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York Early Music Festival: 'Vive la France!'

  • SIr Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York United Kingdom (map)

François Couperin  Messe pour les Paroisses: Offertoire sur les Grands Jeux

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault  Suite de deuxième ton 

Louis-Claude Daquin  Noël Grand Jeu et Duo

Louis-Claude Daquin  Noël en dialogue, duo, trio

Louis-Claude Daquin  Noël Suisse Grand Jeu et duo

The organ played a full part in French Catholic liturgy, offering ‘responses’ at key points in the Mass. Although usually improvised, professional organist composers created collections of organ masses. These publications not only served as pedagogical models for improvisation, but were also part of a larger agenda to preserve the gloire of Louis XIV and France for posterity, as well as seeking to establish political and cultural hegemony in Europe. Couperin’s ‘Offertoire sur les Grands jeux’ is the longest piece in the Pièces d’Orgue. Although the approach to the performance of a work for inclusion within the liturgy is rather more reserved, the compositional style bears a resemblance to the secular French overture; the piece comprises three sections: a prelude, chromatic fugue and gigue-like fugue.

Clérambault was principally famous for developing the ‘French cantata’, of which he was the uncontested master. This work won the favour of Louis XIV, whose patronage Clérambault enjoyed. Although a respected organist, his output for the instrument comprises just two suites. Each of the seven movements call for a different sound or ‘colour’ from the instrument: the ‘Plein Jeu’ contrasts bright combinations on two manuals; the ‘Duo’ presents playful, imitative dialogue between two voices; the graceful ‘Trio’ with its three voices introduces a change in mood and colour and the Cromorne, a characteristic reed stop, is displayed in the lower tessitura; ‘Flûtes’ contrasts the characteristic flute stops of the instrument; the recitative introduces the Nazard, a flue stop sounding a twelfth above the fundamental unison sound to which it is invariably added, producing another timbre characteristic of the organ and the ‘Grands Jeux’ calls for the chorus of reed stops to which we were introduced at the start of the programme.

Departing from the approach of his contemporaries, Daquin was less concerned with structure or form, modulation or genuine counterpoint, but aimed rather more towards pictorial immediacy and keyboard virtuosity. His ability to fragment a melody, developing it into dazzling passagework, was unsurpassed and perfectly suited to the Noël form. During the seventeenth century, organists used vernacular Christmas verses on which to base extended improvisations at Mass on Christmas Eve, filling whatever time was available before midnight. The Noëls employ a cumulative variation technique whereby the figuration becomes increasingly decorated as the piece progresses. The variations also provide further opportunity to showcase the instrument, effectively evoking the sonority of the French Classical organ.