About this Recording
8.553215 - Early French Organ Music, Vol. 2

Early French Organ Music Volume 2

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 organ at Gisors found a strong proponent in Jehan Titelouze (1562-1633), the Rouen composer, theorist, and the most influential organist of his time. Early in his career he came in contact with Catholic musicians from England who were in exile in France, thus his style reveals some influence of the English virginal school in his handling of dissonance, chromaticism and distinctive harmonic effects. His Hymnes de l'Eglise appeared in 1623, followed in 1626 by Le Magnificat, au Cantique de la Vierge. Evincing a style that is majestically polyphonic, the Gregorian melodies are given in long notes while the other voices engage in an elaborate contrapuntal accompaniment using phrases from the cantus firmus for the thematic material.

At the age of fourteen, Gilles Jullien (c. 1650-1703) assumed the post of organist at Chartres Cathedral - the only appointment he was ever to hold. His organ book consists of eighty pieces which are randomly assembled, unlike similar collections of the period in which sequences of related pieces are to be played successively. The present works display the unmistakable pungency of French reed stops and are typical of the genre.

Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue (c. 1631-1702) was among the very few French organist-composers who were equally active as harpsichordists and so he held appointments in church and at court. His organ music represents a departure in the cultivation of strict cantus firmus forms. Here one finds sets of pieces contrasting in character with no external unifying component or common thematic material, often of a dance-like character. Foremost among the new types is the Offertoire, written in a free, improvisational style. Long and sectional, this form has much in common with the toccata, while avoiding some of the brilliant display. Une Vierge pucelle is a splendid example of the variations on Christmas songs that were very popular throughout France until the Revolution. These often included chansons, airs de cour, and vaudevilles.

Italian influence is keenly apparent in the music of François Roberday (1624- 1680), the eminent contrapuntalist and teacher of Lully, who wrote his Fugues and Caprices in the same open score format so characteristic of Frescobaldi. Although he uses the term 'fugue: it is more similar to a ricercar, while 'capriccio' comes directly from Frescobaldi. The sections are united by the use of common thematic material. The present work displays the Positif: Bourdon 8’ for the first section, with Larigot, Nazard, and Tierce, added successively for each subsequent section.

Henry Du Mont (1610-1684) came from Liege and Maastricht before fulfilling royal appointments in Paris. His most famous works were a collection of motets for the royal chapel in 1668. The present Allemande, written in tablature notation, appears in this collection. It is an indication of the intrusion of secular music into the church, a trend that becomes increasingly apparent in the subsequent development of French organ music.

The serious lyric expression which marks the harpsichord music of Louis Couperin (1626-1661) is also evident in his sizeable contribution to organ repertoire, though he adopted a distinctively different style. Here, traces of the lute idiom -always a pronounced feature of his clavecin music - are negligible. He was the first member of the most famous family of French musicians to ascend to the organ loft at St Gervais. That Couperin was also an accomplished violist is quite obvious in his Fantaisie. Written as a basse de trompette (a genre which he created), the style of bass viol solos is simulated with its characteristic leaps and string crossings.

An Anonymous (1617) Magnificat from a manuscript in the British Library (Add. MS 29486, dated 1618) is most likely of French origin. James Dalton, in his splendid survey of early French organ music, bases this notion on registration indications given in French. Manuscript sources in this repertoire are very rare and it is safe to relegate this setting of the Marian canticle to the sparse body of French organ music produced during the century before Titelouze.

It is in the publications of Pierre Attaignant (c.1494-1551), a 'bookseller, living in Paris' that the earliest discernible music for the organ is manifest in France. He held a near monopoly in music printing and was the first to attain mass- production. His printed collections, dating from 1529, contain much functional keyboard music for the liturgical musician of the time. Of great importance are the cantus firmus settings and motet transcriptions. Here the vocal melodies are suffused with highly figurated accompaniments distinguished by leaps of large intervals, scale runs, and long notes broken down into smaller values. In Obrecht's Farce Domine, a work that is primarily homophonic, the extent of the alteration is particularly evident.

The score of the Anonymous (c. 1650) Marian hymn found in the Ste. Genevieve Ms. 2348 is notable for its registrational directive with respect to the Trompette en taille for the cantus firmus.

That Bach's famous Passacaglia in C Minor is linked to a similar work of André Raison (c. 1645-1719), has no doubt helped perpetuate the renown of the latter name. Raison was organist of Ste. Genevieve-du-Mont in Paris, but never used plainchant melodies in his two published sets of organ Masses. Thus, the Mass versets could be used, interchangeably, or serve as movement of hymns or the Magnificat.

Nicolas Gigault (c. 1627-1707) was born in Paris and held positions at four important Parisian churches. Though he organized his three organ Masses around the church modes, his prolific use of 'pointé': the five-part texture which he claimed to have originated, and his peculiar harmonic progressions show a progressive proclivity.

The fugues of Jean-Henri d'Anglebert (1635-1691) afford a retrospective impression of the style espoused by this great composer during earlier years when he served as organist to the Duke of Orleans. They are his only works for organ and stand outside the mainstream of late seventeenth-century organ repertoire. The complex and copious ornaments of the first work foretell d'Anglebert's famous inventory of embellishments, a carefully codified system of harpsichord trills and agréments that became enormously influential both during his lifetime and well into the eighteenth century.

© 1994 Joseph Payne

1 James Dalton, Ed., European Organ Music of the sixteenth & seventeenth Centuries, Vols. 7, 8, & 9 (London: Faber Music Limited, 1988)

Close the window