Jeremy Filsell plays organ works composed by Parisian composer and organist Gaston Litaize (1909-1991) on the 64-rank Aeolian-Skinner in the live acoustic of Church of the Epiphany, Washington, DC. Filsell writes that Gaston Litaize “nailed his colors to a neo-classical mast and thus revealed in his writing a Bachian transparency and contrapuntal luminosity; one that perhaps overshadows a strain of Romantic expression which lies at its heart."
Works by Gaston Litaize
Final: Messe pour tous le temps
Variations sur un Noël Angevin
Prèlude et Danse Fugée
Final: Messe pour Toussaint
from 24 Préludes Liturgiques:
Prélude Liturgique VII: Rythme libre
Prélude Liturgique VIII: Scherzo
Prélude Liturgique XI: Rythme libre
Prélude Liturgique XII: Librement
Prélude Liturgique XV: Allegro
Prélude Liturgique XVI: Espressivo
Prélude Liturgique XVII: Allegro
by Jeremy Filsell
In an age in which the music of twentieth century gallic figures such as Messiaen, Alain, Langlais, Duruflé, et al, seems omnipresent on recital programs, it is curious that Gaston Litaize’s – and perhaps also Jean-Jacques Grunenwald’s too – is conspicuous by its absence. All these composers were contemporaries and colleagues who came of age musically (with the exception of Alain, who lost his life prematurely) in the aftermath of World War II, having been beneficiaries of a comprehensive and indefatigable educational system which equipped organists – still part of a noble profession representing the heights of musical endeavor – with remarkably wide-ranging creative skills. In organ terms, Gaston Litaize (1909-1991) nailed his colours to a neo-classical mast and thus revealed in his writing a Bachian transparency and contrapuntal luminosity; one that perhaps overshadows a strain of Romantic expression which lies at its heart. His continual use of modality as a guiding harmonic principle within "looking-over-the-shoulder" structural predilections (fugue, canon and contrapuntal device), allied to a linear integrity, means that his writing never appears less than elegant and beautiful – both to the eye and the ear. That he charms with melodic grace, and with a seductive and subtle approach to dissonance, mirrors a balance of expressive device which older masters, Palestrina and Bach perhaps, continually deployed. This sense of historical legacy is strong in Litaize’s music and with Gregorian chant influence, he shares commonality with his aforementioned colleagues – indeed all of the pre-Vatican II organist-composer generation. Although his pupils still champion his music in France itself, it remains little known elsewhere today. Nonetheless, Kevin J. Vaughn recently (2016) submitted a dissertation at the University of Notre-Dame which focuses on three of Litaize’s Masses. In this, he suggests that Litaize’s musical synthesis stems from a combination of the symphonicism of Vierne, the virtuosity of Dupré, and the chant-based mysticism reminiscent of Tournemire. An assured pedigree indeed.
Gaston Litaize was born in Menil-sur-Belvitte, the eighth of nine children. Only a few days after his birth, he was deprived of his sight – reputedly the victim of a midwife’s mistake and, as a result, was sent to L’institution des Jeunes Aveugles in Nancy aged eight, where he began to learn solfége, piano, singing and latterly, the organ. His obvious gifts encouraged his tutor, Charles Magin, to introduce him to harmony, counterpoint and improvisation too, encouraging him to pursue further studies at L’institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. He thus moved there in 1926, to study with Adolphe Marty, a pupil of César Franck. There, he found himself befriending Jean Langlais and (although older) André Marchal, another blind organist who would become a pioneer of the neoclassical organ revival in France (the musical revitalization for which Litaize became an ardent advocate). Litaize later recalled (to Marie-Louise Langlais in 1983) his early encounters with both Marchal and Langlais:
"I entered the Institution [L’institution des Jeunes Aveugles, Paris] February 4, 1926, and after the traditional medical exams, I found myself at lunch in the dining hall. There were three tables: at one of them were 12 students who were distinguished from the group of the others by one or more stripes on their sleeves, a sign that they were inscribed on the Tablet of Honor. There were four or five “regents” with two stripes and a “dean” who had three. It was a kind of super Award of Excellence of the School. But when I entered the dining hall that day, the ‘dean’ was none other than Jean Langlais. Because I entered in the middle of the year, I had been put by the Administration in classes where there was space available. That’s why I was not with Jean either for piano (I was in Bourdeau’s studio and he was in Blazy’s) or organ (I was with Marty, while Jean was with Marchal). I have a very precise recollection of our first end-of-year competitions, which took place that year on July 5 and 6, 1926. That was the period when Jean, who was exhausted, for the first time in his career as a student received only second prizes— except for the violin for which he won the prize in a remarkable way with an impeccable performance of the First Sonata for solo violin, in G minor, by Bach. In piano, he competed with the Caprice in B-flat Minor by Mendelssohn. For the organ competition, there were four of us, two of Marchal’s students, of whom Jean was one, and two of Marty’s, of whom I was one. Marcel Dupré was the head of the jury that year, and I got the first prize, Jean the second. In composition he was to present a quartet (introduction and allegro). I remember that he had written a big canon in A for his introduction. I thought it was very good, but for some inexplicable reason it didn’t win the prize."
Litaize also related the story of his translation, in October 1927, to the Conservatoire de Paris to join the organ class of Dupré:
"In June 1926, Fleury and Béché won the[ir] first prize; so the only ones staying in Dupré’s class were René Malherbe, Noëlie Pierront, Robert Delestre and Joseph Gilles. Thus, it was to be another year before new students were admitted; as it turned out they were: Olivier Messiaen, Jean Langlais, Henri Cabié, and me.”
Three years later, in 1930, he was appointed organist at Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix in Ménilmontant, and the following year, rewarded by a unanimous Conservatoire Prémier Prix in organ and improvisation. A further Prémier Prix followed, in fugue, in 1933, in the class of Georges Caussade (alongside Jehan Alain), and Henri Dutilleux became a colleague (and later friend) as Litaize entered the composition class of Henri Büsser. The next year, he earned the Rossini Prize for his oratorio Fra Angelico, and then in 1937, a Prémier Prix de Composition for a Concertino for piano and orchestra.
At the outbreak of World War II, and during the French occupation, Litaize worked for the Resistance, becoming responsible for religious broadcasts at La Radiodiffusion Française à la libération. This position he went on to hold for three decades, promoting broadcasts for all religious denominations. In 1946, he became organist at the Parisian church of Saint-François-Xavier and began to emerge as a noted interpreter of the then somewhat neglected repertoire of the French grand sciècle (Couperin, Grigny, Lebègue, Marchand etc.). In his recital-giving in the 1950s, he supported the renewed interest in a more scholastic approach to the playing of J. S. Bach’s music (speaking in 1983 of the approach to his music at the time: “It should be remembered that at this time we were barely at the beginning of the rediscovery of Bach’s organ works, and most organists had a very limited repertory. Dupré, in 1920, had himself given a series of ten recitals at the Conservatory, in the course of which he played the complete works of Bach by memory, a monumental event. But, of course, he completely neglected the pre-Bach repertory. At this time, in 1927, only Marchal was known to have made stylistic distinctions. So Dupré was completely of his time”). Together with the musicologist Jean Bonfils, Litaize founded L’Orgue Liturgique in 1953, an extensive collection of organ music published by Schola Cantorum, in which several of his own compositions appeared beside newer editions of pre-Bach repertoire, hitherto much neglected.
In 1975, Litaize became Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire de Saint-Maur-Des-Fossés, dedicating energy and devotion to his teaching, to the degree that his classes became nationally prestigious. Amongst his pupils were Denis Comtet (who succeeded him at Saint-François-Xavier) and Olivier Latry (Organiste titulaire at Notre-Dame de Paris), whom he inspired to choose his career: “At 16 I won a piano first prize ... and I thought I might continue piano studies at the Paris Conservatoire. ... However, I decided to play the organ, choosing Gaston Litaize at the CNR de St-Maur-des-Fossés as my teacher as I had heard him give a very exciting recital at the Cathedral of Boulogne-sur-Mer. It was this that confirmed my desire to play the organ.”
Here in the US, and three blocks from the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, Ronald Stolk, Professor of Organ at the Catholic University of America, presides at the Catholic Church of St. Patrick. In the 1980s, he studied with Litaize and recalled this memory: ”Upon graduating from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague in 1983, I received a grant from the Dutch government for organ lessons with Gaston Litaize and Jean Langlais, and once a month I would spend a few days in Paris to work with both maîtres. I would visit Litaize’s apartment in the afternoon for a lesson on his studio organ and in the (not necessarily early) evening, walk with him to the church of Saint-François-Xavier for the ’finishing touches,’ before walking him back to Rue Mayet. The pneumatic-action organ in Saint-François was in working order, but hardly reliable. I felt anxious one evening when he disappeared into the organ case to ’fix something,’ wondering how he found his way around the organ’s innards, but being relieved when he emerged unscathed a few minutes later. Litaize’s remarkable skills are well known, but what I found fascinating back then was how much he and Langlais were part of that great French organ tradition: they had studied with Tournemire, Vierne and Dupré, and they were friends with Messiaen, no less. While Litaize certainly recognized this tradition (he spoke with real affection of Vierne), he also made it clear that he had not stood still, and had developed his personal ideas about organ composition, organ playing, and organ design. The most noteworthy thing for me about Litaize as an improviser was his harmonic palette. He could harmonize a very simple melody in a completely unexpected, yet always logical way. His compositions bear witness to this gift, but to have experienced it directly will remain a precious memory.”
Jeremy Filsell is one of only a few virtuoso performers as both pianist and organist. He has appeared as a solo pianist in Russia, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, and throughout the USA and UK. His concerto repertoire encompasses Bach, Mozart and Beethoven through to Shostakovich, John Ireland, and Rachmaninov. He has recorded the solo piano music of Herbert Howells, Bernard Stevens, Eugène Goossens, and Johann Eschmann for Guild, Rachmaninov for Signum, and two discs of French mélodies accompanying Michael Bundy (baritone) for Naxos. He has performed and recorded the 1st and 2nd Piano Concertos of Rachmaninov with Peter Conte realizing the orchestral score on the Wanamaker organ.
Jeremy Filsell is on the international roster of Steinway Piano Artists and has recorded for BBC Radio 3, USA, and Scandinavian radio networks in solo and concerto roles. His discography comprises more than 30 solo recordings. Gramophone magazine commented on Filsell’s recording of the complete organ works of Marcel Dupré (for Guild in 2000) that it was “one of the greatest achievements in organ recording.“ In 2005, Signum released a 3-disc set of the six organ symphonies of Louis Vierne, recorded on the 1890 Cavaillé-Coll organ in St. Ouen Rouen (BBC Radio 3’s Disc of the Week in September of that year). He has taught at universities, summer schools, and conventions in both the UK and USA and has served on international competition juries in England and Switzerland. Recent solo recital engagements have taken him across the USA and UK and to Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. In North America, he concertizes under the auspices of Philip Truckenbrod Concert Artists.
As a student of Nicolas Kynaston in London and Daniel Roth in Paris, Jeremy Filsell studied as an Organ Scholar at Oxford University (Keble College) before completing graduate studies in piano performance with David Parkhouse and Hilary McNamara at the Royal College of Music in London. He was awarded a PhD in Musicology at Birmingham City University/Conservatoire for research involving aesthetic and interpretative issues in the music of Marcel Dupré. Before moving to the USA in 2008, he held Academic and Performance lectureships at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and was a lay clerk in the choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He currently combines an international recital and teaching career with being director of music at The Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, artist-in-residence at Washington National Cathedral, and Professor of Organ at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
The Organ of the Church of the Epiphany, Washington DC
Since the Church of the Epiphany’s founding, the church has had five organs. The first instrument was built by Henry Erben of New York in 1846, two years after the church’s completion (a rather quaint budget item of the day being the $30 a year set aside for boys to pump the organ bellows). Coinciding with renovations and expansion of the church, Erben’s organ was enlarged in 1859 before a third instrument, by perhaps the major builder of the day – the Hook & Hastings Company of Boston – was placed in the rear balcony in 1874 (opus 771). This was rebuilt and moved to the chancel in the early 1890s and the present-day chancel case dates from this time. In 1911, the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston built a 29-rank instrument incorporating pipes from the Hook instrument (opus 187 – further expanded to 36 ranks in 1917). The current organ, opus 1485 by the Aeolian-Skinner Company of Boston, came towards the end of the firm’s history (it closed finally in 1971 with installation of the Kennedy Center organ - just a few blocks from the Epiphany - as its swan song). The Epiphany instrument was dedicated in March 1968, in memory of Adolph Torovsky, Organist-Choirmaster at Epiphany for almost 50 years. When first installed, it incorporated 50 ranks and 2,761 pipes, but with additions over the last 40 years, the instrument today comprises 64 ranks (3,467 pipes). Pipework existing from previous organs includes the 8’ Bourdon in the Swell from the 1874 Hook & Hastings organ and the 8’ Spitzflöte from the 1911 E. M. Skinner. Also from the 1911 E. M. Skinner are the twelve lowest wooden pipes of the Ophicleide in the Solo. The Tuba, French Horn and English Horn were originally part of a large E. M. Skinner organ built for the Beacon Hill residence of the late Mr. & Mrs. Edwin Farnham Greene, an instrument often played by Virgil Fox on visits to Boston. A recent part-restoration (2011) of the organ by the Di Gennaro-Hart Organ Company included much needed repair and re-leathering, the first phase of a hoped-for continuation of work to ensure the instrument’s longevity. In a Washington Star review of the 1968 dedicatory recital, critic Lawrence Sears suggested that: “Musical pilgrims to Washington will now want to include a visit to Epiphany Church on downtown G Street to see and hear its stunning Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.“ Epiphany seemingly never purchased anything but the finest instruments, and all five were representative of the best of their time."
Recitalists at Epiphany have included Marcel Dupré and Pierre Cochereau, besides many other important names in the US organ world, and the long-running weekly Arts Series concerts continues to bring international recitalists to Epiphany to perform. The church has always been a lynchpin in the DC musical arts scene – indeed, the majority of the city‘s music instrument dealers and music venues (halls and theaters) were located on and around Epiphany‘s city block in the twentieth century‘s early years. Past Music Directors at Epiphany have included the brilliant student of Leo Sowerby and Virgil Fox, Garnell Copeland (1966-1977), who followed Adolf Torovsky’s 50-year tenure, and in whose memory the Trompette-en-Chamade (1978) was given after his tragic murder. (Perhaps amusingly, Epiphany remains the only organ to contain two en-chamade reed stops in the DC metro area.) Charles Callahan presided over the music between 1977-1986 and James Buonamani served at Epiphany prior to his move to St. James Episcopal Church, Los Angeles. Eric Plutz was Director of Music 1998-2005 and moved to become Organist at Princeton University. Christian Clough was succeeded by Jeremy Filsell in 2012. The present organ curator is Bard Wickkeiser, also curator of the of the organs in Washington National Cathedral and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Æolian-Skinner Organ Company, op, 1485, 1968
64 ranks, 62 stops and 3,467 pipes
Great Man. II, 2¾” wind
2’ Super Octave
16’ Contra Posaune (Ped)
8’ Posaune (Ped)
Positiv Man. I, 2½” wind
8’ Flute Harmonique (Solo)
8’ Posaune (Ped)
8’ State Trumpet (Gallery)
8’ Trompette-en-Chamade (Great)
4’ Clairon-en-Chamade (Great)
Swell I Man. III, East side, 3¾” wind
8’ Viole de Gambe
8’ Viole Celeste
8’ Vox Humaine
Swell II Man. III, West side 3¾" wind
8’ Flute Celeste
III-V Plein Jeu
8’ State Trumpet (Gallery)
Manual III Sostenuto
Solo Man. IV 10” wind
8’ Cello Celeste
8’ Gamba Celeste
8’ Silver Flute
8’ Silver Flute Celeste
8’ Flute Harmonique
4’ Flute Octaviante
8’ English Horn
8’ French Horn
4’ Tuba Clarion
Gallery Man. IV 10” wind
8’ State Trumpet 49
McKim Tower Chimes
Pedal 2¾” & 4” wind
16’ Violone (Solo)
16’ Gemshorn (Great)
10-2/3’ Gemshorn (Great)
8’ Gemshorn (Great)
4’ Super Octave
4’ Flute (Solo)
16’ Ophicleide (Solo)
16’ Hautbois (Swell)
8’ Trompette-en-Chamade (Great)
4’ Clairon-en-Chamade (Great)
Pedal Divide (divides at Tenor C)
10 divisional pistons to each manual
24 General pistons, 64 memory levels, Sequencer
3 adjustable crescendo settings
Great-Positiv manual transfer