Pauloni in Paris

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

Part 6

You will have wondered how on earth our party could have installed themselves in the Hotel Récamier without apparently taking the slightest notice of the church that dominates the view from the windows: St. Sulpice. Any query you may have had will now be answered, for on the evening of Monday 6th January we paid our respects to the ghosts of Léfébure-Wely, Widor and Dupré in the form of a visit to the largest organ in France. We were the guests of the organiste titulaire ma”tre Daniel Roth, whose kindness on this occasion demands that he appears here under his real name.

We returned to the Hotel as darkness fell and, after we had bathed and changed, we walked out into the square. So far I have only described the general character of the Place St. Sulpice. The church that dominates it was built as a showpiece in the early 17th century, and in style it bridges the gap between late Renaissance and early Baroque. The composition is entirely Classical, but, like St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the structure owes much to the Gothic. The facade consists of superimposed orders of columns, rising towards a pair of flanking towers. It looks curiously like something left behind by the Romans, an impression enhanced by the fact that the south tower does not match the north one, and was in fact never finished. Walking under the portico we were awed by the scale: though this is only a parish church it is unusually magnificent.

On this occasion there were two parties waiting in the sepulchral gloom: the Equipe Pauloni on the one hand, and, on the other, a group of students from the Conservatoires of Paris and Lyon, led by the organist of St. Sernin in Toulouse. When M. Roth arrived he immediately made us all welcome, and quickly bridged the gap between the two teams by talking volubly in both English and French at once.

Daniel Roth has ingeniously side-stepped the issue of having to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors, by retaining exactly the impression of delighted amazement he must have had at the moment he first learned of his appointment. When you meet him it is perfectly clear that he is as excited to play this instrument day by day as anyone could be to do so just once. This is undoubtedly the prize organ post in Paris: better opportunities for music than at Notre Dame, a much better organ (at least in recent times) and far fewer tourists! When you learn from M. Roth's own lips that he comes from Alsace it is all the more wonderful that he has been honoured with this great Paris appointment.

Overseas observers rejoiced when the decision was made. In his previous position at the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in Montmatre. M. Roth rescued the reputation of the large four-manual organ there (once believed to be Mutin 1919), proved that it was in fact a Cavaillé-Coll of 1898 acquired second-hand (and moreover a twin the to the organ in Sheffield Town Hall destroyed by fire in 1937), and supervised a successful and conservative renovation by Renaud of Nantes.

At St. Sulpice the organ had not sounded really good in living memory. Many frailities of winding and mechanism rendered the sound disordered and chaotic. It was difficult to tell why so much fuss was made over it. Jean Renaud has now worked a similar transformation at St. Sulpice: the restoration was completed in 1991. Again M. Roth's supervision of the project has been minute but practical: the entire Clicquot / Cavaillé-Coll organ has been preserved with its Barker mechanisms; useful later additions (e.g. the metal pedal principals) have been retained; nothing new has been added. All is more or less as it should be.

We know that under Widor the cult of organist was something of a phenomenon, to the extent that there is even a small sitting room behind the organ where the titualire can receive visitors in red and gold chairs. However, the very urbane approach to hospitality is probably inherited from Léfébure-Wely, who was by character eminently beau-monde and, of course, would have had the world beating at the door in the first years after the Cavaillé-Coll rebuild had been completed.

Daniel Roth, as a citizen of the provinces, regards this archetypical Parisian socialising as a remarkable phenomenon in its own right - just as I do. In fact I am sure that he would immediately recognise my tongue-in-cheek description of events at St. Mustache in Part Three. He therefore plays, with great scholarship and enthusiasm, the role of curator.

So it was that the joint party, strung out in single-file in the narrow passage behind the organ, listened patiently as M. Roth described the instrument to us, first in French, and then all over again in English. The documents on the walls, some of them fascinating long-lost originals, formed poignant illustrations to his tale. My only regret was that we were not allowed to view the interior, though we did have an opportunity to peer through a dusty glazed opening 18" x 4" at the back of an unlit Barker machine.

We then had about an hour and a half of music, mostly the students playing while M. Roth explained to them the workings of the five-manual amphitheatre-form console. As well as the usual fonds / anches divisions, controlled by ventil pedals, there is also a blind pneumatic pre-set to each division of the organ, controlled by a stop knob. With a bit of thought and ingenuity, it is possible to prepare in advance for a whole series of complex registration changes - cumbersome but effective.

Brad and I were at first a little disappointed. Both of us knew Roth's reputation as an improviser, and I had even asked him whether he could remember the stunning improvisation on a theme by Brahms, recorded at Sacré-Coeur shortly after the restoration there (in which he had not only used Franck's harmonic language, but also exactly the range of architectural and development devices that Franck and Brahms have in common). In fact he only played some short demonstrations of a fairly ordinary character, before leaving the students to do battle with the console. We retired to various vantage points to listen.

I do not know what happened to the others, but I was very cold and went downstairs. There was a little heat in the church, so I decided to work out where it was coming from. It did not take long to find delightful warm updraughts issuing from a series of iron gratings in the floor of the nave. I chose the one immediately in front of the altar steps and lay down on it, on my back, and propped up my head with a kneeler.

The view from the heating grille

Gradually, despite the music starting and stopping, the organ began to speak to me. One by one, I heard many of the features that Roth had enumerated to us, features which make this organ quite unique.

Cavaillé-Coll was engaged to rebuild the existing organ, largely Clicquot, but already tampered with by Daublaine & Callinet. After the project had started, he decided quite independently that he would reconstruct it from top to bottom as a 100-stop showpiece, and did so. He was out on a limb, risking everything.

Given his twin triumphs at St. Denis and La Madeleine this seems a little unnecessary. Had he not already proved that he was the finest builder that France had seen since the Revolution? Could he not now rest on his laurels?

In fact his ambition was to assume, as quickly as possible, the position of Finest Organ Builder in the Whole World. Soon after finishing the organ for La Madeleine the young Cavaillé-Coll left Paris for a tour of Europe, taking in the work of Walcker, Bätz, Hill, Willis and others. At St. Omer in 1855 he changed his style completely: this organ, though a rebuild of an 18th century instrument, owed a great deal to his trip - in fact the similarity between it and the 1830 Bätz in Utrecht Cathedral is unmistakable. St. Denis and La Madeleine owed much to French tradition; in the latter organ the mixtures were straight out of Dom Bédos. At St. Omer the approach is suddenly more north European; it has an international air.

However, St. Omer is definitely not Paris (and its organ is, even now, less well known than it ought to be). At St. Sulpice Cavaillé-Coll decided to contribute his version of that great talking-point of the day: the 100 stop organ.

Even so, he could not afford to replace everything, and to this day 40 per cent of the pipework is by Francois-Henri Clicquot. This would not have dismayed Cavaillé-Coll too much: he could hardly have inherited material more famous or of better quality. As in other rebuilds he was also happy to allow the old material to make its own tonal contribution: it was rearranged and tidied up, but not revoiced wholesale. So (as was 'discovered' at the recent restoration), he was happy to keep the old Positif plein-jeu, with its two Clicquot mixtures. These stops, standing on their original eighteenth-century soundboard, now form part of the jeux de fonds of the Récit (and that, in case you ever wondered, explains why they are on the fonds section not the anches).

As far as the sound of the organ is concerned, I could enumerate some of the voices on the four manual departments housed within the mighty neo-classical case (a temple front of 32' basses designed by Chalgrin). I could point out the Récit in the tower wall high above the organ, forming (with its 18th century upperwork) an enclosed Oberwerk. None of this would convey much in the way of real magic.

In fact nothing I can say here will tell you just how peerless a masterpiece Cavaillé-Coll created: a chef d'ouevre that has shrugged off various minor alterations, and retains a completely unique musical character. It is easy to dwell on the enormity of the construction, or to mention the fact that the mechanism alone occupies enough space to house another ten or twelve smaller instruments, or just to remark on the sheer number of ranks. None of this would give any impression of musical quality. If you have been kind enough to follow this account of our expedition to Paris so far, and have allowed me some credit for observation, then I ask you also to take my word for it that the organ at St. Sulpice stands head and shoulders above any other I know for pure musical quality. It stands in relation to other instruments in the same aspect as they do to fairground organs. It is beyond compare.

I hope that the St. Sulpice sound is familiar to some of you from visits or recordings. On this occasion I will describe only four points, one general and three particular.

First, the tutti. Big organs in Britain and America reach fortissimo by the addition of a handful of super-powerful stops: big pedal basses, big diapasons, big solo reeds. At St Sulpice the tutti consists of five complete and balanced manual division coupled together (plus the pedal): in each division the foundation stops, mutations, mixtures and reeds are voiced at a common level of power, all between mp and f. Only the single, part-horizontal, high-pressure Trompette 8 on the Solo, and the pedal reeds, fall into the ff category. This tutti is a sound of unbelievable complexity: the ear hears so many consituent components that the mind is dazzled. It is quite impossible to follow exactly what is going on (though the music itself is always clear): in quantity alone the effect is quite overwhelming.

Secondly, the complete uniqueness of the sound is demonstrated in the relationship of the Récit to the rest of the instrument. Most of the organ is housed in the 18th century case, which is terribly heavy and takes a good deal of edge off the tone. The Récit, on the other hand, is right out in the open, at the top level of the organ, about 80 feet from the ground, and speaking into the apex of the stone barrel-vault. It could hardly have better projection. As it also contains both a Fourniture and a Cymbale by Clicquot, it is remarkably brilliant. In the tutti the swell box may be opened and closed to great effect: there is no change in power, but the character is subtly transformed. The emergence of a butterfly from a chrysalis could hardly be more extraordinary.

Thirdly, the general musical quality is demonstrated in the countless foundation stops. There are forty-three ranks at 16', 8' and 4' pitches on the manuals. In most normal organs these would include some fillers, some also-rans, and some errors of judgement. At St. Sulpice all are consistently wonderful. Even the eight harmonic flutes (a seemingly wasteful duplication) manage to be lastingly charming despite their obvious affinity with each other.

Fourthly, and defying categorisation, the machine de grêle. In addition to the usual thunder pedal, or orage (holding down, in succession, the lowest notes on the pedal), Cavaillé-Coll provided here a hail machine, consisting apparently, of a handful of gravel trapped in a rotating wooden drum. The effect is indescribable.

In my opinion the quality of finish described in my third illustration is maintained throughout the organ. More importantly still, though much time has been spent on the beauty of each voice, it is clear that just as much thought and energy has been spent, in the building, incorporating every stop into the overall musical scheme. The fuss that the French once made over the art of harmonisation is fully justified: no factory-made instrument ever sounded so good (and please remember that Cavaillé-Coll had a staff of only about sixty, and that he was very much more expensive than any of his rivals: they worked slowly and with an extravagant attitude to materials).

So it was that I lay on my heating grille in a state of relaxed contentment. There are very few organs in the world so good that they justify the amount of time and effort I put into studying them. At St. Sulpice stands one of the very best: I am certain that it challenges the finest works of Schnitger, Gottfried Silbermann and Clicquot. I have a private opinion that it is the best of the lot.

I am not given to unreserved admiration of anything. I am perfectly aware that I seem to have made the dangerous claim that the organ at St. Sulpice is the best in the world. I have reflected for a few minutes on this, and I am happy to let the argument stand.

(to be continued)

Part VII