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Organ Music of Pierre Kunc (1865-1941)
Damin Spritzer Plays 1849 John Abbey Organ at Cathedral in Châlons-en-Champagne, France - [OAR-184]

Organ Music of Pierre Kunc (1865-1941), composer and organist born into a musical Toulouse family (his mother studied organ with Franck, his father was maître de chapelle of Toulouse Cathedral, his younger brother composed, etc.), produced well-received and some prize-winning organ music. Damin Spritzer records pieces composed ca. 1890-1925 on the 1849 John Abbey 3m organ at the Cathedral in Châlons-en-Champagne, France.

Organ Symphony in D (in 3 mvts.)
Grand Pièce Symphonique
Pièce Funèbre
Sortie fuguée
Marche Religieuse
Bénissez Dieu, mes frères les oiseaux

Pierre Kunc: Famous and Unknown
by Steven B. Young
, DMA, Professor Emeritus of Music
Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts

Pierre Aloÿs Marie Joseph Kunc (1865-1941), born in Toulouse, France, came from a family of outstanding musicians. His father, Aloys, studied organ and composition in Toulouse and served as professor of music at the college of Saint-Marie. Aloÿs was also very active in the association of Catholic musicians seeking to restore liturgical chant in the churches of Paris, and he founded the review Musica Sacra, for which Pierre served as an editor. The most prominent member of the Kunc family was Aimé Kunc, winner of the Prix de Rome (1902) and director of the Toulouse Conservatory. Both Pierre’s mother, who studied with César Franck, and sister were organists. This family of musicians dominated the musical scene in Toulouse for many years.
Initially, Pierre embarked on a career as a university professor, but he later enrolled in musical studies at l’École Niedermeyer, where he studied with Ernest Guiraud (composition) and Eugène Gigout (organ). After earning his diploma, Pierre commenced a career as organist, choirmaster, teacher, and composer. He held numerous positions in and around Paris, including a lengthy tenure as professor of music at l’École Sainte Gen­e­vieve. But his highest-profile position was that of maitre de chapelle at l’Eglise Saint-Sulpice (beginning in 1928), where Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré each served as organiste titulaire.

Kunc’s musical output is substantial, but outside of the organ music, only some choral music and a viola sonata are known to have appeared in print. In terms of style, Kunc was influenced greatly by the works of Franck and Wagner. Those influences, coupled with his devout Catholic faith, likely led to Kunc’s relatively conservative style, a factor that may have contributed to his lack of renown outside of France. Reviews of his music were mixed. Some critics felt that his style was not serious enough, while others praised his music for its originality and “not [being] smothered in tricks.” If Kunc failed to earn a prominent place in the broad­er musical community, that might also reflect the loftier status of his brother Aimé, whose renown was greater due to winning the Prix de Rome; the two were sometimes confused for each other. Still, Pierre Kunc left his musical mark on France with the well-crafted organ music found on this disc.

Symphonie en ré mineur
Pierre Kunc began his largest organ composition, Symphonie en ré mineur (Symphony in D Minor) in 1921 and completed it in 1923. The work won first prize in the composition competition sponsored by the Procure Générale de la musique religieuse. 1n 1924, organist Georges Jacob, dedicatee of the work, gave the premiere performance at the salle Gaveau in Paris. Jacob frequently performed this work, along with other compositions by Kunc. The work was well-­received by the musical public, but it failed to sustain the interest of Parisian musicians in the mid-­1920s, perhaps because of its retrospective style. It did not appear in publication until 1927, when musical tastes were certainly changing.

In the opening Fantaisie, the first of three movements, four themes undergo various musical treatments, including rhythmic augmentation, varied harmonizations, contrapuntal treatment, and mode changes. The subsequent Canzona employs a pastoral theme prominently featuring the oboe stop accompanied by a flute stop. The movement demonstrates Kunc’s melodic gift as well as his ability to reinvigorate the harmonic accompaniment of the initial melody. Despite the contrasts between sections, the work maintains its calm atmosphere throughout. The final Toccata makes use of the cyclic technique favored by César Franck and Louis Vierne in their large symphonic works. The rhythmic opening theme aggressively drives the toccata forward. The second theme, using the same driving rhythmic figure, requires a more sustained touch; here, fragments of both the Fantaisie and Canzona can be heard. As was the norm, Kunc explores some unusual tonalities before returning to the tonic key where, once again, he reintroduces themes from previous movements. Much as in the famous Widor Toccata from the Cinquième Symphonie, Kunc reduces the volume for the final entry of the theme and builds to a climactic fortississimo for the conclusion.

Pièce funèbre

With the original title of Poème funèbre and subtitled “Libera…In Paradisum,” the work was composed in 1911 and published in the third volume of Parnasse des organists du XX siècle: oeuvres corronées aux Concours international de 1911. Dedicated to the memory of his father Aloys and his brother Joseph, the work’s somber mood reflects its title. The opening theme is heard three times before any change in tonality occurs, each time treated differently with the second statement an octave higher than the original, and played on a louder registration, while the third iteration has the pedal playing pizzicato eighth notes. Following the third iteration of the opening material, Kunc begins what appears to be a fugal exposition with the character of a funeral march. The initial theme then returns, accompanied by the rhythmic motive of the second theme. Following an extended modulation, Kunc moves to the key of A-flat Major and introduces the Gregorian chant In paradisum. A final key change to C Major leads to the conclusion of the work with a pedal melody singing underneath quietly undulating chords. The funeral march rhythm returns briefly and the piece closes with serene chords.


Communion, also published in 1911 and later with the title Invocation, is a straightforward three-part work displaying Kunc’s gift for writing charming melodies. The middle section is a canon between the soprano and tenor voices. In the conclusion, Kunc places the initial melody in the tenor voice, in the sub-dominant key area of D-flat Major over a tonic A-flat pedal.

Sortie fuguée

Published in 1899, the Sortie fuguée, literally “exit fugue,” may have begun as an improvisation for the conclusion of a church service. It is dedicated to Kunc’s contemporary, Louis Vierne, organist of Notre-Dame de Paris, and appeared in the series entitled L’Orgue Moderne, curated by Widor and Alexandre Guilmant. The lively fugue subject is somewhat reminiscent of a Baroque theme with its use of simple tonal material and motoric rhythm. A countersubject is later developed in the episodic material. Kunc also employs rhythmic augmentation and melodic fragmentation. As the work concludes, a delightful pedal solo recalls Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532, in the same key as this fugue.

Like the Sortie fuguée, the Adagietto appeared as part of l’Orgue Moderne series in 1902. This short, lyrical piece is monothematic, with a harmonically and rhythmically varied accompaniment; the colorful chords of the coda offer the most creative harmonic material. The registration called for in the work shows the varied palette of the French Romantic organ, especially in the use of the Trompette harmonique and Flûte stops.

Les Prières de l’Orgue
This collection, published in 1925, comprises twenty brief pieces for organ or harmonium, each one dedicated to a friend or colleague. The collection was partially reviewed in November 1925 by Jean Huré in L’Orgue et les organistes, vol. 20. The review is an example of the confusion between Kunc and his brother: though Pierre is listed as the composer, the reviewer states that Aymée [sic] dedicated these works to contemporary organists and musicians.

The title of this first selection, Bénissez Dieu, mes frères les oiseaux is a quotation from Les Fioretti by Saint Francis of Assisi. The supple lilting theme runs throughout with reimagined harmonies that would have pleased Louis Vierne, dedicatee. Huré calls it an “eloquent commentary” on the words of the great saint.

Next, the Pastorale departs somewhat from the traditional French portrayal of a bucolic setting and a stormy interlude. It features some expected similarity to the Pastorale of Franck, especially in the use of the Hautbois stop. The middle becomes more animated and louder, using the opening melody as accompaniment for the second theme, but does not convey the feeling of a storm, but then the quieter mood returns. Surprisingly, the work ends loudly, possibly with the people expressing their joy that the storm has passed.

The next piece, Improvisation, may well have begun as a musical experiment which Kunc later committed to paper, a common practice reflecting the essential role of improvisation in the training of organists in the music schools of France in the late nineteenth century. This work displays the composer’s harmonic genius as he seems to roam around the keyboard trying out various key relationships. It also demonstrates his knowledge of modality as the piece begins and ends in E Dorian.

Marche religieuse

This brief work appeared in the second volume of Échos jubilaires des maîtres de l’orgue in 1929. In tripartite form, the work displays Kunc’s creativity and mastery of chromatic harmony. The simple rhythm of the opening phrase belies the clever harmonic scheme, as Kunc modulates from the tonic E Major to the remote key of D-sharp Major before moving swiftly to the dominant key of B Major.

Grande Pièce Symphonique

Like the Symphonie en ré mineur, the Grande pièce symphonique, dedicated to Eugène Gigout, drew a fair amount of attention in the musical press when it was published in 1901, and it appeared on recital programs of Georges Jacob and Alexandre Guilmant. It shares both its title and its F-sharp minor tonality with the well-known piece by César Franck. Its modified sonata-allegro form features an aggressive theme full of rhythmic energy, including the use of hemiola. The contrasting section features sustained chords, setting a calmer mood, and, as in the Franck work, introduces a fugato as part of the development, which uses material from both the first and second sections. The initial material returns for a conclusion in the tonic major key of F-sharp, employing the full sonic resources, in use of dynamics and color, of the French symphonic organ.

John Abbey, Organbuilder by Damin Spritzer

John York Abbey (Dec, 22, 1785 – Feb. 19, 1859) was an English organbuilder born in the village of Whilton in Northamptonshire. In approximately 1825, he was invited to Paris to work with Sébastien Érard, best known as a harp and pianoforte maker, in building an organ Érard had designed for the 1827 Exhibition of the Productions of National Industry, held at the Louvre in Paris. 

Soon established as an organbuilder of note in Paris, Abbey became extensively employed in the construction, renovation, and enlargement of organs in France and elsewhere. He promulgated in France advanced winding systems based on parallel reservoirs rather than cuneiform bellows, conveniently operated couplers, balanced key action instead of suspended action, and even swell shutters. Abbey’s reputation for fine craftsmanship and voicing was overshadowed subsequently only by Aristide Cavaille-Coll (1811-1899), with whom he competed unsuccessfully for the contract (1833) to build what became the 22-year-old Cavaillé-Coll’s groundbreaking new organ (completed in 1841) at St-Denis, Paris, where almost every French king is buried.

The organ at the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in Châlons-en-Champagne, where this album was recorded, is believed to be John Abbey’s largest and most important extant instrument. He also built significant organs for the cathedrals of La Rochelle, Rennes, Viviers, Tulle, Bayeux, and Amiens, and for churches, convents, and chapels at Orléans, Caen, Châlons, Picpus, and even the convent chapel at St-Denis. He built choir organs for the cathedrals of Rheims, Nantes, Versailles, and Évreux, and for the churches of St-Eustache, St-Nicholas-­des-­Champs, St-­Elizabeth, St. Medard, St-­Etienne-­du-­Mont, and St-­Thomas Aquinas in Paris, among others. He repaired and enlarged the organs in the cathedrals of Mende, Moulins, Rheims, Évreux, and Nevers, and in the churches of St-­Étienne-­du-Mont, Saint-Philippe du Roule, and St- Louis d’Antin in Paris. He also built numerous organs for Chile and South America.

In 1831, Abbey was employed to build an organ for the Grand Opera at Paris, which remained in use until both it and the theatre were destroyed by fire in 1873. He died in Versailles on February 19, 1859, leaving two sons, Eugène (1840-1895) and John-Albert Abbey (1843-1930), and the son of Eugene, John-Marie Abbey (1886-1931), to carry on the business of organbuilding. The firm closed in 1935.

At St-Etienne in Châlons-en-Champagne, the stunning neo-Gothic organ case was constructed between 1839 and 1847 by the Parisian carpenter Etienne-Gabriel Ven­ta­dour from drawings by architect Jean-Jacques Arveuf to receive the organ installed in 1849 by John Abbey. Mechanical renovation and tonal modifications occurred in 1898 by Abbey’s sons John Albert and Eugène. The Roethinger firm of Alsace made repairs and modifications in 1957. Later work began in February 2000 by the organ firm Renaud-­Menoret of Nantes and was completed in December 2006 by the Lacorre & Robert Frères firm which included former workers of Re­naud-Menoret, returning the organ mostly but not entirely to its 1898 specification.

1849 John Abbey, Versailles
Cathédrale St-Etienne, Châlons-en-Champagne, France

I Grand Orgue 56 notes
16 Montre
16 Bourdon
8 Montre
8 Flûte harmonique
8 Bourdon
8 Gambe
8 Salicional
4 Prestant
4 Flûte douce
2 Doublette
16 Bombarde
8 Trompette
8 Basson
4 Clairon
III Cymbale
IV-III Fourniture
V Cornet
Anches G.O.
Octaves graves G.O.
16 Réc./G.O.

II Positif ouvert 56 notes
8 Flûte harmonique
8 Principal
8 Bourdon
8 Salicional
8 Unda maris
4 Dulciane
2 Doublette
2-2/3 Nazard
1 Piccolo
8 Clarinette
8 Trompette

III Récit expressif  56 notes
16 Quintaton
8 Cor de nuit
8 Flûte traversière
8 Viole de gambe
8 Voix céleste
8 Diapason
4 Flûte octaviante
2-2/3 Quinte (formerly 8 Cor Anglais)
2 Octavin
16 Basson
8 Trompette
8 Basson hautbois
8 Voix humaine
4 Clairon
V Cornet
IV-III Plein-jeu
Anches Réc.

Pédale 30 notes
32 Principal
16 Flûte
16 Soubasse
8 Flûte
8 Violoncelle
8 Bourdon
4 Flûte
16 Bombarde
8 Trompette
4 Clairon
Anches Péd.

Damin Spritzer is Area Chair and Associate Professor of Organ at the University of Oklahoma and holds degrees from the University of North Texas (DMA), the Eastman School of Music (MM), and the Oberlin Conservatory (BM). She has performed at historic churches and instruments in Germany, France, Iceland, England, Bra­zil, Is­ra­el, Italy, and Norway, and has performed and lectured for conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the Organ Historical Society, and the Association of Anglican Musicians.

Of her recordings for Raven, most of which explore little-known repertoire, the previous (sixth) album is devoted to original organ compositions by Harvey Grace, the 20th-century British music editor and longtime editor of the musical publication, Musical Times. The unique repertoire was recorded on the 1895 T. C. Lewis four-manual organ at the Albion Church, Ashton-Under-Lyme, England. Universally positive reviews in the British and American press include Robert Delcamp’s comment in the American Record Guide, “Spritzer is a superb player, whose earlier recordings I have greatly admired. She has a talent for bringing unknown or neglected repertory to life.“

Spritzer’s acclaimed album of turn-­of-­the-­20th-­century works by English composers, Rhapsodies & Elegies, was recorded on the 1892 Henry Willis organ at Hereford Cathedral in England where she was the first American and first woman to record at the cathedral. It received five stars from Organists’ Review whose critic wrote, “Damin Spritzer‘s performance is spellbinding  and her wide-ranging program notes are fascinating… on so many levels this CD impresses as a serious undertaking.“

Alsatian-American composer René Louis Becker (1882-­1956) is the topic of her doctoral research, which led to three recordings of Becker’s music performed in France at St-­Salomon-­St-Gregoire, Pithiviers; the Cathé­drale Ste-Croix, Orléans; and the Kimball organ of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Her fourth CD, Fantasia, was recorded with trombonist Donald Pinson at St. Monica Catholic Church in Dallas.

Organ Music of Pierre Kunc (1865-1941)<BR><I>Damin Spritzer Plays 1849 John Abbey Organ at Cathedral in Châlons-en-Champagne, France</I>
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