Kurt Lueders Bach in France around 1900
Het ORGEL 96 (2000), nr. 4, 26-34 [summary]

Paris, St. SulpiceIt would be an oversimplification to claim that Bach’s music was simply ‘forgotten’ in France around 1900. The music was available in print shortly after the publication of it in Germany. Louis Niedermeyer in 1857 stated: ‘Bach’s music is the best ever written for the organ.’

In the Paris conservatory, François Benoist’s students had to perform a Bach Fugue as part of their exams. Under the tutelage of César Franck, who followed Benoit, students were required to play Bach’s great free organ pieces. After Franck there was Charles-Marie Widor. He introduced new perspectives on technique and interpretation. Alexandre Guilmant, who taught after Widor, was interested in a wider range of early music than Bach.

Bach interpretation around 1900 was characterised by a merging of ideas of students of Franck, Gigout and Lemmens. Widor, who was a student of Lemmens, focused on dignity and audibility of polyphone structures with respect to tempo; it is very difficult to generalize about tempo matters, as in actual practice the French organists played quite freely. Their articulation did not follow strict rules either; yet a consistent rule was a legato touch for melismatic passages and detached performance of rhythmic leaps and syncopations. Writers and teachers made regular reference to violin bowing as an appropriate model.

Registration considerations were dominated by the need to find a balance between the preponderant reed timbre and the timbre of the rest of the stops of the Cavaillé-Coll organs. The basic sound used was a plenum. In the typical performance of a fugue, the performer would start without the mixtures which would then be added gradually.