Today was the first time we heard organs that were in tune and it happens to be the sixth day of the Historic Organ Study Tour! Now, I don’t want to disparage at all the fifteen organs we have heard to date, but let’s just say that they have been “charming,” “quaint” or “so French,” —just out of tune, notwithstanding mean-tone or other historic temperaments. Some of the organs were WILDLY out of tune— you could almost call them comically funny or painfully sour.
In fact, when I was in graduate school, I heard this story that François Couperin went to a church job and the organ had not been tuned in 40 years! Whether or not the story is true is open to question, we were fortunate to hear two organs today where the reeds were wonderfully in tune. Who knows if there had been an organ concert or some other special occasion — we were so lucky that today’s organs sounded fabulously in tune!
The first church we saw today was the Église Saint-Jacques in Lunéville, and its organ is unusual because it is the only Baroque organ in all of Europe with hidden pipework. According to our tour booklet, the unique feature of this instrument, the absence of visible pipework, is achieved by hiding the instrument behind the substructure, the balustrades, the sculpted oak porticos, and the openwork pilasters formed by a collection of vertical slats through which sound emanates.” André Joly painted the trompe oil (optical illusion) on the collaborative work between organ builder and architect. Apparently, though, this 18th century innovative idea sparked a lot of criticism.
What better way to present the organ but through a series of variations? The church’s female organist performed a French suite (with movements such as plein jeu, duo, récit on the voix humaine, dialogue, grands jeux, etc.), Sweelinck’s chorale variations on “Mein junges Leben”, and Jehan Alain’s, “Variations on a theme of Clement Jannequin” which showed off the organ beautifully — and in tune! We were told that in addition to her church job, she teaches bassoon at the university.
The next church we went to, Saint Marien in Vic-sur-Seilles, was an impromptu, last-minute decision by Christophe Mantoux since originally we were scheduled to see the organs at Basilique Saint Epvre in Nancy. However, the main organ sustained damage in 2010 during cleaning and repairs to the ceiling, now considered an “organ massacre.” Apparently the organ is now considered “evidence” in a pending lawsuit and we would not be allowed to “tamper with evidence!” The choir organ by Merklin-Schütze had been restored following damage by an intruder in the 1990s which had rendered it unplayable for nearly 30 years—but we were not allowed to play it, either.
I’m glad, though, that we went to Vic-sur-Seilles, and the church’s organist, Emilien Roess, went above and beyond the call of duty to put together a special brochure on the Gaston Kern organ, which was built in 1998. It obviously had been translated by Google Translate, resulting in some very hilarious phrases such as “bedstead” for organ case; “big organ” for the Great, “narrative” for the Récit manual, and “bumblebees” for bourdons! (I’m rolling on the floor laughing!) The organist had generously baked several flavors of poundcake for us which were still warm from the oven!
The organ was a Classical French design with a most unusual pedalboard, called “pedalier à la française.” Obviously you cannot use modern pedal technique with it! When I saw it after climbing through the organ stairway, I said to myself, “Uh-oh. I’d better choose a piece with very little pedal,” so I played the “Offertoire” from Couperin’s Messe pour les Couvents. I had so much fun!