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Pierre Cochereau


pcnd5584
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As requested by MJFarr, I shall attempt to expand upon the way Cochereau was viewed by various factions of the French organ world, based on anecdotes and thoughts provided by his friends and colleagues.

 

Firstly, there were a number of people who deemed it pure luck that he should have attained the post of Titulaire at Nôtre-Dame - a post for which, incidentally, he did not officially apply.

 

In the first instance, it was the previous Titulaire, Léonce de Saint-Martin, who welcomed Cochereau to the organ loft at N.-D. - and that at a time when he (Saint-Martin) was, to all intents and purposes, in good health.

 

Virtually as soon as he was appointed, Cochereau recorded an LP on the un-restored C-C. At the time, there were not that many good organ recordings available in France. Those that were, somewhat predictably, played safe with regard to repertoire - the JSB 565, Widor's Toccata - that sort of thing. Yet, Cochereau chose to record Vierne's Deuxième Symphonie, the Ad nos of Liszt and Dupré's Symphonie-Passion. I have a re-mastered CD of this recording - personally, I think that it is superb. It is true that the C-C is showing its age and that the tuning is occasionally a little poisonous; yet the quality of the playing - of the interpretations - already shows the osmosis between instrument and performer that would later become a hallmark of Cochereau's tenure.

 

There were also a number of discerning critics, unshackled by jealousy to whom Cochereau was already becoming a rising star. The tribune at N.-D. began, Sunday by Sunday, to fill with visitors.

 

However, there were several factors which made Pierre Cochereau un-popular with certain factions. Not least of these, was his radical re-designing of the cathedral organ, whose last major reconstruction, at the hands of Cavaillé-Coll, had been in 1863-68. (Joseph Beuchet had carried-out a restoration in 1932, but this was not as far-reaching as the previous rebuild.) In order fully to appreciate the extent of the disapproval directed at Cochereau by many of the 'establishment', it is necessary briefly to recount the recent history of the organ in Nôtre-Dame.

 

Commencing in 1959 and continuing almost up to his death, Cochereau instituted a scheme of restoration and enlargement that would, in many ways, transform the sound of the old instrument. Initially the work was undertaken by Jean Hermann but, after his death in 1964, Robert Boisseau assumed responsibility for the task.

 

Naturally, there were many who viewed Cochereau's plans almost as sacrilege - forgetting that Cavaillé-Coll himself had revoiced and even disposed of pipe-work from the previous instrument. Indeed, both Mutin in 1904 and Beuchet in 1932, effected a number of alterations, as requested by Louis Vierne. It should also be borne in mind that, in 1932, in addition to providing a Cymbale to the Récit-Expressif, Beuchet altered the breaks in the chorus mixtures.

 

However, arguably the main aspect of Cochereau's musical persona which attracted often vehement dislike, was the way in which he interpreted repertoire. To quote François Carbou: "...in imitation of his friend Virgil Fox of the United Stars (but with a personality, concepts and methods quite different), he took the problem head-on and without looking too closely at the means, he turned up his nose at the purists' opinions, risked his reputation in the service of this great concern which was to fill the churches." In fairness, it must be pointed-out that Carbou was primarily referring to the re-designing of the organ - not just the way in which Cochereau chose to play, in order that he might communicate a passion for the music he loved; not to be bound by questions of historical accuracy, or to bow to the dictates of the 'establishment'.

 

I have many recordings of Cochereau playing - repertoire, service and concert improvisations. I also know of colleagues who were fortunate enough to have heard him live. Interestingly, whilst their opinions are mixed, there is an underlying trait - I observed that the esteem in which Cochereau was held appeared to be directly linked to their ability to improvise.

 

However, three things were clear to me: Firstly, that Pierre Cochereau possessed a superb technique - possibly equal to that of a concert pianist.

 

Secondly, that, whilst occasionally (and taken at face-value) his interpretations of certain items of repertoire could seem strange; nevertheless, when taken in context, the reason for playing a piece in a particular way would become clear. Certainly, there is documented evidence that, when Cochereau did apparently disregard the wishes of a composer, it was only after careful consideration and (in the case of Marcel Dupré) discussion with the composer himself.

 

Thirdly: Pierre Cochereau had a tremendous facility as an improvisor, allied to a highly creative and fertile mind. Often, those who criticised his improvisations would pick on one facet, one small point and attempt to prove by this, that his improvisations were sub-standard or unworthy.

 

It is apparent to me that many of his detractors were often motivated by jealousy - or envy. Some felt that he did not deserve his post, others, that his treatment of the instrument under his care was less-than sympathetic. Then there were those who would criticise his performances - the way he played Bach, his registrations of his improvisations.

 

To me, Pierre Cochereau was a genius - particularly with reference to improvisation. In this regard, it is possible that he was without peer. Even Dupré spoke of Cochereau as 'a phenomenon without equal in the history of the contemporary organ.'

 

Cochereau often seemed at his most inspired when playing for services at Nôtre-Dame. He was able to match the mood of the service and to draw from many sources of inspiration. He was able, in an instant, to respond to many different situations with spontaneously-created music that was not only competely appropriate but that, on many occasions, moved listeners to tears.

 

Let François Carbou have the last word - by way of illustrating a point which I made earlier. "...according to one's taste, will either applaud or inveigh against he who, leaving to others the concern of treating him as a vile demagogue, deemed necessary the 'interpretation' of the basic repertoire according to the nave to be filled and, above all, the so-called general public which he intended to convince; or who, on occasion of a President's funeral service (Bach's De profundis chorale), did not hesitate to adopt a tempo which, at first, seems totally wrong but is finally justified by the very character of the service in question, along with the use of brass instruments and the slowness of the official procession!"

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Thanks for this, pcnd - it's very interesting.

 

I was aware in general terms about dissatisfaction with the changes to the Notre Dame organ during Cochereau's tenure, but not about a more wide ranging polarisation. In a way it rather reminds me of some of the things I've read about Louis Vierne. No one seems to have taken a moderate view about his playing of written pieces, his improvisations, or his own compositions: they were loved; or they were hated.

 

I suppose to some extent this comes with the territory. Being titulaire of Notre Dame (or of St Sulpice, or of any really important cathedral or church) carries with it a lot of prestige, and a lot of responsibility. We expect absolutely the best from organists in these positions, but our ideas of what is in fact "the best" are very subjective. And, as you suggest, I think there can be a certain degree of envy, or perhaps professional jealousy, in some cases.

 

Rgds,

MJF

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I heard PC improvise once at the RAH and very impressive it was too - I have also heard numerous of the recordings both by the man himself and by others from the many 'reconstructions' etc. I have also experienced a number of his disciples 'doing their own thing' in a like style - some better than others. What I have often wondered however is how much of it was done to a 'formula' as on occasions one can have the impression that one has heard it all before. While not intentionally setting out to upset anyone (living or dead!) and not to in any way wanting to dumb down the artistry or sheer technical skill involved I feel that sometimes the 'formula' could be verging on the predictable. I realise (and I do it myself in a much more modest way) that improvising needs a framework etc. but in the case of PC does anyone think that sometimes the fact that he could improvise the way he did and had such a large following made certain things almost expected of him. That is to say that the tried and tested formula (symphony with a reasonably stock set of movements or theme and variations - again with fairly stock elements) sometimes made up for a lack of new ideas and musical material. The thing is that I feel as if I have heard the typical intro. movement, something slow and 'fonds like', a Flute harmonique type scherzo, a lush 'strings and mutations' section and something that starts as a fugue and ends in a toccata quite a few times now the only difference being the theme applied! Or am I totally off beam and doing the man and his followers a complete disservice?

 

AJJ :D

 

PS Having said this - in a rather different style the JAV recording of Gerre Hancock doing all this at Washington National Cathedral (complete with bells) I can listen to repeatedly!!

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I heard PC improvise once at the RAH and very impressive it was too - I have also heard numerous of the recordings both by the man himself and by others from the many 'reconstructions' etc.  I have also experienced a number of his disciples 'doing their own thing' in a like style - some better than others. What I have often wondered however is how much of it was done to a 'formula' as on occasions one can have the impression that one has heard it all before. While not intentionally setting out to upset anyone (living or dead!) and not to in any way wanting to dumb down the artistry or sheer technical skill involved I feel that sometimes the 'formula' could be verging on the predictable. I realise (and I do it myself in a much more modest way) that improvising needs a framework etc. but in the case of PC does anyone think that sometimes the fact that he could improvise the way he did and had such a large following made certain things almost expected of him. That is to say that the tried and tested formula (symphony with a reasonably stock set of movements or theme and variations - again with fairly stock elements) sometimes made up for a lack of new ideas and musical material. The thing is that I feel as if I have heard the typical intro. movement, something slow and 'fonds like', a Flute harmonique type scherzo, a lush 'strings and mutations' section and something that starts as a fugue and ends in a toccata quite a few times now the only difference being the theme applied! Or am I totally off beam and doing the man and his followers a complete disservice?

 

AJJ :D

 

PS Having said this - in a rather different style the JAV recording of Gerre Hancock doing all this at Washington National Cathedral (complete with bells) I can listen to repeatedly!!

Alastair, thank you for your response.

 

This point has been made about Cochereau's improvisations, before. Certainly, he often favoured the Theme and Variations formula, in order to show-off the tone-colours of the instrument - and because there is a huge variety of things which one can do with the theme. One of the best examples is his 15 Versets improvises sur 'Ave Maris Stella' (recorded during a recital on 15th August, 1970). In this, there is a great variety in the treatment of the theme, including a brilliant scherzo and two contrapuntal movements, which are some of the best which I have ever heard.

 

However, for something which contrasts completely, I greatly recomment that you obtain a copy of his Un Testament Musical. 25 improvisations sur l'Evangile selon saint Mathieu. This was recorded during Vespers on four successive Sundays in Lent, 1984 - and includes the last notes ever heard from his fingers on his beloved organ at Nôtre-Dame.

 

The music contained on this disc is arguably Cochereau at his best - at his most inspired. To quote Frédéric Blanc: "Indeed, admirers of Pierre Cochereau will doubtless be surprised by the style of these Biblical commentaries which is so particular, so different; no breathless symphonic finales here, no scherzos at hair-raising speed. To the contrary, we discover a completely different Pierre Cochereau: here he plunges us into a dark, sometimes anguished atmosphere which is also imbued with mystery and hope." There are also moments which I find very moving - and moments of great beauty and tenderness. The readings from St. Matthew's Gospel, which were interspersed with Cochereau's improvisations as musical commentaries, have been left in. The resonant voice of Bernard Véron, the reader, also adds to the sense of atmosphere.

 

I further recommend (and in a totally different mood), the 12 improvisations inédites (tournée d'été 1969 sur orgue positif Hartmann). These recordings, made during a summer tour in 1969, disprove the other argument often made with respect to Cochereau - that, away from his own instrument, his improvisations were un-inspiring and lacking in form. Whilst several are in free-form, they all exhibit a phenominally creative mind - with a technique to match. One of them has been transcribed by David Briggs, who also recorded it at Truro Cathedral, on the small organ in St. Mary' s Aisle. I have also performed this work several times. It is full of life and inventiveness and with a clever handling of the theme.

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Thanks for the reply and your 'knowlege' - we're in France over Easter - 'good excuse to check out FNAC by St Eustache etc. during a 'Paris pause' - they usually have a selection of PC. I can feed them into my new ipod and listen to them all when we get to the Loire - daughters permitting!!

 

AJJ

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There are so many different style of improvisation, and in this important respect there are considerable national differences to this day.

 

People tell me that I improvise well, but they obviously haven't heard me on a bad day!

 

I can stumble around with the best of them, bereft of ideas and going nowhere fast, but never in a particularly "English" style.

 

Just sometimes, I feel inspired and in just the right frame of creative-mind, and it is at moments like this that I can produce something of interest. I recall improvising (perhaps extemporising?) a whole mock 18th century Voluntary, complete with slow movement and then a Cornet solo, and it just flowed out. Unfortunately, I didn't have any recording equipment switched on at the time.

 

However, I have on tape a very long improvisation (about 15 mins of it) which is structured (if that is the word) around a simple atonal "theme," and it is interesting to listen to it some 20 years on, for although it has some slightly off moments, it has a certain "togertherness" in spite of the fact that there was no conscious plan of action when I began.

 

I'm sure that Nigel Allcoat would have a lot to say on the subject, and I would be interested to hear his opinions as to what makes a successful improvisational "style" and whether the best are necessarily "structured" in some way. It's just that when I listen to Tournemire (one of the few French composers I like; the others being Dupre and Durufle) I hear a great improviser at work, but not necessarily the most structured one. In French improvisations, the "structure" seems to be that of frequently stated plainsong themes and then modal harmony either as a bridge or as accompaniment.

 

I've heard a lot of improvisations in Holland, but they always seem to be singularly unmemorable, as if they are "over-structured" and formulaic.

 

Then there are Czech, Polish and Hungarian improvisations, which often use quasi-counterpoint and some really wild and whacky rhythms; sometimes of real excitement and interest.

 

The awful truth is, when I do something spontaneous which works well, I really don't know how it comes about.....like it just happens on the fly. I take my hat off to people like David Briggs and Gerre Hancock, who can produce real quality time and time again, and include improvisations in their public recitals.

 

However, I'll finish with an amusing story about a man who could improvise rather well....Jean Langlais.

 

A friend of mine went along to see him and was invited to the organ loft. There was dear old Langlais with a head like the "Mekon" in "Dan Dare," blind as the proverbial bat and caressing the keys and stops lovingly as he gave a magical improvisation before mass. As the clergy entered, he drew more and more stops; eventually reachiong a thunderous level of sonority. Then, as the clergy arrived at the altar, he began to kick off the ventils and throttle the Cavaille-Coll back to a more atmospheric demeanour, but before he ended, a voice came over the public address, inviting people to pray.

 

Langlais grimaced angrily, kicked open the ventils, leaned across as many keys as he could and almost blew the roof off.

 

As the echo died away and a stunned clergyman started again, Langlais gave a resigned shrug and said in English (of sorts), "Zees man, he iz aye monzter!"!

 

MM

 

 

PS: I'll dig out the URL's for some very interesting improvisations from the East of Europe, which are quite a revelation and very different from English or French ones.

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This is interesting - I have a number of recordings of improvisations, some of which I can listen to over and over again - anything by Nigel A, David B, Martin Baker and a few others from the UK, most of the French lot and Dutch organists not trying to sound French! Likewise Gerre Hancock from the US. Some organists who improvise can produce splendid music that can be listened to over and over again, others produce music that is fantastically 'of the moment' but would not stand further listening and there are still some around 'groping in the dark' so to speak especially in the context of a service. Occasionally I surprise myself with an improvisation - usually if I have thought out what I am doing before or out of sheer panic when I have not got a prepared voluntary. Fairly frequently my Rector or members of the congregation comment favourably too which is a bit of a boost. Mostly I do what I do having digested written chunks of Allcoat or the chap whose name I forget who wrote article in Organists' Review some years ago - all quite 'Parish' but that is not to do one's self down. What it boils down to I suppose is whether improvisations can stand recording and repeated listenings - are they still improvisations then, especially if someone listens, transcribes and publishes? - I suppose it really depends on who the performer is and the artistry of their performnce.

 

AJJ

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
I'm sure that Nigel Allcoat would have a lot to say on the subject, and I would be interested to hear his opinions as to what makes a successful improvisational "style" and whether the best are necessarily "structured" in some way.

 

 

I never have a lot to say, but I sometimes do stretch it out!

 

Umm! To make a successful improvisation, I suggest that it needs to always communicate. The creator is performer and composer in one, and the instant work must be projected using the best musical sounds at his disposal. The work (for me) should often have a naive freshness that does not ape somebody else's. Therefore, a simple, yet effective statement is far superior to crash bang wollop that is based on effect and contrived rhetoric rather than music. I liken an improvisator to a brilliant orator. And like Winston Churchill, many a great improviser hones the work in private, to create the very best result in public.

 

As for structure, there must always be order or structure in all things. Without, must surely result in anarchy. But structure can be interpreted in so many musical ways, too numerous to recite here.

 

All the best with your endeavours!

 

NJA

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