Blind from the age of two, a prodigiously gifted student, Jean Langlais (1907-91) produced an immense quantity of music. His organ works alone exceed in number those of of JS Bach. Many have hardly ever been performed. Perhaps not more than half a dozen works are regularly played or recorded today, which is what makes this new complete survey of his organ music – the first ever attempted on record – both unique and invaluable, as the authoritative document of a high point in the distinguished lineage of the French organ heritage.
That long line of illustrious French organist/composers and improvisers is exemplified by César Franck and Charles Tournemire, Langlais’s predecessors as titulaire of the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Clotilde in Paris. All three shared a desire for the poetic evocation of a deeper religious feeling; indeed this depth of religious expression, together with a certain improvisational quality, is an important characteristic of each one, along with the use of Gregorian, folkloric or secular themes.
Langlais goes even further than his predecessors and contemporaries in embracing all kinds of musical genre, from the organ mass to the full-scale organ symphony, taking in suites, preludes and fugues, noels, paraphrases, examination pieces, fantasies and religious programme music. This sheer variety of form alone makes him stand out among his French 20th-century composers for the organ.
Indeed his compositions from all periods are full of different elements, showing many contrasts of form, harmonic vocabulary, texture, rhythmic character and technical difficulty, from the relatively simple to complex virtuosity. Throughout his life, Langlais wrote in many different ways and, true to his ideal, still retained the ability to surprise.
The first volume of this projected complete survey ranges from his early set of 24 pieces written in the late 1930s and composed in all the major and minor keys, to the sublime economy of his Suite in Simplicitate from 1991. This major project has been undertaken jointly by the Italian organists Giorgio Benati and Fausto Caporali. Benati is a former student of Langlais, and Caporali has a string of successful French organ recordings to his credit. They have made these new recordings on Italian instruments, lending Langlais an ‘Italian accent’ while faithfully observing his expressive and registration markings in his scores. Booklet notes for each piece have been written by Giorgio Benati.
- The start of a huge and important recording project: the complete organ works by Jean Langlais!
- Jean Langlais was born on February 15, 1907, in La Fontenelle, Brittany, France. He became blind from the age of two. Sent to the Paris National Institute for the Blind Youth in 1918, he studied piano, violin, harmony and organ with great blind teachers (among others Albert Mahaut and André Marchal). Later on, he entered the Paris National Conservatory of Music in the Marcel Dupré’s organ class, obtaining a First Prize in 1930. In 1931, after studying improvisation with Charles Tournemire, he received the “Grand Prix d’Execution et Improvisation des Amis de l’Orgue”. He completed his studies obtaining a Composition Prize in Paul Dukas’ class at the Paris Conservatory in 1934. He then worked as Professor for forty years at the National Institute for the Blind Youth, and he also taught at the Paris Schola Cantorum where, between 1961 and 1976, he influenced both French and foreign students.
- In 1945, he became the successor to César Franck and Charles Tournemire at the prestigious organ tribune of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. He left that position in 1987 at the age of 80, having been titular for 42 years. He was a great recitalist (he played more than 300 concerts in North America) and a prolific composer: his catalog of works includes 254 opus numbers (organ, vocal and instrumental music). Jean Langlais died in Paris, on May 8, 1991, at the age of 84.
- Langlais’ distinctive style combined traditional harmonies with contemporary techniques. His compositions often feature intricate organ textures and colorful harmonies, influenced by his background as a church musician. Langlais was also known for his use of modes and complex rhythms, which added to the unique character of his music. His works often have a strong emotional intensity and sense of drama, with frequent shifts in mood and dynamics.
- This recording project (more than 20 CDs!) is supervised by artistic supervisor Giorgio Benati, organist and himself a pupil of Langlais. The instruments are based in various churches in Italy, all suited to the specific style and requirements of Langlais’ music.