About this Recording
8.553214 - Early French Organ Music, Vol. 1

Early French Organ Music Volume 1

Seldom in the history of music does one find a repertory of composition more perfectly yoked to an instrument than that of the early school of French organ composition. Evident in even the earliest examples (a style founded in vocal polyphony) are forms and devices indubitably connected with the organ. By the sixteenth century, the establishment of idiomatic categories of organ composition, independent of vocal forms, was fully realised. For the next two centuries technical progress joined hand-in-hand with musical growth, culminating in the Parisian livres d'orgue, in which every organ stop was given a standardised function and was almost always prescribed in the musical score by the composer.

French organ building was well documented as early as the late medieval period and, later, by such eminent authorities as Marin Mersenne (Harmonie universelle, Paris, 1636). From the start, French organs emphasized the element of tone-colour. Organs built in the south of France in the early 1500s were patterned in the Italian tradition. Though mainly limited to flue pipes they were as fully capable of registrations such as a Grand Jeu, consisting of an array of principals, mixtures and mutations, as they were of countless individual combinations. Equally important in the development of the French organ were Brabantine influences in construction design, improvements in wind supply and a chromatic pedalboard, imbuing it with a complete tonal palette that included Quinte and Cornet, as well as Cromhorne and other reed colours.

The distribution of tonal families over two main keyboards, the Grand Orgue and Positif division (with its pipes placed in a case behind the player), each equipped with a considerable variety of registers, with third and fourth short-compass Récit and Echo keyboards, was first used in 1580 at Gisors. The undeveloped pedal contained a stop of wooden pipes, presumably to play the bass line in trios - 'pour pouvoir jouer les trios: (Jean de Joyeuse, the eminent organ builder, in 1688) and a Sacquebouttes stop of till to set forth a plainchant melody in varying degrees of relief to the fullpleno. This was an important and innovative organ, containing all the remarkable features of the French Classical organ that remained essentially the same up to the time of the French Revolution.

The works heard in this recording are representative of French organ art at the extremes of the chronological gamut. There is a sampling from the primitive period when organ music consisted mostly of intabulated vocal works, and selections from the output of three prominent composers active during its stage of final development almost two centuries later. This was an age of grandiloquence before the transitory decline took hold during the Revolution, Empire and Restoration.

Equally eminent as a teacher, performer, and composer, Louis Marchand (1669-1732) was born in Lyons and held appointments at several provincial churches before establishing himself as an organist in Paris by the age of twenty. Esteemed a musician as he was, his irascible character and propensity for skullduggery propelled him into episodes of severe conflict: with fellow musicians (Couperin and Dandrieu) and a scorned wife who pursued him relentlessly through the courts. It is unfortunate, too, that the few facts surrounding his unsuccessful contest with Bach in 1717 at the Dresden court have obscured our perception of his brilliance as a musician.

Marchand's organ works were not published until after his death. Many of them seem insignificant, and perhaps they served as teaching material or outlines for improvisations. They stand, however, alongside works of supreme inspiration - the Wagnerian Fond d'orgue, for example, with harmonic shifts as daring as they are imaginative. In all of his compositions, the emphasis is on the colouristic possibilities of the instrument, while the more elaborate forms of musical structure, especially those related to counterpoint, are somewhat slighted. This attitude was in keeping with the goût of the time.

The first quarter of the sixteenth century is notable in the history of keyboard music for the many collections throughout Europe that give special emphasis to the transcription of vocal music into tablature, a form of notation using letters, numerals, and diagrams to specify pitch and rhythmic values for performance at the keyboard. Their cultivation was indicative of the growing importance of keyboard music, particularly among amateur musicians who did not possess the skills at improvisation. This factor explains, perhaps, the paucity of original written compositions for the keyboard from a time generally rich in music manuscripts.

One of the largest tablature collections is the St Galler Orgelbuch, containing many adaptations of the most popular vocal compositions of the day, including chansons and motets by great and lesser composers of the Franco-Flemish school. Its compiler-scribe, Fridolin Sidler (1490-1546), was a working organist in the region of Constance. The works by Loyset Compère (c.1445-1518) and Jean Japart (fl.c.1474-?1507) show how a technically satisfactory keyboard texture is created from a vocal model.

Gaspard Corrette (died before 1733) was a native of Delft who settled in Rouen. He was the father of Michel Corrette, whose chant-based versets became the basis of a French improvisatory idiom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Corrette's Missa Octavitoni is generally believed to be the last organ set ting of the mass in France. After that the great school of seventeenth-century organ composers came to an end. Published in Paris in 1703, the Mass is subtitled à l'usage des Dames Religieuses et utile à ceux qui touchent l'orgue (for use in nunneries and useful for all who play the organ) and contains an insightful preface on performance practice. It consists of the customary movements for the four parts of the Ordinary, with Graduels, an Offerte, and two Élevations and is here given a complete presentation.

Born in Rheims, Nicolas de Grigny (1672- 1703) succeeded his father and grandfather as organist of the cathedral there, after spending some lime in Paris where he studied with Lebègue. He is a towering figure among composers of this school and his works are distinguished from the entire line of French organists by sheer superiority of intellect rivalled only by Bach. His elegant counterpoint, whether in fugues or cantus firmus movements, runs against the grain of fashion and stricture of the new non-polyphonic style. Like Bach, Grigny initiated no new forms but his music represents the culmination of his age and is of lasting significance. The Leipzig master considered him the equal of Frescobaldi and paid Grigny the supreme hommage of copying almost his entire output for his own use and study.

© 1994 Joseph Payne

The organ built in 1974 by C. B. Fisk, Inc., of Gloucester, for the Recital Hall at University of Vermont in Burlington, U.S.A. contains several unique and experimental features. First, the main bass stops are available on the Great manual, not merely in the pedal. This was a common practice of the classical French builders, imparting a deep, dark tone to the ensemble. Moreover, the Grand Jeu of the Great consists of trumpet stops patterned directly after those of the 18th century builder François-Henri Clicquot and is unusually incisive, full and commanding. The Voix Humaine appears on the Great also - a completion of the French Classical Great. The half-gamut Cornet comprises the Récit and is played from a third keyboard. A classical wind system designed around the Tremblant Doux imparts a flexibility and gentleness unknown in all but a few of the most modern American organs.

The Positive has been cantilevered out in front of the Great over the organist's head: an innovation with this instrument as no balcony arrangement was possible to notch the Positive into the gallery railing behind the organist.

The organ is tuned in an unequal temperament, following a proprietary recipe of the Fisk establishment.

Joseph Payne
Joseph Payne was born in 1941 on the Chinese-Mongolian border, the son of British missionary parents. He received his earliest musical training as a cathedral chorister in England, and in Switzerland where he lived for several years before emigrating to the United States. He studied at Trinity College and Hartt College of Music and was a pupil of Noretta Conci, Fernando Valenti, Clarence Watters, and Wanda Landowska.

Based in Boston, where he has lived since 1965, Joseph Payne has taught at several major American universities and now appears throughout the world, performing over sixty concerts a year on the harpsichord and organ. His many recordings include the world-première recording of the thirty-three Neumeister chorale-preludes attributed to J. S. Bach and re-discovered at Yale University in 1984. He has received grants and awards from the Lowell Institute at Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has produced The Bach Connection, and other syndicated series for radio which have 'been heard coast-to-coast throughout North America.

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