The third weekend of September in France is known as the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, or European Heritage Days. During this weekend many public and private locations are open to the public. I visited a place I already knew, the house of Marcel Dupré in my town Meudon, just outside of Paris. In particular, the room open to the public was a small auditorium equipped with an organ built especially for this great organist. What I would like to relate to you is a story of patrimony; a story of how individuals and communities recognize the gifts of art, architecture, music, instruments, … culture itself, and pass them to future generations. Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) as born into a musical family in Rouen and was a child prodigy.
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The third weekend of September in France is known as the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, or European Heritage Days. During this weekend many public and private locations are open to the public. I visited a place I already knew, the house of Marcel Dupré in my town Meudon, just outside of Paris. In particular, the room open to the public was a small auditorium equipped with an organ built especially for this great organist. What I would like to relate to you is a story of patrimony; a story of how individuals and communities recognize the gifts of art, architecture, music, instruments, … culture itself, and pass them to future generations.
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) as born into a musical family in Rouen and was a child prodigy. He said he was “born in an organ.” He came to Paris to study at the conservatory there with among others Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911). Thus, Dupré entered the line of great French organists with his teachers, and in particular as the regular organist at the Paris church Saint Sulpice. In this charming interview of an old Dupré (1967) that took place in the same room I visited, he described his own meeting with Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and then further recounted the meeting of Saint-Saëns with Franz List (1811-1886).
The story of Dupré became linked to a benefactor, Claude Johnson, who was the managing director and a founder of Rolls-Royce Limited. He called himself the hyphen between Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce. This is how he described his first meeting with Dupré.
On my first visit to Notre Dame after the war [August 15, 1919—The Feast of the Assumption], it seemed to me that the playing on the big organ was very much better than anything I had ever heard before . . . I found seated there Dupré . . . He was surrounded by some twenty disciples, male and female, mostly pupils, who regarded this young man of 34 years of age with undisguised awe and admiration. He guessed who I was, and made me sit on the organ bench beside him. Immediately one saw that he played the organ with most surprising facility. I saw him playing a chord in which his thumb was on G-natural and his little finger on B-flat. The music flows under his agile hands and feet which move over the keys and pedals without any apparent effort like the rippling of a stream over round stones.
It was not just his playing, but also the composition of Dupré that interested Johnson. A history of their relationship has described how Johnson immediately offered Dupré 1500 francs to write down the improvisations he was playing for publication. He soon arranged for Dupré’s first concert outside of France at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Among the 7000 spectators was the future King Edward the VIII.
By this time in the early 1920’s Dupré was looking for a house for his family. His old master Guilmant was born and lived in Meudon. He had had a private organ constructed in his home by the celebrated builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1899 and Dupré was one of his students there. Thus, it was years later after Guimant had passed away Dupré, now the great master, was looking for a home for himself and the unmaintained Cavaillé-Coll organ that was bequeathed to him. He bought a house just around the corner from Guilmant’s in Meudon. But the house had no room to contain the organ. So here again Johnson provided assistance to build the auditorium adjacent to the house, including the braces on the beams that had originally been installed in the hunting lodge of an English king. The room is lovely with an atmosphere that somehow reflects on all the great musicians who had passed through and played there. The house has been owned for over 40 years by a retired pharmacist who bought it from Madame Dupré based on her suggestion as she was his regular customer. The organ and auditorium are maintained financially by an association that he had formed subsequent to his purchase of the house. At that time a young man volunteered to help restore and maintain the organ. He has continued to work on the organ for these many decades without pay!
It warms my heart to experience this great patrimony of European civilization that stretches across so many generations. But how much longer will it be preserved? The zeitgeist is infected with a cultural pathology that would destroy this patrimony for the reason that it emanates from dead, white, males. To anticipate the postmodernists’ critique, I am not so nostalgic and naive to not understand that pride, jealousy and other faults are the ever present components of human nature (see here). These men were not angels. But this room, this instrument, this history, this music are objectively beautiful, a true patrimony for all people everywhere.
The organ being played on the day of my visit. The unassuming gentleman turning the pages has restored and maintained the organ for more than 35 years as an unpaid volunteer!
One of the braces given by Claude Johnson that came from the lodge of an English king.
The organ auditorium of Marcel Dupré.
This letter by Dupré’s wife Jeanne to a former American student just after his death does not directly apply to this essay, but I include it because of the lovely sentiments it expresses.
40 BOULEVARD ANATOLE-FRANCE
92 – MEUDON
Friday 23 July 1971
My dear friend,
Your letter reached me this morning and I was profoundly moved by all you wrote from your heart. Yes, I have received letters and telegrams by hundreds from all over the world and am far from having answered them all. But yours, which came apart, gets this returned answer.
The sudden passing away of my beloved husband was a terrible shock. On Whit-Sunday, May 30th, he was playing his two masses at St. Sulpice, ending at 12 o’clock with an improvisation on the Easter Alleluia which a friend had requested, and a few hours later, at the end of the afternoon, all was over. After St. Sulpice, we had driven back home, had a quiet lunch together, then he read his Sunday paper and said suddenly: “I feel a little cold; I am going to lie down on my bed.” Shortly after, he lost consciousness and passed without any pain. When the Doctors arrived, there was nothing to be done; rupture of abdominal aneurism.
I am heart-broken. After our many years spent together in such close union, the loss of that wonderful companion, so great, but so simple, so kind, so loving is so hard to bear.
But I thank God for his peaceful end, a blessing for him, this end he deserved after his great life of devotion to his art, to his students, to his friends, and his humanity. Everybody loved him.
I try to get some strength from so many happy memories of our life, particularly from the very last ones. On April 22, he played for the last time in London, at the Albert Hall for the celebration of the centenary of the Hall in which he had given his first concert abroad in a concert hall fifty years before, in December 1920. He had such an ovation from the impressive crowd: 7000 people. We were both deeply moved. I am sorry I have no programs of the Albert Hall.
Then for his 85th birthday, there was a most moving evening at St. Sulpice: his oratorio “De Profundis” was sung during the first hour, then a big group of his former pupils at the Conservatoire where he had taught for 28 years, gathered around him in the centre of the church; Messiaen, Langlais, Cochereau, Mme. Durufle, etc., etc., read beautiful tributes before him.
A week later, on May 13th, Rolande Falcinelli who succeeded him as the head of the organ class when he was appointed Director of the Conservatoire gave a recital with his 2nd Symphony and he concluded the recital by a great improvisation.
The funeral took place at St. Sulpice on June 3rd, in the packed church. The service was so beautiful, with the Requiem Gregorian Mass which I had requested.
He was buried in our little cemetery in Meudon, a few minutes from our home, with our darling Marguerite. We both used to go to her grave every day. Now I go alone until I join them.
Marguerite was our only child. The girl you saw at the concert last year was a cousin from Rouen.
Now, I am trying to be courageous for my three grandchildren, all three students and who still need me. They are sweet kids and their grandfather loved them so.
With many thanks for your sympathy,
P.S. I don’t get The Diapason and would be so grateful if you would send me a clipping of the article.