Learning Dupré


Learning 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?

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Learning 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.

Learning 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 learning 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.

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Unattributed photo of Marcel Dupré at the Grand Orgue of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-07-27

Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One


I’m sure that the majority of the congregation where I work in Bella Vista, Arkansas, are not even aware of this occasion. On February 4, 2018, I played the First Prelude and Fugue in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, by J.S. Bach at First Methodist. The prelude has been quoted by other composers through the centuries, including Charles Gounod in his setting of the Ave Maria. Today I complete that journey with the Twenty-Fourth Prelude and Fugue in B minor. It’s my way to say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One!

Fans Help

Thankfully, I have a group of loyal fans who have been with me every step of the way. I also have some friends and colleagues from far-flung places with whom I want to share the performance, so I’m broadcasting it via Facebook Live just before noon today (CST). Although it’s not good to be boastful, I’m proud of following through a commitment to learn all of these gems. I was not a big fan of these pieces in music school, something I first shared in my blog post celebrating the beginning of this project.

The B minor Prelude and Fugue

Before reminiscing about the entire cycle, I have to point out how odd this last entry is. Both the prelude and fugue have tempo markings, andante and largo, respectively. None of the other 23 preludes and fugues have any tempo indications. There are repeats indicated on both the A and B section of the prelude. There are no other repeat marks in the entire book.

The fugue is 6 pages long, matched only by the A minor fugue. However, this fugue carries a pathos and chromaticism that is unparalleled in the rest of the set. Upon hearing the fugue subject, which is the single voice that sets the tone for what follows, you know that a wild ride is coming. It brings to mind the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. While Tristan is almost 5 hours long, this set of pieces wraps up in about 12 minutes.

Overall Learnings

One of the benefits of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, in my case just the first book, is getting to know Bach better. Many of the great composers have referenced these pieces; Robert Schumann called them “the pianist’s daily bread.” Many great pianists learned and performed them, even those you wouldn’t think of as Bach specialists. I enjoyed how Bach took standard forms and exploited them for their full worth. Each prelude was sometimes very simple, but occasionally it was just as contrapuntal as the attached fugue. Although I didn’t learn these pieces to study voice leading, harmony, or improvisation, I subconsciously absorbed all of these concepts.

To look at this from a wider lens, I find that studying an entire set of works gives you a more complete view of a composer. It forces you to look at each and every piece and figure out how to convey the message in the most accurate and musical way. No shortcuts! No selecting the easiest or most popular works, then puffing oneself up as being an expert in the composer.

Inspiration Helps

Having a great piano as a practice instrument certainly was great inspiration. It’s the one highlight that I can truly credit since there’s a lot of loneliness inside the walls of a church sanctuary. By design, it’s a great environment for practicing, with no interruption from the outside world. However, I did appreciate hearing the occasional squirrel scampering across the roof.

Moving Forward

Once I say Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One, I will go back through each of the pieces as my daily bread. I will emphasize those several pieces that were just lightly practiced, in which I did a great disservice to the master, J.S. Bach. Besides memorizing a few of these pieces for use on future recitals, I do plan to offer all 24 preludes and fugues together in recital, not memorized. I need to find opportunities where I can play them all, but people can feel free to come and go as they wish. Even experiencing a few of these can reset the day’s worry meter, or give one a glimpse of the Almighty. Bach reminds us of this at the bottom of the final measure of music, with the following initials: S.D.G. 1


1. Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone. Used also by Handel, it’s a commonly used abbreviation among those not wanting to take credit for God’s gifts. It’s also the motto of the American Guild of Organists.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Courtesy Wikimedia
Posted 2019-11-24

Bach Reaches Audience

It took me a long time to program Bach on a sufficient basis during Sunday worship. At the first job where I was organist and choir director, I avoided playing him altogether. I feared people would not connect. At the next job, I played some Bach, but not a lot. At my current position, where I’ve been since 2012, I’ve fully embraced him. I challenged myself to play the entire Orgelbüchlein, as Bach intended, from Advent to the end of the Christian year. It was extremely meaningful to me, though rarely did anyone make a comment. Bach reaches audience? Not so much!

Now, I’ve moved over to the piano, and am one-third of the way through Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And it’s going pretty well! I wasn’t surprised to hear feedback at the beginning of the cycle. It’s a big project, and the first Prelude and Fugue are pretty well known. However, I didn’t expect comments on the fifth, even though it’s one of my absolute favorites. Or the seventh, which is unusual in almost every way, and certainly not a piece I’m yet comfortable playing. But I do hear comments each week!

The comments are all over the place, as you would expect from people who are mostly hearing these pieces for the first time. But the fact that there is buzz, and that people are sitting through the performances, is enough to make me smile. They are connecting to pieces written nearly 300 years ago, when the piano was still in its infancy, and many other instruments were still evolving as well. I think with great music, people know innately that it’s special. I’m just glad to be the tour guide during this two-year journey.

I’m sure there are some folks who don’t connect at all to these pieces. Hopefully, something else that I’m currently offering, or played in the past, has been meaningful to them. My philosophy is to offer a concentrated yet varied program of the best music that I can learn and perform. Music can provide deep personal meaning to so many lives, including those who I may never get to know other than a passing Sunday morning greeting.

Posted 2018-08-27

Bitten by the Bach Bug

This winter, I have not suffered any type of cold or flu that is going around.

However, I have been bitten by another bug, that of the long-dead composer, J.S. Bach. How it started was rather random: I was reading an article on the NY Times Website about András Schiff, the Hungarian/British pianist whom I first saw perform at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. The article mentioned how Schiff had recently played the entire Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, a set of 24 preludes and fugues written in every major and minor key.

Typically, these types of performances are done in small spaces and often on period instruments, attended by a small cadre of dedicated fans of early music. This performance was opposite in almost every way: the performance was at the London Proms Festival, held in cavernous Royal Albert Hall, which has over 5200 seats. The piano was a modern Steinway Model D. More impressive, the performance of just under two hours was by memory and without intermission.

As a young piano student, I had to learn a few of these pieces to satisfy requirements for music school auditions, juries, and degree recitals. But they were never fun! The organ seems to be the perfect instrument for Bach, where the pedalboard can help out when there’s just too much to play in two hands. Comparing the organ, an already mature instrument, to the various keyboards of the time isn’t fair. However, after hearing Schiff play these pieces, I decided it was me who needed the second chance!

So, I decided to learn the entire volume of Book One as well, though in my own way, at my own speed. I will play the first four preludes and fugues as piano postludes at church during the month of February and add several more every few months until I finish sometime in 2019. At first, they won’t be memorized, and I’m not even committing to ever perform them as an entire set memorized. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So far, as I work through the fourth prelude and fugue in C# minor, a particularly difficult one, it’s going a lot better than it did 30 years ago!

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2018-02-02