Organ Music Notes February 5, 2012

by Dr. Dennis Keene

At the Prelude (10:50 a.m.)

Suite du Premier ton, Jean-Adam Guilain (ca. 1680 – after 1739)

Guilain was a German organist and harpsichordist who lived in Paris during the first half of the 18th century. Even though he was born in Germany, his music is completely French in style. His only collection of organ pieces to be published appeared in 1706, and was dedicated to Louis Marchand, possibly his teacher. This collection consisted of eight suites, each on one of the eight church modes – or tons. (Church modes were like the keys of the Middle Ages.) Half of these suites were lost long ago; so today we only have four suites.

If Guilain never quite composed music of the profundity of Grigny or Couperin, that’s OK – he nevertheless gave us four wonderful suites of pieces, tightly constructed, and possessing wonderful melodic invention.

The Plein Jeu is a perfect example of this type of piece. It is composed for the most basic sound of an organ: the plein jeu or plenum, or full principal chorus. On our organ, the full principal chorus – the Grand Plein Jeu – consists of 27 sets of principal pipes (all at different pitches) for every note I press. And the complete balance of these 27 pipes for each and every note is so perfect, that one doesn’t hear different pitches sticking out individually, but one unified sonority. (You might find it interesting that this very piece was the one used as a “test piece” for the Quoirin team when they were voicing the Grand Plein Jeu or our organ.)

The Trio, which follows, is obviously for three voice parts, two in the right hand and one in the left. For this tender, sweet piece, I use a beautiful flute from the Positif division (the Bourdon) with a Tremblant (which gives an undulating quality to the wind) for the right hand, and the Bourdon and Voix humaine of the Echo (with Tremblant) for the left hand. This is quite a lovely combination!

The sprightly Duo is played on two Cornets of the instrument, one on the Positif manual, the other – at a lower pitch – on the Grand-Orgue.

The Basse de Trompette is a terrific, quintessential basse de trompette movement of the French Baroque. The tune is very catchy, and is first heard in the accompaniment (Bourdon and Prestant of the Positif division) before the Trompette stop takes it over. The tune is heard many times, but never too much, because Guilain intersperses contrasting melodic sections. Like most basse de trompette pieces, this one makes use of the particular sounds of a French Baroque trompette, including the occasional low note where the stop has a very big tone, full of character.

The Récit is like a delicate aria for a solo stop or small combination of stops. I have chosen the heavenly Bourdon, Flûte allemande, and Nasard of the Echo division (with Tremblant). The Grand-Orgue Bourdon provides the accompaniment.

The Dialogue is written for the battery of reeds and cornets, a combination known as the Grand Jeu. You have now heard this registration many times since the organ was voiced, and it is indeed an imposing sound – one of the best Grand Jeu I have ever heard. The “dialogue” refers to the dialogue between the huge Grand Jeu of the Grand-Orgue division and the one of the Positif division (which is lighter, but imposing on its own!)

The suite ends in a less intense manner with the Petit Plein Jeu. This is the principal chorus, or plein jeu of the Positif division. It has 10 pipes per note, in contrast to the Grand Plein Jeu of our organ (in the first movement) which had 27 pipes per note. Whereas the first movement was grand and majestic, this one is shorter, lighter, and livelier – befitting the timbre.

At the Postlude

Grand Jeu (from Suite du 3eme ton), Jean-Adam Guilain     

Here is another Dialogue on the Grand Jeu stops, just like the one from today’s Prelude. But here the “dialogue” is between the Grand Jeu of the Grand-Orgue division and quick sections featuring a Cornet, or Cornet and Cromorne. The piece is quite bold and starts out in a fugal manner. The piece never gets choral until the very end, where the Pédale Bombarde is added.