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A WWII celebration, and a musical battle behind the scenes

Tanks in front of Notre Dame in Paris, in August 1944.
Tanks in front of Notre Dame in Paris, in August 1944.Imperial War Museum

On Sept. 30, organist Brink Bush plays a recital at St. Cecelia’s Church including a wartime souvenir: Leonce de Saint-Martin’s “Toccata de la Libération,” composed in August 1944 to mark the retaking of Paris from the Nazis by Allied forces in World War II. The piece is a straightforward stretch of slightly old-fashioned, late-Romantic virtuosity. But beneath its surface run fractious politics, musical and otherwise.

Saint-Martin, born into a noble, wealthy family, was a very good organist surrounded by greatness: an older generation of French organists, led by such figures as Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire, and a younger one, including Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, and Jean Langlais. The legendary performer and pedagogue Marcel Dupré was Saint-Martin’s contemporary (and a longtime friend). The discrepancy only became an issue when, in 1937, Saint-Martin was unexpectedly promoted into the highest-profile job in France: organiste titulaire at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

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The job had been Vierne’s since 1900, and Saint-Martin had, for some years, been Vierne’s assistant: turning pages, pulling registrations, filling in when Vierne was absent. The emotionally volatile Vierne eventually turned against Saint-Martin (just as earlier, he fell out with Dupré). When Vierne’s health began to fail, he wrote a letter recommending that his successor be chosen the same way he was: via an open competition among invited candidates — a contest Saint-Martin surely would have lost. But, after Vierne died (at the organ console, during a recital), the Notre-Dame administration disregarded Vierne’s request and offered the job directly to Saint-Martin.

Vierne’s letter was made public only after Saint-Martin accepted the position. The resulting sparks of resentment in the French musical community were fanned into flame by the German invasion. There was a sense that Notre-Dame and its leader, Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, had been a little too accommodating with the occupiers, suspicions that — rightly or wrongly — enveloped Saint-Martin as well. Charles De Gaulle, leader of the resistance, refused to let Cardinal Suhard attend a planned “Te Deum” in the cathedral just after the liberation. Saint-Martin did go, but was unable to play his Toccata. Snipers still lurked all over Paris. And when De Gaulle entered Notre-Dame, gunfire erupted from the towers and (according to some reports) the galleries. Saint-Martin never made it to the organ loft.

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Saint-Martin remained organiste titulaire until his death in 1954. Only three other organists attended his funeral: Dupré, Jeanne Demessieux, and Pierre Cochereau — who himself became Saint-Martin’s successor at Notre-Dame.

Matthew Guerrieri

Brink Bush performs music of Bach, Tournemire, Middelschulte, Reger, Saint-Saëns, Pierné, and Saint-Martin, , Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. at Saint Cecilia Church. Freewill donation. 617-536-4548, www.stceciliaboston.org


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.