Louis Becker, born and educated in Strasbourg, France, as the son of a
prominent organist, moved to the USA at age 21 in 1904 and worked as a composer
and organist in St. Louis, Illinois, and Michigan for 52 years. Damin Spritzer
plays nine of his 152 organ works, including the splendid First Sonata in G (5
mvts) on the 1880 Cavaillé-Coll 4m organ in the cathedral of Orléans, France.
Music of René Louis Becker on Volume 2
Toccata in B-flat, Ite, missa est, op. 69c
Postlude in D minor, op. 75a
Toccata, op. 32
Cantilène, op. 63
March in D Minor, op. 76a
Toccata, Benedicamus Domino, op. 68a
Interlude from 12 Compositions for Organ, op. 16
Prelude from 12 Compositions for Organ, op. 16
First Sonata in G, op. 40: Praeludium festivum; Dialogue; Scherzo;
**** Four-Star Review in Choir & Organ! writes Michael Quinn in the March/April 2015 issue:
This second instalment in Damin Spritzer's enterprising rehabilitation of the prolific but largely unknown Alsatian-American René Louis Becker comes an attention-sapping three years after the first volume. Happily, it's been worth the wait. This nine-track compendium boasts eight first recordings, the five-movement First Sonata, Becker's most substantial and sophisticated work the exception to the rule. Highlights among the new discoveries are the B-flat Toccata, Ite, missa est, with its gymnastic use of counterpoint, the effusively lyrical Cantilène and a fiercely dramatic D minor March. Spritzer proves a committed and eloquent advocate on the wholly sympathetic-sounding 1880 Cavaillé-Coll of Orléans Cathedral.
*****Five-Star Review in The Organ, writes James Palmer in the Feb-Apr 2015 issue:
The Alsatian-American composer René Louis Becker (1882-1956) is a particularly interesting if relatively quiet, unknown figure, and it is due largely to the work of Damin Spritzer that we hear any of his music outside of the most specialist of organists. One has to say that this on the strength of this second set of recordings of his music, it manifestly does not deserve the unaccountable neglect into which it appears to have fallen.
All of the music on this CD was composed between 1908 and 1923 - not a long period in which to go from opus 16 to opus 76a, those 60 works (and more) averaging at around four a year in the 15-year period. Becker (whose name and music were largely unknown to me before I was sent this CD), would seem therefore to be a composer well worth the time and investigation that have been devoted to it by Damin Spritzer. Becker is unafraid of the big gesture; neither would he appear to have been fazed by the quality of more established organist-composers who were well-known internationally at that time - unaffected directly by the War then being raged across France and Belgium.
What shines through this music is Becker's command of his instrument and of his chosen idiom, and the generally positive outlook of this composer is one of his most attractive features, without ever lapsing into superficiality. I was very taken by this recording, and I hope it plays an important role in the rehabilitation of this notable composer.
René Louis Becker
by Damin Spritzer
Although René Louis Becker received recognition from many
colleagues and published prolifically during his lifetime, his elegant organ
music has been all but forgotten. I am honored to reintroduce his beautiful
organ music to the world, the rediscovery of which clearly demonstrates his
importance as a 20th-century Alsatian- American composer. Becker’s music is
perhaps best summed up in this apt description of his writing from Albert
Riemenschneider, who said, “True to the heritage of his native land, he
combines in an unusual degree the best characteristics of the French and German
schools. His melodies are always singable and beautiful and his earnestness and
seriousness as shown by his sonatas is equaled only by his great command of
René Becker’s grandfather (Jean-Baptiste,2
1813-1865), and father (Edouard, 1838-1895) were prominent organists, his
father holding positions including Chartres Cathedral and the Strasbourg
Cathedral3 (from 1871 to 1875). René was the second-to-last child in
the large family, formally trained at the Strasbourg Municipal Conservatory of
Music (1896-1904): piano with Ernst Münch and Fritz Blumer (a student of Franz
Liszt), harmony with Carl Somborn (a student of Joseph Rheinberger), and organ
with Adolph Gessner.4
In 1904,5 René departed from France to travel to the United States to join his two older brothers,
Lucien (an organist) and Camille (a tenor) in St. Louis, Missouri,
where they founded the Becker Bros. Conservatory. He also taught pianoforte at
the St. Louis University
as an Instructor of Music6, and taught Gregorian Chant at Kenrick
Seminary.7 He lived in St.
Louis for nine years. In 1912, Becker moved to Belleville, Illinois,
and became the organist for St. Peter’s Cathedral. He left Belleville
in 1915 and moved to Alton, Illinois,
remaining 15 years, until 1930, as the organist for Ss. Peter and Paul Church.8
1928 saw his last published organ piece, and in 1930 he moved again and became
the organist at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit, Michigan,9
until 1942. He left Detroit after 1942 and took
his last church position at St. Alphonsus Church in Dearborn, Michigan,10
for eight years. René Becker died of Parkinson’s disease11 at his
home in Detroit12 on January 28, 1956, at the age of 74.
His career spanned highly productive decades in which he
created more than 180 documented, individual pieces for solo organ and
published more than 70 of them between 1908 and 1928. Surviving organ works
include 34 marches, 15 toccatas, three large-scale sonatas, three extended
fugues, numerous smaller works styled as preludes, postludes, finales,
chansons, fantasies, and many other small- scale compositions with various
titles. René Becker was a gifted and capable composer with easy command of his
craft. It is evident that he was influenced by the music of other composers,
recognizably by Johann Sebastian Bach, Theodore Dubois, Alexandre Guilmant,
Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Charles- Marie Widor, and others. However,
he was no plagiarist and creates his own distinctly unique works.
In the several church positions he held during his career,
he was associated with Kilgen, Estey, and Hook & Hastings instruments
during his active years of composing for the organ. However, there is no
“Becker organ” and his registrations almost never specifically match existing
stops and manuals on the instruments from his church positions.
Interestingly, during his years of study at the Strasbourg conservatory,
the organs played by his keyboard professors underwent significant alterations
and renovations. They should therefore be considered as influential on the
style of composition in his earliest published works. His organ professor,
Adolph Gessner, served Saint-Maurice in Strasbourg,
where in 1899, a 42 stop, three manual13 organ by Friedrich Weigle
was installed. Becker studied with Gessner from 1899 to 1904. Becker’s piano
professor in 1896-1897, Ernst Münch, was the organist and the choirmaster for
Saint-Guillaume in Strasbourg.14 Andreas Silbermann built the first significant
organ there in 1726, but the organ was completely rebuilt in 1898 (into the
existing organ case) by E. F. Walcker (op. 804, 52 stops, three manuals and
pedal, pneumatic action15).
With the sole exception of the First Sonata (recorded in
1999 at a live recital in France
and now out of print), all selections on this disc are the first recordings of
these works. As a companion to my first disc of Becker’s music (Raven OAR-925),
this volume offers pieces truly among the most sophisticated and varied of his
The toccata was a favorite genre of Becker as evidenced by
the fact that he wrote more than fifteen of them. His Toccata in B-flat, Ite,
missa est, op. 69c, published in 1923, was dedicated to Clarence Eddy, who
wrote a wonderful and effusive personal letter of thanks to René Becker after
receiving it, in which he says Becker’s “…stunning new Toccata in B-flat … is
splendidly written … there are very few composers who know how to write such
wonderful counterpoint!”16 The work also represents one of Becker’s very few
works based upon Gregorian chant, the incipit of which is provided on the first
page of the score. It is a virtuosic work, relentless in its profusion of
intricately arranged 16th-note figuration. Fragments of the chant are heard
throughout in the soprano and pedal lines, ending with pedal octaves in the
The dramatic Postlude in D minor, op. 75a, was published
in 1923, and it is full of contrast and color. The rhythmic opening theme is
developed extensively, then Becker writes a contrasting melodic section in the
relative major of B-flat that is itself in a petite ternary form. There is a
brief return of the main theme that leads to a maestoso Chorale Gothique
The Toccata, op. 32, is dedicated, “To my sincere friend
Rodney Saylor, Organist at Pilgrim Congregational Church, St. Louis, Mo.”
In ternary form (a favorite compositional form of his), it was published in
1910, placing it among his earlier works dateable by copyright. It takes
delightful inspiration from the French school and particularly from Theodore
Becker’s sumptuous lyricism and gift for melody is shown
at its very best in the Cantilene, op. 63. Again in ternary form, it was
published 1918 and dedicated to organist Clarence Eddy. The poignant melody on
the combined harmonic flutes of the Sainte-Croix organ in the A sections are
contrasted with delicate arpeggios in the B section.
The feisty and furious March in D minor, op. 76a,
published in 1923, is dedicated to Clarence Dickinson, and the musical style
and harmonic language draws openly on the fire and playfulness of L. J. A.
Lefébure-Wély and his flair for the dramatic. In a modified ternary form, there
is a contrasting melodic section, followed by an abbreviated A section and a
Toccata: Benedicamus Domino, op. 68a, was published
in 1919. It is another of Becker’s rare works that uses a Gregorian chant
incipit. Fragments of the chant melody appear throughout the work, at times in
the soprano, other times in the pedal. The coda is preceded by a virtuosic
pedal cadenza, and the chant is heard for the final time in pedal octaves.
The Twelve Compositions for Organ, op. 16 of 1908, were
Becker’s first published organ music, and the collection is dedicated to “Fr.
Lemke at St. Barbara’s in St. Louis.”17
The works are small in scale but lovely, and they are important from a
scholarly perspective because they exist in both the published versions as well
as the unpublished manuscripts (few other of his published compositions exist
in manuscript). However, the manuscript bearing most of the twelve published
pieces is marked op. 10, not op. 16, and two other extant manuscripts of op. 16
differ from the published op. 16 set. The Interlude featured on this
disc was originally titled Choral in the manuscript marked op. 10. This
brief but exquisite piece draws heavily on the musical language of Johannes
Brahms‘ monumental Fugue in A-flat minor (WoO 8) and thus I have chosen to
register it similarly with the rich foundations of the Orléans organ.
The extant manuscript of the published version of the
recorded Prelude is titled op. 69a, but an alternate version is the first piece
in the op. 10 manuscript, the main differences being in the contrasting B
sections. The published version modulates to F-sharp major, though the
unpublished version modulates to G major. This delicate work is reminiscent of
the writing of Mendelssohn.
The First Sonata in G, op. 40, published in 1912, is
dedicated to Dr. William C. Carl, Director of the Guilmant Organ School, New
York. It is Becker’s largest, most sophisticated, and most significant work.
The five movements render it more on the scale of an organ symphony, though the
compositional techniques and styles employed (fugue, counterpoint, etc.), along
with the general adherence to the convention of “fast-slow-fast” in regard to
the movements, are well associated with both organ sonatas and organ
The first movement, Praeludium festivum, opens with
a dramatic theme in the tonic key of G minor with powerful chords on the full
organ interspersed with virtuosic solo triplets in scalar patterns. The lovely
and lengthy second movement, Dialogue, bears a distinct structural
similarity to the second movement, Allegro cantabile, of Widor’s
Symphony No. 5 in F Minor, op. 42, no. 1: the opening solo begins in the tenor
register, the Hautbois and Flûte harmonique are heard in dialogue, and a
chorale-like contrasting section emerges before the recapitulation. The third
movement is a charming Scherzo in ternary form in the dominant major of
D, a perfect vehicle for the combination of all the harmonic flutes on the
instrument. The A section is harmonically closed, and the contrasting section
is chorale-like with playful interpolations of rippling 16th notes. The lovely
fourth movement, titled Prayer, is in the key of E-flat major, the
relative major of the original tonic key of G minor. The main theme and its
answer are heard three times, each with minor melodic or harmonic alterations.
The entire movement builds to a gentle crescendo, leading to six measures of an
extended final cadence made all the more romantic by chromatic alterations
including flat-sixth and supertonic seventh chords.
The sonata ends with an extended Toccata in the original
key of G minor. Beginning on the full swell with the box tightly closed, this
toccata modulates frequently, building tension all the while to the coda, where
cascades of arpeggiated triplets are heard over a rising double-pedal theme in
the bass that calls to mind the writing of Léon Boëllmann in his Suite
Gothique. Mirroring the ending of the first movement, the toccata closes
with grand chords that finally cadence in a triumphant G major.
1. Albert Riemenschneider, Baldwin-Wallace College
Bulletin, School of Music, Vol. 4, No. 4, Sept. 1916, Becker family
collection, Birmingham, MI.
2. Gene Scott, “La famille Becker” Musica et Memoria,
www.musimem.com/becker.htm (accessed September 2011).
3. M. J. Erb, “Episodes de la vie d’un musicien d’Alsace
(IV)”, L’orgue 42 (1947): 7.
4. Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s Biographical
Dictionary of Musicians, Fourth Edition, New York, G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940,
5. J. H. T. Mize, ed., “Becker, René Louis,” The
International Who is Who in Music, Fifth (Mid-Century) Edition, (Chicago:
Sterling Publishing Company, 1951), 64.
6. Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Ed., 76.
7. Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., Fifth Edition,
(New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1958), 108.
8. Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Ed., 76.
9. Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s . . ., 4th Ed., 76.
10. Mize, ed., “Becker, René Louis,” The International
Who . . . , 5th Ed., 64.
11. Julius Becker, interview by author, Birmingham, MI., 13 May 2010.
12. “In Loving Memory: René L. Becker, Musician, 73” Detroit Sunday Times,
29 Jan. 1956
13. Eric Eisenberg, “Strasbourg,
St Maurice Friedrich Weigle, 1899,” http://decouverte. orgue.free.fr (accessed
21 Sept 2011).
14. Albert Schweitzer, “Memories of Ernst Münch,” in Essays
on Music, ed. Stefan Hanheide, (Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1988), 185-194.
15. Robert Poliquin, “Église protestante Saint-Guillaume
Protestant Church Strasbourg (Bas-Rhin),” Université du Québec, www.
strasbourg.html (accessed 27 June 2011).
16. Clarence Eddy to René Becker, Chicago,
29 Nov 1923, Becker family collection, Birmingham,
17. St. Louis Public Library website, “Two Hundred Years
of St. Louis Places of Worship” accessed 22 Feb. 2013.
Sought for lectures and performances, praised for
“enormous sensitivity and musicianship” by the Journal of the Association of
Anglican Musicians, and hailed as “elegantly assured” by the Dallas
Morning News, Damin Spritzer has performed organ recitals from coast to
coast and records internationally. Her performances are notable for programs
that champion unknown romantic works for organ, new compositions by living
composers, and collaborative performances with other instruments, particularly
trombone and harp. In addition to other topics, she lectures on Becker
frequently, has been a featured artist for American Guild of Organists
Conventions, and has been heard with Michael Barone’s nationally-syndicated
“Pipedreams” radio broadcast on numerous occasions, both live and recorded.
Dr. Spritzer serves the Cathedral Church of Saint Matthew
in Dallas as Principal Organist and Artist-in-
Residence for the Cathedral Arts series, and is Adjunct Instructor teaching
Organ Literature and Sacred Music at the University of North Texas.
Additionally, she was appointed Visiting Professor of Music at the University of Oklahoma for Fall 2014. Her dissertation
for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of North Texas
was on the life and music of René Louis Becker, and she is writing an extended
preface for a forthcoming critical edition of several of Becker’s organ works
(Wayne Leupold Editions). She received the Master of Music degree in Organ
Performance from the Eastman School of Music and the Bachelor of Music degree
in Organ Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
The Organs of the
Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Orleans,
First built in the seventh century, several different
Romanesque and Gothic cathedral buildings and chapels have existed on the site,
but all were destroyed and/or rebuilt. Joan of Arc famously attended Mass at
Sainte-Croix in 1429, and her story is depicted in many of the stained glass
windows of the present building, the cornerstone of it having been laid on
April 18, 1601, by King Henri IV.
Several organs have graced the church since the first in
1523, built by Alexandres des Oliviers. The stunning Cavaillé-Coll organ in the
gallery is comprised of pipework from both Louis Callinet (1786-1846) and
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Its restoration by Bernard Hurvy of Nantes was completed in
Louis Callinet of Paris
was hired to reassemble on a specially built gallery in the south transept of
Sainte-Croix an organ which arrived in 1821 from the abbey in Saint-Benoît-
sur-Loire. The organ had been purchased during the sale of national assets in
1796 by architect and Ste-Croix parishioner Benoist Lebrun (1754-1819) who gave
it to the bishop of Orléans in 1806. That organ had been built in 1631 and
rebuilt in 1705, and Callinet reconstructed it with four manuals and 45 stops,
12 of them reeds. Callinet enlarged its classical case, already modified over
the years, though the original sculptures adorning it are original. The case
was moved to the liturgical west gallery (the building not having been
completed until the mid-19th century) and houses the Cavaillé-Coll organ.
When Callinet installed the organ from from
St-Benoît-sur-Loire, the existing organ at Ste-Croix had been built in 1657 by
Noël Grantin and completed in 1705 by Jean Brocard, then expanded by
Jean-Baptiste Isnard in 1757.
In 1870, the Callinet instrument was badly damaged in the
Franco-Prussian war, and though many organbuilders submitted proposals, the
cathedral organist, Henri Tournaillon (1832-1887) was adamant that
Cavaillé-Coll should be the builder -- he had provided the excellent choir
organ in 1846. Cavaillé-Coll submitted his proposal for the work in 1878 and it
was completed in 1880, when Alexandre Guilmant played the inaugural recital.
Interestingly, Cavaillé- Coll wished to lower the organ gallery by several
meters in order to improve the acoustical placement of the organ for the
exceptionally long nave of Sainte-Croix, but the architect, Lucien Douillard,
refused, as it would have altered the design of the magnificent doors to the
church. However, Cavaillé- Coll’s mastery of his craft is evident in the
careful voicing of the instrument for the unique space, despite his
frustrations. Though the wind system was electrified with motors in 1921, this
organ managed to escape the trends in revoicing that were rampant in the 1930s,
and Robert Boisseau undertook an initial cleaning and regulation of the organ
in 1949 after it had fortunately survived bombings in 1940 and 1944. In 1973,
the organ was declared a “monument historique” through the efforts of
Marie-Claire Alain. From 2004-2008, the entire instrument was painstakingly and
exquisitely restored to its original 1880 condition, in both sound and
appearance, by Bernard Hurvy. All interior wood was restored to original colors
and the case was even refinished with the precise varnish used by
Cavaillé-Coll, as his specific recipes had since been discovered. All pipework
was meticulously measured and restored to original specifications and voicing.
More than 19,000 hours went into the restoration, and the results are truly stunning.
A unique feature of this organ, found on no other known instruments of
Cavaillé-Coll, is the 32’ Contre-Bombarde, which in its low octave is actually
a 10-2/3' reed stop playing simultaneously with the 16’ Bombarde, producing a
resulting 32’ tone.
Organ of the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix in Orléans, France
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Restored 2004-2008 Bernard Hurvy, Nantes
incoporating parts of 1822 Louis Callinet
= Callinet CC
= Cavaillé-Coll * = 18th-C or earlier
pipes BH =
8’ Montre façade CL
modified by CC, interior pipes CC
8’ Salicional CC
8’ Bourdon CC
8’ Unda Maris BH
4’ Prestant CLC
4’ Flûte douce CC
2-2/3’ Quinte CC
2’ Doublette CC
V Plein-Jeu CC
8’ Cromorne CC
8’ Trompette CL
4’ Clairon CL
16’ Montre façade CL
modified by CC, interior pipes CC
16’ Bourdon CC
8’ Montre CL mod. CC
8’ Bourdon CC
8’ Flûte harmonique CC
8’ Viole de gambe CC
8’ Salicional CC
4’ Prestant CC
4’ Flûte douce CC
G. O. (all stops of III)
graves G. O.
Positif sur G. O.
des Bombardes sur G. O.
Récit sur G. O.
Clavier de Bombardes
V Fourniture CL reconstitued
IV Cymbale CL
reconstituted by CC
V Grand cornet * or CL
16’ Bombarde CL
8’ Trompette CC
8’ Basson CC
4’ Clairon CL
du Clavier de Bombardes
Récit sur Bombardes
16’ Bourdon CC
8’ Principal CC
8’ Bourdon CC
8’ Flûte harmonique CC
8’ Viole de gambe CC
8’ Voix céleste CC
4’ Flûte octaviante CC
2’ Octavin CC
V Cornet CC
16’ Bombarde CC
8’ Trompette harmonique CC
8’ Basson-Hautbois CC
8’ Voix humaine CL
32’ Soubasse CC
16’ Soubasse CC
16’ Flûte CC
16’ Violon-basse façade CL
modified CC, interior pipes CC
8’ Flûte CC
8’ Violoncelle CC
4’ Flûte CC
32’ Contre Bombarde mix by CC
of sources CC, CL, *
16’ Tuba magna CC
16’ Bombarde mix of sources
8’ Trompette mix of sources
4’ Clairon mix of sources
de la Pédale
Clavier de Bombardes
compass 56 notes
compass 30 notes