Modernity and Mysticism Langlais on the Heights of Duquesne

By Donakowski, Conrad L. | The American Organist, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Modernity and Mysticism Langlais on the Heights of Duquesne


Donakowski, Conrad L., The American Organist


It was like a mardi gras for organists during the last week before Lent in Pittsburgh. In a time when some of the most prestigious organ and church music programs are being downsized or eliminated, the Duquesne University Organ and Sacred Music Programs are flourishing. And the university's Gumberg Library is becoming the repository for an important legacy of manuscripts, scores, and recordings. This vigor is due to the leadership of Ann Labounsky, FAGO, chair of that department in the Mary Pappert School of Music.

Emblematic of Labounsky's accomplishments was the centennial celebration of the Life and Work of Jean Langlais (1907-91) held on the Duquesne campus and in major churches of the Golden Triangle City last February 16-21. Balancing performance, pedagogy, and scholarship, the conference demonstrated how: 1. The musical life of the past century and a half centered on the organ and its exponents in France and was integral to overall musical culture; 2. The Duquesne program has been a success because it prepares students for professional posts that actually exist; 3. A constellation of organists, ranging from concert artists to eager students, can come together to inspire one another.

Langlais's oeuvre was a species of program music. His greatest strength was an ability to improvise comprehensive tonal edifices out of plainchant motifs taken from the communal liturgy. He aimed thereby to nourish a re-integrated social community gathered in ritual worship. Langlais's range of emotional impact also exploited technical innovations by organbuilders such as Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who constructed solo instruments for the west end of many historic churches as well as for new urban parishes such as the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris, where Langlais was titulaire from 1945 to 1987.

Rooted in the 19th-century romantic trend toward continuous flux in musical composition, Langlais sought to recover pre-tonal rapture in post-tonal guise. Sometimes music historians overlook the wide influence of the titulaires du grands orgues who wove seamless sonic garments for Roman liturgy at the Sunday messe de musique in great French churches. Connections from Franck all the way to Bernstein via Nadia Boulanger may in fact explain a lot left out of Germanophile or concert-music-oriented musicology. Improvisation on the free rhythms and multiple modes of plainchant overlapped the secular quest for fresh ideas not restricted by metrical regularity or tonal rubrics. High art, however, is often not popular. Some of the great French improvisers like Charles Tournemire may have been professors at the Conservatoire; yet, the haut bourgeois parishioners of Sainte-Clotilde seemed sometimes to care little for a spiritual challenge. Such congregations are like concert audiences who prefer the easy listening of familiar warhorses to a fresh creative vision. In short, intention and reception do not always match.

Because the Duquesne church music program has been led by a professor in touch with the real world of churchgoers, its strength is preparing students for professional posts that actually exist. In that problematic region of the nation's largest denomination, Roman Catholicism, where a catholic - small "c" - blend of diverse stylistic streams is required, Labounsky's students hold full-time positions. Testifying to the value of their training, many alumni returned to their alma mater on the University Heights overlooking the Allegheny and Monongahela blending to form the Ohio.

The four days of the Centennial began on Friday evening in Calvary Episcopal Church, a neo-medieval edifice crafted to standards worthy of a European cathedral. A facultystudent recital included Duquesne organ professors Ann Labounsky and Andrew Scanlon playing Langlais's "Double fantaisie pour deux organists," from Mosaïque, Vol. I. Among colleagues joining them were Joseph Tuttle (violin), Roxanne Avila (flute), Christine Betschart and William Eck (trumpets), and Edward Kocher and Anthony Weikel (trombones), along with organists Charles Wilson, John Tyillian, Jori Snyder, Emily Plassman, Nicholas Will, Amy Muñoz, and John Meyers. …

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