Four Stunning Cities (and Lots of Organs) in Southern France

When we finally scheduled practice time at the Conservatory, I asked for only weekday practice slots so I would have excuses to travel on the weekends! For some reason, I also asked for early morning practice times, which begin at 8:15AM. That may have not been such a wise choice, although it leaves plenty of time for extended lunches and long afternoons drinking espresso and reading my current page-turners: Baudelaire and Victor Hugo…

#1: Bordeaux: La ville du vin

This city is most famous for its wine, which I certainly had to try… but it also is well known among organists for the stunning instruments in the local churches. Packing my duffel bag, I bought a train ticket (it still surprises me that I can simply step onto a train and play these amazing historical instruments) and enjoyed the beautiful train ride between golden fields and warmly-colored fall leaves…

Immediately after arrival, I headed where most organists would naturally gravitate: the Abbatiale Sainte-Croix. This organ was built by Dom Bedos de Celles in the 18th century (c. 1750). It is legendary for most organists interested in French organs and musics of this time period. For a little history: Dom Bedos was a Benedictine monk (of this Abbey, in fact) who published the treatise L’art du facteur d’orgues (The Art of the Organ Builder). This is one of the most exhaustive references for organ building and theories about organ building in this period and is revered by organ builders and organists alike.

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Abbatiale Sainte-Croix

Many organs from the 18th century have been altered, some beyond recognition or repair. However, despite this organ being altered and even moved to the Cathédrale Saint-André (also in Bordeaux) at one point in its history, it retained enough of the original pipework, windchests, and so on (the stop names were covered with layers of paint) so that, in 1984, organ builder Paschal Quoirin was able to reconstruct the organ and return this musical masterpiece to the world.

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Console of Sainte-Croix

What a thrill it was to practice there for several hours, exploring the 32’ plein jeu, the thunderous Grands jeux, and the delicate solo stops. My heart already cannot wait to return!

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The belltower of the Basilique Saint-Michel

I attended a rehearsal for a concert of Fauré’s Rebecca, as well as works by Franck and Saint-Saëns, at the Basilica of St-Michel, performed by Paul Goussot and the Groupe Vocal Arpège de Bordeaux for the rest of the evening. This 1869 organ by Merklin-Schütze was a completely different beast from the organ of Ste-Croix, although no less beautiful. Its more romantic temperament fit perfectly with this program of music written when around when it was built.

Sunday morning found me at the masse at Ste-Croix, listening to the strange combination of typical Catholic “songs” with French Baroque improvisation for voluntaries. It was certainly impressive to hear Paul Goussot finding ways to make the anachronistically incompatible music and organ fit together with his creative accompaniments.

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Cathédrale Saint-André of Bordeaux

My next stop was the Cathédrale Saint-André, where I played the 1982 Danion-Gonzalez organ in this enormous space. I am not sure if this instrument has anything to do with why cathedral organist Jean-Baptiste Dupont is releasing recordings of the complete works of Max Reger (although it isn’t recorded on this organ!) but it seems quite well suited to that kind of repertoire.

These three organs certainly made for a thrilling weekend, which was punctuated with fantastic meals and even better wine….

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At the console of the Cathédrale Saint-André

#2 Rodez: La ville des vacances

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Yes, that is snow. Those are also two people dressed in snow man and ??? costumes. Welcome to Rodez!

Perhaps Rodez is not a vacation city, but it was a vacation for me! The two-hour train ride showed off more of southern France’s countryside. However, as it was now later in the season, the fields were looking more bare. Upon my arrival in Rodez, it had begun to snow! Naturally, I stopped to take refuge from the suddenly frigid temperatures with a noisette (espresso with a tiny bit of foamed milk) to watch these unexpected wet visitors came down from the sky.

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Cathédrale de Rodez

 

I was met at the Cathédrale de Rodez by organist Jerôme Rouzaud, who warmly welcomed me to the loft where the formidable case still bears the year of 1628, when a Poitiers organ builder, Antoine Vernholes, put it into place. While this organ has been worked on significantly since its first incarnation, it retains this French classical charm. It can also play Bach and even Mozart quite convincingly!

 

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Console at the Cathédrale de Rodez

The next day, after even more time on this beautiful instrument I met yet another one: the 1883 Puget organ at the Église Saint-Amans. Puget organs are found throughout the south of France as the Puget organ “dynasty” was centered in Toulouse. Many of these organs are in styles similar to those of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll and it is thrilling to play Widor, Franck, Vierne, and all the other great romantics (and even some moderns!) on instruments like this one.

Fewer than 20 hours after my arrival, I returned to Toulouse ready for another week of foie gras, fighting over practices organs, and red brick architecture.

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Église Saint-Amans
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Console at the Église Saint-Amans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#3 Albi: La ville rouge

Like Toulouse, Albi is also made of red bricks, which earned it the title of the “red city.” I had a mere three hours there and these were on a Sunday afternoon—without a doubt the quietest day in all French municipalities! However, the charm of the old part of the city and its beautiful views make me look forward to returning and playing the organs in the Cathédrale and in the cloister. Alas, that will be for next time, as I was merely a “normal” tourist for this trip, wandering the beautiful streets and taking in the sights of the Tarn river.

#4 Toulouse: La ville rose

Naturally, I end this post with my beautiful city, Toulouse, here in the heart of southern France. I was honored to perform an Advent concert on the 1880 Eugène Puget organ only yesterday. The program of J.S. Bach and Widor was a thrill to present for the warm audience of amateurs d’orgue and this instrument is really one of Toulouse’s jewels. Its warm foundations, singing flutes, and nearly deafening tutti are sensitive to the organist’s touch (which is, in term, shaped by how the organ wants to speak—expect a post on that at some point in the near future…).

I would certainly say that my third month here has ended on a high “note” with this concert and these amazing trips. I can’t wait for the next one… especially since the Christmas market of Toulouse opened two days ago!

 

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It’s oyster season!
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Toulouse is getting in the festive spirit…
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2 thoughts on “Four Stunning Cities (and Lots of Organs) in Southern France

  1. Lois Toeppner says:

    I was intrigued by your mention of: Dom Bedos was a Benedictine monk (of this Abbey, in fact) who published the treatise L’art du facteur d’orgues (The Art of the Organ Builder). This is one of the most exhaustive references for organ building and theories about organ building in this period and is revered by organ builders and organists alike.
    You might be interested to know that I worked on the development of the Boston Chapter Organ Library at BU. One of the rare books that we were given is in fact the Dom Bedos. When you get back to New England, one of these years, you should visit it! In the meantime, keep those posts coming. I love reading about your travels and music making! – Happy Holidays. – Lois Toeppner

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