A regular visitor to organ music concerts will undoubtedly appreciate the unique and thoughtful program of today’s matinée. The selection of compositions and composers represents a kind of anthology of French music for organ. Compiled from works by composers spanning nearly five centuries, it demonstrates the distinctive and original nature of the French organ tradition, including the art of improvisation.
The opening composition of today’s concert was written by a French composer who is not very well known outside his native country and its culture: Alexandre Pierre-François Boëly (1785–1858). He was not only active as a composer, but was also famous in his time as an organist, pianist and violist. He came from a family of musicians who, apart from their undeniable talent, nurtured respect and admiration for the work of the past. Alexandre Boëly admired the compositions of Baroque masters such as Frescobaldi, Couperin and above all J. S. Bach. On the other hand, Boëly found it difficult to accept the aesthetics and musical style of the emerging Romanticism. His “unfashionability”, austerity and preoccupation with the past eventually cost him the prestigious post of the organist at the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris. Although he subsequently worked as a full-time piano teacher, he did, according to legend, live to see satisfaction when, in his old age, two young composers and organists, César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, sought him out to express their admiration and respect. He left behind a rather extensive oeuvre of almost 300 compositions, including educational pieces. Fantasia and Fugue in B flat Major are from the collection 12 Pièces pour orgue, Op. 18, which first appeared in print in Paris shortly before the composer’s death.
Panis Angelicus, FWV 61b (Bread of Angels) for solo voice and organ is an ever popular choral work by César Franck (1822–1890), a Belgian-French composer whom we have already mentioned and who is one of the most important composers of organ music of the 19th century. The text, attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, is from the penultimate stanza of the hymn Sacris solemnis, which is intended for the liturgy of the feast of Corpus Christi. César Franck set this text to music in 1861 in a very simple, but all the more impressive way. The compelling melodic line of the solo voice is accompanied by a simple harmony that fills the words of this prayer. The piece lives on in many other arrangements for voice and instrumental accompaniment.
The second, very contrasting piece by César Franck at today’s concert is Chorale No. 2 in B Minor, FWV 39, from 1890. César Franck’s contribution to organ music is fundamental and he is respected worldwide for it. Franck’s works for this instrument have had a far greater impact than their number might suggest. Franck’s last composition for organ was Trois chorales (Three Chorales). Their conception is different from the German tradition, where “Choral” implies the quotation from, and elaboration on a Lutheran hymn. The Three Chorales for Organ, FWV 38–40, are a set of melodically original pieces composed by Franck shortly before his death. The themes of the chorales are not taken from any tradition, but are created in a chorale-like manner by the composer himself. The first chorale is dedicated to the organist Eugène Gigout, the second one to the composer and publisher Auguste Durand, and the third one to the now somewhat forgotten French composer Augusta Mary Anne Holmès. Chorale No. 2 is the most profound of them. The opening is a passacaglia with three variations, the second movement is treated as a fugue, and other sections of this piece are also conceived in a way that is reminiscent of the best works of J. S. Bach.
Composer, organist, improviser and soloist Thierry Escaich (born 1965) is a unique figure in contemporary music and one of the most important French composers of his generation. Escaich not only writes works for organ, which are closest to his heart, but is also open to many other genres. Despite his intensive concert activity, he is a very prolific composer and his body of works has already exceeded one hundred opuses. He has been a composer in residence with the Orchestre National de Lyon, the Orchestre National de Lille and the Paris Chamber Orchestra and his music has been awarded four “Victoires de la Musique” in 2003, 2006, 2011 and 2017. In 2013, he was appointed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts; in 2018, he became the principal composer at the Radio France Presences Festival in Paris. Thierry Escaich’s development as a composer is closely linked to his career as an organist. Indeed, today he is seen above all as one of the ambassadors of the great French school of improvisation after Maurice Duruflé, whom he succeeded as organist at the Cathedral of St. Etienne du Mont in Paris. He performs in international recitals, combining repertoire works with his own compositions and with his distinctive improvisations. At the concert today, he will repeatedly demonstrate his mastery of improvisation (in Suite de danses improvises and in the improvisation on Fantasia and Fugue). In addition, we will also hear his Évocation IV, a piece that is also very popular among other European organists, as well as his Évocation I–III of an earlier date. Évocation IV was written in 2014 and is dedicated to Vincent Dubois, a young French organist working at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is inspired by Nicolas de Grigny’s hymn Verbum supernum. Thierry Escaich’s second composition at today’s concert (i.e., not an improvisation) represents two movements (Eaux natales and the shorter Vers l’espérance) from his Poèmes pour orgue. The piece was written in 2002 as an adaptation of the composer’s earlier series Trois Motets (Three Motets) for 12 voices, set to three poems from Alain Suied’s collection Le Pays perdu (The Lost Land).
Despite his premature death, Nicolas de Grigny (1672–1703) was a prominent representative of French classical organ and keyboard music. Although he left behind only one collection of organ pieces, Premier livre d’orgue contenant une messe et les hymnes des Principles festes de l’année, and one composition for harpsichord, he made history in organ playing. The above-mentioned collection (published in 1699; second edition in 1711), is in two parts. The first one consists of his organ versets for the ordinary and proper prayers of the mass; the second, of five hymns sung during the principal feasts of the church year: Veni Creator, Pange lingua, Ave maris stella, A solis ortus, and Verbum supernum, which will be heard at today’s concert.
In the years 1932–1933, Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), one of the major French composers of the 20th century, composed an orchestral work in four movements entitled L’Ascension (The Ascension). He described the piece as a meditation for orchestra. Two years later he reworked it for organ. The third movement of the organ version was written anew, so it is not merely an arrangement of the original movement. The second movement of this extremely contemplative piece, Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel (Serene Alleluias of a Soul that Longs for Heavens), which is included in today’s program, is modeled after the orchestral version. It is arranged in a very original way for the organ, which the composer understood very well and played all his life at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, where he worked as an organist for more than 60 years. Messiaen composed three multi-movement works for this instrument in the early years of his career, which show his particular inclination towards mysticism: the above-mentioned Alleluias sereins (1933–1934), followed by La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord, 1935) and Les corps glorieux (The Glorious Bodies, 1939). The third large-scale composition, which was completed a week before the start of the Second World War, draws from remarkable influences. At that time, Messiaen was deeply interested in choral music and, seemingly quite incongruously, also in Indian classical music. He used both sources of inspiration in Les corps glorieux in seven movements. Its sixth movement, Joie et clarté des corps glorieux (Joy and Clarity of the Glorious Bodies), has an explanatory subtitle taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew (Matthew 13:43): “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Organist and composer Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) is one of the last organists who continuously developed the interpretive mastery and conception of organ playing of César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor. He received his musical training as a chorister at the Rouen Cathedral, where he also began to study piano and organ under Jules Haëlling. After moving to Paris after the First World War, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire. His teachers were Paul Dukas, Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire, great figures of the French organ tradition. Simultaneously to his studies at the Conservatoire, where he excelled in all subjects, Duruflé worked as organist at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde, to which he was recommended by his teacher Tournemire who recognized Duruflé’s exceptional talent as an organ player. In 1927, Duruflé became assistant to Louis Vierne at Notre Dame. In the 1930s, he began to devote himself intensively to concert work and undertook a number of tours throughout Europe and also in the USA. At the end of the Second World War he became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught mainly harmony. Suite for Organ, Op. 5, was completed in 1933 and published a year later. It is in three movements: Prélude, Sicilienne and Toccata. The Suite is considered remarkable both in its entirety and in its individual movements, which are also performed in concerts autonomously. Duruflé dedicated it to his teacher Paul Dukas. The opening Prélude is oddly somber, while the second movement, Sicilienne, is heavily influenced by Ravel. The concluding Toccata has been described as a very difficult idiosyncratic piece, albeit masterful in every respect. Of all the movements of the Suite, it is played most frequently. It is in ternary form. After a short introduction, the first rhythmically expressive theme is given to the pedals. In the middle section, a second contrasting theme appears, which the composer interconnects with the first one before the beginning of the third section. The conclusion of the Toccata, combining both themes, is rather dazzling. Duruflé actually revised it many times before he was satisfied with the result.