burial place of kings and queens of France for a demonstration of Cavaillé-Coll's first major opus, built in 1841. At that time French music was supposedly in the doldrums, the era of happy clappy Edouard Batiste, with "significant symphonic works" still in the future. It was also something of an apprentice work for the twenty-something builder. Pierre Pincemaille was not too happy with a 1987 restoration job and, secretly and out of his own pocket, changed the tuning from unequal to equal temperament. Still, it remains, as he called it, "a fragile instrument" with only 56 notes on the manuals and 25 on the pedal. An excursion to Rouen on Saturday gave the group the opportunity to hear a true C-C masterpiece, the organ of Saint Ouen. We, instead, took a sort of busman's holiday by attending a lavish performance of Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet at the new Bastille Opera that night (60-piece orchestra and 70+ on-stage dancers). Then it was Sunday and, after hearing Roth at mass in Ste. Sulpice where his postlude was an improvisation on the opening movement of Franck's Symphony in D, it was time to depart for Dijon and more adventures in the southeast of France and Switzerland.

(Part Two of Two)

As readers of the first instalment of this account will know, around three dozen organ enthusiasts with their spouses/significant others spent July 3 16 in France and Switzerland hearing and playing a number of historic instruments. The tour was led by American organist Christina Harmon, and two Conservatory professors, Marie Louise Langlais and Sylvie Mallet were on hand to set up registrations, pull stops and suggest interpretations. Having spent a week in Paris, the seminar moved 198 miles south east, to Dijon.

The home of mustard and the centre of the Burgundy wine region, Dijon was reached in ninety minutes by a super-efficient Train de Grande Vitesse. The city is also the birthplace of Rameau. Our first night was spent listening to the titulaire of the Cathedral of Saint Benign, Maurice Clerc, in a programme of Rameau, Vierne and Cochereau. The organ was completely renovated in 1996 under the supervision of Jean Guillou and the voicing of five manuals and 78 stops makes it extremely versatile. The group was back the following morning to try its hand and I found the playing of Vierne's Arabesque remarkably easy. The city is full of historic instruments though most of them have been 'restored' and not always for the best. The situation in France regarding pipe organs in churches is a convoluted one, to say the least. Officially, the state owns all churches but is not legally bound to maintain the instruments that then become the responsibility of the municipality or city council. They, in turn, look to the church authorities to do the necessary. Money is not always available even for regular tuning. Not infrequently, it is the whim of the organist that prevails when major changes are made, resulting in a hybrid that is neither Classical, Romantic nor Modern but a bit of all three and not particularly good in any department. Such, apparently, has recently become the fate of Ste. Clothilde in Paris.

Fortunately, some survive virtually intact. A case in point was that of the Eglise Sainte-Chantal, built by Jean-Baptiste Ghys for a convent in the late nineteenth century but purchased by a group of enthusiasts and carefully restored in 2003. Since Lefébure-Wely is no longer a naughty name in French music circles, I felt no guilt in playing his Hymn of the Nuns (or Adagio). Later the same morning, we went to the Reformed Temple of Dijon where the German firm of Muhleisen had installed a small (22-stop) baroque organ with tracker action in 1993. Though this was France, Bach was called for and I launched into the Cathedral Prelude and Fugue (BMV 533) only to be gently cautioned by Christina Harmon that my accents were not always in the right place and my timing erratic. Another freebie mini-lesson followed! Wow!

The next day was a bit of a respite. We were going to tour the wine country and stop at those places made famous by Burgundies Gevrey-Chambertin, Beaune and Nuits Saint Georges. The scenery was great but the wines themselves were something of a let-down. Granted they did not pour us any of the grand crus, but even the average-cost stuff did not compare with similarly priced bottles from Chile, South Africa or Australia. One begins to see why the French wine industry, as a whole, is in trouble with its export market. On the other hand, the organs were no disappointment. St. Jean de Losne claims to have the oldest, untouched instrument in the whole of France, dating back to 1765, and built by Francois Boillot with a case designed in the style of Louis XV. Lack of money in a poor parish is cited as the fortuitous reason for its original state. The console is well behind the pipes and the acoustics in the loft tend to muffle what one is trying to hear while playing. M. Clerc gave a short recital that included Five dances from the Renaissance by Claude Gervaise (c. 1570), and Balbastre's Joseph est bien mariee. I trotted out my Couperin Recit de cromhorne for the occasion. The Basilica de Notre Dame de Beaune is a massive Gothic pile with an organ dating from the mid-seventeenth century with additions in every century since. By the 1970s things were in a desperate state of disrepair and the Italian firm of Fermentelli of Verona was brought in to recreate a baroque instrument. The titulaire, Michel Tissier, was one of the last students of Marcel Dupré and he entertained us with a program devoted exclusively to French music of the late fifteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.

There was one final stop in France, at Poligny on the Swiss border. The Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Eglise Ste. Hippolyte was constructed in 1857-58 and inaugurated just two weeks before its more famous counterpart, Sainte Clothilde, in Paris. They have much in common in terms of stop lists. Lefébure-Wely, not Franck, did the honours, and it is interesting that the former was the choice of the famed organ builder when it came to inaugural recitals. I had chosen the last two (and easiest, of course) sections of Franck's Fantasie in C where I was assisted by Sylvie Mallet, Mme. Langlais' colleague at the ParisConservatoire, who operated the swell box also located at the extreme right of the pedal board, thus allowing me to do legato pedalling. Having imbibed Mme. Langlais' words about tempo, I thought I had done well by playing both sections faster than I do at home only to be gently cautioned that the pace of the adagio was too brisk.

Photo of Albert Alain organ, Romainmotiers

Our first stop in Switzerland was in the charming village of Romainmotiers, and for good reason. The Alain family lived there for many years in a house that is now a museum. The four-manual organ, originally in Meudon outside Paris, and built entirely by Albert, father of Jehan and Marie Claire was recently moved to this Swiss village. Jehan composed much of his music on it before his untimely death at the hands of the Nazis in 1940. Since only four of the group, myself included, had brought his music, it fell to me to play the Postlude pour l'Office des Complies. That night we reached Neuchâtel but, before bedtime, we climbed a steep hill to hear an organ accompaniment by one of Mme. Langlias' former students to the 1923 Lon Chaney horror classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

In this part of the country the organs are distinctly German in origin, and much careful restoration has been done by the firm of Kuhn from Strasbourg. Those in Fribourg Cathedral and the French Church in Berne owe a lot to this dedicated organbuilder. While much of the time was given over to Bach and his contemporaries, some was devoted to French repertoire and I took the opportunity to play one of my favourite composers, Edouard Batiste a contemporary of Lefébure Wely and Franck and a devotee of thunderstorm effects choosing his lilting Offertoire No. 2 in G that no one seemed to have heard before.

The final leg of the trip took us to Zurich. Our first visit was to the Tonhalle, a magnificent concert hall modelled after Paris's Trocadero. Brahms composed his Tragic Overture specifically for its opening. The organ, however, has been a bone of contention since its inauguration in 1988. The money came from a consortium of businessmen who approached Jean Guillou to design it. Immediately there was controversy. Why did a controversial Frenchman (he is notorious for his unique interpretations of Bach) have to design a Swiss organ? Why did he refuse to consult any local organists ? The firm of Kleuker-Steinmayer was hired again without consultation. As a result, it remains largely unplayed in a vast auditorium given over mostly to orchestral performances. Undaunted, I decided to end my playing with an American work, Fannie Charles Dillon's Woodland Flute Call, since those of us on stage were asked to alternate between loud and soft pieces.

Our final evening was memorable. We drove to Lucerne and to the Hofkirche where the organ is presided over by Wolfgang Sieber, a genial, bearded father of eight with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. His mini-recital started off conventionally enough with Naji Hakim's Te Deum, but next he moved to a potpourri of Bach that combined snippets of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the Trio Sonata in G and the chorale, Vater Unser. Then, as an hommage to the American audience, he rattled off a fantasy on Bridge Over Troubled Water that incorporated a gizmo (a barrel full of nails), operated from the console, that allows the sound of raindrops to seem to fall from the church ceiling. The concluding piece was his own transcription of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King from the Peer Gynt suite that went from pianissimo to treble forte. The standing ovation at the end, by one of the most knowledgeable groups he must have played for recently, was thoroughly deserved. - One could not help thinking that, if there was less hushed solemnity and more showmanship like this, organ recitals would be packed to the doors.

And so, in the twilight of a Lucerne evening in a restaurant near the lake, farewells were said and addresses exchanged. I had mentioned that our dismal organ scene was soon to be brightened by the appearance in Christ Church Cathedral of a Wolff tracker instrument. If one of the more gifted F.O.M.S. participants visits us soon, it would be nice if he or she were given an opportunity to try it. The next seminar will be in 2007. Time to start practising!


Part 1 appeared in the August 2005 issue of Pro Organo.
Part 2 appeared in the November 2005 issue of Pro Organo.