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The French organ school formed in the first half of the 17th century. It progressed from the strict polyphonic music of Jean Titelouze (c. 1563–1633) to a unique, richly ornamented style with its own characteristic forms that made full use of the French classical organ. Instrumental in establishing this style were Louis Couperin (c. 1626–1661), who experimented with structure, registration and melodic lines, expanding the traditional polyphonic forms, and Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (1632–1714), who established the distinct forms and styles of what was to become the French organ tradition.


Characteristic forms and nomenclatureEdit

French organ composers cultivated four major genres: masses, hymns, suites and noëls. Noëls are variations on Christmas carols, whereas the first three genres were all realized as collections of brief pieces in various characteristic forms. Such forms included the following:[1]

  • Récit: a piece in which a single voice emerges soloistically above all others by means of special registration. The latter is usually indicated in the title, i.e. in a Récit de Cromorne the solo voice would be played using the cromorne stop. Cromorne, cornet, tierce, nasard, trompette and voix humaine are the most commonly encountered solo stops. The titles of such compositions frequently omit the word "récit" and simply indicate the registration (Cromorne, Cornet, etc.) and/or the position of the solo voice. Typical combinations include the following:
Dessus de Cromorne: the solo voice is in the soprano (dessus), played using the cromorne stop
Tierce en taille: the solo voice is in the tenor (taille), played using the tierce stop
Basse de Trompette: the solo voice is in the bass (basse), played using the trompette stop
  • Dialogue: a piece which constantly alternates between two different registrations. Nivers distinguished between two subtypes: Dialogue de récits and Dialogue à deux Chœurs, the latter alternating between positif (choir organ) and grand jeu (full reed stops). Also encountered are dialogues that use more chœurs than two; a Dialogue à 4 Chœurs will alternate between positif, grand jeu, récit sections and the pedal, and may also include echo sections (as in a Dialogue à 4 Chœurs by Jacques Boyvin).
  • Duo and Trio: two- and three-voice polyphonic pieces, respectively. There are two subtypes of trios: Trio à trois claviers (literally "on three keyboards"), a trio for two manuals and pedals, and Trio à deux dessus—a trio with two parts for the right hand and one for the left.
  • Fugue: usually, three- or four-voice polyphonic pieces that adhere more or less strictly to the imitative style. The designation Fugue grave indicates a piece of a serious character, whereas the Fugue gaie (or gaye) is its opposite. Rarely, four-voice fugal pieces bear the title Quatuor ("quartet"). Nicolas de Grigny cultivated five-voice fugues.
  • Echo: phrases are played twice, quieter on the second time, giving the impression of an echo. This impression is heightened in echos that repeat only the endings of phrases. Such pieces used specially designed echo divisions.
  • Plein jeu or Prélude: mostly homophonic pieces in duple or quadruple meter. They are almost invariably used as introductory movements.

Additionally, a number of standard registrations may be indicated by the following designations:

  • Grand jeu: a loud combination of reed stops used in homophonic sections of larger pieces or standalone préludes.
  • Jeux doux, Fond d'orgue, [Concert des] flûtes: three related registrations. The first ("soft stops") comprises closed or open flutes with or without principals, resulting in a soft, quiet sound. This combination is most commonly used in récits to accompany solo stops. The fond d'orgue ("bottom/depths of the organ") is the same augmented with all the flue pipes; it was used to imply seriousness, gravity and accompany en taille récits together with a flûte pedal. Finally, [concert des] flûtes refers to softer flue combinations that were used alone (as opposed to accompanying a solo stop).

The designations dessus, taille and basse stand for "soprano", "tenor" and "bass", respectively, although "en taille" most commonly indicates the alto range.[2] A rarely used type of voicing is haute-contre (or haulte contre), "high tenor". Such designations are used to point to the position of the solo stop in a récit (see examples above), or of the chant melody in a setting (i.e. the title Kyrie en basse indicates that the chant itself is in the bass).


First period: the development of free polyphonyEdit

Second period: the establishing of the French Classical Organ SchoolEdit

Third period: 18th centuryEdit

Late 18th century and post-revolutionary periodEdit

Renewal of mid-19th to 20th centuryEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The following section briefly summarizes explanations from the following sources: Apel 1972, 723–725; Owen 1997, 110–118; Silbiger 2004, 108–112.
  2. ^ Silbiger, 111.


  • Apel, Willi. 1972. The History of Keyboard Music to 1700. Translated by Hans Tischler. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21141-7. Originally published as Geschichte der Orgel- und Klaviermusik bis 1700 by Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel.
  • Beckmann, Klaus. Repertorium Orgelmusik. Komponisten - Werke - Editionen. 1150-2000 (3., neu bearbeitete und erweiterte Auflage 2001). Vol. I. Schott. ISBN 3-7957-0500-2
  • Douglass, Fenner. 1995. The Language of the Classical French Organ: A Musical Tradition Before 1800. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06426-8
  • Owen, Barbara. 1997. The Registration of Baroque Organ Music. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21085-2
  • Silbiger, Alexander. 2004. Keyboard Music Before 1700. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-96891-7