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Marcel Dupré was one of the most important figures of the twentieth century Parisian musical scene, a child prodigy who would go on not just to be Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire but to serve for a time as its Director. Through an enormous international tour schedule, he attained a degree of international influence unprecedented for an organist, particularly in the USA.
Such was the almost cultish celebrity Dupré managed to attract, it is sometimes necessary to wade through some literary hyperbole in evaluating his music. For example, one of only two biographies published in English is a rather sickly paean, abandoning objective analysis in favour of alternating between ostensibly self-deprecating comments on the technical difficulty of some pieces, and flights of excited nonsense: the three final chords in Evocationare “the greatest chords in French organ music” and the final movement of the Second Symphony is “the finest Toccata ever composed for the instrument.” This sort of silliness abets Dupré’s detractors and has encouraged a view of the man as a technically accomplished but arid player, and a second-rate composer of unnecessarily technically difficult, parochial organ music. Both of these assessments are not only unfair but inaccurate. For one thing, in contrast to Vierne, of whom it was by all accounts legitimately (and positively) said, “he composes the same way he improvises,” those of Dupré’s concert improvisations that were recorded, while generally safely grounded in form, rarely venture beyond utilitarian, functional harmony. On the other hand, where Vierne’s symphonic writing was unable to escape the antecedent-consequent pairs (“thème-commentaire”) and four-bar blocks of the remarkably prescriptive improvisation models of the Paris Conservatoire’s organ class, Dupré distinguished himself as a genuinely innovative composer with a world of daring tonality at his fingertips.
The criticism can legitimately be made that in certain pieces, technical difficulty comes at the expense of musicality; but these pieces were written as études for specific pupils (in any case, the Paris Conservatoire has a cherished tradition of commissioning intentionally difficult and musically offensive test pieces for the annual concours). Dupré could also perhaps have been more judicious with the red pen—his contemporary Maurice Duruflé was so intensely self-critical that his complete organ works fit onto a single CD—however, Dupré’s best pieces show acute compositional skill and a genuine sense of inspiration. The harmonic rhythm in this music tends to move extremely quickly, with important harmonic activity even at semiquaver level. Dupré’s idiom does not follow a modal system like Messiaen’s; he did not use bitonality like Langlais; nor was he interested in organizing his music through 12-tone techniques—it can be quite difficult to grasp quite what is going on at times. Coupled with a conservative approach to form and extensive use of learned counterpoint, this has sometimes been written off as “wrong-note romanticism.” This is a mistake—I think a better characterization is “disorganized meticulousness”—and alongside his own very personal style, we see glimpses of some of the most celebrated contemporary composers on the scene in Paris: the machinismeof Prokoviev; moments of brutality worthy of Stravinsky; the whimsy of Satie.
Succeeding his Master Charles-Marie Widor both as Professeur d’Orgue and Organiste Titulaire at the society church of St Sulpice in the 6thArrondissement, Dupré’s fame initially arose from a cycle of memorized recitals of the complete works of J. S. Bach at an early age; his international reputation was then cemented on a North American tour undertaken in 1921 sponsored by Rodman Wanamaker, the owner of department stores in Philadelphia and New York both supplied with large pipe organs to entertain, inspire and educate shoppers. In time, the phenomenal success of Dupré’s many transcontinental tours contributed substantially to organ technique and style as taught in North American conservatories. To be fair, this was helped along by prevailing geopolitics: if a wealthy Anglophone in the nineteenth century wished a career as a composer or performer he normally went to study in Leipzig; between and, certainly, following the Wars, this was no longer acceptable and he went to Paris instead. By the middle of the century, it would be rare to find an organist teaching at a North American music school who had not passed through the Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleu as a student of Marcel Dupré, a monopoly in its own way every bit as successful as Nadia Boulanger’s on that continent’s aspiring composers (quasi-affectionately known as the Boulangerie). The Method published by Harold Gleason (the first American organ professor at the Eastman School of Music and George Eastman’s personal house organist) which was the standard teaching tool in the US for much of the twentieth century essentially codifies in English many aspects of Dupré’s own Méthode.
Just as Paganini had for the violin, and Liszt had for the piano, Dupré advanced organ playing technique considerably. Indeed, Widor pronounced Dupré’s early set of three preludes and fugues, op. 7, unplayable. This is not to detract from Widor’s own ability, as he himself had set new technical and stylistic standards on his assumption of the Conservatoire professorship in 1890 (his predecessor, César Franck, who coveted the position of Professor of Composition, had prioritized the teaching of improvisation over literature or technique). The situation was simply that by 1926, when Dupré assumed the position of Professor of Organ, organ playing, as taught at the Conservatoire by the Lemmens disciples Widor and Guilmant—subsequently Vierne and Gigout—had not changed substantively since the late nineteenth century, while piano technique, brought already to astonishing heights by Liszt as early as the 1840s, continued to advance. Franck was himself firstly a pianist but his organ compositions do not make the technical demands of the player that his piano and chamber music does. The only organist in the early twentieth century with a modern pianist’s virtuoso technique was Saint-Saëns, who was by then unfashionable partly on account of professional jealousies abetted by his own outspokenness (or outright rudeness) and, rather more unhappily, the taint of Jewry. Dupré’s self-appointed task was to raise organ playing to the technical standard of the concert pianist, demanding for the first time equal strength, facility and independence of all fingers, and expanding the scope of pedal technique considerably. He subjected himself to a grueling practice schedule, just as Liszt is said to have done, working daily all scales at breakneck speeds, in unison, thirds and sixths, manual and pedal.
The Opus 7 Preludes and Fugues date from a time when Dupré was preparing for the Prix de Rome, a composition competition whose victor, aside from gaining instant celebrity, would live in a villa in Italy for a period of time, to devote his- or herself to their art. In these pieces we observe a fledgling virtuoso applying his considerable keyboard facility to the old-fashioned form of Prelude and Fugue, presumably a nod to J. S. Bach, whose 48 Preludes and Fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier had been used as formal models for improvisation at the Paris Conservatoire since Franck’s time. However, Dupré’s Opus 7 set broke new ground in organ writing. Formally, the first and the third use the same device of melodic material from the prelude comprising coda material in the fugue. The second is a more continuous single thought, adapting the principal theme of the prelude directly as the fugue subject. Rhetorically, it is a foil to the boisterous outer two.
Innovation in the B major prelude and fugue is principally demonstrated in its extensive use of quartal harmony; otherwise it is a carillon in the best French tradition, its manual figuration evoking the cacophony of church bells at a high celebration, the theme appearing in the pedals. As the piece is developed, the melody and its accompanying figuration will be distributed through various combinations of limbs, dynamic levels and tessitura. The unconventional fugue subject is also bell-like; spanning over an octave and arpeggiated in character it continues to evoke clamour even (and in fact particularly) while observing the strict rules of counterpoint that Dupré would make a feature of his compositional style.
The F minor prelude and fugue is a study in melancholy. Throughout, an ostinato (“an irrepressible sprite who throws stardust into the quiet pools of the deep waters of the soul”) tinkles in relief against the sostenutotheme. The theme is twice interrupted by the appearance of a descending texture reminiscent of French horns. The fugue is unconventional. The paradigm for a romantic fugue is generally that it gains energy and momentum as it develops; here the piece loses energy as it goes, ending with a sense of peace and restfulness.
The G minor prelude begins with a torrent of figuration on flute stops, characterized by augmented harmony, against which another rather melancholy theme is heard. It appears first in the tenor register, and is answered in the soprano. Its reprise comes in an innovative texture of full chords spread between the right hand and both feet (four-voice chords are played on the pedals using the toe and heel of each foot). The fugue is a romp in 6/8 (jig) time. Magic begins to happen when the theme from the prelude enters underneath the fugal figuration in the very bass register of the instrument, giving a hint of what is to come; following a deliberate anticlimax, there follows a grand crescendo to a strettoon full organ. The coda combines both movements’ themes; the prelude’s now soars in richly voiced chords over the fugue’s jig played in the pedals.
The Second Symphony was written specifically for an upcoming tour and received its first performance at the New York Wanamaker auditorium. It requires features which were regarded by this time as standard in American organs but not yet French. His melodic writing took advantage of the modern, full key compass (CC-c’’’) not yet commonly available in France, and required the technologically sophisticated, electro-pneumatic stop-changing mechanisms pioneered in America by such builders as E. M. Skinner to achieve extremely fast dynamic and timbral contrasts. Dupré was at this point at the height of his technical powers and he clearly wished to make a splash. The listener, though, will note dark forces at work.
The first movement [the unusual Italian cognate “Preludio” is also the title of the first of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes] and last movement are in sonata form; for a piece published in 1930 this is an eccentrically old-fashioned trait in an otherwise difficult and harmonically adventurous work. In mitigation of this, although thematic material is rendered strictly, formal separation is achieved more audibly through changes in texture and registration. In fact, this even allows Dupré the utmost gaucherie at including in the development section a full statement of the primary theme in the tonic, in augmentation no less. However, the texture is so different from the exposition that it is difficult for the ear to perceive them as even related and the episode must surely be put down to sardonic humour rather than error. A dramatic introduction gives way to a sinuous first theme played on flute stops from two manuals in a kind of subtle pointillism. The second theme contrasts dramatically; a homophonic texture on the voix celeste stops—this voice consists of two simultaneously sounding ranks of pipes, one of which is deliberately tuned slightly sharp or flat to produce a beating effect, reminiscent of orchestral string vibrato, and is one of the sounds particularly cherished and developed in American organs of the 1920s, occasionally to the exclusion of more useful ranks. The development section uses material from the introduction, eventually developing it into a new theme, as Beethoven did in the Eroica Symphony. Dupré’s new theme is reminiscent of a fanfare and will come to provide the central emotional climax of the piece. After a somewhat uncertain recapitulation, the fanfare theme returns to end the movement. The astute listener may note the addition of an extra bar in the recapitulation to complete the otherwise absolute correspondence.
The Intermezzo is a scherzando movement, its character quietly sinister. Its somewhat mechanical theme is heard a number of times, before a rapid crescendo on all the “strings” to the louder middle section. Despite the middle section’s recasting of the theme in a major key, it seems hardly less menacing than the outer sections. The recapitulation presents the original material against a restless, anapestic figuration, again on the string stops.
Sonata form in the concluding Toccata is more straightforward than in the first movement: there is no introductory theme and the development is curtailed, merely presenting a variation on the primary theme. In this dark movement, the traditional French toccata accompaniment of arpeggiated figuration is displaced by savage and percussive chords, almost worthy of Hitchcock. The primary theme itself is ambiguous as to whether it is even major or minor. The second theme provides momentary relief, though its element of humour does not imply catharsis so much as hysteria. Despite some strong arrivals on major harmonies, the shadows of this movement are not dispelled until the very last moment of the coda, where the Beethovenian paradigm of darkness to light is ultimately fulfilled for the entire symphony.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is to Paul Dukas what the Toccata in F is to Widor, Toccata and Fugue in D minor is to J. S. Bach, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is to Mozart. Actually, a more accurate comparison might be Ravel’s Boléro, whose popularity during the composer’s lifetime over his more serious (and better) works was as much a source of irritation to him as Sorcerer’spopularity was to Dukas; at least Bach and Mozart had the good fortune to be dead before popular culture began to associate them with a single musical composition. Some of Dukas’ major works eclipsed by the, admittedly wonderful, Sorcerer’s Apprentice include a symphony, a ballet, an opera (Ariane et Barbe-bleue, which was compared to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, also to a libretto by Maeterlinck) and two complex and technically demanding piano works. Sorcerer, however, is a better piece than Boléro and its enduring popularity, while no doubt cemented in part by Walt Disney, is richly deserved.
Dukas succeeded Widor as Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where his students included Jehan Alain and Olivier Messiaen. He was intensely self-critical and destroyed many of his compositions. If in the early twentieth century, French musicians were divided into conservative and progressive factions, Dukas managed to adhere to neither but retained the admiration of both. He was also a scholar and a critic, reviewing for at least five journals.
Dupré’s transcription of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice appears in the collected papers of Rolande Falcinelli, acquired by the Sibley Music Library. Falcinelli was a protégé of Marcel Dupré, succeeding him as Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire on his accession to the directorship. Their closeness both professionally and personally explains why the collection contains some of Dupré’s own writings. His Sorcerer transcription is in fair copy manuscript. It has a registration scheme for his own house organ, at the mansion in Meudon, where he apparently gave a performance on December 30, 1944. Dupré’s transcription is quite fascinating—the frequent use of octaves is more pianistic than characteristic of organ writing; at other times, though, the writing is sparse and efficient, almost trio texture. In general, Dupré makes extensive use of double pedal contrapuntally and pedal chords. Curiously or coincidentally, the manual figuration at the full-organ entry of the theme in the pedals is rather reminiscent of that in the final movement of the Second Symphony.
Though described as a scherzo, L’apprenti sorcier is really a tone poem, based on a poem by Goethe of the same name, Der Zauberlehrling. Goethe’s poem, written in 1797, is a ballad in fourteen stanzas. As Dukas’ piece has eclipsed all his other works in popularity, so has it also eclipsed Goethe’s original.
The poem begins as an old sorcerer departs his workshop, leaving his apprentice with chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, the apprentice enchants a broom to do the work for him, using magic in which he is not yet fully trained. The floor is soon awash with water; the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know how. He splits the broom in two with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a whole new broom that takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed. When all seems lost, the sorcerer returns and quickly breaks the spell.
The obviously entertaining subject matter and musical style should not overshadow the extremely fine crafting of this piece. The orchestration of the original is exceptionally well accomplished, though I believe the quality of its writing make it successful in its own right as an organ piece. In fact, the piece is almost an essay in good compositional technique—a little masterclass in the art of purple French harmony, well-paced storytelling and even the rhetoric of fugal exposition; yet all grounded in a proper, refined, confident and virtuoso command of harmony and counterpoint to which any contemporary composer should aspire.
If most of the works we hear by Dupré today date from the earlier part of his career when he made his mark on the world as touring virtuoso, playing a lot of his own music, Evocation, Op. 37 comes from a rather darker time. Far from the heady days of the 1920s and 30s where Dupré astounded capacity crowds in the gilded and marbled surroundings of the Wanamaker stores, at Évocation’s first performance in 1941, France had recently fallen to German forces and Paris was under Nazi occupation. The previous year, his father Albert Dupré had died and under the military regime, Marcel had been denied permission to leave Paris to attend the funeral.
Albert Dupré was a tremendous musical presence from Marcel’s infancy, a highly respected professional musician and Organiste Titulaireat the immense church of St Ouen in Rouen. Here he presided over the organ builder Cavaillé-Coll’s final great instrument: as Widor called it, un orgue à la Michel-Ange, “an organ worthy of Michelangelo.” This is a huge instrument, of truly astonishing scale; completed in 1890, it is orchestral and symphonic in nature, an entirely different conception from the instrument over which Marcel presided at St Sulpice (1862), where the builder ingeniously repurposed much pipework from the previous 18th-century instrument by Cliquot in a genuinely romantic scheme, yet with strongly classical elements. Évocationwas written specifically for the organ of St Ouen, just as Dupré’s master Widor had written his penultimate great organ work, Symphonie Gothique, also a rather dark piece, for this very special instrument.
In both Widor’s and Dupré’s pieces, we are invited to consider an invocation of the spirit of Joan of Arc, who was burned in the square outside this very church. Joan’s visions of the Archangel Michael instructing her to encourage Charles vii’s armies to rise up and overthrow the English domination during the Hundred Years’ War must have assumed chilling resonance during those years under military occupation, the Vichy regime functioning as a de factoclient state of Nazi Germany. Dupré subtitles the work Poème Symphonique, but there is no programme, no indication of exactly what is to be evoked. When not referring to an invocation, the word évocationcarries a secondary meaning of recalling something past. Dupré dedicated the work to the memory of his father and had indicated in an interview that thematic material had family resonance for him; the listener must decide for herself whether the funeral march at the end of the first movement is for Albert or for France.
As to matters of compositional technique, the three-movement piece is thematically driven and cyclical; in fact, it is more of a “symphony” in the received sense than the Second Symphony, where each movement is entirely self-contained. The first movement is somewhat preparatory to the whole, and has the most objective tempo marking of the three, merely Moderato. Two contrasting themes are presented: a ‘cello theme, answered by a soft theme played on a trumpet stop. Following a background section of commentaireon two of Cavaillé-Coll’s most characteristic sounds—the Flûte Harmoniqueand the combination of Voix Célesteand sub-unison Quintaton, it is the development of the first theme that will provide material for the majority of the rest of this movement. A sinister, even brutal crescendo (foreshadowing the violence of the third movement) leads to the climactic and quite devastating appearance of a new theme, in large chords on full organ. Following a manic episode in which the original ‘cello theme appears, distorted, the movement ends quietly, in turn resigned and defiant.
The slow movement, Adagio con tenerezza, is constructed from a short theme that is freely extended, treated as a series of fragments. In what almost amounts to a series of variations, Dupré here introduces some remarkable textures, quite new to organ writing at the time. The symphonic nature of the St Ouen organ is showcased in an orchestral crescendo calling for string stops at octave and sub-unison pitches, something extremely unusual for a French organ and only available on a handful of instruments. Of course, Dupré was by now also well acquainted with the North American organ of the orchestral style, whose string crescendo of multiple celesting ranks is virtually a trademark, almost compensating for the relatively few satisfying effects otherwise available in some instruments. Dupré once more makes extensive use of double pedaling in an episode where the theme is heard in the tenor range on the clarinet stop—an updated récit de cromorne en taillein a nod to more civilized times from the composer of Le tombeau de Titelouze. We later encounter a remarkable passage in which a sort of rapid, agitated string bass is supplied by the left hand at sub-unison pitch, accompanied in the pedals by a series of slow-moving four-note chords (French horns?) and underpinning an airy, descending theme prepared in the previous string section, given out on the Voix Humainestop (the Archangel Michael descending as the flames begin to lick around Joan’s feet?). Following a short, rather disconsolate bridging episode, the mood begins to change, guided by the movement’s motto theme; eventually the movement seems to find peace.
The final movement, Allegro Deciso, is often played alone. This is understandable as it is a fine piece in its own right, whereas the rhetoric of both of the previous movements is suggestive of being part of, and dependent on, a larger form. The first movement, for example, is not self-contained in the way that the more common option of sonata-allegro form for a romantic or post-romantic first movement of this school tends to be. However, more than most symphonic final movements played as standalone pieces, Evocation’s does suffer in the absence of its previous movements. For one thing, thematic material from earlier in the work is prominently used and developed in its construction; rather more crucially, the rhetoric of its coda is out of proportion to the rest of this movement alone and, frankly, makes little sense without hearing its preparation in the first movement.
The movement is cast in rondo form; as alluded to above, the head and, particularly, transitional material are aggressive in nature. The first episode introduces, transformed, the soft trumpet theme of the first movement, somehow now more sentimental, a sad waltz. The second is a retelling of the parallel section from the second movement, this time more optimistic, recasting the motto theme of that movement in portato, augmented chords. As to the coda itself, Dupré’s final twist in the story will reveal itself as self-evident.
Programme notes © David Baskeyfield 2018
The decision to record music by Marcel Dupré on the organ at St. Mary the Virgin, Times Square, was quite deliberate. Arthur Poister, the legendary pedagogue and one of Dupré’s first American students, recalled that ‘had it not been for [Dupré’s] experience with American organs with their easier manual and pedal actions, he could not have written some of the music he wrote. His entire concept of tempos and playability was changed by his first American experience.’ In Dupré’s own words, ‘mechanical improvements on American organs are far in advance of European… I believe that American inventiveness and ingenuity will within the next few years bring about advances as yet unheard of.’ The synthesis here is between a well-traveled Frenchman writing French music with the most modern American instruments at the forefront of his mind, played on a forward-looking American organ with a strong French accent.
The organ was installed in 1932 by the recently formed Aeolian Skinner Organ Company, the Skinner Organ Company having bought out its competition in the pipe organ division of the Aeolian Company in January of that year. The Englishman G. Donald Harrison, formerly of Henry Willis and Sons, had emigrated to America and joined the Skinner Organ Company in 1927. Harrison’s tonal ideas evolved in a very different direction from those of Ernest Skinner; the growing conflict between the two men ultimately led to Skinner’s being forced out of the Company that bore his name. Where Skinner’s interest lay in the cultivation, “perfection,” of unison tone, particularly colour stops whose knobs bore the name of the orchestral instrument they were intended to imitate, Harrison’s concern was on clear and coherent ensemble, the principal chorus regaining its primacy in full organ. Some of his ideas were in line with the fledgling movement on continental Europe, the so-called Orgelbewegung, “Organ Reform Movement,” which represented a reaction against, among other things, precisely the kind of dark tone favored by Skinner. While Harrison was alive (he died in 1956, while working on the instrument at St Thomas’ Church, 5thAvenue) Aeolian Skinner organs never reached the severe neo-classicism they would under subsequent leadership and his tonal concept did retain some of the most characteristic voices of the old American orchestral organ. This style was called “American Classic” by Senator Emerson Richards, then overseeing work on his eccentric pet project to build the largest organ in the world, in the auditorium of Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City. Among the tens of thousands of pipes on hysterical wind pressures, Richards had found space in his organ for a small division of neoclassical stops; and the very instrument for which he coined the term “American Classic” was the new organ at St. Mary the Virgin.
In the financial climate of the Great Depression, it is remarkable that a contract was signed at all; Harrison’s offer was to install the organ in stages, the first for a relatively small consideration. The construction of a decorative case was postponed also for financial reasons, and the instrument, iconically, remains exposed today, accidentally anticipating by a couple of decades the architectural movement that produced the revolutionary instrument at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The terms of the contract allowed Harrison the flexibility to employ some of his experimental tonal ideas. The organ was to mark “a return to the principles of the classic organ, the organ of the Thomas-Kirche, and the older French and German Builders.” The Greatdivision was reedless (though as planned for, it borrowed reeds from the so-called Bombardedivision, which replaced a more conventional, orchestral Solodivision), and a bright chorus including separately drawing 16’ harmonic partials was capped with a raucous “Harmonics” mixture, an idea developed by the firm of Harrison and Harrison [no relation] in England. Crucially, this was the first time Harrison had experimented with French-style trumpets, of a bright, fiery tone appropriate to the cathedral acoustic at St. Mary’s, and the very opposite of the extremely dark and smooth tromba tone of Skinner’s chorus reeds. Underpinned by the bold clarity of the principal chorus, it is the freedom and clang in the reed stops that give this instrument its French accent. It is, though, by no means a French organ and was never intended to copy the aesthetic of a Cavaillé-Coll; it is a daring and progressive American organ whose tonal makeup, inspired by elements of French organ sound and construction, allows it to render French music with conviction within its own, unique musical personality. Just as major Depression-era public works gave the world some of North America’s most distinctive architecture, a severely reduced project load allowed G. Donald Harrison freedom to experiment with tonal ideas that would produce some of the Aeolian Skinner Organ Company’s most distinguished instruments.
The instrument was extensively revised by the Company in 1942; tastes had already evolved and Harrison’s prepared-for stoplist was not completed but quite radically altered. This revision and further tonal changes reflect the influence of Ernest White, associated with St Mary’s first as organist and later music director, subsequently becoming Tonal Director at the rival firm of M. P. Möller. White was noted for trail-blazing editions of early organ music and his preferred aesthetic came to lean strongly neoclassical.
The present state of the organ is the culmination of a major rebuild undertaken in 1995 under the Brooklyn firm of Mann and Trupiano, under the direction of Lawrence Trupiano. The result is close to a realization of Harrison’s originally stoplist, though retaining the most successful additions of the 1942 redesign, alongside some alterations reflecting the experience of living long term with some of these experimental Depression-era instruments. Larry Trupiano, among other things an authority on historical organ building in New York, remains curator of the instrument and since 1995 has continued gradually to add ranks towards the completion of the instrument. I should personally like to thank him for his extremely gracious help and advice during the making of this recording.