This February, The New Criterion published a piece of mine about Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and the church organs he built in nineteenth-century Paris. These organs inspired the churches’ organiste-titulaires (head organists)—men like César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, and Alexandre Guilmant—to write some of their finest works. This music breathed new life into a repertoire that had not seen much novelty since the time of Bach. With Paris’s basilicas, churches, and cathedrals closed to music these last two months, I have been reading through and re-listening to a number of those works and now present this supplement to my February piece. All of the music herein is available on recordings.
At the tender age of fourteen, Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wély became titulaire at Saint-Roch, a major Parisian church. From there, he launched a gilded career, moving from Saint-Roch to the ultra-chic Madeleine and finally to the grandest of the grand, the hundred-stop Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice. He was an unashamed showman, enthusiastically indulging his Madeleine parishioners with hummable tunes or spectacular effects, often in the same piece.
Despite his flamboyance, Lefébure-Wély nevertheless played a decisive role in developing serious French organ music. As Cavaillé-Coll’s inaugurator at ribbon-cuttings, Lefébure-Wély showed audiences what the new machines could do. His virtuosity helped Cavaillé-Coll refine and improve his instruments in ways that would inspire later composers. Lefébure-Wély’s music is catchy, tuneful, resourceful and, above all, fun. Rossini described it best: “You [Lefébure-Wély] are loved more for your faults than your virtues.”
A few years before his death, Lefébure-Wély published his L’Organiste moderne which, he tells us, tries to capture his dramatic and improvisatory style. It is a collection of pastorales, offertoires, elévations, fugues, and communions for the Mass, ranging from serene versets to wildly exuberant I’m-so-glad-to-be-getting-out-of-here sorties, like No. 21 in B flat (listen to Lázló Déak’s performance). Individual pieces from L’Organiste can be found in various compilation albums (Jane Parker-Smith’s is a good starting place), but the entire work has been recorded by Richard Lea in Liverpool Cathedral on three splendid CDs. The Offertoire in C (No. 12) is simply ecstatic—one presumes audiences were unable to concentrate on the remainder of the mass with Lefébure-Wély’s shifting modulations swirling around in their heads. The Lea set also includes other pieces from Lefébure-Wély’s oeuvre—do not miss the wonderful, swaggering, allegro maestoso Offertoire in F. In the same vein, Vincent Genvrin recreates what a Lefébure-Wély Christmas Mass might have sounded like with his imaginative Messe de Noël à Saint-Sulpice. Genvrin alternates numbers from L’Organiste with hymns and plainchant—ancient as well as Lefébure-Wély’s own. It is a lovely disc for a cold, sunny day.
When Lefébure-Wély moved across the Seine to Saint-Sulpice, his replacement at the Madeleine was the no-nonsense Camille Saint-Saëns, a hardened and austere virtuoso. Two examples of Saint-Saëns’ hard-ass idea of musical appropriateness should suffice: the tearful young bride pleading that he please not play fugues at her wedding, and his opinion of Bach’s organ music, “the very essence of Protestantism,” which “bears no relationship whatsoever to the Mass and which inspires neither a prayerful nor a meditative mood”.
Well, yes, but . . .
Saint-Saëns’ church works nevertheless make good use of the resources of the Madeleine organ, and Vincent Genvrin’s Un Mariage, un Enterrement et un Salut au Saint-Sacrement gives an accurate impression of the composer’s style. For those wanting a little more, Andrew-John Smith’s recordings of the complete organ music might be the thing. Away from church, however, Saint-Saëns was less reluctant to turn up the heat, as shown in this version of the last movement of his Third Symphony.
After a few years at Saint-Sulpice, Lefébure-Wély was not very happy, despite being titulaire of the best organ in the world. Taste was changing and Lefébure-Wély’s playing—light on pedalwork and heavy on fingerwork, not to mention his fatal weakness for polkas and musical thunderstorms—was being superseded by the disciplined virtuosity of the Belgian Jacques Lemmens. Lefébure-Wély’s sense of unease was probably increased by Cavaillé-Coll’s increasing use of Lemmens as his organ inaugurator.
As influential as he would become, however, Lemmens’s music is today not hugely well known, though his occasional pieces (such as the Fanfare in D) are still played. His three masterpieces, the sonatas for organ, are wonderful music—the “Marche pontificale” from the Sonate “Pontificale” and the concluding Alleluia from the Sonate “Pascale” effortlessly raise the pulse, as anyone who listens to Kurt Lueders’s and Ben van Oostens’s recordings will attest.
Lemmens’s pedal technique was so ravishing that when he played at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in 1852, he inspired Charles-Valentin Alkan to compose his Douze études pour les pieds seulement, which can be found on Kevin Bowyer’s two CDs along with much else of Alkan’s wonderful organ music. The day after that same Lemmens performance, a dazzled César Franck went over to the Érard workshops to order a practice pedalboard. Franck, who would become the greatest composer for organ since Bach, has enjoyed a number of distinguished interpreters, including Jean Langlais and Marie-Claire Alain. For me, however, the best by far is the 1958 set by Jeanne Demessieux. Her performance of the Grand Pièce Symphonique, now over sixty years old, never fails à donner la chaire de poule. A characteristic of the “complete works” of Franck, however, is their incompleteness—they are generally limited to the twelve best-known works. Recently, this has been happily rectified by Hans-Eberhard Roß’s six CDs that are not only complete, but also superb.
In the late 1860s, Cavaillé-Coll sent Lemmens two talented young organists, Charles-Marie Widor and Alexandre Guilmant, so as to round out their training. At the time, Bach’s music was not well regarded in France, a situation that Lemmens sought to change. After Widor returned to France, he became organiste-titulaire of Saint-Sulpice on Lefébure-Wély’s death. He remained there for over six decades and composed his ten symphonies for organ (when not entertaining his lady friends in the comfortably decorated “workroom” in the loft, for which he was rebuked by the archbishop). The most famous symphony, the Fifth, has the stirring Toccata in F. In recent years, Saint-Sulpice’s current organiste-titulaire, Daniel Roth, as well as Joseph Nolan, Christian Schmitt, and the late Pierre Pincemaille have recorded the symphonies. The early ones atone for their somewhat weak structural coherence by a lovely tunefulness, while the last three symphonies are nobly spiritual. The Nolan set in particular is very fine.
Guilmant’s eight organ sonatas have been recorded by Adriano Falcioni and Ben van Oosten. Though containing only the first and fifth sonatas along with Guilmant’s March on a Theme of Handel, Catherine Ennis’s old EMI CD is a real firecracker. (Listen to the Handel-Guilmant, played by John Scott, here.)
Franck, Widor, Guilmant, and Saint-Saëns are the foundation of modern French music. They earned their living as organists and passed their aesthetic to the great moderns like Debussy, Ravel, Faure, and Milhaud, whom they taught. But Franck and the others themselves were indebted to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in so many ways. Even in 2020, modern organists speak of him with obvious reverence and affection as can be seen in the remarkable documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll (CDs and DVDs), narrated by Gerald Brooks and Kurt Lueders.