December 19, 2020 – Roger W. Lowther
Some of you know that I am an organist by training. I’ve not talked about this at all on this podcast yet, but actually I do think about it all the time. It has a huge influence on how I see the world, and I believe there are things that can be said through this language of organ music that really cannot be said in any other way. So, indulge me for a second as I try to bring you into this world.
Today I would like to introduce to you the Cortège et Litanie by French organist Marcel Dupré. It’s perhaps one of the most famous organ pieces of the twentieth century. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this piece during the spread of COVID-19. I would even go so far as to say that it has become a bit of a theme song for me. For our Christmas Day service here in Tokyo, I recorded a video of me playing it. I also introduced it in Japanese. If you go to the show notes for this episode, and there is English subtitles attached for the Japanese part.
The Cortège et Litanie has two parts. The first part, the Cortège, is a kind of hymn with four-part harmony like any other SATB choir. A cortège is usually played at funerals for a procession down the aisle, so it expresses sadness and loss. The melody is full of upward leaps of longing, with hopes that somehow someday things are going to get better.
The second part, the Litanie, is full of repetitive prayers. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It just repeats over and over again. God does not seem to be listening or cares or answers.
By the way I’ve described this piece so far, you may think it’s sad, but there’s a number of things that point to a different view. First, it’s in E Major. Sad songs are not written in E Major, or usually any major key for that matter. When it comes to organ music, to understand the meaning of keys, rhythms, forms, etc. you need look no further than the music of J.S. Bach. No composer is more foundational to the music of the organ than Bach. He influenced everyone after him. E Major pieces by Bach are full of a quiet and majestic joy. Some musicologists even call it the key of laughter. Sot it’s a pretty strange key to pick for a funeral!
The next thing about this piece is that it’s full of bells. You can hear chimes near the beginning, and if you listen carefully you can hear the texture of bells throughout the piece, especially at the end. I even add the organ stop clochettes, French for “little bells,” which is built into this French organ. In both hands, I play triads, or three note chords, as fast sixteenth notes. The effect is as if you’re standing at the foot of some huge church tower, and all the bells are playing in some big celebration. Perhaps even a royal birth?
Lastly, although the piece opens quietly, it grows to full organ. I’ve pulled out all the stops. It’s full organ to the extreme with both feet playing in the pedals. The melody from the beginning comes back covering the repetition of the prayers with glory and majesty.
I think this piece is perfect for Christmas this year. As we hear the terrible news of COVID-19 over and over again, we feel like nothing is ever going to change. Think about the Christmas story. For hundreds of years, Israel prayed for a savior, but their prayers seemed to go unanswered. And then, finally, the day of Christ’s birth came. The Christmas star shined brightly in the dark. The angels sang joyfully, “Glory to God in the highest!”
As we mourn the loss of so much during COVID-19, there is hope. There’s hope because the Christmas story, and this piece too, tells us everything is going to be okay. All mourning will end in joyful praise. All our prayers will be answered with a peal of bells. A baby in a manger is bringing peace and joy to the whole world.