Monday, November 03, 2014
While Mrs Bach was composing the Cello Suites...
This little known portrait of JSB in role reversal mode adds weight to the fashionable theory that Anna Magdalena Bach composed the Cello Suites. (For the image's provenance see my 2009 post Bach - an intimate portrait). However, writing of the Mrs Bach brouhaha, Jessica Duchen asks "Do we really need more tales about women in music who didn't really do things, when there are so many who did, provenly so, but are not recognised for it?", while in the New Yorker Alex Ross expresses the admirable sentiment that "Instead of trying to invent a female Bach in prior centuries, let’s seek her in the present". Among Bach's many glories is his (her?) organ music; so in response to Jessica and Alex, and in justification of my participation in the Mrs Bach clickbait fest, I am drawing attention to the music and life of Jeanne Demessieux.
Born in Montpelier, France in 1921, Jeanne Demessieux was a child prodigy who at the age of twelve was appointed principal organist of the church of Saint-Esprit in Paris. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire where she won the Premier Prix in organ & improvisation in 1941, and was a pupil of Marcel Dupré for sixteen years; Dupré launched her career as an organ virtuoso, but there was later an acrimonious split between teacher and pupil. Jeanne Demessieux had a prodigious memory and, reputedly, committed to memory the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, César Franck, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Marcel Dupré. As her reputation spread she undertook recital tours in Europe and North America, with Virgil Thomson being among those praising her talents. The glass ceiling that confines women musicians is still topical; so it is noteworthy that Jeanne Demessieux broke through this ceiling by becoming the first woman organist to give recitals in many celebrated cathedrals, including London's Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.
If Jeanne Demessieux is remembered at all today, it is as the first internationally acclaimed woman organ virtuoso, and a number of her celebrated recordings remain in the catalogue - see footer image. But she was also a talented composer; of her thirty-one documented compositions only eight are for organ, with the balance ranging from works for solo piano to an extended oratorio La Chanson de Roland. Her organ compositions are published and performed, but of her other output just one work, the Ballade, op. 12, for horn and piano, was published. Maurizio Ciampi's recording of Jeanne Demessieux's Six Etudes and Sept Méditations sur Le Saint Esprit are recommended for those wanting to explore her organ compositions, with the influence of Dupré, Cesar Frank and early Messiaen surfacing in these two works from the 1940s.
In 1962 Jeanne Demessieux broke through another glass ceiling when she was appointed titular organist at the prestigious Madeleine in Paris, and in 1967 Decca signed her to record Messiaen's complete organ music to date. But, tragically, the project was never realised as she died of throat cancer in 1968, aged just 47. Although Jeanne Demessieux died almost fifty years ago her story is still relevant. Because towards the end of her life she complained of ‘musical saturation’ and expressed regret about her pressured early life as a child prodigy in the public eye. Very topically, she also complained about having to struggle for recognition in a male-dominated musical culture. Jeanne Demessieux may not have been another JS Bach; however she most certainly was one of the many women musicians who did great things, but are not recognised for it
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