French Organ Music for the Strong of Heart, Demessieux and Escaich

Wondrous machine, the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice

Wondrous machine, the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice

French organ music is my favorite drug. Give me a recording of music by Vierne, Dupré, Touremire or  Messiaen played on a big Cavaillé-Coll organ and I don’t need dessert.  Probably don’t need dinner either. Messiaen’s organ music seduced me years ago and there’s still nothing in all the world that stirs me as much.  Christmas music? Give me La nativité du seigneur above all else. Need a thrill? Play the Sortie from the Messe de la pentecôte loud, real loud. More than Buxtehude and even more than Bach, Messiaen’s organ music hits me right between the eyes.

The world's greatest scarf and Olivier Messiaen

The world's greatest scarf and Olivier Messiaen


What’s there to listen to after Messiaen? The two French composers who have impressed me most are Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) and Thierry Escaich (b. 1965).


Jeanne Demessieux



A private student of the great Marcel Dupré, Demessieux was an award-winning organist and composer. She was a virtuoso of astounding talent and a prolific recording artist (although you wouldn’t know that by the paltry number of her recordings that are still in print) who was far too young when she died. Her music has an intensity that is matched by its sheer difficulty. This has to be terrifying music to play.  A recording by the organist Maurizio Ciampi on the Stradivarius label has become a great favorite of mine. Ciampi is up to the technical challenges – his  pedal work kills – and makes me want to hear him play more of Demessieux’s music, or anything else for that matter. Speaking of pedal work, apparently Demessieux dazzled North American audiences by her quicksilver pedal-playing in high heels.



Ciampi's championing Demessieux

Ciampi champions Demessieux


Here’s Demessieux’s Octaves from her Six  Etudes performed by Maxime Patel. The playing isn’t as technically secure as Ciampi’s but its fun to see the pedal work.


Thierry Escaich

Escaich, he gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!

He gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!


“Thierry Escaich: one of the composers of today who gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!”  That’s the greeting from Escaich’s homepage and it’s true, he makes me like music of my century! Escaich’s music is as intense as Messiaen  and Demessieux’s  and, like Messiaen, has  that whiff of the delicious perfume of the ecstatic that I find so compelling. Escaich is also a virtuoso organist; he is the successor to Maurice Duruflé as organist at the church of St. Etienne du Mont in Paris.

I’ve been reveling in Escaich’s recording of his own works on the Calliope label. He plays the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Etienne du Mont in a program that features some solo works that give Demessieux’s murderous Octaves a run for its money. I also recommend the terrific recording on the Accord label (with Olivier Latry at the organ console) of his Organ Concerto. If you get really hooked, try his oratorio  Le Dernier Èvangile on the Hortus label.




 The master should have the last word though,  here’s Naji Hakim playing Messiaen’s  Dieu parmi nous from La nativité du seigneur.



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