On the composer Marcel Dupré and an organ concert by Jeremy Filsell.
Marcel Dupré’s name is not one that comes up in conversation—even learned ones—very often. For most organists, however, he is revered as the premier virtuoso of the last century. As an organist myself and as a longtime admirer of Dupré’s work, I was intrigued to learn that Dr. Jeremy Filsell, the organist and director of music at the Episcopal parish of Saint Thomas on New York’s Fifth Avenue, was performing Dupré’s organ oeuvre to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. I only learned of the series in time to attend the final two installments (September 25 and October 7), but both concerts contained performances of major Dupré compositions. The series, I hope, will have ignited greater interest in a figure who was at once a genius performer, scholar, and teacher, as well as a composer who bridged the gap between the Romantic and Modern eras.
Dupré, a child prodigy, was born to a musical family in Rouen in 1886. The organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant and the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll took an early interest in the child, and, by age eleven, Dupré had been appointed organist at the church of Saint-Vivien and placed under Guilmant’s official tutelage. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he continued to study with Guilmant as well as with Louis Vierne (a former pupil of César Franck) and Charles-Marie Widor (a protégé of Camille Saint-Saëns). By the time Dupré was twenty, Widor had selected him as his deputy at Saint-Sulpice, a position Dupré held for twenty-eight years. Upon Widor’s retirement in 1934, Dupré became organiste titulaire, a post he held for the rest of his life. (He even played two masses on the morning of his death in 1971.)
Fame and fortune so rarely meet for organists, but Dupré found both during his early years as an international recitalist. In 1919, Claude Johnson, a co-founder of Rolls-Royce, attended Sunday mass at Notre-Dame de Paris, where Dupré was filling in for Vierne. Remarking that Dupré’s performance was “very much better than anything I had ever heard before,” Johnson became the organist’s first international patron. This relationship led to Dupré’s first foreign tours to England (in 1920, sponsored by Johnson), where he performed for the royal family at the Royal Albert Hall, and to the United States (in 1921, sponsored by the Wanamaker family). He received universal critical acclaim for his interpretations of Bach, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Widor, and others, as well as for his own compositions and improvisations. One critic in Philadelphia referred to an improvised organ symphony as “a tone-poem surpassing beauty.”
Dupré worked within the French Romantic musical language to which he was heir. He contributed to its late period an idiom marked by high chromaticism, marked structuralism, and advanced understanding of counterpoint and fugue. His tone world is populated by magnificently diverse coloration, sometimes showing the influence of Impressionism and Modernism. Alongside his passionate studies of the great organists of the past—among them Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Franck—Dupré spent much time experimenting in his studio, which he called his “laboratory,” a place in which he could “probe the future” and push the boundaries of his instrument. His compositions, for me, remain fresh and contemporary while conversing fluently with the past. Dupré’s modernity is compelling precisely because it recognizes that the present is the product, rather than a rejection, of what has come before.
Dupré’s compositions are also characterized by their technical difficulty. (Even Widor found the works of his star pupil challenging to play.) Lucky for us, a few virtuosic organists remain up to the task. Filsell, who has long been associated with Dupré’s work, is foremost among them. Over two decades ago, he performed the organ oeuvre in a similar concert series in London and became the only person to have recorded these works in their entirety (Marcel Dupré: Organ Works, Volumes 1–12, Guild, 2000). His technical acumen is flawless: transitions between manuals and registrations are fluent, speeds and registrations are well-tempered, and his attacks and releases are executed with such precise agility that every note and chord can be savored clearly. For his technical wizardry and astute personal judgments, Filsell can rightly be considered the authoritative interpreter of Dupré’s music of our time.
The New York–debuted Deuxième Symphonie, Op. 26, played in Filsell’s final concert, features elaborate passages that at times seem in conversation with Bach and at others with Prokofiev (the latter of whom was in and out of Paris during the decades after the Russian Revolution), culminating in a firestorm toccata. Filsell’s spirited performance of a Dupré fan-favorite had everyone on the edge of their seats. Audience enthusiasm was also palpable for the following piece, Scherzo, Op. 16, a rarely performed composition from Dupré’s time at Notre-Dame. While Dupré nods to Vierne, the composition is classic Dupré, containing a trial of sixteenth notes and putting the pedals and manuals in energetic dialogues that never ease up over thirteen pages of score.
The grand Symphonie-Passion, Op. 23, might be the most emotive of Dupré’s compositions. This organ symphony began its life as an improvised piece on the Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia during Dupré’s American debut in 1921. Plainsong themes associated with the seasons of the liturgical year—Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter—frame poetic reflections on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Dupré labored over the final written version of this piece for three years after the original improvisational performance, and there is debate around how similar the final product of this beloved piece is to its original form. No matter how close or far it might be, reception of this piece has remained positive for good reason. The Modernist composer Olivier Messiaen—a student of Dupré’s at the Conservatoire—referred to Dupré’s playing of this piece as “powerful” and “sublime.” Filsell’s interpretation of this organ symphony was deeply moving as well, and the final movement’s climactic toccata—conjuring up Christ’s struggles against darkness and the triumph of the glory of light and truth—was a fitting end to the series dedicated to the monumental, albeit underappreciated, genius of Marcel Dupré.
After taking his final bow at the concert’s end, Filsell gestured upward in order to draw the audience’s attention to the organ’s cases to his left and right in the chancel. The four-manual, 102-stop, 7,069 pipe, electro-pneumatic Dobson—completed and dedicated at Saint Thomas in 2018—is a crown jewel in a city filled with organs. Yet another connection with Dupré is to be found here. Ten of the stops and their accompanying pipes were salvaged from the church’s previous instrument, a many-times-reworked 1913 Skinner organ that Dupré himself played in Saint Thomas during his 1957 American tour. After hearing the abysmal acoustics of the new Ford Auditorium in Detroit, Dupré elected to return to Saint Thomas for a contracted recording session featuring compositions by both Widor and himself (namely, the wonderful Triptyque, Op. 51, which Dupré had composed for both the debut of the organ at the Ford Auditorium and this album; see Marcel Dupré: Organ Recital at Saint Thomas’ Church, New York, Mercury, 1958). It’s a small world, after all.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.