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Pierre Cochereau: Organist of Notre-Dame by Anthony Hammond (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 438-440 | 10.1353/not.2014.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The French organist, improviser, composer, and pedagogue Pierre Cochereau (1924–1984) was, in his lifetime, fêted, reviled, and generally successful. Because he wrote little and published seldom, Cochereau’s legacy as a composer rests almost entirely on the improvisations with which he concluded his recitals and amplified church services at Notre-Dame de Paris, where he was organist from 1955. Cochereau has been held accountable by some for the long neglect, then perhaps overly radical renovation of the historic Cavaillé-Coll instrument at Notre-Dame. He further provoked with his idiosyncratic recordings of early music, such as multiple renditions of François Couperin’s Messe pour les couvents and Messe pour les paroisses, usually played excruciatingly slowly and occasionally with their lively dotted rhythms (notes inégales) simply ignored and played straight.

Cochereau is mostly forgotten today except for his recorded improvisations, which are thrilling, and for charming quirks such as his penchant for touring rural France with his own portatif organ, which he towed in a custom-made trailer. Anthony Hammond has taken up the challenge of examining Cochereau anew and from many angles, constructing a layered and affectionate portrait not only of this significant and gifted musician but of the musical and cultural environments in which he smoothly operated.

Hammond is not impeded by the lack of secondary literature. In fact, he is clever enough to benefit from Cochereau being not widely known or at least not well understood. This is not a biography, although there is a life-and-career chapter; rather, Hammond lets an impression of Cochereau’s legacy build gradually and organically by approaching his subject through the various musical and administrative roles Cochereau played in his life, in six chapters and five appendices. These last include the first complete list of Cochereau’s recordings of works by other composers as well as of Cochereau’s own improvisations and film soundtracks.

Cochereau was educated largely at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied harmony with Maurice Duruflé, “analysis and aesthetics” with Olivier Messiaen, and organ with Marcel Dupré from 1943 to 1950. For a long span of chapter 2, Cochereau’s name does not appear at all. Instead, Hammond revels in the administrative documents Dupré generated at the Conservatoire, now in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Exam notes and sample extemporization plans (how to accompany Gregorian chant, how to improvise a fugue) illustrate the text. Nearly every page of chapter 2 contains a music example, a diagram, or a table. I question why this was thought necessary, as there is already a masterful two-volume documentary study of these and similar materials, Odile Jutten’s 871-page-long L’enseignement de l’improvisation à la classe d’orgue du Conservatoire de Paris, 1819–1986. D’après la thématique de concours et d’examens (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2000). It is true that Jutten’s study is a synthesis, gathering the perspectives of many teachers and students, whereas Hammond prefers to concentrate on Cochereau alone. Still, Hammond does not add much to our knowledge of Dupré’s teaching methods and the chapter does not serve his project; instead, it bears the unappetizing taint of having been too much research to throw away.

Chapter 3, “Pierre Cochereau as Interpreter,” is more original and much more satisfying. Breaking down Cochereau’s repertoire by composer, Hammond evaluates the recordings for content (fidelity to the score, choice of organ) and offers some context (the writing of the sleeve notes by Thurston Dart, various musicologists’ opinions on rhythmic flexibility in baroque music at the time of recording). There is a chronological table of the composers Cochereau played, starting with Johannes Tinctoris (1435–1511) and ending with Roger Calmel (1921–1998). The section on Cochereau’s Bach (pp. 65–78) considers some weighty philosophical issues, such as what a recording is for and whether a recording constitutes an interpretation.

The book’s fourth and fifth chapters are its most ambitious, as Hammond builds towards an impassioned, virtuosic finale. Chapter 4, “The Musical Language of Pierre Cochereau,” traces the influence of Dupré, Messiaen, and jazz. Figure 4.4 (p. 154), modestly described as “summariz(ing) the...



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