Marcel Dupré was one of the foremost French organ virtuoso’s of his time, an heir to the great tradition of Romantic French organ playing and composing. Dupré was famed for his ability to improvise; he also composed substantial works and was a widely travelled recitalist and an influential teacher. What is perhaps less well known is how his career was influenced by Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
Claude Johnson support Dupré
Johnson was clearly a lover of organ music and heard Dupré improvise for the Vesper service at Notre Dame and commissioned him to write down his improvisations afterwards, for the princely sum of 1500 francs. He was so satisfied with the result that he arranged the young organist’s Royal Albert Hall debut, with a choir of 600 voices singing the brief versets.
Claude Johnson went on to support Dupré financially through his career helping with his tours of the UK and USA. Interestingly I believe the Rolls-Royce company even made some electrical components for use in organ building which was no doubt in part due to Johnson’s interest in the instrument.
Variations sur un Noël a popular work
One of Dupré’s most popular works is this set of variations on an old French Christmas tune. Dupré somberly sets out the simple melody, then proceeds with ten brief variations. When Dupré’s Op 20 was published in 1923, it was titled ‘Variations sur un Noël’. Since then, however, it has been more often referred to as Variations sur un vieux Noël.
These variations were written while Dupre was travelling across the USA in 1922 by train playing a recital series. I am indebted to Ashley Snavley’s research paper from which I quote:
“The following year, in the fall of 1922, Dupré returned to the United States to go on a transcontinental tour to play ninety-four concerts. In Dupré’s own words, he was “well received everywhere.” During this tour, he travelled by train from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and Los Angeles. He performed in Pasadena, Claremont, Tucson, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, and Omaha – to name a few venues – before returning to the East Coast. During these long train rides, Dupré composed his Variations sur un Noël, which would become one of his most popular works.”
Joseph Nolan on the Skinner Style Console
We are delighted that Joseph Nolan chose this particular piece to show off the Regent Classic Skinner Style Console and Voicing that we made especially for customers that might wish to commission a replica of American Organ History. You can enjoy the variations not only for their clever management of the main theme set out simply in the opening variation but also for the dazzling technique and performance given by Joseph in Selby Abbey.
It has been suggested that Dupré specifically wrote the variations for the opening of a new Skinner organ on this concert tour but I have not been able to find conclusive proof of this. What seems certain is that in a tour of 94 instruments he must have played on many organs by Skinner and so the particular flavour of these instruments will have been in his mind when composing the pieces. Do you perhaps have hard evidence that this set of Variations was indeed heard for the first time on a Skinner instrument? If so we would love to know where this particular fact is recorded.
You can find more information about our Skinner Style Console and watch a couple more videos with Joseph Nolan playing this instrument.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Regent Classic Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.