Unlike the piano, which has enjoyed more or less consistent popularity since the mid-18th century, the organ has experienced its share of peaks and valleys over its vast history. The rich organ traditions of the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries culminated in the works of J.S. Bach, after which the instrument suffered a period of decline and neglect. Mendelssohn’s activities began to reverse the trend, but it was French organists and composers who made the most significant contributions to the reestablishment of serious organ music. Their body of work over the last two centuries represents another great period of organ composition. Some of the composers responsible for this rebirth, like Saint-Saëns and Franck, are well-known to American concertgoers. Others, especially those who largely confined their activities to the organ, have not achieved the wider recognition they deserve.
Paul Jacobs, chair of the organ department, will present a concert series devoted to this repertoire on three consecutive Tuesdays, beginning with a program in Paul Hall on September 10. The concerts will not proceed continuously in chronological order, but will each be self-contained samplings of music from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. In putting together these programs, Jacobs said he “wanted to offer, here in New York, a glimpse of this tradition over the past 200 years, including the familiar with the exotic, the profane with the sacred, the intimate with the sublime.”
The first performance largely comprises works intended for the concert hall rather than a liturgical setting. In 1920, Marcel Dupré became the first organist to perform the complete works of J.S. Bach, a feat Jacobs would replicate 80 years later in an 18-hour marathon concert in Pittsburgh. Dupré’s set of variations on Noël Nouvelet, written while on tour in America, remains one of his most popular and immediately accessible works. Like Dupré, Nadia Boulanger studied with Vierne and Alexandre Guilmant but is now remembered mainly as one of the most important teachers of the 20th century. Her three pieces for organ are striking miniatures which have been sadly neglected until recently.
This program will also include major works by Guilmant and César Franck, two of the main progenitors of the French school. The first of Guilmant’s eight sonatas is a popular work full of beguiling melodies and exuberant virtuosity that he later arranged as his first organ concerto. Although Guilmant was a more prolific performer and composer, Franck wrote searching, introspective works that have inspired intense devotion since they were published. Pièce héroïque is one of three works written originally for the organ in the Palais du Trocadéro, the first organ in a French concert hall. Living composers are represented in the opening program with the American premiere of Naji Hakim’s Tanets. Born in Lebanon, Hakim succeeded Olivier Messiaen at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris.
The second program, on September 17 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown, will begin with music by Jean Langlais and Messiaen, classmates at the Paris Conservatory in the 1920s and lifelong friends. Jacobs became the first organist to win a Grammy, with his 2011 recording (in this same venue) of Messiaen’s Livre du Saint-Sacrement, but this concert will feature the landmark Messe de la Pentecôte. The lately deceased Jean Guillou is represented by the fourth of his seven works titled Saga. The monumental Suite by Maurice Duruflé, one of the most difficult and admired pieces in the organ repertoire, will close the program.
The final concert of the series, on September 24 on the Mander organ at St. Ignatius Loyola, will feature music by Thierry Escaich, a professor of composition and improvisation at the Paris Conservatory. Beginning with Franck, French organists have almost without exception been renowned improvisers, and much of the music of the French school is grounded in this practice. The sixth and final symphony by Louis Vierne is a fitting, and timely, conclusion to the cycle. The most famous of a number of blind French organists, Vierne was the longtime organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral. The historic Great Organ over which he presided, and at whose console he died, in 1937, incredibly escaped significant damage during the April 2019 fire.
David Crean (DMA ’14, organ), who teaches organ at Wright State University in Ohio, was the recipient of the 2014 Richard F. French doctoral prize