By Jean-Baptiste Robin
It is a considerable emotion to record for the first time works that have remained unheard for more than 300 years. For a
very long period of time, French baroque organ music has not been the object of a renewal in any significant way and I am delighted that it is here in Versailles, at the organ of the Chapelle Royale, that these works are being revived.
Recent music history offers us a few examples of manuscripts unearthed in libraries, in the homes of collectors, sometimes secretly retained or oftentimes simply misplaced. The “gems” are rare and the latest ones date back to the pieces by Louis Couperin rediscovered in 1957, the Livre d'orgue de Montréal rediscovered in 1978 or the Livre d'orgue de Limoges coming to light thanks to the gift of a collector in 1992.
The pieces recorded here, some of notable importance, come from two different recently rediscovered sources.
– A manuscript currently located in Berkeley, at the University of California, which contains five hymns with no mention of the composer. It is referenced MS776, was purchased in 1968 from an American musician, Everett Helm, but its earlier origins remain unfortunately undetermined.
It also contains a very reliable copy of Nicolas Lebègue's Troisième Livre.
In parallel with the release of this recording, the score will be available from the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.
– The second manuscript is partially recorded in this album, as it comprises 111 pieces. It was acquired in 2008 by the harpsichordist Catherine Caumont from a dealer in antiques in Amiens who had bought it at an auction in Honfleur.
This manuscript, known as the Caumont Organ manuscript, dates from 1707 and contains 81 works without any of the composers identified and without any other known source. It also contains pieces already identified by André Raison, Nicolas Lebègue, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and Jacques Boyvin. We have chosen to record 21 unattributed works, never before recorded, and also a superb Tierce en taille by Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who was an organist at the Chapelle Royale in Versailles and who was François Couperin's teacher. His Tierce en taille clearly announces the young Couperin's Messe des couvents.
The unpublished pieces in the Caumont Organ manuscript include some first- rate works: The Grand Dialogue de Voix Humaine is significant for its quality and duration (62 bars). The Récit du 5ème ton has a very inspired vocal line, unique for its introductory silences.
Some pieces particularly attract attention by their originality and beauty, such as the voluble Vitesse des deux mains on La Petite Tierce or Un Petit Dialogue Meslé de Trios which recalls the initial part of François Couperin's Offertoire des Paroisses. The shorter pieces show a real mastery of
composition and, in our opinion, fully deserve to be rediscovered (The tierces en taille, the duets, the bass trumpet).
L'Offerte: Grand Dialogue à trois ou quatre chœurs avec le tremblement à vent perdu [Grand Dialogue for three or four choirs with unfingered tremolo] and Dialogue pour le tremblant à vent perdu à 4 chœurs [Dialogue for unfingered tremolo with four choirs] evoke the greatness of the composers of the Grand Siècle and are among the most developed pieces in our repertoire. We wanted to make an intelligent use of the strong tremolo of the Versailles organ in order to convey the dramatic intensity of the unfingered tremolo on the timbres of the trumpets.
On reading the two manuscripts, the name of Jacques Boyvin gradually emerges for the anonymous pieces and this is backed up by some evidence. Jon Baxendale in his detailed preface to the Caumont Organ edition of the manuscript makes a strong case for the attribution of the pieces to Boyvin and we believe that the five hymns have rhythmic characteristics, piece and keyboard names, and a particular
notation for ornaments reminiscent of this composer. Many excerpts from the hymns are found almost note for note in Boyvin's livres. The coincidence turns out to be the more striking. The Prélude à deux chœurs du 5ème ton from the Caumont Organ manuscript is very similar to that of Boyvin's premier livre, except that the Caumont version is even more fully composed and more accomplished!
The five hymns form a link with those of Nivers and Nicolas de Grigny. As with these two authors, the Récit du Pange lingua takes up the plainsong and decorates it throughout in the manner of the Germanic ornamented chorale. Some of the hymns are intended for high voices, probably for nuns and small instruments, and others (Victimæ Pachali and Ave Verum) are composed in the bass voice pitch for the church.
The first verse of the Victimæ Paschali is simply in figured bass, without any realisation, as the composer might have noted down quickly for his own use. We therefore play our own version here, following the figured indications. The brevity of the hymns makes them perfectly adapted to 17th-century alternatim, and one might consider that these pieces may have served as a model for organists or students beginning their art. The model seems to us to be very successful and the refinement of the composition of certain verses is remarkable. With these two manuscripts, we may complete our knowledge of French organ music of the 17th century which, as we know, was mostly improvised. In addition to some very fine models, we were able to bring to light with enthusiasm and satisfaction some authentic masterpieces.