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2019/01/28

Jean Guillou 1930–2019

The Poet of the Organ

On the death of the organist and composer Jean Guillou

For Jean Guillou, it was both a duty and a privilege to dedicate his entire artistic life to the organ. As a performer he revolutionized the art of organ playing, as an improviser he fascinated whole generations of concert-goers, as a composer he opened the repertoire of the ‘king of instruments’ to areas which had been considered to be unimaginable before. Despite major health setbacks, a chronic asthma condition and a life-threatening TB infection, Guillou always pursued his objectives with unwavering relentlessness. Since 1963 he had been official organist at the church of St. Eustache in Paris. For three decades he had been a lecturer at the ‘Zurich Masterclasses’. Several renowned organs were built to his plans. Apart from organ recordings that have become classics, Guillou left an impressive compositional oeuvre of organ works and orchestra and chamber music.

It may have been a stroke of luck that Guillou had to manage without a professional organ teacher in the first years. As a young boy, he taught himself organ playing. At the age of twelve, he was so good that he could do the regular music ministry at Saint-Serge at home in Angers. There the seeds of Guillou’s undogmatic style of playing seemed to be sown, which later was to fascinate the organ world. It was, not least, his absolutely novel interpretation, with regard to phrasing, rhythm and accentuation, of the works by Johann Sebastian Bach, based on his profound knowledge of the works, that fascinated the audience and shocked the dogmatists of a pseudo-historical performance practice. A deep-felt artistic freedom which this outwardly gentle ‘young rebel of the organ’ would not let himself be talked out of even when he studied with the cream of the French music scene: Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé and Olivier Messiaen. ‘In the interpretation, you have to feel the presence and personality of the performer.’

The way how Guillou began his career both as an organist and as a pianist was more than unusual. Among the great achievements of the concert pianist is the rediscovery of the Piano Sonata by Julius Reubke. Even the appointment to professor of organ at the Istituto de Música sacra in Lisbon, when Guillou was only 25 years old, obviously did not hinder his double career. A long stay at a sanatorium brought the young professor to Berlin for several years; there his encounter with the German organs left a lasting impression. In 1963, Guillou was appointed official organist at the church of St. Eustache in Paris for life. Despite this great honour, the prophet was at first without honour in his own country. The international career of Guillou the soloist took place outside France, the scepticism of the traditionalists of the ‘French organ school’ about the free-spirited ‘revolutionist’ of the organ being too great.

Guillou’s amazing art of improvisation consequently resulted in the impulse of recording the music created on the spur of the moment in the form of musical notation – this was the birth of Guillou the composer. When asked for his compositional role models, the French composer always mentioned Bach first, but even the Renaissance masters of polyphony were at the top of his list. In addition, a significant triumvirate – from Romantic to modern composers: Schumann, Debussy, Stravinsky – left their unmistakable marks. No matter whether in the numerous Concertos for Organ and Orchestra, the delicate chamber music works or the works for large-scale symphony orchestra, Guillou was always looking for magic moments. His style was free of any dogmatic theories, he worked with sharp dissonances as well as with a conciliatory tonality. Being a great expert on world literature, he relied on a poetic narrative power which saw the musical motifs as characters of a dramatic action. Alice in Organ Land is the title of one of Guillou’s most poetic works. ‘My works have a positive outlook on life, bearing witness to the great power inherent in life.’

Guillou plays during the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2015

In the annual ‘Zurich Masterclasses’, Guillou taught about 250 students in the years from 1970 to 2005. To many of them, the encounter with the organist was a key moment for their future career. They respectfully called their always polite, yet in fact uncompromising teacher ‘maître’. Despite of his influence on a whole generation of organists, Guillou did not create a ‘school’ in the narrower sense of the word. Artistic vanity was alien to him. His classes were about developing the individuality of each student. Guillou taught a kind of analysis of the work which did not even stop at the smallest details; each student was to draw his or her own conclusions from the analyzed material according to their own horizons.

‘To me, the organ is nothing static.’ With organ adaptations like his arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Tchaikovsky’s Scherzo from Symphony No. 6, Guillou rigorously freed the organ repertoire from the traditional role of ‘sacred’ instrument. The musician was rarely satisfied with what existed. His great love of historical instruments did not stop him from making a decisive contribution to modern organ-building. Famous organs like the organs of Tonhalle Zurich or of the Auditorio de Tenerife go back to his designs.

Jean Guillou was a creator and designer who looked towards the future. ‘The organ has, despite all its changes, this special kind of seductiveness and fascination that will last even in the future, and it is this “future” that we have to favour and keep alive. – This is my desire, this is my endeavour, this is my passion!’ It is also up to us, his publisher, to preserve and foster Guillou’s legacy and take it to new frontiers, even if the guiding force along the way is now lost to us. Jean Guillou died on 26 January 2019 in Paris.