Playing Dupré is quite difficult. He had the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth from birth, at least in a musical sense. His father Albert was an organist in Rouen and good friends with iconic organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The latter built a house organ for the Dupré family when Marcel was 14. He certainly must have used it, since by the time he was 18 he was studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with three organists/composers of historical importance: Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne, and Charles-Marie Widor. Any musician would be lucky to study with just one of these gods.
Comparisons to J.S. Bach
Of course, one’s education is never a guarantee of success, but Dupré certainly didn’t disappoint. Although few outside of the organist world would consider Dupré worthy of comparison to J.S. Bach, there are some parallels. Both organists are what would we would call extremely well-rounded. They took both composition and performance seriously. In Bach’s day, that meant learning the emerging pianoforte as well as the established harpsichord and clavichord. Dupré only had to contend with the piano since the other two instruments practically vanished a century earlier.
Also, both advanced the technique of the music they wrote to the extent that their contemporaries often couldn’t play their music. One of Bach’s contemporaries, Sorge, wrote that Bach’s chorale preludes were “so difficult and almost unusable by players.” By that, he was talking about most other church musicians of the time. Dupré’s own teacher, Widor, who preceded Dupré as titular organist at Saint-Sulpice, declared the first and last Preludes and Fugues from Op. 7 to be unplayable.
Although the music of both composers evolved over time, their music was always unmistakably theirs, in a style that evolved but never drastically changed. Bach never gave up composing in a contrapuntal style even though most other composers moved to the simplified Rococo style with simple tonic and dominant harmony. Dupré never signed on to neo-classicism or neo-romanticism after atonality became passé.
Listen to the Bach Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, followed by the Dupré Invention in C Major, Op. 50, No. 1. Do you hear the influence of the German master on the French one?
Playing Dupré: Inventions, Opus 50
Bach wrote two cycles of 24 keyboard works, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which explores every major and minor key. Certainly, Dupré knew and played these works as well. It wasn’t until he was 70 that he published his own cycle of 24 pieces, called the Inventions, Op. 50. In structure, they could be more accurately comparable to Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias. However, Dupré undersold these pieces a bit since his Inventions almost always have three independent voices, counting each of the hands and the feet together.
Playing Dupré takes hours of practice, even for these relatively simple Inventions. There is rarely a time where I spend so much time in study on the bench and feel like I’ve accomplished so little. Many people avoid this composer because playing Dupré isn’t easy.
More to Come
Having only learned the first four of these Op. 50 Inventions, and several of his Op. 18 Antiphons, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point that I feel comfortable and in command of Dupré’s complex textures. Even if I do, will I be a good ambassador of his music towards others, especially given that his music doesn’t appeal widely. Although his music is not as atonal as Schönberg at the height of his career, there is something about the atonal style that makes liking the music difficult. One critic mentioned that the pieces become so involved in the exploration of compositional technique that the music sometimes suffers.
Frame of reverence is also important. This music evokes for me being in a large cathedral filled with all of the symbols and pageantry of high liturgy. If you can put yourself into that space, you may find a way to enjoy his works. If not, that’s okay too. There’s plenty of organ music that is a bit less high brow.
- Marcel Dupré (Wikipedia)