top of page

Soaring Organ Music

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Yesterday, riffling in desperation through the growing Everest of unanswered mail, I en­countered a letter from one of you expressing gratitude to the Society as the last dependable source of recorded organ music. I hadn't thought about it in that light before, but of course it's true. With the big American producers (such of them as still exist in any effective way), organ records were never a big thing. In the LP era, RCA depended on Virgil Fox, Columbia on Power Biggs; Mercury offered an occasional record by Robert Elmore, MGM by Richard Elsasser, and Vox (before it reached its present stage of paralysis) brought a number of European organists and organs to our attention.

Recorded organ music is not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure-my personal opinion is that one should rent a cathedral to hear it properly-but my Himalayan correspondence suggests that across the face of the contenent there are pro­bably thousands who are passionate about it. It is, of course, still available on several small Euro­pean labels, some of which provide fertile sources for MHS, but the distribution of imports, the qualifications of record salespeople, and the limitation of "classical" record shops to the largest cities put such merchandise beyond the normal reach of most people So O.K., though I have no say in MHS policy, I'll take a bow for the Society.

Calliope is a small French company which seems to specialize in art song and chamber-size instrumental music. Among its offerings from the latter category is a numerous (and, I believe, ex­panding) series called (translated) ''The Golden Book of the French Organ." Ail the records in it are played by Andre lsoir, and several of his of­ferings have garnered prestigious annual prizes as "the best" records of their kind.

Born in northeastern France, lsoir will be 51 next year ;1986), making him a bit too young to have been included in Grove and the 1978 edi­tion of Baker's. (Poverty has so far precluded my buying the more recent edition.) A product of the Paris Conservatoire, he graduated in 1960 with a first prize in organ, which more recently he has taught at the University of Angers. (Lest that name conjure up visions of warfare between the inmates, it is pronounced Anh-ZHAIR). lsoir was, at last report, organist of the Parisian church of St. Severin.

At the risk of again offending the national pride of the French (of whom I'm really very fond when they aren't being stuffy), I am tempted to say they've been living on the spiritual income of the Grand Century for the last 300 years. The Grand Century was, of course, the 17th, chiefly occupied by Louis XIV ("the Sun King," though he really wasn't all that bright) and carpeted by wall-to-wall wars, most of them involving France's trying to impose her physical presence on areas of Europe over which she had already claimed cultural supremacy. But it was also the century that saw French organ music (and organs) appear almost out of nowhere and soar to great heights.

Whether the organ at St. James in Compiegne was constructed then is unlikely, since its first known stage is termed "Renaissance," but other­wise it embodies a history of the French organ, having, over the centuries, been rebuilt by one of the Clicquots, Cavaille-Coll, and the contem­porary firm of Haerpfer and Erman, which, leav­ing certain of its predecessor's additions, returned it to its baroque glory.

The first French organ composer of moment was Jean Titelouze, who published a collection of organ hymns in 1623. Then, strangely, half a century went by before there was further signifi­cant production, manifested in the first organ book of Guillaume Gabriel ("Geegee") Nivers (ca. 1632-1714), published in 1665. Nivers, whose music took account of both the sacred and secular music current in his day, and the poten­tialities of the French organ as it had developed, is generally regarded as the true father of French baroque organ music. lsoir here plays a suite of little pieces from his third and final book (1675).

Andre Raison, born a generation later (d. 1719), is a shadowier figure. We know that he was organist of Ste. Genevieve du Mont, the royal abbey church in Paris, and of the college of the Jacobins, that he taught the composer Clerambault, and (from his will) that he did just fine for himself. His offertory is based on the cry "Long live the King!" and marks the official emergence of the king in 1687 after a dangerous illness.

Jacques Boyvin (ca. 1649-1706), as annotator Harry Halbreich says, is probably the least known of the three composers-perhaps because he lived and worked away from Paris, having served as organist of Rouen Cathedral from the age of 21 until his death. At the outset, he played Titelouze's own organ. In 1684 a lightning bolt wiped it out, and it was rebuilt by the great Robert Clicquot, patriarch of that clan. Boyvin was delighted at the outcome of his seeming misfortune, and his two books of organ suites (ca. 1689 and 1700) clearly reflect the wide potential for color offered by the new instrument. Halbreich finds his music more profound and more emotion-charged than that of his confreres on the record.

Review of The French Organ in the 17th Century pg 27

bottom of page