Mattias Wager

Hymne à l’univers

To the Listener

The choice of repertoire on this CD may seem surprising to some. Why French repertoire from the Thirties on a huge, late Romantic organ from a German builder, rebuilt by a contemporary English firm?

The answer lies in the changing winds in organ building around 1925 when the City Hall organ was originally constructed by the firm Walcker of Ludwigsburg, Germany. The concept of a huge, orchestral organ was slowly beginning to incorporate elements of the latest Neo-classical trends, with the inclusion of choruses of small reeds, mutation stops and mixtures. The result in the case of the City Hall was an instrument of incredible versatility. It combines a rich palette of foundation stops of all nuances with registrations that enable the most delicate clarity of sound.

The latest renovation, carried out by organ builders Harrison of Durham, England, has greatly improved the technical buildup of the organ and has given the organ a quick and responsive action. In addition to all this, the wounderful acoustic of the City Hall gives to the organ sound great space and reverberation, without disturbing echo.

The French composers of the first half of the 20th century were beginning to explore the Neoclassical organ sounds introduced through changes in many of the great organs in Paris and elsewhere. Still firmly rooted in the Symphonic tradition, organ composers began to look to new sources of inspiration, such as Baroque music and the scales and rhythms of Oriental cultures. This exciting period produced some of the most imaginative music in the entire repertoire.

For this recording, I have put together a programme that could at least give a hint of the diversity of musical expression in the French organ scene of the Thirties. Above all, these are pieces that I really love to play, music that fascinates and challenges me and touches me deeply. I hope you will feel the same.

The outstanding genius of Jehan Alain produced a body of work unique in it's boundless imagination and free spirit. Growing up in a family of musicians, Alain soon emerged as a leading composer of the young generation. He studied in the Paris conservatory with professors such as Paul Dukas (composition) and Marcel Dupré (organ). Many bear witness to his generous and goodhumored nature and his warm and artistic personality.

As a composer, he drew inspiration from the most diverse sources, such as Gregorian chant, early Classical music and oriental music, as well as poetry and painting. His largest work for organ is the Trois danses (Three Dances).

It was originally projected as an orchestral piece, but before Alain started working on the orchestration he composed a version for the organ, heard on this recording. The orchestration was never completed; in 1940, Alain was killed in action by enemy troops near Saumur, France. Strangely, the second movement, Deuils (Sorrow), had first been composed as an independent piece with the ominous title “Danse funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héroïque” (Funeral Dance, in honour of a heroic memory). The three movements run uninterrupted. The excitement of the “Joies” (Joy) makes way for the slow second movement “Deuils” (Sorrow) where the initial sombre pedal motif is transformed into a jagged, feverish rhythm in the central section, only to calm down towards a final section of almost deathlike stillness.

The last dance, “Luttes” (Struggle) sees a confrontation of the musical ideas from the two previous movements, building up to an abrupt ending. Having chosen to spend most of his professional life in Bayonne rather than Paris, Ermend Bonnal was probably well aware that his name would not carry the same recognition as the names of many of his contemporary colleagues. Bonnal had perfected his musical studies in the Paris conservatory, where his organ teachers were Guilmant and Tournemire, the latter becoming a mentor and friend of the talented young organist.

Having spent his childhood i Bordeaux, Bonnal strongly believed in the importance of having good professional musicians maintain the musical standard also outside of the French capital. Thus, he went on to work as director of the Bayonne conservatory, where he remained for most of his carreer. At the end of his life, though, he was appointed successor to the great Charles Tournemire as organist of the Basilique Saint Clotilde in Paris. He remained in this prestigeous position until his death.

The Paysages Euskariens (Basque landscapes) are inspired by the scenery of the Basque region, where Bonnal had his beloved summer home. In the first movement, “La Vallée de Béhorléguy, au matin” (The Béhorléguy valley, in the morning), as well as in the second one, “Le Berger de Ahusquy” (The shepherd of Ahusquy), Bonnal paints the sceneries in the very finest hues, demanding a wide variety of tone-colour and other means of expression from the organ.

The concluding carillon, “Cloches dans le ciel” owes a great deal to the French Toccata tradition of the time. Unusually though, in the long middle section Bonnal stops the perpetuum mobile movement and introduces two new themes which are elaborated in rhapsodic style. One of the two themes comes back in the coda to form a jubilant conclusion to the suite.

Despite a small and select output of compositions, Maurice Duruflé counts as one of the most important organ composers of his generation. A student of teachers such as Paul Dukas, Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne, Duruflé had a brilliant carreer as an international recitalist, as well as being organist of the Paris church of St Etienne du Mont. Duruflé only left four major organ compositions, of which the Scherzo op. 2 is the first. Dedicated to his composition professor Dukas, the Scherzo is an exquisite example of Duruflé’s elegant and virtuosic style and his masterful instrumentation for the organ.

In contrast to the other composers heard on this recording, André Jolivet was not an organist. He received a broad musical training, where notably one of his composition teachers was Edgar Varèse. All of his life, Jolivet combined his work as a composer with his passion for teaching, travelling the world as a conductor of his own music and as a lecturer. Later in life, he was appointed Professor of composition at the Paris conservatory, CSNM. In 1936, together with Messiaen, Daniel Lesur and Yves Baudrier he formed the group “La jeune France” to promote a new, independent approach to composition. The respective musical idioms of the group’s members are very different from each other, and indeed the style of Jolivet makes his few organ works rank among the most original music of its time for that instrument.

The music of Jolivet is generally characterized by a fascination for the magical and incantatory, as well as for noneuropean music cultures. Such is the language of his “Hymne à l’univers” from 1962, based entirely on an earlier piece, “Prélude apocalyptique” from 1935. The piece explores the idea of the universality of mankind, indicated by the motto Jolivet chose for the piece: “Rien n’est précieux que ce qui est toi dans les autres et les autres en toi” (Nothing is precious but what is you in the others, and the others in you), quoted from French theologian and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. To achieve his ideals, Jolivet developed a musical language where richly ornamented monody combines with sophisticated rhytms and a harmonic system inspired by natural resonance.

Mattias Wager

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