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it was, of course, the improvisatory skill, that he would concoct a four-movement symphony out of thin air and that was always an impressive skill. The fact that he could do that and maintain his thematic integrity across a vast span of time meant that, I think, people were impressed that this was you couldn’t believe this wasn’t written down in a piece of music. Dupré regularly amazed people with his improvisational skills. 'A musical miracle' was the headline in the newspapers after his first concert in the USA in 1921, when Dupré had improvised a four-movement symphony off the cuff. The New York audience had never experienced anything like it. But Dupré was to surpass himself a little later at his legendary concert in the Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia. As usual, he was handed the themes shortly before the improvisation. An expectant mood spread among the audience. He chose four Gregorian themes
representing Advent, Christmas, Passion and Easter from the pool of themes. Dupré improvised four tone poems about the life of Jesus, which would later become his "Symphonie-Passion". The audience could hardly believe the level of creativity. A legend and a marketing idea were born. [At the end of each concert] he always improvised on American folk songs. I came across one of his letters in which he writes to the manager, "Please send me three or four folk songs that I can improvise on." And that was something really special at that time, to play something like that on the organ. He discovered a gap in the market, a way to get the audience on his side. When you put improvisation into a concert context, you’re performing a party trick. But I think that Dupré knew that his audiences wanted him to perform that trick. He needed to be the performing seal on the balloon, you know, he needed to do that. That was his calling card
and people loved to hear him do it. You know, when you read the reports of his playing in the 1920s, the reviews, they don’t speak much about the music. But, in America, they always talked about his improvisation. They weren’t going to quibble with the Schumann canons that he played or the Bach B-minor Prelude and Fugue. They’d merely comment that he played these things. “But then he improvised a four-movement symphony on the themes that were given to him just in advance by Mr So-and-So and Dupré made a grand noise" and all the rest of it. So, those are the things that obviously impressed people. And he was happy to be marketed on that basis and became very successful in the US as a result. Anyone who has had the good fortune to hear Dupré improvise live will go into raptures. Common features of all the accounts are: perfect in form, harmonically refined, multi-coloured and contrapuntally accomplished. I think that was the last time
I heard him improvise in a masterful way. The kind of improvisation you can listen to again. There's not a single note too much, no hesitation, there's something extraordinary. For me, it was the last time I heard a great improvisation by Dupré. Dupré learned to improvise from an early age, first with his father Albert and later with Alexandre Guilmant. There is this nice anecdote that he had wished for a trip to Paris for his First Communion. He really wanted a lunch with Alexandre Guilmant as a gift. His father said at the time, 'It's not that simple. You don't just invite yourself". But he managed to arrange it somehow. And before dessert, Guilmant asked little Marcel to improvise a fugue. And this first communicant improvised a fugue and Guilmant said "now you've earned your dessert, and that wasn't bad for your age either".
Hard training and iron discipline coupled with a great talent later allowed Dupré to master the most complicated forms. In his organ tutor book, he recommends that improvisation be learned according to the same methodology and principles as playing organ literature. For himself and when teaching, it was important to him that the fingers did not simply line up notes oder splash sounds together without meaning - so-called "organist's twang". Once he said to me: 'When you improvise, it's like Confession: You can make up lies but as it unfolds, everything is revealed.” According to his own statement, Dupré did not practise improvising after his years of study, nor did he prepare any improvisations. He could rely on his set of tools. His master student Michael Murray reports that it was enough for Dupré to skim over a theme to develop a vision that brought the beauty of the theme to light.
Dupré's talent for improvisation led to a key experience that was immensely important for the launch of his international career. On 15 August 1919, an Englishman attended Vespers at Notre Dame Cathedral on the Feast of the Assumption. Dupré stood in for Louis Vierne and played the organ. The visitor was thrilled by the music. When he found out that they were improvisations, he wrote Dupré a letter. For the transcription of these improvisations, he offered him 1,500 francs, which was roughly twice the annual salary of a French organist of that day. Dupré agreed to the deal and the "Fifteen Pieces" op. 18 were created. The Englishman was Claude Johnson, the general manager of Rolls Royce in England. He used his influence, made sure the collection was published in England and arranged the first performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The following year, on 9 December, over 9,000 people witnessed
Dupré's England debut in the presence of his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. Dupré's greatest organ composition is "Le Chemin de la Croix" – "Stations of the Cross". The cycle originated in an improvisation on texts by Paul Claudel during a concert at the conservatory in Brussels in 1931. It is one of the few works by Dupré of which the manuscript of the draft still exists. Without going into too much detail, I would like to show you a few passages that I find interesting: For example, there is the scene from Station 12 before the earthquake begins. When playing this passage, one suspects that it is Jesus’ dying voice. In an earlier draft, Dupré even illustrates his intention visually: he renders the passage with the words "Father into your hands I commend my spirit". For the beginning of the 14th station, he outlined several sketches. It seems that he initially pursued the idea of some sort of funeral procession. You can also detect the disciplined craftsman in the draft.
He numbers the bars following a periodic classification. He notes down this classification on the upper part of the music sheet of the respective station. In addition, he counts the bars in consecutive order. You can find the sum of all bars at the end of the station, as well as the estimated duration of the piece and sometimes the date. Whether the numbers, the music and the duration of the pieces are in proportion to each other or even follow some kind of symbolism can be a starting point for further study. The fact that the titles and registration instructions in the publication are given in French and English shows Dupré's popularity as a composer of organ works. Station 10 "Jesus is stripped of his clothes", the final version of which Johann Vexo will play later, is also interesting. In the early version, the clothes are literally torn from Jesus' body. From bar 82 onwards, Dupré wanted to intensify the original impression of chaos by using shorter notes. The scene ends abruptly. Graham Steed interprets what follows in this way:
Jesus has been stripped of his clothes and is naked as he once was as an infant in the manger. In his view, this is Dupré using musical means to convey what incarnation means. It is thanks to the "Association des amis de l'art de Marcel Dupré" that today one can get a very practical impression of Dupré's art of improvisation. In the last few decades, the society has set out to preserve Dupré's later improvisations for later generations. This idea came from Georges Humbrecht, who was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and who was titular of the choir organ at Saint-Sulpice. So inevitably every week he was opposite Dupré, if I may say so, on the other side of the church. And he would hear all the improvisations that Dupré did because, at the end of his life, Dupré played very few pieces from the repertoire, he essentially improvised. And of course Georges Humbrecht thought it was a shame
that his improvisations, as soon as they were performed, disappeared. So he asked Marcel Dupré to create an association. But Marcel Dupré didn't accept immediately. It took some time to convince him of the value of creating an association. Eventually Marcel Dupré agreed, and it was in July 1970, that the association was officially created. And as a result, everything Dupré did in Saint-Sulpice until his death was recorded for the association and we still have all the recording tapes in our archives. David A Stech transcribed a selection of these recordings into sheet music and published several volumes with Wayne Leupold in the USA in 2015. The colourful accounts by the people who witnessed Dupré‘s improvisations create an expectation that is not entirely fulfilled when listening to the recorded improvisations. The recordings do not come
from Dupré's 'Sturm und Drang' period but rather from his mature years. While his compositions became increasingly tonally free, his improvisations seem to have grown more conservative in sound. Unfortunately, there are no accessible recordings of the improvisations of the 1920s - at least as of yet. The reports about them, however, get lost in superlatives. To better understand what was considered "bold" and "progressive" at the time, it is helpful to read a review of Dupré's concert in Philadelphia in 1921. In it, a critic describes Dupré's "Fifteen Pieces" op 18 as music full of dissonance, the language of which preceded Schoenberg. In parts, one had the impression that this kind of music would literally bring the organ to its knees. Yet, judged by today's standards, the "Fifteen Pieces" tend to be in the tonal range of moderate modernism and do not go beyond the chromaticism of Vierne.
If one thinks of Dupré's "Symphony-Passion" or "Stations of the Cross", for example, the question arises: did the innovation really begin with the improvisation or only with the revised transcription? I would imagine, that those improvisations were far more conservative than what we have. Same with the "Chemin de la croix". I bet the textures are easily translated. I can imagine him improvising "The World awaiting the Saviour" – the first movement of the Passion Symphony – you know, I can imagine those repeated chords and that sort of thing. And he integrated "Jesu redemptor omnium" in some way, you know, a canonic form. And I’m sure that Ostinato and "Crucifixion" is there. And maybe some of those ideas, the mellifluous chromatic strands of "Nativité". So, I would imagine that he recast that as a thoughtful composition and probably the germs of the idea were there at the Wanamaker improvisation. And I’m sure the same with the "Chemin de la Croix". I’m quite sure he recast that music as much more thoughtful
creative offering than was first envisaged spontaneously. I think that the young Dupré really did improvise in this way, from what we have heard from ear witnesses. So he was relatively progressive. I strongly suspect that his role as a teacher as well as an improvisation tutor gave him a different direction. And this is also noticeable with, let's say, the ageing Dupré: the form and the clarity and the thematic discourse are perfect. But the language is very, very restrained and simple. The fact is to me that all improvisations that I have ever heard just sound like Mendelssohn. It’s interesting as an act in itself. The thrill is in the fact that it is being created spontaneously. And Dupré was able to command form and structure in his mind like no one else. He was able to improvise double fugues.
Even if it sounded like Mendelssohn, it’s still an impressive thing to do.
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