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  French on the Flentrop

J. Melvin Butler


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St. Mark's Flentop organ was built in 1965 at the height of the neo-baroque organ building movement.  Although designed wirh such twenteth-century features as steady winding and equal temperament, this organ was intended to be the quintessential instrument for performance of baroque organ repertoire, particularly the works of J.S. Bach.  It was soon discovered that the organ also excelled in the performance of works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The first LP recording of the Flentrop by Fenner Douglass included a remarkable performance of Franck's Choral No. 1 in E Major; listeners marveled at the warm, romantice sounds coming from this "baroque" organ.

St. Mark's Flentrop plays the late French repertoire well for several reasons: (1) the sounds of the principals and flutes are warm and smooth with very little transient noise; (2) the Bovenwerk is enclosed and contains four open flutes (including a celeste), as well as a smooth, almost Cavaillé-Coll-like trumpet stop; and (3) the reverberant acoustics of the cathedral create an ambiance not unlike the great churches and cathedrals of France.  Judicious additions to the organ during the restoration by Paul Fritts in 1993-1994 make performance on the French repertoire even more effective: the two new chorus Trompets in the Hoofdwerk in addition to the existing chamade reeds, a new pedal Bazuin 32', a new Bovenwerk to Rugwerk coupler, and the addition of general pistons. In addition to music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this recording includes representative selections from three genres of the classical French organ repertoire.  

Nicolas de Grigny, who studied with Nicolas Le Bégue, was organist at the cathedral of Rheims from 1695 until his early death.  The Livre d'orgue, published  posthumously in 1711 and considered one of the most important collections of organ music of the high French Baroque, contains a complete organ mass as well as five hymns with variations. The music is full of lyricism, pathos, chromaticism, and color.  As a student project, J.S. Bach copied the entire Livre d'orgue of de Grigny.

Louis Nicolas Clérambault studied with André Raison and was later organist at St. Sulpice in Paris.  His two organ suites, intended to be played between various portions of the mass, are representative of the late French baroque style and although liturgical music, are actually based on dance rhythms of the era.  The Plein jeu contrasts the principal choruses of the Rugwerk and Hoofdwerk together.   The Duo contrasts the two cornet combinations: Rugwerk in the right hand, Hoofdwerk with 16-foot principal in the left.  The Trio utilizes the Rugwerk Dulciaan stop with accompaniment on Bovenwerk flutes.  The Basse de Trompette was origianlly entitled Basse de Cromorne but because St. Mark's Flentrop does not possess a french Cromorne, the 8-foot Trompets on the Hoofdwerk have been substituted.  Used together these two reeds create quite an effective French Trompette.  Rugwerk and Bovenwerk flutes are used for the opening bars of Flûtes; trio sections are played on the beautiful 2' Gemshorn of the Borstwerk.  The Bovenwerk Nasard combination (with echoes on the Rugwerk Quintedena)  is a most appropriate sound for the sixth movement, Récit de nasard.  The full 8' reed chorus with cornets bring the suite to a suitably fiery close.

The late eighteenth century witnessed the fin de siècle of baroque music in France- a time when opulance and grand effect were paramount in composers' creative souls.  This flamboyant style is unmistakable in the Nöel (variations on French carols).  Here is music meant to titillate the listener and provide a joyous holiday atmosphere.  Claude Balbastre lived in Paris most of his life and held organist positions at the Church of Sainte-Roch and at Notre Dame.  His light and fanciful style of organ playing earned him the title "the organist of the graces."  Louis-Claude Daquin, a pupil of the great organist Louis Marchand, was for almost fifty years organist at the French Royal Chapel and at the convent of the Crodeliers.  The legend says that people would flock by the hundreds to hear him play his Noëls before Christmas Eve midnight mass.   

Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon.  In 1931, after having won many first prizes as a student at the Paris Conservatory, he was appointed to the prestigious post of organist at the Parisian church of La Trinité, a position he held until his death in 1992.  He held several important teaching posts thoughout France and abroad and was named Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatory from 1966 until 1978.  His compositional output is voluminous and includes works ranging from piano and solo voice to large orchestra and opera.  He is considered by many to be the most important twentieth century composer of organ music.  Also an outstanding teacher, his composition students include Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis. L’Ascension, composed for orchestra in 1933, was transcribed for organ by Messiaen a year later with the original orchestral third movement Alleluia sur la trompette replaced with the present Transports de joie.  The first and fourth movements of the suite express timelessness in Messiaen’s music, music inimitably suited to the organ.  Because of the organ’s unlimited sustaining capability, these two movements are perhaps more successful in the organ version than in the orchestral original which employs winds for the first movement and strings for the last.  The second movement, Alléluias sereins, follows closely the orchestration of the original and includes one of the first examples in Messiaen’s music of birdsong, a fascination that continued throughout his life. Messiaen traveled the world recording and transcribing birdsong – research which culminated in his massive piano work Catalogue d’oiseaux.  The third movement, Transport de joie, is a brilliant toccata which, because of the dramatic spaces between musical “outbursts,” is most successfully realized in a reverberant space such as St. Mark’s Cathedral. 

Teacher-student associations played an important role in the development of the French romantic organ tradition.  In nineteenth-century Paris, the most important and influential composer of organ music was César Franck, organist at the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris for thirty-two years and Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory for twenty-eight years.  Franck’s influence on later generations of French organists was immeasurable, an influence particularly felt by one of his successors at St. Clotilde, Charles Tournemire, who assumed the position in 1898.  (His tenure there was to last 41 years!) Tournemire, who had studied under Franck at the Paris Conservatory, later became a professor of chamber music there.  

The great twentieth-century organist Maurice Duruflé studied privately with Tournemire for a year before entering the Paris Conservatory.  During his student years at the conservatory, Duruflé became Tournemire’s assistant organist at St. Clotilde and in the 1940’s was named Professor of Harmony at the Conservatory. Franck’s Cantabile, composed in 1878, is a poignant song featuring the swell organ Trompet stop.  The simplicity of the melodies and the lush, romantic harmonies belie the remarkably complex compositional structure and counterpoint embodied in this work. Charles Tournemire made several 78- RPM recordings of improvisations in the early 1930’s.  In 1958, Duruflé transcribed and published five of these improvisations so that Tournemire’s improvisational genius could continue to be heard and experienced at live organ recitals.  The two improvisations on this CD are remarkable for their sense of color, style, and contrasts.  The Petite rapsodie is a French confection - a light, airy work reminiscent of the famous scherzi, intermezzi, and impromptus of Vierne, Gigout, and Widor.  The improvisation on the Easter plainchant Victimae paschali laudes (“Praise to the Paschal victim”) is a tour-de-force of Tournemire’s improvisational skills: virtuosic passage-work, kaleidoscopic harmonies, and passionate melodies.  The work is filled with fire and exultation and concludes with one of the most brilliant climaxes in all organ literature, either improvised or composed.




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