Music of René Louis Becker, Alsatian-American
Composer and Organist, 1882-1956
Isnard /1890 Cavaillé-Coll Organ, Pithiviers,
France First Recording of the Restored Organ
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 taught music,
composed prolifically, and worked as an organist in St. Louis, Illinois, and
Michigan for 52 years.
Click here to watch on YouTube: Damin Spritzer at the 1890 Cavaillé-Coll organ play the Finale: Toccata of René Louis Becker's Third Sonata. Video was shot by Christoph Martin Frommen, the esteemed engineer and creator of the superb European CD label, Aeolus, who recorded this program for Raven and achieved superlative results, capturing the large acoustic of this grand organ's environment.
*****Five-Star Review in Choir & Organ; writes Michael Quinn:
Vying for attention here is the first recording of the combined
century-spanning Isnard/Cavaillé-Coll since its restoration in 2008 by
Bertrand Cattiaux, and first appearances on disc of seven pieces by the
all but unknown Alsatian-American composer-organist Rene Louis Becker.
Damin Spritzer serves both instrument and music well, alert to the
music's lyrical mien and harmonic muscle, negotiating the III/49 machine
with an easy command of drama and real feeling for Becker's melody-led,
cleanly executed music. The unabashedly romantic Second Sonata,
majestic Third Sonata, vivacious Toccata, and soft and tender Supplication reveal Becker as a composer of substance and sophistication. A second volume is eagerly awaited.
Reviews Classical Music Sentinel, Jean-Yves Duperron:
Step aside Léon Boëllmann, move over Charles-Marie Widor, and let René
Louis Becker show you how it's done. I can't believe organ music this
good has been neglected or ignored by the recording industry for this
long. . . . This is colorful music, ripe with melodic invention, rich with harmonic
confidence, and an effortless flair for thematic development that could
put better known composers to shame. . . . Unlike many other heavy-handed organists, Damin Spritzer drives the
music along with plenty of forward momentum which adds a singing quality
to the melodic lines and an assured rhythmic movement to the toccatas
and marches. . . .Believe me, the final glorious chord of the Marche Triomphale will make you glad you're alive. (See full review near the bottom of this page.)
Solennelle, Op. 70
Sonata in F, Op. 41
Sonata in E, Op. 43
Marche Triomphale: Ite missa est
René Louis Becker
by Damin Spritzer
It is quite surprising that composer and organist René
Louis Becker (1882-1956) has been forgotten almost entirely, as his career in America from
1904-1956 spanned a very rich era for the organ world. His stature among
contemporaries ranked him for inclusion in the very first volume of The
American Organist magazine, in a lengthy biographical article with a
His music was
championed by great organists including Alexander Schreiner, who later wrote to
Becker’s family about the organ music, and Albert Riemenschneider, who said in
1916: “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 rhythmic treatment.”
The quality and
quantity of his organ music represents a significant contribution to American
20th-century organ repertoire. His compositional style combines European
training in Strasbourg
with a lifetime spent under the influence of American and European
contemporaries, and his musical style is defined by lyric, singing melodies,
clean counterpoint, and an appealing harmonic language.
Becker’s entire musical estate was consigned to storage
with his family after his death in 1956. On my many visits with the family, I
counted 529 scores in the collection (further examination may change this
number slightly). 152 of those were for solo organ, 54 of which were published
during Becker’s lifetime. There are no dates of composition on any organ
scores, but copyright dates and opus numbers provide a semblance of order if
few insights into his development as a composer. Additional complications arise
because of the presence of handwriting from several different individuals throughout
the corpus, as well as many instances of duplicated, altered, or even
crossed-out opus numbers. The published works, as would be expected, are
generally the more refined and polished. The works still in manuscript are
quite diverse and often display more experimental or unusual examples of his
writing. A consistent trait of Becker’s style is the use of ABA form with dramatically contrasting B
sections, and of the 152 known organ works, more than 85 exhibit this form.
The most significant of Becker’s previously-published
organ compositions are the three multi-movement sonatas, two of which are heard
on this recording. They pay homage to the revered tradition and grand style of
the romantic organ sonata/symphonie, following in the footsteps of great
organist/composers Charles-Marie Widor, Alexandre Guilmant, and Joseph
Rheinberger in their form and inspiration. Becker’s smaller works incorporate a
wide range of styles from strictly classical to a more modern idiom of what
might be called “character pieces” with fancifully evocative titles such as Sur
le Nil, At Sunrise,Oiseaux Volants pour Orgue, Idylle Angélique, and Crépuscule à l’Orient (Melodie Arabe).
René’s father, Edouard Becker (1838-1895), was a prominent
organist from Bischheim, Alsace, who served as the organist for
Chartres Cathedral and the Strasbourg Cathedral in the 1860s and 1870s. René
was the second-to-last child in the large family, taught first by his father
and then formally trained at the Strasbourg Municipal Conservatory of Music
from 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.
In 1904, Becker immigrated to America
to join his older brothers Lucien and Camille in St. Louis, Missouri,
where they established the Becker Bros. Conservatory of Music in 1905. From
1905-1910, René was listed as an “Instructor of Music” at St. Louis University,
where he taught piano-forte. He also taught Gregorian Chant at Kenrick Seminary
in 1906-8 and 1910-1911. On May 3, 1910, he married Angela Landzettel, who was
also an accomplished musician and a published composer. During the nine years
René lived in St. Louis,
59 of his compositions for organ and/or piano are known to have been published.
In addition to teaching and his work as a church organist, René performed
frequent concerts in the St. Louis
area, most often as an accompanist, according the concert programs in the
family scrapbook. The performances, whether they took place in “Becker Hall” or
in other venues, nearly always featured many collaborators: violinists,
vocalists, organists, and pianists.
He moved to Belleville,
Illinois, in 1912 where he was
the organist for St. Peter’s Cathedral from 1912-1915. During his tenure, the
Estey Organ Company installed op. 1093 in the Cathedral in 1913. While in Belleville, nearly 50
more of his compositions were published.
In 1915, the Becker family moved to Alton, Illinois,
and remained there until 1930. René continued to teach and compose and was the
organist at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, publishing nearly 100 more
compositions during those 15 years in Alton.
The cathedral organ was an 1893 Hook & Hastings, op. 1569 of two manuals
and 27 registers. Sadly, on July 21, 1949, a powerful lightning bolt struck the
steeple of the Cathedral and destroyed the organ.
In 1930, they moved again and René became the first
organist at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit, Michigan,
remaining there until 1942. The organ at the Cathedral today is still the same
as then: Casavant Frères op. 1114 installed in 1925, with three manuals of 61
keys, a 32-note pedal board, and 50 stops. Between 1931 and 1947, only eight
more compositions were published (more than 300 works in manuscript, written
throughout his entire career, remain unpublished to this day). The Great
Depression was not kind to the music publishing industry: many of René’s
submissions during those years were rejected by publishers for economic
After 1942, René moved to St. Alphonsus Church in Dearborn, Michigan,
where he served as organist until retirement in 1952 at the age of 70. Records
of the Austin Organ Company indicate that their instrument at St. Alphonsus was
of 30-stops and had been installed in 1929, with three manuals of 61 notes each
and a 32 note pedalboard. René’s retirement was caused by complications and
suffering from the Parkinson’s disease of which he died on January 28, 1956 at
the age of 74.
Music on this CD
This disc is the world premiere recording of these works
of Becker. The pieces chosen here are among the best, most sophisticated, and
most varied of his organ compositions.
Romantic and dramatic, the Sortie Solennelle,
op. 70, opens immediately with virtuosic arpeggio figuration coupled with
dramatic chromaticism and extended pedal solos. Though compositionally in
Becker’s unique and surprising harmonic language, it also represents a
stylistic homage to the virtuosic final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s first
organ sonata, op. 65. It bears a dedication to W. Ray Burroughs of Rochester, New
Cantilena, op. 42, is a lyrical and tender
composition dedicated to Becker’s older brother Lucien, also a prominent organist
of the time. Beginning in F major, it modulates to B-flat, followed by
contrasting material in G-flat major that skillfully transitions to a return of
the opening material in the tonic key. The coda, curiously, modulates to a
peaceful ending in G major. The on-going sixteenth notes in the accompanying
voice murmur continuously under a dialogue between melodies heard on the
soaring Hautbois and Flûte Harmonique.
Becker wrote at least 12 toccatas for organ. The exuberant
Toccata, op. 45, calls instantly to mind the toccatas of Dubois and
Lemmens. It is dedicated to his organ professor in Strasbourg, Adolphe Gessner. The toccata
begins in F major, followed by charming chorale-like contrasting material in
D-flat that becomes intensely chromatic, leading to the key of B-flat with
flourishes of the toccata material interspersed with phrases of the chorale.
This transitions to a complete restatement of the opening toccata with the
chorale melody returning in the coda.
Becker’s three published organ sonatas are arguably his
greater and more significant compositions. The latter two represent his
weightiest and most refined writing, combining counterpoint with his
characteristic long, arching melodic lines. Op. 41, the Second Sonata in F,
opens with an extended and grandiose first movement using the full foundations
of the organ to lead to a contrasting grand fugue with all of the reeds in the
Récit. The work is dedicated to another of his Strasbourg professors, Ernest Münch. The
return of the opening theme is amplified by a gradual crescendo to a climactic
sequence on full organ, which then recedes rapidly to pianissimo for the final
chords on the Récit. The second movement, Pastorale, is an extended and
picturesque solo for the Hautbois in D-flat major, contrasted with a delicate
dialogue between the Voix humaine and a Bourdon before a return of the entire
Hautbois solo. The Finale presents a dark and vigorous theme in F minor which
leads to a contrasting chorale-like theme, again in D-flat. This modulates to a
soaring transition reminiscent of Charles-Marie Widor, before a restatement of
the chorale theme leads to the return of the triumphant F-minor theme. The
movement closes with a stately chorale in F major on full organ.
Third Sonata in E, op. 43, which is dedicated to
Edwin Arthur Kraft, begins with a majestic Prelude in E major that is marked
fortissimo for the entire movement. The chordal melody heard throughout is
treated with doubled chords in both hands. The second movement, Adoration,
is a tender soliloquy in D-flat on the shimmering strings and flutes, with a
sweetly descending melody that calls to mind the writing of Widor in the fourth
movement of his fifth organ symphony, op. 42. And again like Widor, the
following movement is a brilliant Finale: Toccata in E major. Virtuosic writing
for the manuals leads to dramatic cadential pedal solos, and the movement ends
with a startling sequence of grand chords on the full organ of Église
Saint-Salomon et Saint-Grégoire.
Supplication, op. 81a, exemplifies
Becker’s smaller and more evocative works, using the strings, flues, and
celestes of the organ to showcase this tender and petite musical prayer.
The massive Marche
Triomphale: Ite missa est, is an exultant work in D major,
dedicated to a former archbishop of St.
Louis. The grand pomp of the festive march can be
vividly pictured accompanying the end of a cathedral liturgy for a high
festival day. The development of a stately chorale in the contrasting material
changes the character of the work before the regal march theme returns to end
the work with majesty.
“Rene L. Becker: a Biography,” American Organist
vol. 1, no. 3 (March 1918), 140-141.
Baldwin-Wallace College Bulletin, School of Music,
vol. 4, no. 4, Sept. 1916, in Becker family collection.
Becker, Edouard (“Life of Edouard Becker,” written in
1883), “La Famille Becker,” musimem.com/ becker, accessed 20 June 2010.
Becker, René Louis, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of
Musicians, 4th Ed., NY, G. Schirmer, Inc., 1940, 76.
Becker, René Louis, The International Cyclopedia of
Music and Musicians, Oscar Thompson, ed., NY, Dodd, Mead, 1939.
Becker, René Louis, International Who’s Who in Music
and Music Gazetteer, César Saerchinger, ed., NY, Current Literature
Publishing Co., 1918.
Catalog: “Becker Bros. Conservatory of Music,” St. Louis,
Skaer Printing Co., 1905, family collection.
Julius Becker, in interviews by author, Birmingham, MI,
14 Aug 2009 and 13 May 2010, and examination of family collection.
Angela Landzettel musical compositions, provided by Julius
Becker, 13 May 2010.
Estey Pipe Organs Opus List, esteyorgan.com
The Hook Opus List, William T. Van Pelt, ed., Richmond, VA,
The Organ Historical Society, 1991, p. 60
Ss. Peter and Paul Church, Compunet Web Design Services,
ssppalton.com, accessed 28 June 2010.
Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, OHS Pipe Organ
Database, organsociety.org, accessed 11 Nov 2010, ©2005 Organ Historical
Contract between Austin Organ Company and St. Alphonsus
Church, Dearborn, MI,
provided with stoplist by the Austin
Orgue de L’église
de Pithiviers, France
The first stone of the Church of Saint-Salomon-Saint-Gregoire
is believed to have been laid in 1080, and the chancel of the early building
remains. The earliest known organ was purchased from Jean Moutton in 1623 and
was “a pair of 4' organs, of decent height and size,” relates Fr. R. Moufflet,
abbott, in his 1947 book, Petite Histoire de Pithiviers.
A century and a half later, in 1784, Fr. François Regnard
ordered and received a new 8' organ of 15 stops on one manual from the Orléans
organbuilder Jean-Baptiste Isnard (nephew of the more famous organbuilder Jean-Esprit
Two years later, in 1786, Fr. Regnard ordered from Isnard
a significant enlargement of the organ to include 16’ pipes contained in
flanking additions to the 1784 case, resulting in an organ of 42 stops played
by four manuals and pedal. The manuals
were traditionally configured: full-compass Positif and Grand Orgue, and
half-compass Récit and Écho. The newly enlarged organ and a newly built loft
containing it were dedicated in 1789.
A century later, Msgr. Chabot, the parish priest in 1889,
received Félix Reinburg from the Parisian firm of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Reinburg found the Isnard organ intact but in poor condition, and proposed
rebuilding it to the tastes of the day using most of the existing pipes, adding
several string stops, omitting tierces, the Larigot, and some mixture ranks, to
render an organ of 45 stops on three full-compass manuals and pedal, with
modern accessories such as the expression pedal, Barker lever, couplers, and
registration aids. The proposal was accepted, and Alexandre Guilmant dedicated
the rebuilt organ on June 23, 1890. The organ would exist for 70 years as
rebuilt by Cavaillé-Coll.
In 1960, Robert Boisseau of Poitiers began another restoration. At that
time, the organ included 24 stops of Isnard pipes and three more early sets of
pipes, perhaps added in the Cavaillé-Coll rebuild. Boisseau extended the manual
compass from 54 to 56 keys, the pedal from 27 notes to 30, and added stops to
bring the total to 49. He recreated the missing 18th-century ranks: tierces,
Larigot, and Quarte de nazard, recreated the 16’ plenum (plein-jeu) comprised
of 14 ranks in the Grand Orgue and Positif based largely on Dom Bédos’
descriptions of the Plein-Jeu and the mixture breaks used by F. H. Clicquot at
Souvigny, moved the IV Cymbale of the Récit to a slightly higher pitch to
render a brighter 18-rank plein-jeu when desired, closed and soldered tuning
scrolls added by Cavaillé-Coll, rescaled pipes and lowered wind pressure to
18th-century norms, removed nicking and revoiced. However, most of the
Cavaillé-Coll Récit was retained as was the 1890 mechanism, eschewing
recreation of an 18th-century, suspended key action.
In 2005-2008, Bertrand Cattiaux restored and renovated the
instrument, which is classified as an “Historic Monument.”
This disc marks the first recording on this organt since the renovations were
completed in 2008.
Hailed as “elegantly assured” by the Dallas Morning News
and featured on the nationally broadcast Pipedreams radio program, Damin
Spritzer performs organ recitals from coast to coast, and has played and
spoken for conventions of the American Guild of Organists. Her varied programs
often champion unknown romantic works for organ as well as recent compositions
by living composers. Her research on the life and music of René Louis Becker is
in preparation for her doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas.
She received her Master of Music degree in Organ Performance from the Eastman
School of Music and her Bachelor of Music degree in Organ Performance from the
Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She has
competed and won awards in many organ competitions, and was selected as one of
the initial 25 competitors in the National Young Artists Competition in Organ
Performance in 2006. She has received both First and Second prizes in AGO
Chapter and Regional Competitions in Portland, Oregon and Cleveland, Ohio, was
a Finalist in the National Competition for Young Organists in Ottumwa, Iowa,
and was selected for the Honorable Mention for Repertoire Playing and the prize
for Best Hymn Playing in the graduate division of the 32nd Annual William C.
Hall Pipe Organ Competition in San Antonio, Texas. A native of the Pacific
Northwest (Vancouver, Washington
and Portland, Oregon), she studied piano with Carol
Crawford and Harold Gray, violin with Pierre d’Archambeau and Raphael Spiro,
and organ with Delbert Saman. Her subsequent organ instructors include Jesse
Eschbach, David Higgs, Haskell Thomson, David Boe, Gerre Hancock, Joel
Martinson, and Karel Paukert.
Ms. Spritzer is Associate Director of Music and Organist
for University Park United Methodist
Church in Dallas, Texas.
She held the similar post at Saint Rita Catholic Community in Dallas
from 2000-2008, and prior to that served at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, Georgia
from 1999-2000. In Dallas,
she has served multiple times on the Executive Committee of the Dallas Chapter
of the American Guild of Organists.
Reviews Classical Music Sentinel, Jean-Yves Duperron, June 2011.
Step aside Léon Boëllmann, move over Charles-Marie Widor, and let René Louis Becker show you how it's done. I can't believe organ music this good has been neglected or ignored by the recording industry for this long. This CD represents the world première recording of these pieces by René Louis Becker (1882-1956). An Alsatian-American composer who was born in France, then moved to the United States in 1904 where he worked as an organist for the rest of his life.. . .
This is colorful music, ripe with melodic invention, rich with harmonic confidence, and an effortless flair for thematic development that could put better known composers to shame. The reason why I picked Boëllmann and Widor for comparison, is precisely because some of Becker's music very much resembles their style. The Cantilena for example, brings to mind the Prière à Notre-Dame by Boëllmann, while the Toccata has just as much forward momentum as the one made famous by Widor. The slower and more lyrical segments of his pieces are always adorned with beautifully shaped melodies made to highlight the sweeter flute and oboe stops of the organ, while the more upbeat works will make you want to get up and walk a victory march.
Unlike many other heavy-handed organists, Damin Spritzer drives the music along with plenty of forward momentum which adds a singing quality to the melodic lines and an assured rhythmic movement to the toccatas and marches. Her constant search for unknown works for organ and championing of new works by living composers, have brought much respect and many awards her way. The instrument she chose for this recording is the Organ of the Church of Saint-Salomon- Saint-Grégoire in Pithiviers, France. It's a combination 1789 Isnard and 1890 Cavaillé-Coll, revised in 1960 by Robert Boisseau and fully restored in 2008 by Bertrand Cattiaux. In fact, this recording is the first one since the restoration. It's a very well balanced instrument with a range of stops from a 2' Doublette to a 32' Soubasse, and everything in between including some impressive Trumpet and Bombarde stops. Believe me, the final glorious chord of the Marche Triomphale will make you glad you're alive.