This week, in the midst of preparing Bach organ music for the Sunday night vespers, I’ll be playing three pieces by blind organist Jean Langlais (1907-1991): Mode de ré, from the Huit Pièces Modales, op. 90; Flutes and Pasticcio from Organ Book IV. For the anthem, the choir will sing his composition, “Ubi caritas et amor.”
I wondered how was it that there were so many famous blind organists, not only Jean Langlais, but his teacher, André Marchal (1894-1980) and even John Stanley (1712-1786) from England and Helmut Walcha (1907-1991) from Germany. It’s often believed that non-sighted people have a more acute sense of hearing, and therefore can perform music to better advantage than sighted people. Apparently there are a high percentage of blind musicians who have perfect pitch. But I wondered why many gravitate to the organ and found out that Louis Braille, the inventor of the raised dot notation, in fact played the organ at a church in Paris, which may be why organ music can be found in Braille notation.
Blind from age two, Langlais won first prize in Marcel Dupré’s class at the Paris Conservatoire. He was organist at Ste Clotilde for nearly forty years and as you can see by the list, was a successor to César Franck.
Carl and I made a point of visiting Ste Clotilde last summer and especially admired the pristine and excellent condition of the building which had been completely restored.
Langlais was not only an organist but a prolific composer of more than 200 works for organ, voice and instruments. I found out that he was also a great recitalist and played more than 300 concerts in North America. Can you imagine how difficult this must have been, in that every organ is different, with stop knobs in different locations. Playing the organ is complicated enough but not being able to see the stop knobs? It’s mind-boggling.
In addition to the Langlais, the choir will also sing McNeil Robinson’s “God is love,” an exquisite choral gem which will feature soprano soloist, Chandra Peters.