One day in 1997, I found a Bach recording by organist André Marchal (1894-1980).
Earlier French organists, such as Louis Vierne (1870-1938) and Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) played their Bach like a heavy tapestry. Here is Vierne in a Bach Choral Prelude: Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV637, recorded in 1929 at Notre-Dame, Paris, where he officiated. Vierne is in love with the space and shapes his phrasing and colors to fill it:
Marcel Dupré and Vierne were composers who explored the miraculous organs that Cavaille-Coll built in France during the 19th century. Even the Russians, who tried to be as French as possible then, just had to have one so the Tsar ordered one for Moscow, a unique example outside of France.
Dupré took the Gothic weight in Vierne and hung even heavier sonic drapery onto Bach’s contrapuntal shoulders. Here is an excerpt of Bach’s Kyrie: Gott Heiliger Geist 671, made late in life, from Rouen, only a few years before Dupré’s death.
Marchal is often overlooked and many of his recordings had lapsed into Out of Print terrain. Once the Bach recital was playing, our son Stefan abandoned his drawing and ran into the living room to sit and listen. On first hearing he demanded that we repeat a sequence of the Fantasia in G and three Preludes and Fugues and could not get enough of it, for he sat in rapt attention throughout the half hour of music each day for at least six months. Our guest Anssi Blomstedt, an auteur from Helsinki, captured our four-year old in action:
I was as stunned by the music as by Stefan’s way of putting the breaks on our existences to enter into a new sound world. Whereas the French organ masters had built Bach as a sonic cathedral, Marchal cast light on the rose windows, exposing densities and colors, unsuspected narrative and nuances in the music that had become a congestion of counterpoint in other hands. Like Wanda Landowska, he articulated the notes so that they spoke instead of being phrased as chant.
After a few calls, I traced Marchal’s daughter in Paris. Having mastered English, she mentioned that she helped along her father’s British and American pupils. One was Lee Erwin, a theater organist, Marchal’s first American pupil. Around 1930 he moved to Paris for lessons. Erwin told me about breathless weekly Sundays: as soon as Marchal finished playing and improvising mass at St. Eustache, he would bolt to the metro to get to Trinité in time for Messiaen’s moment. Other options included Vierne at Notre Dame, and Tournemire at Ste. Clotilde. Erwin recorded Marchal at home on a neo-Baroque organ installed at rue Duroc by the builder Gutschenritter. As Marchal envisioned a Bach with more transparency, he aided in the design of the instrument to initiate a new approach to Bach. Landowska was pioneering a revival through the harpsichord and captured his spirit, although some kitsch elements in her art tire at times.
Jacqueline Marchal-Englert sent a letter with a family photo destined for Stefan, seated by her father with a guest in his lap while touring the US in 1974:
Erwin published two LPs of Marchal at home on his Zodiac label, a tax write-off that had the astonishing Irén Marik on its roster. Jacqueline had the master tapes and we prepared an edition. In Paris, I visited her frequently during a stay and interviewed her. She remarked that her father knew only two words in English and used them with his pupils:
The dry acoustics of Marchal’s living room inspired a sparse but acutely focused combination of stops to shape distinct color, especially in Bach’s Adagio from the Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C which I published through Arbiter.
The Italian accompanied melody is transformed by a sudden shift of stops ending with a suspension of pulse and time. Marchal fearlessly prolongs the harsh dissonance, dragging the piece into a new dimension. He was touched with the ability to receive and transmit a force of energy in sound that to call it “divine” would be far too inadequate for the gift he and others possessed as individuals who acted as intermediaries between the mundane reality and a heightened existence. Jacqueline compared Dupré to her father, finding the older master to be an architect whereas Marchal was the poet.
Marchal had instruction from three pupils of César Franck and mentioned that they all gave varying advice on organ registration, so he combined it and added his own way into the mix. Let’s compare how both Dupré and Marchal play the beginning of Franck’s Prelude Fugue and Variation with Dupré in 1927 at Queens Hall, London:
and by Marchal in 1958 at St Eustache, Paris:
Just as Jacqueline tirelessly led her father around, she continued to see that his art remained within grasp. We once retrieved and published André Marchal’s first recordings.
On the CD is Questa fanciulla by the early organ Italian composer Landini (1325 or 1335-1397). Two voices appear: One appears to be engaged in prayer while the other indulges in a colorful narrative.
The French composer Poulenc, a few years younger than Marchal, said that he had the best ear in Paris. Marchal was born blind and said that it did not trouble him too much, as he had no idea of what was missing and everyone was so kind to him and loved his art.
I write these lines this morning on learning of Jacqueline’s death this past Saturday, April 21, 2012.
– ©Allan Evans/Arbiter of Cultural Traditions