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An American in Paris

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1998 The International Society of Organbuilders. Used with permission. 

The opportunity was too important to miss; our French colleagues had arranged for a week of programs with private access to 33 organs and recitals.  The incentive attracted nearly 200 from 85 firms and 18 countries; a memorable and exciting congress.  The early cafeteria food, skillful Paris pickpockets, and hot August weather created some difficulties, but these were soon forgotten as we entered the mystical grandeur of the churches to hear an incredible variety of instruments, ancient to modern, played by some of the greatest living French organists.

Paris has been home to more organ composers than any other city: Franck, Vierne, Widor, Clérambault, Couperin, Duruflé, Dupré, Messiaen, Boëly, Tournemire, Mulet, Marchand, Dandrieu, and others.  These were heard on instruments built by Cliquot, Cavailid-Coll, Mutin, Gonzales, etc.  Not heard, and possibly out-of-favor, were Langlais, Bonnet, Lefdbure-Wely and Guilmant.

Though no untouched ancient organ exists near Paris, the important instruments at Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs and Houdan gave us a valid impression of the sounds and style of the 18th century.

Michel Chapuis played an opening day recital at Versailles on the 1995 IV/38 Boisseau-Cattiaux which had been built into the 1711 white & gold case.  The program of French Classic music was in the high academic/historic style.  The organ construction follows every detail of the current restoration decalogue.  It was worth the trip to see the opening and closing of the huge gold console door.

Both Gothic architecture and the symphonic organ began at Saint-Denis, and Pierre Pincemaille ably demonstrated why Aristide Cavaillé-Coll became so famous and important so fast.  A still-vital revolutionary instrument.

The effects of the hot weather and legendary French tuning were evident, but by mid-week the embarrassing, and sometimes comic problems were solved.

At Sacré-Coeur, a relocated chateau organ, finished in 1919, was heard amidst a constant circulation of tourists/pilgrims.  Gabriel Marghieri improvised a demonstration of the organ 5 IV/79 resources, recently restored by Renaud.

Not all Cavailié-Coll organs are large, but the 11/26 at St.-Louis-d'Antin showed its strength in a program by David Noël-Hudson.  Small does not mean weak in France.

The V/102 Cavaillé-Coll at St-Sulpice was heard in a brilliant evening recital by Daniel Roth broadcast by the French Radio.  A curious and charming sound was the "bean shaker" hail in Roth's improvisation.  Some thought it a big air leak or errant mechanism.  The organ case was nearly invisible in the dark vastness of the room.  The sound was transfixing.

There has been much discussion about the French neo-classic organ which began in the 1930s.  Dismissed by the 1970s organ revolutionaries, the concept was wonderfully rescued for us by Vincent Warnier playing the (now) 86-stop Gonzalez at St-Etienne-du-Mont where Durufle was titulaire.

There were eight-unbroken-generations of Couperins at St-Gervais, and we heard three of them played by Olivier Trachier on this revised, and interesting V/41 which spans 3 1/2 centuries.

An electrician repaired the organ at Sainte-Clotilde just in time for Jacques Taddéi to bring us a beautiful Franck 2nd, and the Tournemire "Victimae paschali".  Though Tournemire had somewhat revised the Franck Cavaillé-Coll organ, the stamp of authority was deeply felt from this pilgrimage instrument for organists and builders.

A private evening 1 1/4 hour improvised recital at Notre-Dame by Olivier Latry provided a lesson on the history and stops of this complex instrument.  Rumored to be too loud for the Pope, the organ was stunning for us.  There was no discussion of the recent technological changes and difficulties, or the cost of ongoing computer repair.  The organ appeared to work well for a marvelous performance in the dark Cathedral.

A reed-voicing demonstration by Jean-Loup Boisseau was very helpful, but reinforced our belief that every voicer uses a different technique and style; no two the same.  After some false starts, the congress food moved to a grandeur and excitement which we had looked forward to.  At the Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre, and finally at the closing banquet we were the beneficiaries of inventive and wonderful cuisine.

The thoughtful and very able Congress organizers provided a comprehensive study of French organ music and organs, all within the City of Paris! We could have seen even more, or concentrated more intensely on fewer instruments, but the plan was a success.

For a discussion of French organ funding and politics see the article by Jean-Louis Coignet in the July 1998 ISO Journal No.  2.  These were also presented to us by the Assistant Mayor of Paris at an elegant Champagne & Caviar reception in the glittering Hotel de Ville.  What a week it was!


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