Friend or Foe? St. Petersburger Vortrag

Vortrag am St. Petersburger Konservatorium Oktober 2018

Friend or foe? The french organ school in the 20th century and their relations to germany.

 On the road to Dupré and the relationship between France and Germany.

The famous and great  french organ school begins with their uneven representatives César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, reaches the climax with Marcel Dupré, and ends as a grand final with Olivier Messiaen. The great French organ school does not refer to the French classical composer like Couperin, Grigny or Rameau. The French organ school only refers to Johann Sebastian Bach.

This is strange in many ways:

  1. First: It is musically an error.
  2. Its historically an error.
  3. Second: In terms of cultural policy it is hard to believe that the French organists will refer to a “german” organist as their “progenitor” who is also a religious protestant. Historically, it was in the current times of war between France and Germany. (Under the leading of Napoleon France had conquered Germany; Germany had liberated itself, then Germany defeated France in the war 1870/1871, a “hereditary hostility” followed until the First World War, etc.)
  4. Perhaps even it is something like an “feindliche Übernahme”. The French composers referred to the German organist Hesse, to confirm their own claim on ‘Bach’.

The French people perhaps have a kind of “love-hate-relationship” to german music. Something similar applies to their relationship with Richard Wagner. Frenchmen love the music of Wagner, but in a purely ‘aesthetic’ way. Wagner’s underlying poems, dramas, histories and beliefs don’t mean much to them …

The real inventor of modern french organ playing is Charles-Marie Widor. He was a pupil of the Belgian composer and organist Nicolas-Jaques Lemmens. He who had been a pupil of Adolph-Friedrich Hesse in Breslau (today Poland then Germany). Hesse is in turn considered as a pupil of Christian Heinrich Rinck, which was a student of Johann Christian Kittel, who in turn was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. That is of course historically adventurous. And it is not quite clear what exactly this “BACH TRADITION” was supposed to consist of. And: Hesse and Lemmens didn’t understand each other! After Lemmens depart  from Breslau they wrote very ugly letters about each other…

Perhaps, one can name three things that justify a reference to Bach:

  1. First: The independent, virtuoso pedal play. (By French classical composers barely used. However, all of them use the pedal as a bass piano.)
  2. Second: The technique of playing, which aims at minimization of the visible movements of the fingers. This is also observed by virtuoso playing of the most difficult passages.
  3. Third: The large-scale in terms of dimension of the organ compositions, in contrast to the small “versettes” of the classical composers. These “versettes” were made for liturgical use in the “Mass”.

From todays point of view the central elements of Bach’s music are the special kind of harmonic polyphony or the theological contents. These are some points the French first got not interested.

In 1890, after César Franck’s death, Charles-Marie Widor took over the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire and „cleaned up“ with the sloppy organ playing of Franck. César Franck had mainly taught improvisation, technical basics to play Bach Franck regarded as a prerequisite.

Of course, Widor also referred to Bach, but it was not until he met Albert Schweitzer, who became his pupil, that he understood the music more deeply. The first visit of Albert Schweitzer at the organ in St. Sulpice, meeting with Widor, we have to imagine as one of the most important Moments of the French organ tradition. In particular, it was the choral preludes whose theological and poetic depth (Text interpretation) Albert Schweitzer showed to Widor.

In this way, Albert Schweitzer has been a very important mediator between French and German culture. He came from Alsace, which itself had an eventful history between French and Germany.

From the French Revolution until the war in 1870/1871 Alsace belonged to France. But, at the university of Strasbourg German was the main language f.e.. From 1871 until the First World War Alsace belonged to Germany. After the First World War Alsace belonged to France again and so on. It is not easy to clarify whether Albert Schweitzer was German or French. He describes himself as an Alsacian and a citizen of the world.

Albert Schweitzer has been particularly important for organ music in three areas:

  1. First: Through the aforementioned cooperation with Charles-Marie Widor. Albert Schweitzer brought Widor closer to the music of J.S. Bach. Both together have published Bachs organ works in an edition that is still common today.
  2. Second: By the “Alsacian Organ Reformation” initiated by Schweitzer together with Emil Rupp. Unlike the “German Organ Movement” Schweitzer did not turn away from the sound ideal or the romantic organ, but wanted to develop it further.
  3. Third: Through his political works as a doctor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and writer. So, Albert Schweitzer addressed many people in his multitudinous organ concerts, who otherwise did not come in contact with organ music.

In his book “German and French organ building and organ art” from 1906, Albert Schweitzer emphasizes the great fundamental differences between German and French Organs, Organists and Organ compositions. He describes himselve as one that wants to bring the two different worlds closer together – By the basis that he has gone through both cultural and musical schools.

France: Dynamic through the coupling of works and swell treading.

German: Dynamic through the roller (Crescendo by registration)

France: Organs are all similar and simply structured, mechanical

Germany: Organs are all different, organs of “new inventions”, pneumatic

Citation of Albert Schweitzer:

“ The French organist plays more objectively, the German more personally (page 37)”

In particular Albert Schweitzer emphasizes the calm and clarity of the body movements of the French organists. That’s precisely the organ school Widor “installed” in Paris. Vierne describes this organ school “vividly” in his book called “Memories”.

Albert Schweitzer does not mention one significant difference: For the French organists it was always a matter of course to improvise and compose, but not for the German. Also Karl Straube did not compose either. (Instead he told Max Reger, who in turn did not play the organ publicly, how to compose…).


Marcel Dupré

Marcel Dupré was born in Rouen in 1886. His father Albert was organist at the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ of St. Ouen in Rouen. His teachers were Alexandre Guilmant and Widor, whose successor at the St. Sulpice he became in 1934.

Marcel Dupré taught the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire from 1926-1954. He was also an interpreter, improviser, composer and teacher. He has perfected the organ playing technique that goes back to Lemmens (and thus allegedly to Bach), as well as Widor.

Important elements of his school are:

  • Strict legato playing
  • Rhythmic precision (“an objective way of playing”)
  • Clarity (Clarté)
  • Structural Playing (the interpretation must clarify the analytical structure of the work)

Dupré has also systemized organ- education and named various types of pupils:

  • The stubborn type (störrisch)
  • The frivolous/light-headed type
  • The dumb type
  • The obedient type
  • The eager type
  • The inventive type

The pupil has to behave in front of the teacher like in front of a doctor.

Memorizing is very important to Dupré.

The piano technique is very important for the organ playing, but also pianists can learn a lot from the organ (precision, legato, phrasing, independence).

Duprés basic attitude for organ playing:

  • Sit calmly and straight
  • Elbows close to the body
  • Hands relaxed at the keys
  • Hands slightly rounded
  • Knees closed
  • Feet always on the keys

This absolute control and economy of the movements, down to the smallest detail, actually corresponds to what we know about Bach’s organ playing (for example from Joh. Nikolaus Forkel in his Bach biography of 1802).

Duprés pupils and his meaning to Germany

Marcel Dupré is often compared to Franz Liszt. Like Liszt the piano, he has given the organ an unprecedented playing technique and a new kind of timbre. Even his student Olivier Messiaen emphasizes this! In addition, like Liszt, he has, through his special way of teaching, formed a school that has spread over several generations.

I would like to take a brief look at some of Duprés important students and in a particular way draw a connection to Germany.

  • Jehan Alain, fallen in battle with Germans 1940
  • Marie-Claire Alain, for her part, has had countless students, among them many well-known German organists.
  • The major French organists Pierre Couchereau, Jeanne Demessieux, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize
  • Olivier Messiaen is certainly the most important organ composer of the 20th century, one of the most important French composers ever. He says that Marcel Dupré has opened up completely new tonal colour for the organ. Especially, through his friendship with Almuth Rößler, one of the first German Messiaen Interpreters, the French music of the 20th century became known in Germany. This has gave new life to the somewhat ossified/rigid German organ music.
  • Michael Schneider was also an important pupil. Some of the most important representatives of historical performance practice have emerged from his school in Germany, e.g. Jon Laukvik. Michael Schneider was actually a Straube student, but he felt the need to enrich this education with the French organ tradition by staying with Marcel Dupré at the age of 42. Also in his person, similar to Albert-Schweitzer, German and French Organ Schools are linked.

The tradition of perfected economy of movement and very objective clear playing, which is still mainly taught in germany today, can be traced back to Marcel Dupré in this way.

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