Book Review – May 2013 edition of The Diapason (USA)

Pierre Cochereau, Organist of Notre-Dame, by Anthony Hammond. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012 (Eastman Studies in Music), 346 + x pp., hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-58046-405-5, $85.

This interesting book celebrates the life and achievements of Pierre Cochereau (1924-84), “one of the greatest ambassadors for the organ that the world has ever seen.” Author Anthony Hammond is an English concert organist, improviser, and musicologist specialising in French Romantic and 20th-centrury organ music. He was privileged to have been a friend and confidant of Pierre Cochereau’s only son Jean-Marc, a successful Parisian orchestral conductor and musician, who provided critical insights and information. Other Cochereau family members and close friends provided access to private documents, photographs, and, in particular, to scare recordings of Cochereau’s unique and famous improvisations. The archival papers of his teacher Marcel Dupré, housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, plus recordings and films, were used over a long period of careful and fruitful research. The result is the very first detailed critical biography of Pierre Cochereau. His extremely high worldwide reputation fell into decline after his death as ambition newcomers vied for attention. Moreover, he was a brilliant improviser who has not yet received due recognition because his best creations were not written down. Hammond’s book is a serious effort to correct this imbalance and restore Cochereau’s rightful place in the history of 20th-century music.

On the one hand, Cochereau was a world-class performer with a Lisztian flair for exciting display. His performances were said to be inspiring. What Widor, Vierne, and Dupré were to the first half of the 20th century in France, Cochereau was to the late 20th century. He was a non-flamboyant showman who, as a Frenchman, prized good taste above all else. His worldwide concerts, 25 in the USA, dazzled audiences. They were sell-outs, and his record performances and improvisation sold on five continents. On the other hand, his personality could be childish and difficult.

Hammond surveys Cochereau’s life and career in Chapter 1, concentrating on his position at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, where he succeeded the unpopular Léonce de Saint-Martin in 1955. Cochereau deserves credit for re-establishing the glory of the cathedral as one of the most prestigious recital venues in the world. His earlier training in organ was with Paul Delafosse at Saint-Roch, André Fleury, and Marcel Dupré at the Paris conservatory. Before moving to Notre-Dame, he was offered the directorship of the regional conservatory at Le Mans, which proved altogether successful. His subsequent appointment at Notre-Dame ushered in the “golden age of music in the 20th century at the cathedral” because of the unusual rapport he enjoyed with the choirmaster Jehan Revert. But after a very few years he grew “bored” and eagerly accepted the offer from the mayor of Nice in 1961 to become chief administrative officer at the regional conservatory there. His work there was likewise entirely successful; he left the Nice conservatory one of the leading establishments of its type in France. The same cannot be said of his third administrative post, directorship of a planned new Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et Danse in Lyon. This was intended by the government to be the equivalent of the great Paris Conservatoire. About this same time, Cochereau was made an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur by President Giscard d’Estaing. He felt he could not refuse the Lyon post, but it proved to be “a poisoned chalice”. At Lyon he ran into severe challenges, was accused of incompetence, and discovered his colleagues doing everything possible to undermine him. Gossip circulated about his private life and suggestions that his technique was in decline and his taste in music questionable. He maintained a busy schedule of concertizing and recording but encountered personal problems, financial and otherwise, that took an obvious toll on him. On the evening of March 5, 1984, he suffered a fatal stoke and died.

His reputation was damaged. Fuelled by professional jealousy and gossip about his extravagant lifestyle, his love of jazz, a jet-setting love of fast cars and boats and increasing charges of deteriorating technique in performance, his final years were clouded with depression and paranoia. Unsettling reports of his controversial attempts to modernize and “improve” Cavaillé-Coll’s great instrument for Notre-Dame turned many professionals against him. Hammond devotes an entire chapter (Appendix C) detailing the changes made to that organ: electrification of the action, restoration, fitting a new Anglo-Amercian style console, replacing terraced drawknobs with flat, 45-degree jambs, enlarging the original specification with many new ranks of pipes, etc. Cavaillé-Coll in 1868 had revised the previous work of Clicquot and Thierry from 1720, radically altering the tonal character from French Baroque and Classic to decidedly Romantic. (To effect this change, he had provided “Progressive Mixtures,” which increase the number of Principal pipes played per tone in stages as one ascends through the compass. Mixtures of the German and French classic type generally use the same number of pipes per tone throughout the compass and “break back” at various stages to maintain the same quality of sound. They are preferred for contrapuntal music.) During his tenure at Notre-Dame, Louis Vierne had argued for altering the Progressive Mixtures and indeed, during Cochereau’s tenure, they were removed. After his death the Progressive Mixtures were again restored, this clearly reflects the unrest and vacillation of taste that accompanied Cochereau’s entire professional life. Hammond comments that he had a fatal flaw: he never composed any music. Music historians need the written evidence: mere reports of improvisations do not endure.

In Chapter 2 we are shown Marcel Dupré’s organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. Cochereau was to spend three years in that class and was permanently affected by the instruction of this acknowledged master. Hammond describes the routine, class size, topics dealt with (e.g., Gregorian plain chant accompaniment, verset improvisation, 4-voice fugue improvisation, free improvisation on a given theme, and performance from memory of a work from the repertoire). He details each of Cochereau’s three years in the class and notes the high praise given him by Dupré. Maurice Duruflé also exerted influence in his early organ studies at Meudon, where he took private lessons.

Chapter 3 describes Pierre Cochereau as interpreter of the music of Bach, Couperin, Franck, Vierne, Dupré, and finally Messiaen, “cornerstones of the repertoire” as revealed by his famous recordings. Other than the ubiquitous “Toccata” from Symphonie V, and the final two Symphonies “Gothique” and “Romane,” Cochereau rarely played the works of Widor. But Hammond appends a chronological list of some 46 composers in his repertoire drawn from every period in the history of European music and testifying to the breadth of Cochereau’s arsenal. But we are cautioned not to rely on his readings for historical propriety. “In terms of historical authenticity one could not claim that Cochereau was a good Bach player.” He saw the organ as an orchestra from which to draw color and effect. All his interpretations were heavily influenced by Romanticism, with little concern for interpreting pieces in the manner their composers might have intended them to be heard, but “reinvented for modern ears.” Franz Liszt would have approved.

Chapter 4 analyzes Cochereau’s musical language as defined in his written works: four major organ solo works, a concerto for organ and orchestra, an unpublished “Hymne” and a dedicatory prayer for choir, two organs, two brass ensembles, and six timpani, and unpublished chamber music (“Songs” and “Piano Quintet”). In these compositions he comes close to occasional atonality and serialism, but stops just short of that, writing in essentially tonal and diatonic harmony. Hammond identifies specific influences on his style, which include Dupré, Dubussy, Ravel, Tournemire, Messiaen, Vierne, Fauré and even jazz, which Cochereau loved. He had an architectural approach to music, seeking proportion and balance.

Finally, Chapter 5 takes us from composition to improvisation, for which he was so justly renowned. This is the most complex and technical chapter in the book, starting unexplored “gesture study” within current musicology (rather recalling eurhythmics), in the abstract sense of “the use of music to mirror emotion”, a difficult problem if one is using only aural recording of improvised performances. Hammond sees it in Cochereau’s employment of “tremolando” chords, arpeggiating the tones. Next, fast movement forms –scherzo, toccata, and gigue– are described. These became the “very cornerstone of his art” as he played one at the conclusion of Mass every Sunday at Notre-Dame to a cathedral full of rapt admirers. Hammond devotes no less than 38 pages to this subject, generously supplying on every page clear musical quotations from Cochereau, Dupré, Vierne, Duruflé, and Fleury to illustrate analytical comparisons. Slow movements and contrapuntal forms take up only sixteen pages, but the examples show a fusion of counterpoint and harmony reflecting the influence of Dupré. Cochereau’s 1977 recording L’Art de l’Improvisation, featuring a “breathtaking fugue” from his Triptyque Symphonique, elicited high praise from Hammond: “It is not perfect but….In the form of a huge crescendo, it should be considered as arguably his greatest contrapuntal improvisation presently known”. His final work, Improvisation on the Gospel of St. Matthew, interprets every episode somewhat darkly, and “contains some wonderful music, but can be a harrowing listening experience”. The day before he died, March 4 1984, he played at Notre-Dame the final movement from the St. Matthew Improvisation (chapter 28, the “Great Commission” or Universal Mission, sending disciples forth into the world) But when the crescendo reached its apogee, a prearrange brass ensemble in the organ gallery pealed forth Bach’s Passion Chorale!

Chapter 6 is the four-page conclusion. Cochereau was a complex man and a divisive figure; there are those who love him for everything he did, and there are those that hate him for his misguided alterations to the organ at Notre-Dame. But most have a more balanced opinion, Hammond declares that “he was a worthy inheritor or a great tradition, and one of the finest musicians of his generation.”

Five appendices provide interesting information: a listing of all of Cochereau’s recordings, a description of his films, a narrative account of the symbiosis between organist and organ, specification of all the organs significant in Cochereau’s career (including a photo of Philippe Hartmann’s portable Positif touring organ), and lastly, a descriptive analysis of Cochereau’s Twenty-five Improvisations on St. Matthew’s Gospel (1984). Copious notes and references, a rich bibliography, and an excellent index bring the book to a close.

All in all, Hammond has given us a superb biography that all serious organists should read. He praises the good characteristics of the great organist in superlative and sometimes awe-inspiring terms, but he does not hesitate to lay bare human flaws and understandable imperfections. His impeccably clear and responsible writing, especially when providing technical details, disarms the reader and commands admiration.

John M. Bullard, Ph.D.
Spartanburg, South Carolina