Peripatetic Geek

Acoustic Tapestries in Saint-Sulpice

It was Sunday morning and Parisian cafes beckoned in the early-autumn sunlight. But instead of accepting their invitation, I followed others into the cool, dim doorway of a parish church on a pilgrimage. Though I had been here before, I sensed my experience had only brushed the surface. This time I was searching for richness – added depth.

Saint-Sulpice on Sunday morning with the sun rising behind the west facade.

I noticed a boy turning to stare in awe. Among those who lingered were Parisians who appeared to make the journey regularly — a man in a red shirt wearing Crocs sitting with his back against a pillar swaying rhythmically. A red-haired woman, possibly a visitor, who began standing as though she expected to leave in a minute, but instead sat, half-turned, with closed eyes and a look of rapture that never left her face. 

Seated two rows behind me was a toothless man who came in late for mass but just in time for the music. He wore faded, blue seersucker pants, an unbuttoned, well-worn pink shirt, and across his shoulders, an oversized, white overcoat. My first thought was that he had come into Saint-Sulpice to get off the street for a few minutes. However, the organ program in his hands, his sense of the music, and his tears conveyed a different message. 

We sat transfixed as the organist wove the blues, reds, and yellows from the stained-glass windows with the low notes of the pedal pipes, the richness of the reeds and the brilliance of the high notes to create an evanescent tapestry that drew us together, travelers from around the world.

My Sunday morning pilgrimage was to experience the Great Organ of the parish church of Saint-Sulpice in the hands of the musicians who bring it to life. The program of service music was like that of any parish church — a prelude, hymns, offertory, communion, and postlude. However, as the organist started the prelude, it was anything but usual. Instead of a short, five-minute prelude, he began fifteen minutes before the mass and included the Prelude and Fugue in e minor, BWV 533 by J.S. Bach, the great German organist of the 18th century.  Likewise, the postlude was not a single piece, but rather a half hour concert, known as the “Audition”. Throughout the service, he played major compositions from the 18th to the 20th century.

The Great Organ of the parish church of Saint-Sulpice completed in1862.

Who are the organists that draw people together to hear this great organ every Sunday morning? What is the creation myth of this instrument? 

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When Daniel Roth, the organiste titulaire, welcomed me into his Paris apartment for a conversation, the entry hall was dominated by his three-manual practice organ, an instrument that uses the latest computer technology to recreate an organ in Caen. However, over his kitchen table, he told me the story of a much older instrument — the historic organ he plays in Saint-Sulpice. His energetic playing of an air-organ to emphasize points and his enthusiasm made it hard to remember he was a grandfather. 

Daniel Roth, the lead organist for the Great Organ, enthusiastically discussing organ technique at his kitchen table. Photo Janet McMillan

Nearly half of the current organ is based on an instrument built in the classical French tradition by Francois-Henri Clicquot in 1781. His timing was bad. The French Revolution began just eight years later and was particularly hard on pipe organs. Some survived the revolution’s destructive fervor because their organists played La Marseillaise to placate the mobs. However, many were destroyed. The organ in Saint-Sulpice was saved because one of the calcants, a man who pumped the bellows using pedals like a Stairmaster while the organist played, put a seal on the door of the organ loft that led the revolutionaries to believe this organ had already been eviscerated.

The pedals used by five calcants to provide the air supply for the organ until an electric blower was attached during the 1930s.

Roth explained that both French organs and French organ music decayed during the first half of the 19th century. The organ in Saint-Sulpice fell into such disrepair that when Felix Mendelssohn visited in 1833 he said, “They showed me the organ and told me it could be one of the beautiful organs in Europe, but now it sounds like a full choir of old women.”

Organists’ skills also atrophied. Services were long and constantly accompanied by the organ – liturgical elevator music. As a result, organists honed the ability to improvise at length, but lost the technique required to play complicated organ literature such as the works of Bach.

In 1854, a new priest arrived in Saint-Sulpice and said, “In this church you have beautiful paintings, the architecture is wonderful, you have beautiful statues, but your two organs are nothing!” The church first engaged the firm Daublain-Callinet to restore the organ, but were disappointed with the outcome. The parish then turned to the already-well-known (though somewhat eccentric) organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, for a solution.

According to Roth, Cavaillé-Coll, frustrated by the technical deficiencies of French organists, was “waiting for the modern organist.” When the Belgian organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens toured Paris, Cavaillé-Coll admired his performances of Bach and encouraged young French organists to study with him in Belgium. Inspired by Lemmens performances, Cavaillé-Coll specifically designed the organ of Saint-Sulpice to play both “old and new music”.

In 1862, Cavaillé-Coll completed the instrument in Saint-Sulpice and Louis James Alfred Léfebure-Wély played it for eight years. However, his death at the end 1869 posed a dilemma for the parish priest. On one hand, he had the ever-opinionated Cavaillé-Coll who championed 26-year-old Charles-Marie Widor, one of the students he had encouraged to study with Lemmens. On the other, he had most of the Paris organ community that opposed Widor saying he was too young and “played like a German” — not an asset with the Franco-Prussian War looming on the horizon.

A bust of Charles-Marie Widor presides over the organists’ office. Photo Janet McMillan

The priest, in an attempt to side-step the problem, hired Widor as temporary organist for one year. When the year came to an end, neither Widor nor the priest brought up the subject of his employment and Widor continued as the “temporary” organist for 64 years, retiring only when he was unable to climb the 66 steps to the organ loft at the age of 90.

In the early 20th century, tastes in organ design changed. Despite the changes, Widor and his successors resisted contemporary enthusiasms and continued to honor Cavaillé-Coll’s design intent for the majestic instrument. They maintained France’s musical heritage.

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A petite woman in a bright red jacket accessorized with a stylish scarf sporting red poppies, Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, the organiste titulaire-adjointe, met me at the door to the organ loft. As I followed her up the stairs to the organ, I was impressed that she could reach the top manual of the five-manual console to say nothing of the pedals. Seated at the massive console, there was no question that she was in full control of the instrument. In the office presided over by Widor’s bust, she proudly pointed out that she is the first woman on the list of organists. She added, with a little smile, “and I won that competition while I was pregnant with my son.”

Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin seated in Widor’s chair in the organists’ office. Photo Janet McMillan

The organ in Saint-Sulpice is an auditory and tactile wormhole to the mid-19th century. However, playing an organ that is frozen-in-time is more complicated than playing an organ on a modern console. Just as a painter mixes colors on a palette, an organist mixes the sounds from different stops by pulling draw knobs to produce the range of sounds for which the organ is known. These are called combinations.  

Cauchefer-Choplin told me that because this large organ has only one mechanical “memory” the organist needs two assistants to play a service.  The assistants sit, one on each side of the console, preparing combinations from over 100 stops. In her case, this is even more difficult because her specialty is improvisation. She and her assistants coordinate upcoming stop changes while she is developing musical ideas at the keyboard. In this regard, a current organ console is much easier to control because it is a computer. Many modern consoles have more than 1000 memories making it much easier for the organist to prepare for upcoming sonic transitions.

The mechanical action connecting the console to the pipes.

The organ in Saint-Sulpice has over 6000 pipes, some as small as a pencil, others as tall as a house. It is in a structure that extends over five stories. Were the only attraction the organ as an object, it would be a beautiful, complex 19th century machine — nothing that would move us to tears. It is the artistry of great musicians such as Monseiur Roth and Madame Cauchefer-Choplin who breathe life into the organ transforming it from a machine into a musical instrument. It is their artistry that brings this amazing instrument to life in music that speaks to our souls.

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The following Sunday, I joined Caucherfer-Choplin in the organ loft during a normal Sunday morning mass. The opening notes of her improvisation moved me. My hair stood on end and my skin prickled. I was fascinated as I watched her two assistants drawing stops as she quietly told them what she wanted to have loaded into the single memory so that it would be available for her musical ideas sometime in the next few seconds. As her improvisation reached its climax, Dominique, the assistant who has worked with her for 22 years, could see where the music was going and started adding stops without direction. When I later asked him how he knew what to add he simply said, “I just know what she wants.” Watching the seamless interplay among the three people on the organ bench was like watching chamber musicians — they seem to be reading each other’s minds. Dominique’s approving nod at the conclusion of the improvisation says, “C’est magnifique, Madame.” That’s what I feel.

Sophie-Veronique Caucherfer-Choplin improvising the prelude for the mass at the console of the Great Organ.

These Sunday morning services in Saint-Sulpice are a vivid reminder of musical reality, a reality in which I must move with the music, a reality in which the musical tension builds to the point where I almost forget to breathe and then releases, a reality that, in its intensity, brings tears. The best recordings are poor substitutes. The pilgrims who have come to hear the Great Organ mirror those of the previous Sunday — young and old, local and distant — all have shared, at least for a while, in this intense celebration of music created by a master.

Listeners wait at the door to the organ loft to greet the organist after the mass.

Reemerging into the bright, warm sunlight, I have found that which I sought. Not only a greater insight into of one of the world’s great organs, but also a deeper appreciation of the artists who move their listeners every Sunday using a complex, 19th century mechanical marvel.

16 thoughts on “Acoustic Tapestries in Saint-Sulpice

    1. Randy – it was indeed a special opportunity to interview both of organists who are responsible for the Great Organ.

  1. Fascinating article. I really felt like I was there. Thank you for writing this. It brings back a little of what I used to feel at the marvelous Organ at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus Ohio when I was a child.

    1. Cari – My memories are of the organ in the Washington Cathedral – a very different design from that of St. Sulpice, also impressive.

  2. The acoustics of the church, the colors of the windows, the spiritual essence of the place: recordings cannot even begin to capture the depths of this experience. Your words point to it, but it can only be experienced there. Thanks for telling your tale. Now I want to go there, too!

    1. Miko – by all means go. That is exactly the reaction I hoped readers would have. It’s an amazing place with organ and organists to match.

  3. Charles your words paint a picture that is as vibrant & detailed as the photo’s you create. Excellent as always my friend.

  4. Wow. I had never even heard of this place before, and your descriptions and pictures were sufficiently vivid to make me feel like I had been there (with the exception of hearing the beautiful instrument of course). Very nice.

    1. Stephen – St. Sulpice is probably better known in the organ community than it is among most visitors to Paris. Interestingly, the organ in Notre Dame – heard much more frequently, built after this one, was intended to be its twin. However, it has been radically altered over the last century and now, with the fire, who knows what will happen.

  5. Having shared a previous service there with you, Charlie, it is with crystal clarity that you describe what it is like to experience her playing and the synesthetic aura of St. Sulpice. Thanks for sharing both the time together and the well researched and crafted blog. And nice shot, J!

  6. Thank you, I enjoyed reading this and I share your enthusiasm for the Sulpice organ and its organists. (ps. the assistant called Dominique is actually Mme Cauchefer-Choplin’s husband as far as I know)

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