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French Organ Music and La Mission Civilisatrice

18 April, 2015 0 Comments

We who love French organ music must adapt, in dealing with those outside our circle, the insinuating advice once given to Augustine: Tolle, aude.

by R. J. STOVE

“To create a little of that beauty against which the foe rages!”

– Debussy, debarred from active military service, during World War I

Herewith, some disordered thoughts offered – some “notes on the present discontents” – for anyone who might be interested in the concept of French organ music. Which concept, granted, is scarcely likelier to goad most readers into qualitative assessments than was a long-ago vow by Time magazine to solve the enigma of “the Wittiest Man in Belgium.”

That these thoughts will be incoherent is assured. That they will evoke boredom is probable. But authors should remember, if no-one else does, the advice that Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich gave the increasingly unproductive, indeed dipsomaniacal, Scott Fitzgerald:

I [Gingrich] suggested that he [Fitzgerald] put down anything that came into his head, as automatic writing in the Gertrude Stein manner, or that, if even that were beyond his powers of concentration, he simply copy out the same couple of sentences over and over … if only to say I can’t write stories about young love for The Saturday Evening Post.

From which guidance, Gingrich, and the world, derived several more Fitzgerald classics, including “The Crack-Up” and “Three Acts of Music.” Perhaps it was the Gertrude Stein allusion by which Gingrich secured Fitzgerald’s last fine careless rapture. After all, Gertrude Stein spent years as what a subsequent Esquire staffer called “Our Man In Paris.”

Image: Rowman & Littlefield

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Thus spake The Journal of American Musicology (2011):

[I]n France, organ music – at least, since [César] Franck himself unassumingly revolutionised it – has never been the ghetto which it mostly is elsewhere. In France organists are venerated, are accorded glamorous recording contracts and the Legion of Honour, get preferential restaurant service, and sometimes notch up impressive totals in womanizing … Among most Anglos, however musically well-schooled, the prospect of an organ concert will clear a room quicker than a fire-hose.

This organophobia – a condition for which there might well be no cure – is neither routinely Cromwellian nor routinely boorish. It can coexist with exalted musical talents. Few American composers have matched Aaron Copland’s creative powers; none, it is safe to say, has surpassed Copland’s Francophilia. But The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has reminded us of how horrified Copland was at his first (and presumably last) live exposure, in Paris’s La Trinité, to Messiaen playing Messiaen. He reacted to the organ loft’s harmonic and coloristic debauches, to the Art Deco timbres, as Ian Paisley would have done. What he heard, he could not reconcile – any more than Paisley could have – with a sense of religion.

Involuntarily, Copland ejaculated the words “Radio City Music Hall.” This verdict on sacred Messiaen is at the very lowest estimate one of those forever interesting falsehoods, such as Gibbon’s elegantly phrased jibes at Christianity, William Blake’s sneer at Paradise Lost (“[Milton] was of the devil’s party without knowing it”), or the anti-Wagner hissy-fits of Nietzsche, above all the two sentences where Nietzsche expends his wildest invective upon The Ring’s libretto (“Do you understand it? I guard against understanding it!”).

Very well, Copland’s verdict was forever interesting; was it perspicacious? Up to a point, Professor Copper.

We have all been forcefully reminded in the last few months, by the Charlie Hebdo affair, of what happens when Catholics (and Protestants and, perhaps most tragically, Jews) so lust over the First Amendment that they “liberate” themselves from the First Commandment. It is as insane to pretend that vast differences do not exist between the Catholic mind and the Protestant mind – whereof in Islam one cannot speak, thereof in Islam one must be silent – as it would be to acquire one’s theology from Christopher Hitchens.

And no, despite periodic globalist chirping, music is not “a universal language”. It is plain that popular music simply cannot be a universal language, a fact that Miley Cyrus will newly appreciate if she ever visits Riyadh or Pyongyang. Trouble is, classical music has not been – since 1800 or thereabouts – “a universal language” either. Brahms symphonies in the concert halls of Rome? Sibelius symphonies in the concert halls of Madrid? Monteverdi madrigals (Monteverdi anything) in the concert halls of Rostock? As if.

Even within a single great composer’s productions, most people have no-go zones. Enthusiasm for singing Don Giovanni’s hottest hits in the shower need not translate into enthusiasm for enduring, never mind loving, Mozart’s piano concertos. No concert manager wanting to remain in business would put Haydn’s London Symphony on the same program as Haydn’s Lark Quartet. Nor, if selecting from Bach’s output, would he serve up the St. Matthew Passion alongside the Goldberg Variations. Or the Goldberg Variations alongside the Brandenburgs.

Is it any wonder, then, that even those capable of relishing (say) German organ music will frequently react to French organ music as if it were what Goebbels called “degenerate art”? The ability to enjoy Messiaen and his precursors is, as English broadcaster Gerald Abraham long ago said about the ability to enjoy Gustav Holst, “a divine gift, somewhat capriciously distributed.” That apoplectic delusion with which F.R. and Q.D. Leavis came close to destroying England’s serious lit-crit – namely, the delusion that any student capable of tying his own shoelaces will learn to love D.H. Lawrence or to hate C.P. Snow, provided the bullying process is protracted enough and, most important, sanctimonious enough – is if anything crazier in discussing music than it is in discussing fiction. Were it not crazy before YouTube’s advent, it is crazy now. We who love French organ music must adapt, in dealing with those outside our circle, the insinuating advice once given to Augustine: “Tolle, aude.”

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“If you are going to judge an author [or composer] at all he has the right to demand that you shall judge him by his best.” (Somerset Maugham hailing Dorothy Parker.) On this menu, then, in chronological order: four works by leading figures in French organ music. No hacks here. No equivalents to Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway.

First, the France of Louis XIV. Specifically, the “Tierce en Taille” from one of François Couperin’s two Organ Masses: the Messe Pour Les Paroisses. Both Couperin’s Organ Masses he finished before the age of 23. (His harpsichord miniatures came much later.) “Tierce en Taille” has a precise technical meaning – it refers to an organist’s choice of stops, above all the left-hand part’s pungent overtones – which would interest solely organists and which, even if non-organists faked concern for it, they would forget within 10 minutes.  Just sit back, relax, and remember that Louis XIV’s France extended not merely to endless portraits of blowzy royal mistresses, but to the theological rigour of Bishop Bossuet:

F. Couperin, Tierce en Taille from “Messe pour les Paroisses”

Second, and from the mid-19th century, Franck’s Prière. Of this composition, a recent Australian biographer has observed:

Its choice of key (C sharp minor) is openly Romantic; its harmonic boldness has few parallels before Tristan, though both its melodic structure and its rhythm’s sombre tread foreshadow the Enigma Variations’ ‘Nimrod’ movement rather than anything in Wagner … nothing sounds easy. Yet, and here lies the miracle, nothing sounds contrived either. For all its uniformity of tone, for all that it sometimes seems to make a virtue from indirection, it never crosses the dividing-line which separates the mysterious from the meaningless. An anguish-laden prayer it might be, but a prayer it remains.

Should, per impossibile, readers want to know more, they can read the book whence the above paragraph came. But not, please, before exploring the Prière itself.

César Franck – Prière Op. 20

Franck died in 1890 and Marcel Dupré was born only in 1886. Unsurprisingly, then, the two great musicians never met. But Dupré’s world tours and recordings probably did more than any other organist’s labours to make Franck’s works for the instrument known to Joe Average, inasmuch as they ever were thus known. Here is one of Dupré’s own organ compositions. Its title, I Am Black But Comely, may discourage (or attract) some contemporary audiences. In fact it is Dupré’s meditation on the Song of Songs. Via what philosopher’s stone did Dupré discover the secret of making even organ writing – as the Alliance Française advertisements once confidently announced and may yet, please God, confidently announce again – “so Frenchy, so chic”?

Marcel Dupré: ANTIPHON III – I am black but comely, O Ye Daughters of Jerusalem

We may wonder how Dupré privately felt when his Paris Conservatoire composition class came to be suddenly, quietly breached by a bespectacled boy called Jehan Alain. How did Haydn privately react (we know how he publicly reacted) to the first traces, upon his waking life, of the young Mozart? Young Jehan Alain frightened every other organist-composer, nay every other composer, in France. Nevertheless, upon the day Wehrmacht jackboots stomped under the Arc de Triomphe, there was … no more Jehan Alain. The Battle of France had seen to that. Sheesh, even Wikipedia gets it right now and then:

Always interested in mechanics, Alain [born 1911] was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the Eighth Motorized Armour Division of the French Army … he was assigned to reconnoitre the German advance on the eastern side of Saumur, and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his carbine, killing 16 of them before being killed himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery, and … was buried, by the Germans, with full military honours.

What were those self-proclaimed anti-Nazi heroes W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Benjamin Britten doing while Alain was polishing off 16 uniformed German soldiers? The answer to that question is almost too embarrassing to hint, let alone to expound. Here, though, are Alain’s Litanies, written well before the war in memory of his short-lived sister Odile, and bearing the epigraph (Alain’s own words, yet readily confused with Pascal’s):

When the Christian soul no longer finds new words in its distress to implore the mercy of God, it repeats endlessly the same invocation with strong faith. Reason has its limit. Faith alone reaches on high.

Plainchant is invoked – most blatantly at the start – but nowhere accurately quoted. The overall outcome? What analogies will serve? Is this (as has been alleged) “the organist’s answer to death-metal”? May one liken it to recollecting The Rite of Spring in the rubble of a Hiroshima church? May one go further and suggest – in the passage beginning at 3:13 of this recording – the emotional connotations of playing Grand Theft Auto within Chartres Cathedral? One thing is sure: this passage’s truculent veering-off to a foreign key (a gambit Alain derived without shame from Ravel’s Bolero) is as eternally French as any Piaf-wailing busker in a Métro station.

Litanies by Jehan Alain

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Perhaps every single reader of these lines has found the above compositions offensive, tedious, interesting-but-uncongenial, whatever. Perhaps these lines have won 2.3 new friends for the above compositions. Who can say? But such pieces are part of any musical Frenchman’s mental furniture. They are accordingly part of something that can be called a mission civilisatrice without apology, and that no-one ever learned from The History Channel or from Fox News.

The story goes that a foolish Manhattan dowager once asked Louis Armstrong “What’s jazz?”. “Ma’am,” Satchmo responded with his usual beatific grin, as if a piranha had tasted paradise: “if you gotta ask, you’ll never get it.”

Laïcité? Charlie Hebdo? Je ne regrette rien?


Author and organist R.J. Stove is based in Melbourne. His books include César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).

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