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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.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.


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.


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,

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at