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The Influence of Plainsong
Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-1968)
Te Deum Op. 11 [8.39]
Twelve Choral Preludes on Gregorian Chants (1947) [34.46]
Charles TOURNEMIRE (1872-1939)
Suite XXV (L’orgue Mystique) In Festo Pentecostes (1926) [10.25]
Philip MOORE (b.1943)
Five Sketches on Helmsley (1983) [13.09]
William Dore (organ)
rec. Ampleforth Abbey, 11-13 November 2013
PRIORY PRCD1117 [74.07]

We tend to think of plainsong and its use as a cantus firmus or as a melody on which to write some kind of variations as more of a medieval technique. From say, the 13th century up to the reformation a mass or motet would be composed for a feast day or special event. Embedded in it would be the plainchant suitable for that day or for the ‘octave’ of the feast. Plainchant continues to be used in our own times possibly even more than in the 18th and 19th centuries. Peter Maxwell Davies often underpins his orchestral works with plainsong, which lies, mostly inaudibly, within his complex textures.
To widen the idea further we could speak of music based on earlier church melodies like chorales in the case of Protestant Germany and hymn tunes in the case of Protestant England. Not surprisingly in Roman Catholic countries like France and Belgium where Duruflé (taught by Tournemire), Jeanne Demessieux and Tournemire lived and worked it remains traditional for plainchant melodies still to be in use as a living thing, continually exploited. So Tournemire’s In Festo Pentecostes uses the Veni creator plainchant and Demessieux uses amongst others the Vexilla Regis, the Ubi Caritas (also used by Duruflé in a famous motet) and the Rorate Caeli melodies.
In the case of composers like Philip Moore, working within the Anglican Church tradition (he has been organist at Guildford and York for most of his career), it is more likely that traditional hymn tunes are employed. Moore’s Five Sketches on Helmsley are an 'exploration' around the tune composed in the 18th century by Thomas Oliver to Wesley’s words ‘Lo, he comes with Clouds descending’. In five movements, the melody is only occasionally clearly exposed and may be inverted, heard in the pedals or in just a line at a time. The last brief section, an Allegro deciso which exploits the Ampleforth impression trumpet stop, uses the entire melody but as a cantus firmus in the pedals. Whereas earlier in the third section just short fragments of the melody were utilised. It’s a fascinating and altogether most satisfactory work with good contrasts of tone colour, pace, dissonance and tonality to hold ones attention.
Charles Tournemire’s major project was to compose a set or suite of pieces for organ to be played as part of the mass. These were intended to be suitable for every major feast and Sunday of the church year using the appropriate plainchants. In all it took him a decade and the one recorded here Suite No. 25 is for Pentecost or Whitsun as we once called it. It plans out as follows: For the Introit the chant Spiritus Domine is employed. The short second section begins with a procession possibly after the gospel and is followed by the Offertory when the gifts are blessed so Tournemire writes a brief variant of Confirma hoc Deus. The third section for the Elevation of the Host uses the Sic Deus melody and the Communion the Factus Es is heard. All of that takes one track. The last part is separately tracked and is a Fantasie-choral of almost the same length which employs in various forms the Veni Creator the Veni Sancte Spiritus and finally, as a powerful affirmation of faith, the Te Deum plainchant. Tournemire was a devout Christian as well as a virtuoso organist and brilliant and much undervalued composer. He sometimes worshipped at the Abbey at Solesmes, world-famous for its plainchant singing to this very day as I can confirm having heard them only a few months ago.
The large proportion of this CD is taken by a series of pieces on plainsong melodies by the tragically short-lived Jeanne Demessieux who was, amongst other things, organist at that wonderful Parisian church of La Madeleine. The Twelve Preludes on Gregorian Themes are classics of their sort and well known by organists. They are subtle pieces, apposite for students or even good amateurs. The ordering is important and to hear them as a group reveals a set of pleasing contrasts, for example the sequence starts with a simple ornamentation of the Rorate Caeli plainchant. The Adeste Fidelis (actually a tune dating from the 18th century) is marked as a musette. Later the Hosanna Filio David is set as a fugue. The Vexilla Regis has searching, mysterious harmonies and the joyous Veni Creator melody is set as a toccata. The Domine Jesu taken from the Missa pro Defunctus is treated as a Berceuse, “a gentle rocking plea to beseech Jesus’ presence. Most organists just dip into this set but it’s especially good to have them all, demonstrating many facets of Demessieux’s style.
Rather perversely I end with the first track, Demessieux’s Te Deum Op. 11. This uses one of the oldest chant melodies known to us and is employed for festive occasions. This is basically a ternary form structure with a more reflective central section. The composer breaks the chant into phrases and works through each culminating in an exciting, almost orchestral finale. It’s interesting that Demessieux wrote an opera La Chanson de Roland and this Te Deum especially has a true sense of drama about it. It also demonstrates what must have been her exceptional technique and gives William Dore a chance most effectively to show off his own.
William Dore exploits brilliantly the colours available to him and also writes a splendidly meticulous account of each of the pieces. He provides us with a comprehensive list of the 122 stops and accessories with which the superb instrument at Ampleforth is supplied. It was built by Walker’s in 1961 and is of four manuals. A photo and all details are supplied, as is one of the abbey interior in the excellent booklet.
Gary Higginson