Pierre Cochereau: Organist of Notre-Dame

By Smith, Rollin | The American Organist, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Pierre Cochereau: Organist of Notre-Dame


Smith, Rollin, The American Organist


BOOKS PIERRE COCHEREAU: ORGANIST OF NOTRE-DAME, Anthony Hammond. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012. 372 pp. ISBN 9781580464055, $85. Available from Urpress.com. There was a time when there was an unmistakable electricity in the air before the recitals of three worldfamous organists: E. Power Biggs, Virgil Fox, and Pierre Cochereau. They were each different, but they played to packed houses and their audiences were not so dissimilar - almost everyone could appreciate what the three brought to the instrument. Unlike the other two, however, Cochereau was never known for his interpretation of organ repertoire but rather for the instantaneous music he created on submitted themes, usually secular in nature. He was recognized as the greatest improviser in the world, ostensibly the successor to his teacher, the famous Marcel Dupré.

Anthony Hammond traces the life of this gifted and popular organist from his early childhood through study with various teachers, his musical influences, and his professional career. It is a compelling read for all organists and, especially today, for the new breed of improvisera.

After initial organ studies with MarieLouise Girod, André Fleury, and Maurice Duruflé, Pierre Cochereau entered the Paris Conservatory where, after three years, he won first prize in Marcel Dupré's organ class. Cochereau incurred considerable jealousy from his Parisian colleagues at the beginning of his career by his appointment to SaintRoch at the age of 21. At 17, he played for the radio broadcast of the 5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass in 1941, and the sudden death of the regular organist propelled him to the console on Easter 1942. Then, as a friend of Léonce de Saint-Martin, Vierne's unpopular successor as organist of Notre-Dame, he was hand-picked to succeed him, and did so upon his death in 1954. Cochereau was appointed to Notre-Dame in January 1955 without competition, a move that was considered an insult by a number of organists vying for the job: Demessieux, Falcinelli, Grunewald, and Litaize.

With Notre-Dame Cathedral, the great church of France, as his stage, Cochereau made it once again important in the music world. It had been virtually invisible since the death of Louis Vierne in 1937 - the church to visit was Saint-Sulpice, where Marcel Dupré presided magisterially in his organ loft. Cochereau "reestablished the glory of the tribune at Notre-Dame" (p. 2), making it the most visited in Paris, and certainly one of the celebrated recital venues in the world.

Cochereau received unending criticism for not preserving what remained of NotreDame's 1868 organ. The cathedral's CavailléColl had been altered in minor ways but was still almost in its original condition and with its original console. It needed a complete restoration, but Cochereau chose to replace the console and increase the instrument's size dramatically - though there was the famous switch that made inoperable all but the original 1868 stops.

Cochereau's claim to fame was his ability as an improviser, and it may be unfair to criticize him too harshly for his interpretations of composed music.

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