The 'Affaire Plon'

This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

Albert Doufourmantelle

It is about time the public knew about the attempted bombing of the organ at St. Augustin-les-trois-Pantalons, Paris, by a splinter group of the FGEOC - La Force Gouvernementale de l'Eliminaton des Orgues Contemporaines.

Well, the incident in question took place in May 1968 - a period, you will remember, of considerable student unrest in France. It was also a period of great unrest in the French organ world. The rise of the Organ Section of the Ministry of Culture had been quite a phenomenon since the Second World War. Its leader was the controversial organ historian Albert Doufourmantelle, who had systematically (and, during the war, secretly) recorded the location of all the surviving 'antiquated' pedalboards in France. As soon as he entered the Ministry in 1949 he started on a campaign to bring all organs in French churches under the direct control of the State. This was achieved by the summer of 1954, but it was not until 1960 that Doufourmantelle was able to institute a programme of government funding to cover the replacement of all the old pedalboards with new German pedals manufactured by Rotring-le-Pen of Strasbourg (in which firm Doufourmantelle was reputed to have a financial interest).

This programme caused geat distress all over rural France, where the intellectual hegemony of Paris was by no means taken for granted. Indeed, in the beautiful cathedral city of Comminges, eighty kilometres south-west of Limoges, the Loi de 5 juin 1954 scored its first cause celebre. You will recall that Comminges Cathedral contains a small but perfect example of the work of Jean-Christian Merveillard, built in 1779 and (according to the copious church records) only tuned once in the whole of the nineteenth century. When the representatives of Rotring-le-Pen arrived in town, word quickly spread. The organist of the cathedral was of course Auguste Plon, the last surviving member of a family who had served the cathedral as musicians for as long as history recorded. He was taught to play the organ, not at one of the famous Paris colleges, but by his father Georges, who had been taught by his father Alphonse - and so-on through the generations. As late as 1962, therefore, the Merveillard organ could still be heard, Sunday by Sunday, being played by an ancien regime organist who had been trained in the tradition of Couperin, and for whom Guilmant, Bonnet and Widor were shadowy modern figures from Paris.

Mme. Plon was out shopping one morning when she recognised one of Rotring's men in the patisserie. She ran back home at once, put her husband to bed (where she felt he would be less likely to get confused - he was 84) and then hurtled to the cathedral, not even pausing to put down her shopping. She then stood at the door to the tribune trying valiantly to beat off the troops of Rotring-le-Pen with loaves of bread and egg-plants. She was quickly overcome with exhaustion and collapsed into a pew. The massed forces of Rotring-le-Pen (consisting of Robert-Pierre Caillou, his son Armand, and a small terrier called Milou) then marched up the stairs to the organ and began work (Caillou had the changeover down to a fine art and was propping up the bar at the Hotel Gare by lunchtime).

Meanwhile, Mme. Plon was in a distressed state and immediately went to stay with her sister in Niort without having the heart to tell her husband what had happened. He got out of bed later in the day, long after the Caillou team had departed, and went to the cathedral as usual to practice. When he saw the pedalbard, he had a stroke and died at once. This awful incident has been known as the Affaire Plon ever since. To appreciate the full intensity of the drama you should understand that in Comminges it was assumed that Doufourmantelle's men in the ministry had all been Vichyiste during the war, and that allowing Rotring (from Alsace) into the heartlands of France was tantamount to giving in to the Germans. M. & Mme. Plon had no children of their own, and the next titulaire at Comminges was a young man from the Conservatoire at Lyon - but I digress.

The Affaire Plon completely changed the face of the French organ world. Doufourmantelle made no comment, but his deputies at the Ministry let it be known that, although the death of Auguste Plon was undeniably a great tragedy and although the circumstances were most unfortunate, it would of course be most inappropriate to suggest a causal link betwen the replacement of the antiquated pedalboard at Comminges cathedral and M. Plon's death - he was after all 84, suffered periodically from the traditional crise de foie (or gross over-indulgence, as we would call it in the english-speaking world) and, as the post-mortem showed, he had a dicky ticker.

Whatever Doufourmantelle may have wished to convey to the public, the effect of Plon's death was to mobilise public opinion against the Loi de 5 Juin 1954, and several pressure groups were formed independently of each other to try and combat the nefarious activities of the Ministry. For the time being the Ministry still held all the cards. The contracts for replacement of pedalboards had already been let to Rotring-le-Pen, the pressure groups were disparate and disorganised, and where they did manage to influence officials the natural inertia of French beaureaucracy prevented any decisive action from being taken. Basically all that happened was that shoulders were shrugged in high places.

So, throughout the middle sixties, from the death of Plon in 1962, the programme continued. Robert-Pierre Caillou still toured the country with a stock of Laukhuff pedalboards in his van, uncannily managing to appear quietly in sleepy cathedral towns at just the time that the titulaire had taken four day's vacation in Honfleur or La Rochelle, regularly bribing easily-influenced clergy to provide him with a key, and even - to the disgust of everyone - working during the month of August.

Armand Caillou's workshop

It is difficult to tell whether matters would ever have come to a head had it not been for the social disturbances of 1968. During this period of considerable unrest, with the threat of mob rule in Paris always lurking in the shadows, the government was obliged to make far-reaching moves to appease public opinion. This was achieved in the normal French manner: senior figures in several government departments resigned in high dudgeon and with high-profile public hand-wringing, only to be re-appointed quietly in other offices the following day. This meant a complete and sudden re-shuffle in several ministries, and in March 1968 the now quite elderly Doufourmantelle suddenly found himself transferred to the Ministry of Defence, where he started a programme to develop a deadly infra-sound weapon using a Contre-Bombarde about 72 feet long playing low BBBB.

The organ section of the Ministry of Culture was taken over by an undercover group of socialists who had been hiding in the Ministry of Transport (where they had ensured the right of all French motorists, regardless of social standing, to proceed unfettered by hierarchical and class-influenced notions of right of way - in other words they enshrined in a series of new laws the extraordinary notion of priorité à droite, whereby any farmer pushing a handcart out of a field on the right side of the road has priority over a semi-trailer hurtling towards it at seventy miles per hour).

Though socialist attitudes to any surviving relics of the ancien régime varied a great deal, the Affaire Plon was seen as an example of the State crushing the genuine cultural aspirations of the people, and the connections between Plon, the Merveillard organ at Comminges, and the Couperin tradition (on the one hand) with the old world of kings and courtiers (on the other) was conveniently overlooked. The new team at the ministry worked hard to reverse previous decisions, rapidly becoming known in the radical press as the Tuyeau Rouge. Contracts issued to Rotring-le-Pen were rescinded, and in their place came a general edict ordering the replacement of all pedalboards installed under the Loi de 5 juin 1954 with authentic French toe-pedals (all to be installed by the firm of Marchearrière at Roissy-les-Champignons).

Meanwhile in Strasbourg the shadowy organ-building concern of Rotring-le-Pen was plunged into disarray. The owner, Jean-Luc Rotring, summoned his entire staff (Robert-Pierre Caillou, his son Armand and the dog Milou) to a crisis meeting (the company had been surviving on pedalboard relacements for the last fourteen years and there was no other work in the offing). Rotring put the firm into voluntary liquidation, and transferred the remaining contracts to a new company of which Armand and Milou were the directors. It was named Pretzel after the pedigree wire-haired terrier from whose litter Milou came. Thus Caillou and the équipe pédalier were able to continue their nefarious work under the cloak of a new and innocent-seeming name, at least in those places where the new regime at the Ministry of Culture had failed to cancel the existing contracts.

As a final act of defiance, Doufourmantelle emerged briefly from the Ministry of Defence to act as consultant for the rebuilding of the organ at St. Augustin-les-Trois-Pantalons in a quiet residential area of Paris (just off the Rue Ste. Dominique in the 15e arrondissment), knowing full well that, as a church established privately by special law in 1710, it was outside the juristiction of the Ministry.

St. Augustin - the organ

Just how distinguished the organ was is now a matter for debate only, as the Pretzel rebuild left little of the original material available for the perusal of modern scholars. Those who supported the new wave of thinking asserted its origins as an instrument by Entrecôte dating from the second decade of the 18th century, despite the provision of a new case, some new soundboards, a number of new pipes and a new key action at various times in the 19th century. Those who supported Doufourmantelle pointed simply to the fact that the organ had not been in working order since the siege of Paris in 1870.

St. Augustin - the organ before restoration

In a defiant move Doufourmantelle entrusted the complete reconstruction of the organ, on modern neo-classical lines, to the Pretzel firm. The ministry was technically powerless to intervene. However, two young students employed as clerical staff in the organ section of the ministry (Alain Vériteaux and Paulette Chemise) saw a way to advance their cause. They secretly diverted two month's publicity budget into the formation of the FGEOC - la Force Gouvernementale Contre les Orgues Contemporaines. Their sole campaign was against the Pretzel rebuild at St. Augustin - but how remarkable it was!

The work at St. Augustin had started quickly in early May 1968 with Robert-Pierre Caillou and Armand throwing most of the old organ over the gallery front, while awaiting the arrival of several large crates of new material from Hertz van Rentaal (the Dutch pipemakers) and other internationally recognised organ supply houses. These were stored in the nave while the Pretzel gang cleared away the debris. Meanwhile Vériteaux and Chemise, with the help of friendly students then manning barricades on the left bank, made a number of small petrol bombs, the intention being to set fire to the new organ before it could be erected. The fire station in the Rue Ste. Dominique were sympathetic (Paulette's father, Claude Chemise, was the local fire chief) and the attack was timed to happen during their afternoon nap, so that the firemen could conveniently arrive too late to save the organ but in time to rescue the church.

On the day in question Vériteaux and Chemise loaded the petrol bombs into a shopping basket which they placed in the back of their tiny Renault car. The basket also contained a large glass jar of home-made fish soup which Paulette's mother had made for her husband, insisting that if Alain and Paulette could possibly leave it in a confessional at the church then Claude could pick it up later in the day and have it for his supper.

Mme. Chemise's fish soup, made to a provenĀ”al recipe, was famous for its strength. The process of making it was very similar to that required to make glue. Large quantities of unattractive looking sea-dwelling creatures were ground to a pulp and boiled for a day or so, most of the flavour being provided by the lavish introduction of saffron. The unmistakable fiery soupe de poissons kickback came from the twenty-five cloves of fresh garlic.

What actually happened that afternoon is still a matter for dispute, but witnesses aver that when the FGEOC Strike Force drove into the Place Pantalon at about half-past two that afternoon, the diminutive Renault was involved in a minor traffic accident in the centre of the square. Some claim that the impact may have broken the jar of fish soup and suggest that there was some kind of chemical reaction. Anyway, far from causing damage to the parts of the Pretzel organ standing in the church a few metres away, the bombs detonated inside the car. As the Renault disappeared in a cloud of acrid black smoke two figures were seen running towards the Metro, both of them drenched in some evil-smelling yellow liquid - presumably the remains of the soup.

Thus, sadly, the FGEOC was thwarted. The Pretzel organ was duly assembled and, after two and a half year's work and the intervention of several other organ building companies, it was eventually opened in the fall of 1970. It was there, of course, that Doufourmantelle recorded the complete works of Abdab Slakiesoyawiscz on the Musique de nos Temps label (MT0002 - now deleted from the catalogue). The organ has not been heard much since; indeed after 1971 it became increasingly unreliable and, like its predecessor it has now lapsed into silence. The activities of the FGEOC are unofficially enshrined in a pair of photographs of the activists pasted on the wall of the Bar Pantalon across the square. Alain and Paulette moved to Lille and married, where they now pursue a career in music and take an active interest in local politics. Doufourmantelle died in 1973 at his country estate outside Paris.

St. Augustin - the organ after restoration

French organ-building today remains divided between the modernists and the traditionalists, and it is worth remembering the political roots of this division. Any company today that makes pedalboards a la francaise owes its acceptance to the pioneering work of the Tuyeau Rouge and the glorious sacrifice of Alain Vériteaux and Paulette Chemise. Those - and they are getting fewer and fewer - who still pay attention to the needs of the wider repertoire and are prepared to provide the internationaly accepted 'German' pedalboard, represent the last vestiges of the tyrranical influence of Albert Doufourmantelle.

Armand Caillou now runs a small garage and second-hand car business near Lille. His father died of liver failure a few years ago. The dog was run over by a bus.