Someone on the Historic Organ Study Tour (HOST) asked me, “Did you think that this was a study tour or a playing tour?” and I replied that the reason I signed up for this tour was for the experience of playing all these historic organs. Out of the thirty organs we played on the tour, only one was new; the 2008 Pascal Quorin instrument at the Cathedral Saint-Dié. The rest of them dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and for me, it was truly a revelation!
Not all French classical music is playable on French classic organs. I learned this in a hurry when I wanted to play a piece like a “Tierce en taille” and discovered that either there was NO tierce available, or it was only in the upper part of the keyboard (dessus). So often I ended up playing a piece for one manual, rather than solo and accompaniment.
My dilemma in going to each organ was, “Well, what kind of music will work here?”
Pedalboards vary widely from organ and organ. All of us North American organists who are used to a standard pedalboard such as the AGO (American Guild of Organists) discovered right away how difficult it is to find the notes when there is no uniformity in size, width, or distance between pedals. One pedalboard even had an extra five notes in the bass, not to even mention “short octaves,” in which the bottom octave is incomplete in order to save space. Organists pride themselves on being able to play the pedals without looking—I couldn’t do it! especially when the keys are not where you think they should be! I was especially blown away by the “pedaliers à la Française” — the French pedalboards.
A lot of people brought François Couperin’s organ masses or Louis-Nicolas Clérambault’s “Suite,” to play. However, these works were considered concert works, and not typical. These works were much longer pieces than the average Sunday morning French organist would play in alternation with the chant. Christophe Mantoux said very short pieces, four to eight bars in length, would be more typical fare at the average French parish.
The acoustics in all of these churches were fantastic. That is due to the all-stone construction, the extremely high ceilings, and the lack of acoustic-absorbing materials such as carpeting or padded pews. I became acutely aware of how uncomfortable the pews were, especially since the width of almost all of them was extremely narrow—not more than 9″ in depth. Even though I am a small person, this was too narrow to be seated comfortably on basically a thin slat.
In order to get to the organ, one must climb steep, spiral stairways. You can’t have claustrophobia or a fear of heights! Most definitely, the highest and most memorable climb was to the swallow’s nest organ at Metz Cathedral, where it was 60 steps up, and then a squeeze between narrow catwalk walls about 14″-16″ apart the whole length of the cathedral. And it seemed almost endless, going round and round, to climb the 70 spiral steps up to the organ at the Nancy Cathedral. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it up! Also, in many of the churches, the steps were far from even, and in fact, quite warped with a big dip in the middle of each one. As someone said, “This would never be allowed in the U.S.! OSHA would shut them down!”
Last night we had a group dinner with a typical French menu. The room was noisy with conversation, laughter, fine food and drink.
In short, I loved it all— the churches, the organs, the stained glass windows, the architecture, the many picturesque waterways, the food and the flowers. I have had a fantastic time and would recommend this tour to any organist. You will be in hog heaven!