Famous organs of France (part 1 of 2)
An ‘organ -crawl’ ? Something of a mis-nomer unless one is exploring the innards of a closely-packed instrument. My friends Alain, Jan and I mounted the first of many steps from Marseiile’s Vieux Port for this week set up to gain first -hand and , indeed , first-feet knowledge of two of France’ s finest instruments.
The ancient church of Saint-Viktor is planted like a solid fortified sandcastle along the road from the relatively recent Boulangerie , founded in 1794 and still with a queue stretching out of the shop , its members awaiting their moment to buy navettes and other enticing edibles. Said Navettes , from the Latin word ‘navis’, meaning ship remind us of the first major visitors’ approach to France’s second city and its principal port , Messilia: the Greeks centuries ago.
Gigantic cruise ships now dominate the seaward side of Marseille but our attentions are drawn by Alain , singer with Les Arts Florissants , to the calm grey-stoned nave of his home-church where he is the much-admired Cantor .He particularly wanted me to play the ‘Trompetes Chamades ‘ and there the pipes were , nearly the only horizontal attraction in this building , itself designed to draw the eye vertically-apart, at this moment from a floodlit stone sarcophagus whose intricate carvings were being explained to a young film cameraman by a priest.
Up the next set of stone steps we clambered , twisting and turning in the footsteps of the resident organist .We were rewarded by an even more beautiful , almost aerial view of the church from this position , ‘high and lifted up ‘ as are most large French organs ,built nestling against the West Wall.
It is the colour of the wood of rich organ case which impresses me at first as the draw stops or registers are carefully explained to me . I am informed that the great contemporary recitalists Jean Guillou and Marie -Claire Alain come to play . There is much to take in and having selected some flutes and a clear 4 foot pedal reed I begin with Peter Hurford’s Chorale Prelude ‘ Wem in Leidenstagen’ . I am listening to the acoustic of the building and discovering how effective to my ears , themselves quite a lot lower than the sound the pipes and I am producing , is the Swell Pedal even when the Recit manual is linked to the ‘Grand ‘ manual where my flutes are activated . I am also accustoming my fingers to the touch , weight-wise .
Drawing out the Reeds and the Choruses ( bright combinations of stops) I launch off into Theodore Dubois’s cheerful Toccata at a good spanking pace , occasionally leaping to the topmost manual and swiftly again to the lowest for the quieter , short interludes. Widor’s Toccata fills the church now with dazzling tone and I relish marking out the irresistible melody in the pedals . I have been playing this masterpiece since I was 16 : that’s 55 years and it never loses its noble magic.
The resident organist can stay no longer and for Bach’s ‘Piece d’Orgue ‘ I am working hard to find unaided a suitable variety of registration .My efforts require instant reorganisation of my choice of manuals – and this pays off : an intensity of musical recognition of the sections adds freshness to my well-tried interpretation .
But the ‘Piece de Resistance’ in St Viktor’s is the Carillon by my friend by Father Sebastian Wolff of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, composed in 1992 for the Installation of the new Abbot. and how I also remember the wonderful,smell of soup pervading the Abbey Church that February afternoon !
Against the scintillating mixture-work of the instrument rears up the melody on Alain’s Trompetes Chamades!
Like this aeroplane in which I am writing this sentence we became airborne!