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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue. Les Pièces d’orgue (premier livre), 1676 (facsimile edition). Introductions by Jean Saint-Arroman and Philippe Lescat. La Musique française classique de 1650–1800, 5634. Courlay: Fuzeau, 1999. [ISMN M-2306-5634-4. FF 250.24 ($43).]

Reviewed by Élisabeth Gallat-Morin*

1. The Edition

2. The Prestige of Lebègue


1. The Edition

1.1 After publishing facsimile editions of some twenty French organ books of the classical period, Jean Saint-Arroman adds to the Fuzeau collection what is historically one of the most important organ books of its time. It was published in 1676, only a year after the last of Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers’s three organ books, and set a decidedly modern pattern that would be largely followed by organ composers for some thirty years or more.

1.2 At the outset, a chronological chart presents major historical, artistic and musical events correlated with the main dates relating to Lebègue and his publications. The ten-page Preface continues in three languages (French, English and German) presented in three columns. Saint-Arroman’s discussion of Lebègue’s Pièces d’orgues (in the seventeenth century spelling) is followed by a description of the principal events of Lebègue’s life by Philippe Lescat. In the actual facsimile part, the title page, bearing an engraving of Saint Cecilia at the organ assisted by four cherubs (there is also a harpsichord in the background), calls attention to the new types of pieces published in the book that were hitherto unknown in the provinces. The 133 pages of music are preceded by Lebègue’s own preface, his “Mélange des jeux” or registrations and his table of ornaments.

1.3 The composer explains in his Preface that he has published his organ book for the benefit of those organists who are too far away from Paris to come and hear for themselves the new types of pieces and the great variety of registrations introduced in recent years. However, not to discourage sales no doubt, he mentions that the pieces are not too surprising to the ear nor too difficult (his second book will be even easier).

1.4 Lebègue implores organists to play the pieces according to his intentions, particularly with respect to the registrations, although he points out that not all organs possess the required stops to play all the new pieces. There follows a detailed description of the mélange des jeux appropriate for each type of piece. This is a most important document that may also serve as a guide for the registration of the music of other French composers of the period who do not always provide detailed instructions. Lebègue also provides a table of ornaments, of which there are only four. There are no written port-de-voix, for instance, but that does not mean they cannot be added by the performer.

1.5 The Pièces d’orgues contain suites (the actual word is not yet used) of pieces in the eight Church tones, since they are intended, within the framework of liturgical services, to alternate with the sung verses; however, there are no specific liturgical indications. Nevertheless, Lebègue does explain that he has chosen types of pieces and movements that he considers most appropriate and in accordance with the sentiment and spirit of the Church. He further indicates that these pieces are suitable for psalms and hymns and even for the Mass, at Elevation or at the Offertory, where one might play two pieces in a row. Each suite opens with a Prélude (played on the grand plein jeu) and concludes with a Dialogue followed by a final Plein Jeu. The type and the order of the other pieces—Duos, Trios, Récits, Fugues—vary from one suite to another; Saint-Arroman suggests that the performer choose the pieces according to the sentiments expressed by the words of the verses the organ verses that are intended to replace, rather than follow the order of the book.

1.6 In oblong format à l’italienne, as were the French organ books of the period, the facsimile edition is a couple of centimeters larger all round than the original, whose plates measure 23.2 x 16.1 cm. The slightly enlarged text is perfectly clear and contrasted; it is almost newer than new. Indeed, the text of the copy of Lebègue’s Pièces d’orgues kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Vm7 1819) has been cleaned up and the smudges, plate-marks and even the stamp marks of the Bibliotheca Regi and Bibliothèque Royale have disappeared. Lovers of yellowed time-worn documents may be disappointed, but Fuzeau aims for “perfect legibility.” Their editions are meant to be played from, at a time when more and more performers prefer to use the original text. The G clef is on the usual second line, but the F clef is on the third line and one encounters the C clef on the first line, sometimes the three in combination; it takes but a little practice to become accustomed.

2. The Prestige of Lebègue

2.1 We are becoming increasingly aware of the considerable prestige enjoyed by Lebègue amongst his contemporaries. He was chosen in 1678 one of the four royal organists, two years after the publication of his first organ book. A renowned teacher, his pupils were appointed to the best organs (François d’Agincourt at Sainte-Madeleine-en-la Cité in Paris, the Burats at the Bourges Cathedral and the most famous of his students, Nicolas de Grigny, at the Reims Cathedral). However, it is Lebègue’s role as an organ expert that stands out in Philippe Lescat’s biography; Lebègue was engaged in numerous projects, whether it be to determine the work to be done to an existing instrument, to plan the building of a new organ or as expert in the appraisal of the completed work. Lebègue worked hand in hand with the best organ builders of his time, resulting in continual interaction between the development of the sound palette of the organs and Lebègue’s own compositions.

2.2 Indeed, his reputation as a composer extended far beyond the frontiers of France. One is surprised to find copies of organ pieces by Lebègue (some of which were not published during his lifetime) in almost all the surviving manuscripts of contemporary French organ music. André Pirro saw at the Tours Municipal Library, before it was partially destroyed by fire in 1940, a complete copy of the first organ book, which might have been an earlier version of the publication, perhaps even an autograph. Princess Amalia of Prussia owned a manuscript, now in Berlin, containing almost all of the first book and another Berlin manuscript has a copy of the suites in the fifth and sixth tones. Various pieces from the 1676 book appear also in manuscripts kept in Brussels, Berlin and Troyes. Copies of all of the Tierce and Cromhorne en taille crossed the Atlantic to New France in 1724 with Jean Girard, the Sulpician cleric who owned the manuscript now known as the Livre d’orgue de Montréal, which also contains excerpts from the second and third books and probably a number of pieces by Lebègue among the anonyma as well. Pieces from his second and third organ books also appear in various other manuscripts, and copies of his harpsichord pieces are to be found as far as Denmark, there attributed to Buxtehude. In addition to printed versions of the organ books, Lebègue’s motets also traveled; the three printed copies that have survived are kept in Germany, in Boston, and in Montréal.

2.3 Jean Saint-Arroman rightly underlines Lebègue’s role as an innovator. Nivers’s récits were in the bass or treble; in his first organ book, Lebègue introduces the magnificent cromhorne or tierce en taille (in the middle register), which he proudly describes, and rightly so, as “the most beautiful and considerable type of verse for the organ.” In Lebègue’s récits for voix humaine, the treble and bass parts now dialogue with each other, before joining together at the end of the piece. This exchange between the parts is also to be found in the Dialogues, in addition to the exchange between the manuals. Following the tradition of Nivers’s three-part fugues, Lebègue presents two types of trios: the Trio à trois claviers, to be played on two manuals and pedal, the other with two treble parts (and no pedal), in the spirit of Corelli and Lully. Lebègue’s second book contains easy pieces for organists of moderate ability, but in the third book there are further innovations: the Dialogue de récits in which the two solo parts played on separate manuals are joined over a pedal bass in the second section of the piece; a suggestion of the Dessus and Basse de trompette to come; and the introduction of the écho in the Dialogues sur les Grands Jeux (also to be found in Gigault at the same date). These genres were to set the pattern for years to come.

2.4 An important historical reference for those interested in French music of the end of the seventeenth century, this book is a must for organists. Since the pieces are relatively short (two pages with no page turns—some are only one page long), they are extremely convenient in the context of modern-day church services. After all, was that not their original destination?


*Élisabeth Gallat-Morin (Québec) is the discoverer of the manuscript of the Livre d’orgue de Montréal. She pursues research into the musical practice of New France and is currently preparing a comprehensive study of the subject with Jean-Pierre Pinson of Université Laval, Québec. Return to beginning

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