Pauloni in Paris

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

Part 3

The social position of a great French Organiste Titulaire is not to be under-estimated.

The first consummate shaker and mover that I can identify under such a title - the earliest known garrulous, sociable, letter-writing, party throwing, good-time guy of the French Organ Scene - was of course Jean Titelouze. Apart from conducting regular correspondence with the notables of the day (he wrote often to Marin Mersenne, author of l'Harmonie Universelle - an exchange of views roughly comparable to the output of Piporg-l today), he was a man who attracted important visitors. As organist of the Cathedral at Rouen from 1588 until his death in 1633, he took it on himself to set a standard of musical output so high that it revolutionised the art in France. He invited the Flemish craftsman Crespin Carlier to rebuild the organ at Rouen, an event cited by experts as being of critical importance. The contacts made as a result of this were far-reaching: that other great Flemish organ-building family, the Langhedulls, are implicated in the story, and personally I have a romantic notion that Titelouze was responsible for introducing the young French builder Valerin de H»man to Crespin Carlier's daughter Elizabeth. From that union hangs a tale which involves the Scotsman William Leslie and perhaps even the Howe and Dallam families, but for this series of links there is no documentary evidence whatever (I know that my critics are ready to denounce my view of this period as hopelessly rose-tinted).

By the time of the Couperins the status of the organist was unchallengable. In the eighteenth century Paris was thronging with the noble and the chic as it has been ever since, and in a society dominated by God and the King the position of titulaire at a great church was an elevated one indeed. And of course French churches are often awe-inspiringly large. France has few small churches, as are found by the hundred in the villages of rural England, in the market towns of Friesland, or in the wooded dales of Saxony. From the point of view of the architectural historian France is blessed with all the most spectacular monuments of Romanesque and Gothic art; us organ-snoopers may note the fabulous acoustics and the stately west galleries or tribunes. These Occidental podia are furnished with truly resplendent monuments: organs built to make manifest a subconscious idea that every gesture of sacred liturgy at one end of the building should be mirrored by something ostentatiously worldly at the other.

And thus in a society where Versailles's Hall of Mirrors in just one more game in which the whole is revealed as a reflection of its parts, so the relationship between God and King has its exact parallel in that between the French Clergy and their Organists.

The titulaire: a courtier sitting (and wearing his sword) at the organ. The organ is the world under his command, and around his throne he assembles his court. Members of his immediate family are granted access to him, as are a number of personal friends and confidants. A few select favourites and illegitimate children posing as favourites are allowed to share his private moments. There are visitors from abroad and others on whom an impression must be made. And then there are various counsellors, office-holders and minor noblemen who make themselves indispensable and jostle for position.

For as long as history relates, the organiste titulaire has been allowed to assemble his court round him as he accompanies the Holy Office: a ceremonial levé during which the courtiers may admire his talent, talk amongst themselves, read the Sunday paper, and pass round chocolates. Modern travellers' tales certainly indicate that this was roughly how it was done by Widor at St.Sulpice, and I am told by those who know Proust's great A la Récherce du Temps Perdu that the whole phenomenon is aired there as a cameo. I have seen a trace of it in every French organ-gallery I have visited. Even on a sunny afternoon at Poitiers, scrambling round the inside of the Clicquot with Jean-Albert Villard, he continued to address me as though I was a public meeting.

Visitors at St. Sulpice

Our experience on arriving at St. Mustache was entirely typical. In the gloomy shadow under the gallery huddled three groups. The Equipe Pauloni, previously described. Closest to the West Door and well dressed: family. At the foot of the first pillar of the nave and badly dressed: pupils. The west door opened suddenly to admit our host, M. Jean Bouillon. It also admitted Mme. Violette Bouillon who was leading her husband by his outstretched hand. The family were greeted first with hugs and repeated kissing. The party then advanced towards our group: hands were shaken and formal introductions were made (during the course of which we suspiciously weighed up the linguistic skills of the opposing team). Finally the pupils were waved towards us and we made for the stairs.

Spread out into a single, spiral, ascending line, the party was in animated conversation at the front and gloomy silence at the back. Progress ground to a halt several times. From the giggles and shrieks above us and some snatches of feminine voices I gathered that a heel had come off a shoe somewhere above us. I couldn't see as Pauloni's fur coat made sight redundant. Somewhere behind us in the gloom Sister Muriel was passing out Camels to the pupils. By the time we got to the top of the stairs the family had run round to the console and taken the five chairs with the best view and the individual foot-warmers, and the pupils were dizzy from smoking in a congested space and from marching round in circles. We did not allow the family to enjoy their early success for long; I encouraged Pauloni to make a determined advance towards the treble end of the console, and in the rearrangement that followed the electric fires were much more evenly distributed.

In the rearrangement that followed the electric fires were much more evenly distributed

As I really ought to concentrate on Bouillon and his playing I will not bore you with much more descriptive material except to make a few observations.

The chairs were of the usual French stick-and-raffia variety, with three long legs and one short one, and loose joints that creaked loudly at every movement. They were also only three-quarters the normal size and left me with splinters. I found myself sitting with Mme Bouillon pressed closely to my right shoulder. That I was sitting in the place normally reserved for her was clear from the fact that I had an uninterrupted view of her husband and an exceptionally good supply of heat from a two-bar fire in front of me (though Madame Bouillon contrived to move it a foot towards her during the course of Mass, without my noticing how she did it). That it was Mme. Bouillon's seat was also clear from the fact that I had her sister, Clementine Bonchic, pressed firmly against my left shoulder. For the next hour and a half they spoke in French to each other, stopping only at those moments when their dear male relative was required to play. Submerged in bits of casually flung cashmere scarf and as much ignored as the dormouse at the Mad Hatter's Tea-Party, I nevertheless managed to get a good impression of Bouillon himself.

If Messiaen's music is full of birdsong then surely Bouillon is the bird itself. Beaky nose, small piercing eyes, grey upper plumage gathering in elegant ear-like tufts on either side of his head, smart glossy appearance, and a habit of rapid gesture, of repeated small trills and flourishes in his movement. When he moves you subconsciously look for his tail feathers. When he is not playing he turns round on the bench and perches there, his legs tidied up to one side, his hands clasped, and his sharp inquiring face darting from left to right. When it is time to play (which he divines by only the most cursory glance in a mirror) he turns quickly to the keys; his claw-like hands unfold and spread. The playing itself is extravagant, flamboyant and mesmerising, like the tail-feathers of a Peacock.

Before mass M.Bouillon gave a recital entirely of the works of Jean-Sébastien Bach, a composer so thoughly adopted and made over by grander French organists as to have become an honorary citizen of the République. Indeed I did not recognise any of the works Bouillon performed, each of which was subjected to some bizarre stylish whim. One chorale prelude was treated as a derisory and skittish etude, in which half the notes were played and the other half indicated by an approximate stab of the finger. Another emerged as a lugubrious song by Duparc. There was a prelude and fugue too, I do not remember which.

In fact of course one does not visit Bouillon to hear him play Bach: it is the improvisation that is of the greatest interest.

Now it is rather too easy to laugh at improvisation, particularly at modern improvisation. All of us imagine we could do it too: just sit at the keys, draw some unlikely stops, and off you go. Doesn't matter what notes you hit, the odder the better. Bouillon certainly makes it look easy, and the sounds that emerge are bizarre and confront the ear in every respect.

For the opening of mass on Sunday 5th January the recipe was roughly this as far as I could tell:

1) Draw all the harmonic flutes 16', 8', 4' on the whole organ. 2) Couple everything 3) Play an enourmous widely spaced broken-chord figuration on the G.O. vaguely indicating a key-centre but repeatedly piling up towers of 4th, 5ths, 6ths and 9ths that suggest the remaining eleven notes of the antiphon for the day. 4) Then play the antiphon in thirty-second notes on the bass of the Solo Ranquette 16' 5) Repeat as required

Roughly the same effect could be obtained by leaving a lot of xylophones out in a hail storm with a duck quacking from time to time.

It continued in like vein. There was a highly characteristic moment in a later improvisation where Bouillon returned again and again to the one note on the Voix humaine that was most out of tune - quite charming.

Now I have ruthlessly lampooned everything so far, even Bouillon's improvisation, but in truth I am actually wildly impressed. The French believe in the power of inspiration and they have instinct for art. Their contribution to the visual arts is a phenomenon. When a French organist offers you the equivalent, in musical terms, of a Picasso, it is worth listening to. Bouillon's portrait of Bach is mostly blue and both eyes are on the same side of the nose. It is kind of fascinating but repellent. However, Bouillon's abstracts are wonderfully electrifying. In his improvisation the level of invention is maintained without a break. Each idea is presented in its pure form and there is not a single relapse into development or mere bridgework (both bottomless pits for most English-speaking improvisers). I do not entirely understand what I hear Bouillon playing, but I implicitly trust his taste and the authority of his position as a well-educated Frenchman. If he does something it has style. Moreover I recognise it at once as being a valid part of my picture of 20th century France.

The indication of a line of descent from Titelouze is, of course, fancy on my part. But perhaps there is a grain of truth in the idea. Even before him, in the 16th century, a French organ builder hoped to imitate:- 'the trembling voices of the Pilgrims who sing on their way to Compostela', 'the fifes and drum sounding as in a battle', and 'bagpipes sounding like a shepherd in the fields'

Is this not exactly the point of modern French improvisation today? It is a picture, a reflection, of the contemporary world. For me Bouillon's playing is part of the French vision of the future, constructivist and dynamic. Perhaps Bouillon is not real at all; perhaps he is in fact an extraordinary automaton invented and constructed by the City of Paris simply to fulfill a clear public need.

Now the other great machine constructed by the City of Paris to fulfill a clear public need is, of course, the organ of St. Mustache. When I last wrote about this instrument I had not played it or been inside it. However, M. Bouillon was kind enough to allow us some time to ourselves after Mass and, locked into the by now empty church, the three organ-builders (Brad, Horatio and myself) made a tour of inspection.

(While we were doing so Pauloni accompanied our efforts by performing excerpts from Verdi on the organ, singing several of the rôles himself, and Sister Muriel made herself busy in the side chapels hiding some of the smaller frontals, candlesticks and reliquaries in her capacious habit.)

After half an hour of climbing by different tortuous routes through the extensive and complex interior, I met Brad at the very top level of the organ, where he was examining a very neo-classical looking Schalmei fitted (by Bouillon himself, we had learned) with bits of plastic pipe held on with sellotape. We sat on the passage-board in front of the Chamades (supplied with no less than six different pressures from a ludicrous spaghetti of ductwork), moved aside the two dozen pipes which had been temporarily removed and were lying around (another experiment?) and compared notes. We then returned to the console where Horatio peformed a few quick aural tests at the keys (an observer would have thought he was trying the touch): these told us all we needed to know about how the voicers had approached their work.

The trompettes-en-chamade in the organ at St. Mustache

Having made one attempt in writing to describe the magnificent new Hertz van Rentaal organ at St. Mustache I am reluctant to duplicate my efforts. Indeed nothing that we saw on this occasion made any great new impression, rather confirming that this was a solid enough piece of equipment and that it was in no danger of falling down. Furthermore the earlier performance of our host left us in no doubt that the instrument was fulilling every reasonable demand that could be made on it - and some unreasonable ones besides. We might have commented on the noise of the action and of the keys (We might have commented on the fact that the interior of the sound-deadening box containing four barker machines was made, most beautifully, of hard-lacquered mahogany-faced plywood - a surprising choice). However, against the competing voices of the heating system (tepid air, force-fed into the church from a noisy ventilator in the Metro below), the lights (arc lamps of some hideous description emitting a mournful hum), and the hubbub both at the conole and in the church below, Bouillon clearly found the mechanical noise made by the organ to be only a minor distraction. Inside the organ, despite the intriguing names engraved on the stop-handles ('Théorbe II'; 'Grande Neuvième 1 7/9' etc), we had found only organ pipes of conventional kinds, some large, some small.

On the tonal side I would add only three remarks.

First, during the tests at the console we made a point of listening to whether the multiple pressure system had been used to good effect (all divisions have increasing wind pressure in the treble, at least three different pressures for each manual, six in the case of the trompeteria mentioned above). I could not hear any quality in the treble of either flutes or reeds that would distinguish the result singificantly from an organ normally constructed. Indeed I could hear much less development in the treble than in any organ by Cavaillé-Coll, who in fact only very rarely applied this much-quoted technique.

Secondly, the organbuilders kindly supplied an additional 32' reed at their own expense, as they felt that the existing one was not loud enough. I could not in fact tell any significant difference between the two, and have heard many 32' reeds louder than either of them, not all of them on a high pressure of wind.

Thirdly, in my opinion the one stop in the organ which is most remarkable for musical tone is the Cor de bassett 8 on the Grand-Choeur, given to the former organist Joseph Bonnet by Henry Willis III. As an ardent Francophile I can assure you that this choice implies no national bias.

Enough about the organ. Pauloni had arranged that we should stay late at the organ and it became clear after a while that he might have a reason for doing so. By about nine o'clock in the evening I had long since finished finding things to look at, and spent a little while persuading Sister Muriel to put back some of the more obviously priceless treasures she had looted from the darkened chapels. It was horribly cold and black in the church, and on fumbling our way back to the west end, I had a sudden and unexpected encounter with the fur coat. I supressed a yelp. Pauloni's eyes glinted in the dark.

'We are to meet for dinner a most important ......'

...he paused for a moment, searching for the right words, and then said in French:

'.... une collègue trés chère.'

At that moment we could hear a door open somewhere in the darkness nearby. I could see no-one, but could hear footsteps coming towards me. The steps were quick and precise, the shoes small and hard. They clicked, and their myriad echoes came back to me from the hidden vault above. I took my pocket torch and shone it towards the noise.

Standing in front of me was a beautiful young lady.

(to be continued)

Part IV