Isn’t it exciting how we don’t know about music until suddenly we do, and then we’re changed? I had no idea of the immensity or uniqueness of the French organ tradition: that is until I started listening to Titelouze, De Grigny, Marchand, and Couperin. Now I see that it’s a whole thing that still exists today, (Messiaen was an important modern figure). It is a single body of work, with a consistent body of stylistic factors. The Organ Mass was a French thing. The organ, using very old plainchants as the compositional base, alternates with the choir and liturgy. It seems as if Organ music in the French classical tradition was treated somewhat as a playground for dissonances. The works are often of a slow polyphonic pulse, a polyphony grounded in harmonic awareness, but not dictated by “tonality”. The ornamentation is very unique, expressively emphasizing suspensions and appoggiatura. I think I’ll confine observations to that, until I really understand more of it.
I also didn’t quite understand the extent to which “battling” with other organists was part of their life. From what I understand, these guys had straight up improvisation competitions often–a famous one was supposed to have taken place between J.S Bach, and Louis Marchand; the result? Marchand fled the country, by the signs of it! Anyone who has played jazz will immediately recall the “cutting contests” that marks jazz culture. How stilted is the way we’re taught music history– As this big linear line that leads to the Viennese school. Without bothering to take into the incredible hallmarks of each individual composer and each individual tradition.
Couperin angrily admonishes people who interpret or add their own ornamentation (other than what was clearly notated by him) to his keyboard works, saying that doing so will destroy the works integrity, and that they will fail to make an impression of people of “true taste”. How clearly the greatest composers want to express themselves! Having “lived” in England so long, musically, what a pleasure it is to start to comprehend French music. Not just the big names, but the style as a whole.
Today, as everyone knows, Pierre Boulez died. I think I speak without presumption when I say he was clearly an important composer historically and artistically. It’s important not just to remember where he so ardently went, but also the tradition he came from, which stretches from his teacher Messiaen to Couperin to Titelouze. Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.