When Postwar France Came to Love Bach

How the greatest-ever Catholic organist championed the greatest-ever Lutheran composer

Among the last 50 years’ most unfortunate historical illiteracies has been the myth that it took Vatican II to bring about the most elementary courtesy between Catholics and non-Catholics. Before 1962, the legend goes, Catholics and Protestants were trapped in a kind of eternal Thirty Years’ War, lusting after the blood of our “separated brethren.” For a good answer to this legend, it is worth examining the manner in which Marcel Dupré—whom his star pupil Olivier Messiaen called “the greatest organ virtuoso who has ever lived”—first championed the organ repertoire of J.S. Bach for French concertgoers who, in the years after World War I, still knew very little of it.

Dupré died in 1971. For most of his long lifetime, he dominated the French organ scene, very much as his almost exact contemporary Charles de Gaulle dominated French politics. Today, neither man’s reputation is what it was. In particular it has become fashionable to snipe at Dupré’s Bach recordings, with their seamless legato and lack of concern for period practice. Yet this sniping is unjust, and one day the pendulum of taste will swing back. Dupré’s level of brilliance at the console cannot be discounted forever.

The impact that Bach left on Dupré’s thinking derived partly from the initial instruction he underwent. Born as he was in 1886—at Rouen, where Joan of Arc remained potent in the communal culture—he had the privilege of knowing first-hand the Bach-loving, organ-building genius Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who was then in the destitute but still deeply influential twilight of his career. Even Dupré was not quite old enough to have met his hero César Franck, but he achieved the next best thing: protracted study with Franck’s old colleague Alexandre Guilmant; with former Franck pupil Louis Vierne, the almost stone-blind Notre Dame organist; and with Charles-Marie Widor, whose Toccata has adorned a million weddings.

Through Widor and Guilmant above all, Dupré came to know the Bach tradition which had meant so much to Franck. But such knowledge, without the technique to convey it, was not nearly enough, and none appreciated this better than Dupré himself. In a 1948 interview for a Minnesota radio station, Dupré would utter the following credo: “To get perfection in a work, you must first get perfection in a short passage: that is the root of all virtuosity.” What Dupré preached, Dupré practiced, in one of France’s most unusual concert events from the interwar period.

The Great War had let Dupré off comparatively lightly. Traces of childhood disease (a near-fatal bout of golden staph) had destroyed his hopes of seeing active service, so he spent the years of combat in the pharmacy department of a Parisian military hospital. Army life has been described as “99 percent boredom to 1 percent terror,” and whilst Dupré’s hospital enjoyed the protection of distance from the worst fighting, the losses of several colleagues on the Western Front concentrated his mind wonderfully. Besides, hospital duties, by their very nature, enforce contact with human mortality in a fashion that very little other civilian employment does. Through a gradual process, Dupré concluded that he owed it to Bach, to music, and to whatever European civilization emerged after the war, to do something that had hitherto been thought not just pointless, but impossible.

In one sentence: Dupré vowed that with the advent of peace he would publicly play all of Bach’s known organ compositions from memory. He could not have horrified his supporters more if, like Albert Schweitzer, he had taken up the missionary life in western Africa, surrounded by lepers and goats. Earlier organists, for all their skill, had generally used the printed scores in their Bach performances. Widor probably knew as much Bach as any Frenchman of his time did, but even he had large gaps in his knowledge, gaps unimaginable in our own pampered epoch of cut-price complete editions.

Moreover, although Bach had not actually been banned from French musical life during 1914-1918, affronted Gallic national pride towards the vanquished foe made Dupré’s project seem quixotic amid the years of Georges Clemenceau’s vindictive prime ministry and calls for “squeezing Germany till the pips squeak.” Numerous Germans, for their part, assumed that the frivolous French could not comprehend Bach at all. Moreover, in the prevailing state of neurological science, it was by no means sure that the human brain was even built for so gigantic an amount of memorization as Dupré envisaged.

Through his 10 concerts in 1920 at the Paris Conservatoire—concerts of Bach, the whole Bach, and nothing but Bach—Dupré proved his critics wrong. He repeated his feat the following year, at another venue in the same city: the Palais du Trocadéro, which then housed a Cavaillé-Coll masterpiece beloved of Guilmant and Franck. (During the late 1930s, it succumbed to a more than usually maladroit rebuilding, much to Dupré’s regret; in that decade, it is fair to suppose more organs were destroyed by insensitive renovations without the slightest political agenda, than were wrecked by even the most bellicose kerosene-toting communists and anarchists of the Spanish Civil War.) Widor happily paid homage to his former student’s success. In a nunc dimittis offered to Dupré’s father, Widor said: “I can die content, for I know the French organ school will remain in good hands.” (With characteristic recalcitrance, Widor didn’t die at all after delivering this heroic valediction. He lived on for another 17 years, vigorously energetic till the end.)

At a creative level, Dupré’s devotion to Bach bore its most obvious subsequent fruit in his 79 Chorales of 1931, commissioned by Gustave Ogier, a retired banker. Ogier found his enforced spare time somewhat oppressive and wanted to start playing the organ in earnest. Dupré easily met the implied challenge of providing material that (unlike his better-known symphonic epics for the King of Instruments) would be technically straightforward enough for Ogier to manage, but at the same time interesting enough for more experienced players to appreciate. Issued by H.W. Gray of Van Nuys, California—as opposed to Bornemann in Paris, which issued most of Dupré’s other works—the 79 Chorales became that unimaginable thing: an instance of organ sheet-music which actually made a profit. It has never gone out of print. Once, when Mme. Jeannette Dupré had accompanied her husband on a visit to one of Honolulu’s two cathedrals, “a copy of the Chorales [so reports England’s Dupré scholar Graham Steed] was lying open on the music rack of the organ.”

Evidence of Dupré’s profound esteem towards Bach’s own collection of miniatures, the Orgelbüchlein, is perceptible in every phrase. None of the Orgelbüchlein’s chorale-preludes lasts for more than three pages. The same is true of Dupré’s collection. Bach based his pieces on Lutheran rather than Catholic melodies. So did Dupré. He tends to avoid those hymns where the same tune turns up in both Lutheran and Catholic contexts. (Admittedly a few instances do appear: In Dulci Jubilo is one; another is Nunn Komm Der Heiden Heiland [“Come, Savior of the Gentiles”], note-for-note the same as the plainchant theme Veni Redemptor Gentium in the traditional Catholic ceremonies for Advent.) But mere archeologism will nowhere be found. The 79 Chorales can at times administer a salutary shock to hearers—every congregation has them—who want all their organ music to suggest either syrup or lavender-water.

Dupré spent his last years, in musical terms, under something of a cloud. He found himself totally out of sympathy with the 1960s’ arbiters of French musical vogue: Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, and the rest. Ostensibly musical counterparts to the student gauchistes of May 1968 filled him with especial horror. His biographer and ex-student Michael Murray includes a dejected little anecdote of the octogenarian master confronted with an all-night avant-garde broadcast on French television:

Dupré watched for about 15 minutes as “music” was made by the sole agency of a continually slamming door. Jeannette recalls that he turned to her sadly and said, “It is finished, done with, for the arts.” Nor was he heartened by her reply: “Nonsense! You’ll see. You say that music is finished, but look at your recitals and what do you see? You see that at least half of your audiences are young people. Look again. All is not ended for the arts.” But he could not be reassured.

Still, we have plenty of recorded evidence showing what Dupré the performer could achieve when at the height of his powers. (A gallant if cash-strapped nonprofit organization—the Association des Amis de l’Art de Marcel Dupré—does what it can to preserve his sonic legacy in ancient and modern repertoire alike, not to mention releasing his extant broadcasts for Radiodiffusion Française.) And still, like Everest, stands that extraordinary achievement of 1920–1921: Dupré’s practical demonstration that Bach was no mere dry-as-dust theoretician, but part of every Catholic’s and every Christian’s birthright.

(This article is based on a talk given at Monash University, Melbourne, on Maundy Thursday 2014.)

About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).