Pauloni in Paris

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

Part 7

At the Hotel Récamier, on the morning of Tuesday 7th January, Nobilissime the Count Paulo Pauloni and his friends broke their fast. On the previous evening we had rounded off our activities with a visit to a nearby restaurant serving Provençal cuisine, where the food, wine, and service were equally delightful. The party was convivial, and we departed long after the sous-chef had started stacking the chairs on the tables. Tuesday morning, you will therefore understand, was commenced sotto voce, and I had time to reflect on what we were to see that morning: a visit had been organised to l'Eglise des Trois Personnes in the Boulevard Menilmontant. I fell into a reverie.

When I used to work for the old family firm of Keene and Catchpole in Stoke Newington, we had a near monopoly of the hire organ business in central London, and maintained a large fleet of portable instruments. Junior management honed their skills by arranging tuning competitions during the half-hour lunch break at the works: the object was to be the first to tune through a three-stop instrument, on your own, to a new pitch and temperament, while the rest of the staff banged their tea mugs on their benches and sang rowdy songs. The final result would be judged by old Mr. Godfrey Keene - who was always prepared to look kindly on accuracy as well as speed - and a league table was published every week.

With these abilities, a large concert hall swarming with recording technicians held no terrors for any of us, and we cornered the market. We also had a delivery van with a Porsche engine and employed a nephew of Sterling Moss to drive, which meant that we would be guaranteed to arrive at any destination at least ten minutes before Peter Collins or any of our other rivals.

We regarded the BBC promenade concerts as almost our own private territory, and I used to visit the Albert Hall often to tune one or more of these movable instruments. On one occasion, it must have been about 1984, the BBC had scheduled a concert where the second half consisted of a full performance of Daniel Purcell's long-lost masque 'Agapanthus'. As usual Keene & Catchpole were asked to provide organs: the metal-shop 'heavy gang' and I had installed and tuned three of them while the orchestra and choir were at lunch. We were just packing up to leave when the afternoon rehearsal started. If they had rehearsed the Purcell I doubt that I would have paid much attention; instead they started a full run through of the first half of the concert, and I listened transfixed.

The programme for the first half of that evening's Promenade Concert consisted of Marcel Oiseaux's Brouhaha, and this was my first encounter with the music of that great French Composer. For this mammoth work, completed in 1934, the symphony orchestra is swelled by a wordless choir, two independent teams of percussionists, and a Theremin. Anyone who has heard it live will know the impact it makes.

So, that was my introduction to the music of Oiseaux. In due course I also 'discovered' the organ music, especially the spectacular pre-war compositions Vision de l'Eternité and Entre les Etoiles (like everyone else admiring above all others the performances of Dame Evelyn Torrent). I even attended a performance of the famous Quattuor Apocalyptyque, and eventually found time to listen to the great cycle of piano meditations Les Allouettes (The Larks, 1951-7).

Les Allouettes, as you may know, is a musical recreation of the life-cycle of the common Lark, a bird which Oiseaux studied obsessively while imprisoned by the German occupying forces during the war. Of as much interest to ornithologists as it is to musicians, this great work is often described as one of the landmarks of post-war composition. Indeed the real Osieaux enthusiast will look forward to any performance of the complete cycle: few players have had the stamina to learn all seven books and such an event is rare.

For my own part - whether from stubborn narrow-mindedness or a low threshold of boredom - I have never found Les Alouettes half as interesting as the pre-war stuff. To tell the truth all Oiseaux's post-war music gets on my nerves. Pages and pages of mindless twittering, completely lacking the majesty, colour and rythmic impact that makes the music written in the 30s so very interesting. I have always wondered what on earth can have happened: was it really the same composer? Could the same man, who in 1936 had written the tempestuous finale to the organ symphony La Trinité, really have descended to the level of the interminably cooing La Colombe ('The Dove'), for solo recorder, of 1969?

So, the music of Marcel Oiseaux has always remained a bit of an engima to me. I am convinced that the later stuff is rambling, self-indulgent and vacuous. I have always hoped that the apparent quality of the early music shows that he was a truly great composer. It was, therefore, with great interest that I anticipated our visit to the Eglise des Trois Personnes at the top of the Boulevard Menilmontant, where, of course, Marcel Oiseaux was organiste titulaire from 1933 until his death in 1993.

The music of Marcel Oiseaux has always remained a bit of an engima to me

The journey to the fashionable 14e arrondissement was made in a trice by Metro, and by ten o'clock we were standing on the steps of the Church of the Three Persons. If ever there was a fashionable church, then this is it. Built by private subscription in the 1850s, it is furiously Italianate in style. However, somehow the Italian is not that of Rome, Florence or Venice, but that of a first-class Spa Hotel. It is both ornate and fussy, but without any redeeming trace of the academic. There is even a porte-cochère at the west end so that the nouveau-riche, arriving in their carriages in the full glare of the public eye, can enter the church without soiling their garments in the common thoroughfare.

We were to be met at the church by the present curator of the organ, M. Marcel Ouève. M. Ouève was trained as an organ builder, and divides his time between professional work as a tuner, as a recording engineer, and in the theatre. As an apprentice with the Nantes builders Bouchon-Derrière, he was sent to Les Trois Personnes when the 1863 Cavaillé-Coll was rebuilt under Marcel Oiseaux's direction in 1963. He is therefore an important part of the story, able to affirm that the precise tonal character of the organ as it stands today, is the result of Oiseaux's detailed instructions. He is crucial in determining the status of the instrument as a living testimony to Oiseaux's musical vision.

It was grey again on Tuesday, and snow was falling. Despite the weather, I could see up the Boulevard Menilmontant from the shelter of the porte-cochère. I noticed that one driver was more or less ignoring the build-up of early morning traffic - in typical Parisian manner overtaking the entire embouteillage on the wrong side of the road with his lights flashing. His errant if small vehicle then ploughed through two sets of red lights, scattering pedestrians left and right, skidded through the slush towards the church, and flew up the snowy ramp in front of us. It stopped three feet away, with the front wheels on the steps. It was M. Ouève.

Ouève greeted us effusively and, leaving his car steaming on the steps with the door open, he leapt ahead with the keys. We followed behind him, and in a moment or two we were at the console of the organ that Oiseaux had played nearly every Sunday for sixty years. Ouève was glad to tell us as much as he could of Oiseaux, of the organ, of the 1963 rebuild, and of his part in its completion and ongoing care. As he stood by the console, stubbing out cigarette after cigarette into a large ashtray, we were left in no doubt as to the fact that the sound of the organ, envisaged enirely by the maître and created to his instructions by the artistry of the firm of Bouchon-Derrière, encapsulated the true spiritual essence of Marcel Oiseaux. M. Ouève even demonstrated to us some of the typical improvisatory techniques used by Oiseaux, with their authentic registration.

After a few minutes Pauloni sat down to play, and the church was filled with music. Rather than playing more Oiseaux, the Count instead launched into the Reubke Sonata (which he plays from memory). This perhaps gave us a better opportunity to study the organ objectively. While Sister Muriel went downstairs and poked about the side chapels for nick-nacks, Brad, Horatio and I made our usual internal inspection. What kind of an organ had Oiseaux created?

I am afraid that I have to reply that he had created a very ordinary and dull organ. To a typical three-manual Cavaillé-Coll, perhaps comparable to Franck's instrument at Ste. Clothilde, Bouchon-Derrière had added an electro-pneumatic action and a new stop-tab console. They had also made various tonal alterations, enlarging the Positif with an extra section (enclosed), and adding mutations. Internal examination showed that the entire instrument had been revoiced, with the partial refacing of languid fronts, removal of slots, and eradication of nicking.

Despite this apparently neo-classical approach, the characteristic snappy attack of a Cavaillé-Coll was entirely absent. The pipes now all spoke slower.

As any French organ-builder will tell you, as soon as you convert a Cavaillé-Coll to any kind of 'modern' action, the fluework starts to spit. It is already voiced 'quick', i.e. with the languids low. For such pipework to speak, even on a slider chest, with the pallet opened by an internal motor, it must be revoiced slower. It is therefore impossible in any respect to imitate Cavaillé-Coll's voicing on an electro-pneumatic action, and any attempt so to do is a complete waste of time and money.

At l'Eglise des Trois Personnes the effect has been emasculating. The reeds are still fairly loud and hearty, but they have been made slower. The effect is steadier and more controlled than it would have been originally, but again the impact is missing. The fluework is rather lacking in character. Countless charming effects are available, all of them of a perfectly ordinary nature. None of them sound more than moderately French. Still more disappointing, however, is that the fluework is all rather softer than one would expect. It has been ruthlessly and thoroughly prettified.

I was devastated. I had hoped that the organ had been turned into a super-Cavaillé-Coll, one in which the noble vision of The Master Builder had been amplified with the Best of Modern Thinking. Far from it. The technical side of the rebuild had been handled well, though the console was rather cheap and ugly by English standards. The electro-pneumatic underactions were nicely made, though in style they were very much pre-war stuff - lots of polished oak and home-made switchgear gave it an 'antique' look. The voicing and finishing were both of consistently good quality.

However, the musical result was as disappointing as anything I have heard from the 1950s or 60s. What little classical influence had been allowed to creep in was of a purely token character. In fact the lowering of pressures, the loss of original attack, and the irritatingly smooth and pretty colours made this an instrument of very cautious and pedestrian late-romantic character. Apart from the reeds it was distinctly reminiscent (in intent, if not actually in tone) of a 1930s Rothwell.

I very quickly tired of listening to it, and explored some of the rooms behind the organ. I was deeply saddened. The experience had confirmed my dislike of twentieth century eclectic rebuilds which, whether they are classical or romantic, leave us with weak and characterless instruments. It confirmed my suspicion of electric actions: even as applied to slider chests they combine sloppy touch with attack-free voicing (unless you are prepared to stomach pipes which are both slow and chiff - which I am not). However, to my great sadness I found that this experience had also caused me to revise my opinion of Marcel Oiseaux. A great visionary? No; not consistently so. The Eglise des Trois Personnes gave me my clue to a new understanding of Oiseaux's ouevre. The first, early Oiseaux was indeed a prophet and visionary. However, at the start of the Second World war Oiseaux became a frightened and lonely man. This second Oiseaux wrote the extraordinary Quattuor Apocalyptyque, a vision of a bottomless void. After the war came a third Oiseaux, a frail shadow of a man for whom any loud noise was terrifying, and who retired into a private world of genteel twittering.

I found myself standing in the tower of the Church. I could hear the closing bars of the Reubke floating up the spiral stairs behind me. I remembered the occasion on which I had heard Felicity Lott sing Oiseaux's last work, the Acropolis songs, opus 239 of 1989. It opens with a single note played on the piccolo, after which the soprano, who plays the role of the Antiquities of Athens, sings the unforgettable words: 'J'ai perdu mes marbres' (I have lost my marbles).

Which was I to believe in? - the dynamic youth who had flung Brouhaha at an astonished world in 1934? - or the bewildered elderly gent who had ordered the rebuild of the organ below me and had given us Les Alouettes? The dilemma remained.

I looked up. In the near darkness above me I could see the looming shape of the bells. The bitter wind and the sounds of distant traffic contributed to my desolation. I considered the awful effect of war, particularly modern war, unleashed on a nation of great culture and sensitivity, and mourned its effect.

I could also hear a faint fluttering noise somewhere above me, and my trained ears picked up an occasional high-pitched squeak. As I turned back to the stairs to rejoin the party below, my spirits suddenly lifted and I laughed to myself.

I had seen bats in the belfry at the Church of the Three Persons.

(to be continued)