By Robert James Stove

What makes organists tick? Denis Arnold (1926–1986), British biographer of Bach and Monteverdi, thought that he knew. In 1983 he remarked: “Organists have to be neat men: their mistakes do not, like a doctor’s, quietly die, but are all too obvious and blatant, especially on powerful instruments.” True enough about mistakes, as any organist knows; yet that “neat men” rather sticks in the craw. It requires no sympathy for our own age’s #MeToo obsessives to make the needful point—which eluded Arnold—that a great many organists, at the highest international level, are and have been women.

Jane Parker-Smith, Jennifer Bate, and Dame Gillian Weir in the United Kingdom; Diane Bish, Catharine Crozier, Marilyn Mason, and Carol Williams in the States; Odile Bailleux, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Rolande Falcinelli, Marie-Louise Girod, and Odile Pierre in France: marquee names all, as far as their colleagues are concerned. Of these, Parker-Smith, Bate, Crozier, Mason, Duruflé, Falcinelli, Girod, and Pierre are now dead; the others, fortunately, remain with us. But just as even the most illustrious violinists frequently acknowledge awe of Jascha Heifetz—and the most illustrious pianists acknowledge awe of Vladimir Horowitz—so among organists of either sex one other name, not yet referred to, would be placed near the top of any list devoted to twentieth-century practitioners. That name belongs to Jeanne Demessieux, the centenary of whose birth (Montpellier, France, February 13, 1921) fell this year, and who has just been honored by an eight-CD boxed set.*

By general consent, Demessieux amazed teachers, rivals, and audiences alike. The optics helped. Five feet three inches in height, she brought to her public appearances a Gallic glamor not, shall we say, habitual in the organ world. The ball-gowns, furs, and cloche-hats went with a faculty denied other women in the console: performing pedal-board passages, however awkward, in high heels. From which knowledge, combined with sad awareness of her demise when only forty-seven, subsequent writers have found it hard to avoid letting their fingers type the word “cult heroine.” Comparisons with (of all dire deities) Sylvia Plath become a temptation difficult to resist.

The figure enjoying the dubious privilege of Ted Hughes status in Demessieux’s life was not her husband—she never married—but her chief Paris Conservatoire pedagogue: Marcel Dupré (1886–1971), among the most astonishing organ virtuosos who ever lived; a formidably accomplished composer for his instrument; and a figure who matched his contemporary compatriot Charles de Gaulle when it came to aloof distaste for power-sharing. At the Conservatoire, Dupré chose and purged students with truly Gaullist gusto. (A gusto which French professors have at all times demonstrated. To this day, any Anglo-Saxon visitor so insane as to tell France’s professoriate that it existed to nurture pupils’ “self-esteem”—according to the gospels of Rousseau, Freud, Oprah, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire—would be lucky to last ten minutes before being involuntarily hospitalized.)

Even Dupré, though, had to marvel when faced with the young Demessieux’s executant gifts. Everybody did. An astonishing fact: neither Vichy nor the subsequent revanche (which elicited from playwright Sacha Guitry the astringent epigram “It was the Liberation, so they threw me in jail”) sullied Demessieux’s repute. As early as 1944 Dupré had flatly told her: “You are my successor. After me, I pass to you the torch.” Publicly he called her “the greatest organist of all generations.” He thereby disclosed to the world his impressive credentials for winning first prize in the finals of postwar France’s “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” contest.

Except that three-quarters of a century afterward, with all affected parties deceased, we cannot determine what precisely did go wrong. Speculations concerning what caused the 1947 breach between Demessieux and Dupré have been as abundant as hard facts have been elusive. Adherents to the Sylvia Plath Interpretation of History have, of course, only one answer: Evil Sexist Dupré must take all the blame (just as throughout the psychodrama of Plath Studies, Ted Hughes shall forever be cast as Beelzebub). Long ago the French became adept at keeping their private lives private; the Internet’s intrusions have weakened but nowhere destroyed this skill; and those most immediately involved in this rupture had the gravest reasons to stay silent about it.

That Dupré demonstrated boorishness, at least, is probable. Organist-composer Gordon Atkinson, born in Australia (he continues to live in Melbourne) but in 1947 a London music student, remembers hearing a rumor—then circulating among organists—that Dupré had lost his temper and slapped his protégée. If he did so, then naturally there can be no excuse for such a vile deed. But the new CD set’s booklet essay makes no mention of physical violence on Dupré’s part.

What they do cite is the belief of Demessieux’s composer friend Jean Berveiller that a jealous woman (not identified) gossiped to Dupré at Demessieux’s expense. The essay also cites a cryptic note in Dupré’s handwriting—it is unclear for whom he intended the note—which complained of Demessieux:

She was unworthy of me and Madame Dupré. This wound has never healed. I don’t need to say more. You can guess.

Might not the clue reside in those passing words “and Madame Dupré”? Every surviving description of Dupré’s wife (who outlived him by only seven years) conveys the impression of one tough cookie, such as so often espouses a French composer. (Mesdames Messiaen and Milhaud also distinguished themselves by the fierceness with which they championed their respective husbands.) All that would have been needed was for a charge, however false, of improper relations between brilliant teacher and brilliant pupil to have been transmitted by some oleaginous tale-bearer to the teacher’s wife.

Unless photographs wholly distorted Demessieux, it is apparent that whatever she lacked in conventional prettiness she made up for in chic and vivacity of facial expression. To be immune to her charm, any male organist in France could well have needed a reliable supply of what P. G. Wodehouse called “asbestos vests.”

At any rate, Dupré spoke truth: the wound never did heal, on either side. But if Demessieux ever worried that the breach would wreck her prospects, she proved needlessly distrustful. Her remaining years often read like little more than a travel diary of concerts, pedagogy, and recordings in Britain, Belgium (for sixteen years she taught at the Liège Conservatoire whenever her timetable permitted), the States, and Switzerland as well as France. No organ music, however elaborate, caused her perceptible technical problems. She likewise shone in the quintessentially French art of organ improvisation, an art which Dupré himself had done so much to uphold, and another area in which she matched him.

Along with Dupré but well before most other organists, Demessieux revealed a shrewd eye for the reputational potentialities of phonograph recordings, first on 78-rpm discs, then on LPs. When executives at the Decca label envisaged a complete set of all the organ music which Messiaen had already composed—by the time of his death in 1992 he had furnished much more—they looked to Demessieux and to her alone.

Neither in that project nor in Demessieux’s own existence did a happy ending prevail. Music’s youthful prodigies notoriously tend to turn into miserable, underachieving adults (of one such ex-Wunderkind Artur Schnabel cruelly jibed “There he goes, with his future behind him”). Demessieux fared better than most—haunted by memories of her juvenile indigence, she acquired in adulthood, the booklet notes again reveal, “a considerable property portfolio”—but the human body, brain, and soul are not built for her seemingly eternal agenda of hotel booking and suitcase-repacking. From the mid-1960s she noticed a falling-off in her hitherto dauntless physical energy, the result (she assumed and insisted) of mere exhaustion. Actually, throat cancer had struck. Autumn 1968 found her in a Paris hospital for two months. On Armistice Day, her immune system disastrously compromised, an embolism slew her. The crowd at her Requiem Mass (La Madeleine, where she had been organiste titulaire) included Dupré.

This profile will have failed altogether in its purpose if it has made Demessieux appear like one more short-lived, iconoclastic, narcissistic musicien maudit: like, so to speak, a transvestite version of Glenn Gould. If pianistic analogies to her rare talent at the organ are sought, let them be with pianists who attained the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness: with Wilhelm Kempff and with Artur Rubinstein.

Much as Kempff provides a superb introduction to Beethoven sonatas and Rubinstein an equally superb introduction to Chopin impromptus, so Demessieux’s interpretations of the standard German and French organ repertoire are excellent accounts from which to learn this repertoire. Indeed, many of us organists did learn much of this material from Demessieux’s versions. At best, Glenn Gould’s pianism—with its accompanying vocals equaled in horrisonance only by the Sex Pistols’—instructs you in the thought-processes of Glenn Gould. Whereas Demessieux’s organ-playing instructs you in the somewhat more noteworthy thought-processes of Bach, Buxtehude, Franck, Widor, Messiaen, et al. Hers is the art which conceals art.

Dupré’s didactic legacies to his student included an emphasis on unobtrusive textural clarity, and punctilio over every detail: virtues which made her treasurable for Decca’s engineers. On three criteria her discography surpasses Dupré’s own.

First, the sound quality retains considerable richness and fullness, even with the earliest releases. As that great French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll paradoxically but rightly commented: “The most important stop on any organ is the acoustic.” Decca’s results are repeatedly easier to tolerate than the clinical dryness which the U.S.A.’s engineers, at much the same period, too often inflicted upon Dupré’s records (French engineers tended to serve him better). Second, Demessieux avoided Dupré’s occasional unduly stolid, metronomic rhythm. Third, she ventured into areas of organ music which Dupré had no interest in recording, and which he seldom performed live.

Among this set’s most poignant tracks is a 1636 motet by Heinrich Schütz—Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten (“Make haste, God, to save me”)—where the similarly self-effacing yet wholly individual Belgian mezzo-soprano Suzanne Danco joins Demessieux, as she does for three Bach miniatures. (Strictly speaking, two: Bist du bei mir, long ascribed to Bach, came actually from an opera by one Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel.) The four-and-a-half minutes of Schütz evoke a vanished world of baroque interpretation, one that certain modern musicological bigots would mock. More fools they: this performance’s spiritual conviction, like that of the Bach—and “Bach”—arias, will not be denied.

Such is often the case elsewhere too. More ostentatiously old-fashioned are Demessieux’s two Handel concertos (Ernest Ansermet conducting Geneva’s Suisse Romande Orchestra), where the organ’s voice roars like Fafner in his cave; where the soloist makes mid-movement stop-changes impossible in Handel’s day; where climaxes audibly overtax the monaural microphones; and where the late-Romantic cadenzas resemble ebullitions from Max Reger’s id. Yet even here, behold the last movement of Op. 4 No. 1: delicate, animated although never rushed; smiling through tears in Mozartian style; and still capable of conveying Handel’s genius for those wishing to comprehend its essence.

Not at all old-fashioned is Demessieux’s approach to Bach’s solo organ writing. In every context, including that of live performance with no possibility of a retake, Demessieux could exhibit (as she also did in Widor’s thrice-familiar Toccata) the most dazzling finger and pedal pyrotechnics. But frequently she preferred to excel through sheer self-possession. One good example of her insightful reticence is her account of Bach’s Fantasia in G, BWV572, an early work which appears to have given Bach himself considerable trouble, judging by the thoroughness with which he later amended it. Even in its revised version it sprawls, starting with flamboyant virtuosity, continuing with a long polyphonic middle section redolent of seventeenth-century France—the whole piece’s tempo directions, unusually for Bach, are in French—and finishing with passagework that most players treat as if it were a storm scene. Umpteen performers since Demessieux have belted out the entire central section fortissimo, with not the slightest hint of light or shade, let alone any sense of harmonic tension being gradually increased. (Bach indicated no dynamics.) Demessieux adopts the much more intelligent course of commencing the section mezzo-piano, and of making the section’s ending seem like the inevitable outcome of its beginning, having almost insensibly added some extra stops at various points en route. (Widor had warned his pupils that no audience member should be able to notice precisely when an organist alters registration.) Then, more daringly still, Demessieux observes the final passagework’s Lentement marking—a minor miracle in itself—and scarcely rises above a whisper until the end. The result makes most other organists’ interpretations of BWV572 sound vulgar.

Franck alone, among organist-composers, drew from Demessieux a complete recorded edition. Whilst this music is well-plowed discographic territory now, with over a dozen CD versions now available, none of these versions can invalidate Demessieux’s pioneering work. No wonder Dupré singled out for a special encomium her approach to Franck’s glorious Prière. Likewise with Messiaen: anyone tempted to mistake her unpretentiousness for diffidence should hear her in Transports de joie, which under her hands and feet fully justifies its title.

“Had we but world enough, and time …” As this article’s footnote attests, numerous Demessieux recordings—not least those of music which she herself wrote—have been perforce slighted in these paragraphs. But of none among them can it be said that Demessieux lets the composer down. In fact, this CD collection serves an instructive purpose beyond its automatic appeal to organists themselves.

Assuming a capacity on your part to cope with pre-digital notions of hi-fi, you would find this set a most useful purchase if organ music is a genre from which you have thus far shied away, and if you seek an affordable guide to compositions for “the King of Instruments” between the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-twentieth. Omissions are unfortunate but, all things considered, impressively few. Not surprisingly, Dupré’s own music is absent (though she did include it on occasional concert programs after 1947). We have here no Reger; nothing from Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger or other such Mendelssohn-influenced Teutons; nothing which antedates Buxtehude; nothing from François Couperin or Louis XIV’s other subjects; neither Italians nor Spaniards; and a complete lack of British scores, except Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Tune in Dupré’s effulgent transcription (one which also includes a snippet from Purcell’s The Indian Queen). So what? You can quickly obtain those things elsewhere, just as Bach and Messiaen intégrales now proliferate.

What Demessieux’s performances offer is something other than mere encyclopedic comprehensiveness. They illustrate a combination of the maximum of strength with the minimum of audible effort: a performing mind supple without vagueness, tough without braggadocio, and protean without eccentricity. To hear Demessieux in variegated great organ music is to experience the sensations which C. S. Lewis reported on reading variegated great literature:

I become a thousand men, and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.… I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.  

* Jeanne Demessieux: The Decca Legacy (Eloquence, 484–1424), eight discs, with music by (in chronological order) Schütz, Buxtehude, Jeremiah Clarke, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck, Widor, Édouard Mignan, Jean Berveiller, Messiaen, and Demessieux. Available via or via the main online stores and streaming services.

Organist and musicologist Robert James Stove lives in Melbourne and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2012).

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