The University of Alabama

Faculty Recital

David Warren Steel, organ

Assisted by Schola Cantorum Mississippiensis:
Thomas Ardrey, John McMeen, Jos Milton, Andrew Paney, Alan Spurgeon, and Nathan Trahan

Messe Solennelle (Mass for the Parishes)
by François Couperin (1668-1733)

       Plein chant en taille
           Fugue sur les jeux d’anches
             Récit de Chromhorne
               Dialogue sur la Trompette et le Chromhorne
                 Plein chant

         Plein jeu: Et in terra pax
           Petitte fugue sur le Chromhorne
             Duo sur les Tierces
                   Tierce en Taille 
                     Dialogue sur la Voix humaine
                       Dialogue en trio
                         Dialogue sur les Grands jeux

    Offertoire sur les Grands jeux
        Plein chant en Canon
           Récit de Cornet  
              Benedictus: Chromhorne en Taille

    Agnus Dei:
        Plein chant en Basse et en Taille alternativement
           Dialogue sur les Grands jeux

    Deo gratias:  Petit plein jeu

Monday, April 15, 2013, 8:00 PM
Paris-Yates Chapel
University of Mississippi

Organ by Karl Wilhelm, Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, 2001
Two manuals and pedal, 26 stops, 33 ranks
Mechanical key action


When Charles Couperin, organist at St. Gervais in Paris, died in 1679, his son François was only ten years old. The church authorities, recognizing the lad’s talent, agreed to hold the post for him, appointing an interim organist until he reached the age of eighteen. At twenty-one, Couperin obtained from Louis XIV permission to publish and sell his music. His first publication was Pièces d’Orgue (1690), containing his only surviving organ works, the two organ masses. The music is not even printed—only the title page and the royal privilege are engraved, along with blank staves where a professional copyist wrote out the music by hand.

The mass à l’Usage ordinaire des Paroisses, pour les Festes solemnelles (usually translated as Mass for the Parishes) was intended for the principal feasts of the church year. In a liturgical performance the brief organ pieces (versets) alternate with Gregorian chant sung by a schola cantorum, or choir, to build up the longer movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) that are part of every mass. The choice of form and style in some versets is based on French tradition. For example, the first and last versets of the Kyrie and the first verset of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei are plein chant movements composed in an old-fashioned contrapuntal style with the chant melody played in long notes by the pedal. The second verset of the Kyrie is a fugue on the reed stops based on the chant melody. In the remaining versets, the chant is absent altogether. Many of the récits (accompanied solos), duets, trios, and dialogues, are more strongly expressive or flamboyant, and speak a secular musical language. In his first major work, the young Couperin was already learning to incorporate the graceful, ornamented melodic style and dance-like rhythms of the French stage into his instrumental music.

An interesting feature of the Gloria is the inconclusive sound at the end of each verset. This is because the original chant is in the fourth mode, ending on E; baroque composers treated this mode as A minor, with cadences on E. The colossal Offertoire is much more than a verset. Inspired by the theatrical overture, and uninterrupted by sung chant, it consists of three distinct sections: a grave and majestic opening, an academic fugue with highly dissonant entries, and a lively gigue. In both the Sanctus and Agnus Dei the opening verset contains a canon (exact melodic imitation) requiring two independent voices to be played simultaneously in the pedals. The loud and lively Dialogue that concludes the Agnus Dei might seem to be a fitting conclusion to the entire work, but French composers often preferred to end with a relatively light and brief movement. The traditional response to the priest’s dismissal of the congregation (“Ite missa est”) is a musical reprise of the Kyrie, but in Couperin’s organ mass it is represented by an expressive and dissonant fugue on the lighter of the two manual divisions.

French composers made excellent use of the sounds available on the French classical organ. The French organ had at least three divisions: a majestic grand orgue, a more intimate positif, and a rudimentary pedal, comprising only two or three stops. Some of the pieces in the Messe solennelle are composed for three manual divisions and pedal. The powerful pedal basses in the music of German composers were unknown in France—the pedals were used only to play the chant melodies in the plein chant movements, and to provide a light flute tone in the trios. Many organ pieces included in their titles specific registrations or stop combinations (jeux). Following are brief descriptions of some of these combinations:

  1. plein jeu—foundation stops (basic organ tone) plus mixtures—heard in preludes and chant movements. The petit plein jeu uses only the positif division.
  2. grand jeu—reeds, prestant and cornet stops—heard in fugues and dialogues.
  3. jeu de tierce—a bright combination of stops that reinforce the octave and other high overtones of the fundamental pitch. The same combination of pitches played on narrower-scaled stops is called a cornet; this was a popular solo effect in the treble range. When played in the tenor voice (en taille) against a soft accompaniment, the tierce imitated the viola da gamba.
  4. les jeux d’anches—a reed combination, much employed in fugues, including the brilliant trompette on the grand orgue and the sardonic cromorne on the positif. Each of these reeds could also be used as a solo stop.

This organ mass, though written by a very young composer, is one of the most significant works for the classic French organ, though it is rarely heard today with the interpolated chant. I played the work in 1991-92 in Oxford and in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but since the installation of the organ in Paris-Yates Chapel, which is so well suited to the music of Couperin, I have wanted to play it on this fine instrument.

David Warren Steel

[ Warren Steel | Music Department | UM Home ]