IN CHURCH WITH DUPRE"Saint-Sulpice is always the greatest joy to me. What a glorious organ!"
COMPILED BY ROLLIN SMITH
On my first visit to Notre Dame after the war [August 15, 1919—The Feast of the Assumption], it
seemed to me that the playing on the big organ was very much better than anything I had ever heard be-
fore . . . I found seated there Dupré . . . He was surrounded by some twenty disciples, male and female,
mostly pupils, who regarded this young man of 34 years of age with undisguised awe and admiration. He
guessed who I was, and made me sit on the organ bench beside him. Immediately one saw that he played the
organ with most surprising facility. I saw him playing a chord in which his thumb was on G-natural and his
little finger on B-flat. The music flows under his agile hands and feet which move over the keys and pedals
without any apparent effort like the rippling of a stream over round stones.(1)
Claude Johnson, August 15, 1919.
As an improviser, Dupré is head and shoulders above any organist I have ever heard. His improvisations
have a certain spontaneity and a brilliancy which are indescribable. He uses every conceivable style, and I
hardly know which is more remarkable, his improvising of fugues or those brilliant fantasias or toccatas
with their rapidly changing harmonies. As interludes to the verses of a psalm I heard him do a number of
very interesting things: he first began with very rapid passage work on the full Swell high up on the manual,
and gradually made a crescendo to “full organ,” finally bringing in the plainsong melody in the Pedal. His
next interlude was a series of clever chromatic harmonies with soft flutes, with the melody again in the
Pedal (and part of it double-pedaling). He would often use solo registers and did not always try to follow the
particular melody just sung. He usually ended the service with a toccata-like improvisation and in this he did
not follow any theme in the service. He would sometimes play a composition by Widor or Vierne.
His work was always brilliant, very clear-cut, and full of that fire and “punch” that we so seldom hear in
organ playing; but above all, it was amazingly clever. During one service, while he was playing the Bach A
Minor Fugue, he was signaled to stop, and I marveled at the way he brought it to a close, in a truly dignified,
typical Bach style. Personally, I found him to be a most cordial, unassuming, almost bashful man—a fine
character, justly beloved by his colleagues.
Marshall Bidwell, 1922(2)
I was invited to sit on the left end of the long organ bench. Dupré’s manner of playing the instrument was
obviously quite different from Widor’s supreme and well-disciplined approach of being at one with the in-
strument. Dupré’s technique was pianistic and the improvisations of that Sunday produced an incredulously
unchurchly effect to my way of thinking. To be honest, the style seemed self-centered and somewhat man-
nered with the abrupt contrasts between brazen dissonance and blandishing sweetness.
Bengt Andreas, Summer 1935(3)
During this second mass I could not but feel melancholy at the sight of the service downstairs before my
eyes. What changes have taken place since I left Paris, years before the World War! No more chants, no
more singing, no more hymns, no choir, nothing but this priest with his two acolytes dressed in soldiers’
uniforms . . . Yes, as soldiers, for there are soldiers everywhere, even on the steps of the altar. I saw the
empty choir-stalls where once several hundred young seminarians had sung with a score or two of choir-
boys. What was the cause of this change? Dupré sadly answered, “The separation of state and church,” also
the suppression of monasteries, convents, etc.
This explains why Dupré played during the entire service without interruption. If the readers will refer
to the picture of M. Dupré at the console . . . they will see that the little rack for music is pushed aside. That
is a necessity, for this rack would obstruct the view of the performer who from his bench directly faces the
altar. From this point he can follow all the various phases of the mass though unable to hear a single word.
And thus it was that the worthy successor of Widor followed the priest at the altar and changed the move-
ments of the improvised sonata according to the various portions of the service. I heard him open it with a
staccato movement, followed next by a smoother melody in contrast, then returning to the
As the priest entered the second phase, the “composer” entered into a new movement—and thus until the
end, including the offertory and communion. The finale was, if I remember, in toccata form, executed while
the priest left the altar, followed by the two acolyte-soldiers as well as the scattered faithful.
How dull the service would have been had it not been accompanied by such a master. . . .
Paul de Launay, 1937(4)
But those who would hear Dupré, the church organist, must themselves make the journey to St. Sulpice . . .
where he plays during a special service at 9:45 every Sunday morning, lasting about an hour.
His playing of the church service is that of a great artist imbued with the profound religious faith, which
is ideally true of Dupré. The great organ of St. Sulpice responds to the master’s touch with moments of
mysticism, sublimity, and exaltation, which are never forgotten by those fortunate enough to hear them. His
unique improvisations, together with his playing of Bach, Widor, and sometimes his own works, with his
expert handling of this great instrument, form a genuine musical treat of the first rank.
Frederick C. Mayer, 1937