When I was seventeen, I had the great fortune of going to Paris and studying with the French virtuoso, Marcel Dupré. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have this experience, and even though I thought I was pretty good at the time, I really knew NOTHING much about playing the organ, compared to now. My teacher in high school, Norman Söreng Wright, organist of the First United Methodist Church of Hollywood, CA, had studied with Dupré for six years in the 1920s and every year after that, sent one of his students back to France to study with the “maître.”
I took three lessons a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) at Meudon, Dupré’s home, where there was a four-manual Cavaillé-Coll organ housed in the large organ studio. In the couple of days between lessons I was expected to accomplish a whole week’s worth of “normal” lessons which meant that I spent about six to eight hours a day practicing. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about my lessons except that I do know that they were for the most part, in English. Monsieur Dupré’s English was excellent and he had a gentle and generous personality. Over that summer, I played through many works of Bach, Franck and some of Dupré’s own compositions. Always at the end of every lesson he would ask me, “Well, what will you play next time?” which meant I had to constantly find new pieces to play at every lesson. I didn’t really perfect any piece to “performance level” but it’s amazing that many years later, those pieces are stored in my collective memory and I can still play them with some degree of facility.
Several times he and Madame Dupré invited me to eat dinner with them. They had a granddaughter about my same age, and she and I hung out together at the console of Saint Sulpice where I and other Dupré students listened to him improvise three services every Sunday. The Duprés took custody of their grandchildren because their son and daughter-in-law were tragically killed in an accident.
Last night I watched a video of his playing filmed during the 1960s only six months after I left Paris. When I was there, his hands were severely gnarled by arthritis, but oh! how he could play, and how he could improvise! It was just as though he were playing from memory, with such confidence and with a lot of harmonic color, not the “monster music” improvisations that today’s organists do. The most amazing postludes were the five-voice fugues he improvised.
Last July, Carl and I visited France (he for the first time, and the first time in 42 years for me), and I made a special trip to Meudon to see how much of it I remembered. As Carl said, it was certainly one of the highlights of our trip, if not THE most memorable part.
Seeing the video of Monsieur Dupré last night made it all come alive again.