Pierre Cochereau was Organiste Titulaire at Nôtre-Dame, Paris from January 1955, until his sudden death on the night of 5th – 6th March, 1984. He had been playing his beloved instrument little more than thirty-six hours previously.
The organ at Nôtre-Dame had been reconstructed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1868. After piecemeal restorations and additions over the next eighty-eight years, Robert Boisseau rebuilt and substantially enlarged the organ, adding a number of mixtures and mutations and three ranks of chamade reeds – placed on the impost of the case. These pipes arrived in the early 1970s. However, even after this time, the organ was constantly being altered.
It was at this organ that Pierre Cochereau felt most inspired, particularly during the services. At this time the Grand Orgue at Nôtre-Dame was only used during the Sunday morning Masses, for a short recital in the afternoon and for Vespers, which directly followed the recital.
Cochereau had been a deputy of Marcel Dupré at Ste. Sulpice and had often had the opportunity to improvise on the superb Cavaillé-Coll instrument situated on the west gallery of this great church – often referred to as ‘the second Cathedral of Paris’. However, when one listens to recordings of improvisations by these two great musicians, the first impression is probably one of surprise – for their styles are worlds apart. In fact, a fascinating and direct comparison can be made, because both Dupré and Cochereau recorded live improvisations during recitals on the Klais organ of Cologne Cathedral. Furthermore, during their recitals, each performer improvised on the theme Veni Creator.
The improvisations of Marcel Dupré were often extremely complex – he favoured fugues and intricate textures. Cochereau, on the other hand favoured variation form – often in order to show off an instrument to its best advantage.
There are many CD recordings available of the improvisations of Pierre Cochereau – taken during services, recitals and tours. François Carbou gave up his career to become Cochereau’s recording engineer. Carbou, together with his wife Yvette later founded Disques du Solstice, their own record label, which they used initially to promote the recordings of Cochereau, after his contract with Phillips had ended.
To listen to these recordings is an incredible experience. There is so much life – so much energy. Cochereau would push his phenomenal technique to the limit and create wonderful pieces, full of lush harmonies, yet always with a strong sense of rhythm and shape. He would often end a Mass or a series of variations with a toccata. These would sometimes begin quite quietly and gradually increase in volume until the immense power of the tutti pealed forth exultantly, ringing down the long nave of the cathedral.
In quieter moments, Cochereau was particularly fond of scherzos. For these, he would use the superb velvet-toned Flûtes Harmoniques and Bourdons of each clavier to weave a dazzling, light texture, the music literally seeming to dance.
However, Pierre Cochereau was also capable of improvising pieces of great beauty and pathos. Shortly before he died, he had been asked by Jaques Perrier, the Curé of Nôtre-Dame, to provide improvisations to serve as commentaries between readings of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. These readings took place during Lent 1984 and Cochereau produced possibly some of his finest improvisations; many of them, in my view, being quite sublime. Here we do not find light-hearted, romping scherzos, trios or noble toccatas. Rather, movements which are often sombre in character; movements which illustrate to great effect the agony of Christ – both mental and physical. Here, too, we find hope.
On the night of 4th March 1984, weary and far from well, Cochereau again improvised interludes for the Gospel readings. The final reading was from the closing sentence of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of time”. There followed the melody from the final chorale of the St. Matthew Passion, by Bach, initially played quietly but building quickly to a triumphant final, harmonised verse on the full organ, with a brass ensemble adding its voices to the tumult, exultantly expressing musically the final line from the chorale: “I know of a better life, whither my soul is going”.
Thirty-six hours later, Pierre Cochereau died, at the age of fifty-nine. Fortunately his genius lives on in the form of many recordings of his improvisations - a number of which have subsequently been released on CD.