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The Room Where It Happened: Peabody Conservatory’s 2019 Organ Study Tour to Paris

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Following Virgil Fox’s graduation from the Peabody Conservatory in 1932, he traveled to France to study with the renowned Marcel Dupré. The November 2018 issue of The American Organist reprinted a letter that Fox wrote home to his former teacher about his experience meeting Albert Dupré—Marcel’s father—and playing the organ at St. Ouen in Rouen. In June of this year, students, faculty, and friends of the Peabody Conservatory embarked on an organ study tour of Paris. Led by Dr. John Walker and Madame Marie-Louise Langlais (wife of the late Jean Langlais), the tour featured over a dozen of the most significant organs in Paris, including the instrument in Rouen about which “The Fox” wrote so vividly. Our first full day in Paris was also the 82nd anniversary of the death of Louis Vierne at the Grand Orgue of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We spent the morning celebrating Mass at St. Sulpice with Daniel Roth at the Grand Orgue. Following Mass, M. Roth played a recital featuring both his own music as well as the music of Vierne. Later in the day, we visited the former apartment of Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé and then returned to St. Sulpice, where the Cathedral of Notre Dame has held its official Sunday Mass since the devastating fire of April 15.

On Monday we took a short train ride to Rouen to play the famed Cavaillé-Coll organ of St. Ouen’s Abbey. Built in 1890, this organ is one of that builder’s few instruments to be left completely unaltered; it is a prime example of both the tonal and mechanical innovations of this great organ builder. After spending Tuesday morning at the Conservatoire Régional de Paris and the Royal Church of St. Roch, we spent the afternoon at St. Etienne du Mont, the former church of the Duruflés. That evening we met for coffee with Johann Vexo, one of the Choir Organists of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The group enjoyed talking with M. Vexo and offering our sympathy and support as they begin the long process of rebuilding the Cathedral.

For many members of the tour group, Wednesday evening was the pinnacle of the week’s itinerary. We returned to St. Sulpice after the church was closed and were hosted for several hours at the Grand Orgue by M. Roth. The “magnum opus” of the great Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, this imposing five-manual, one-hundred stop organ was the former post of Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré; the organ exists today exactly as it did when it was completed in 1863. Each member of the group was given time to play this miraculous instrument, and we also took turns assisting M. Roth manipulate the ventils and original combination action.

Thursday morning took us to La Trinité, the former church of Alexandre Guilmant, Olivier Messiaen, and Naji Hakim. Our host, Jean-Françoise Hatton, allowed us access to specific levels of memory that contain Messiaen’s exact registrations for his music at La Trinité. Other highlights of the week included the organ lofts of La Madeleine (the former church of Saint-Saëns, Faur, and Demmessieux), St. Gervais (the former church of the Couperin family), the Oratoire du Louvre (Paris’ most prominent Protestant church), and the church of St. Louis-des-Invalides, a royal church containing the grave of Napoleon Bonaparte.

On Saturday, we took another train to Versailles to tour the Royal Palace. After the palace was closed to visitors, we were escorted to the organ loft of the Chapelle Royale by our host, François Espinasse. The elaborate case with its abundance of gold ornaments was built in 1708, but the organ only dates from 1995. Built by Jean-Loup Boisseau and Bertrand Cattiaux, it is a reconstruction of the organ that Robert Clicquot had finished in 1711. The organ includes a French-Baroque pedalboard, which gave our group a fun challenge while playing the music of Couperin, Marchand, and D’Aquin—all former organists of the Chapelle Royale.

Our week closed on Sunday with a full day at St. Eustache. The 1989 Van den Heuvel organ is the largest organ in France; it was installed under the direction of the late Jean Guillou, who was titulaire of St. Eustache for 52 years. We were hosted in the evening by the brilliant young Thomas Ospital who succeeded M. Guillou. Our visit to St. Eustache was a fitting close to the week as it brought us face-to-face with the ever-changing landscape of organists in Paris. In the span of 15 months, our profession had lost both Pierre Pincemaille and Jean Guillou, and from America we had watched as the famed Cathedral of Notre Dame almost burned to the ground. For an American organ student, the organs and organists of Paris are the crown jewel of organ history and literature—second only to J.S. Bach. Being in the city and walking the same streets, climbing the same stairs to the galleries, and playing the same organs as these towering icons puts their humanity into perspective. This trip was an invaluable experience for all of us, not only as a source of education and edification, but also as an opportunity to be—as the hit Broadway musical ‘Hamilton’ puts it: “in the room where it happened.”

Louis Gephardt