Jean Guillou

Categories: IPYA Winners

Jean Guillou, the titular organist of the church of Saint Eustache in Paris, is first and foremost a composer who has been able to push back the technical limits of his instrument quit considerably in order to construct and develop, from his earliest years, more or less secretly, a singular musical word of great individuality, one that his fame as a performer has put somewhat in the shade. This world of the composer Jean Guillou seems to us to shine as brightly as that of his interpretative art. A doctoral thesis was presented to the Sorbonne by Jean-Philippe Hodant entitled “Rhétorique et Dramaturgie dans l’oeuvre musicale de Jean Guillou (Rhetoric and Dramatury in the music of Jean Guillou”, a study in particular of the three major compositions “La Chapelle des Abîmes”, “Judith-Symphonie” for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra and “Hypérion”). His postulate was to make it apparent that the art of Jean Guillou consists of the creation of an autonomous musical rhetoric comparable with a litterary discourse: a musical narrativity that encloses within itself and also contains dramatic gestures, becoming dramaturgical stylisation that produces a perfectly structured language and blends itself in a single poetic gesture.
It is in this sense that Jean Guillou tends to shape a new face for the organ: an organ that provides the ears of its listeners with poetic, fantastical messages, like the enigma, the one and multiple word of the organ. Succeeding to the traditional symphonic organ, then to the comtemplative organ of Messiaen who meditated upon liturgical texts and brought the first esthetic revolution to organ music, Jean Guillou invented the dramatic organ, initiating the second rupture in our century. Here the organ is sent into action, behaving like an actor set on stage in a particular situation, and divorced from all references to the image of a “religious instrument”.

A many-sided creator, Jean Guillou possesses a polyvalent musical and artistic personality. As a pianist, he revived the Sonata of Julius Reubke, a pupil of Liszt, who died at the age of 24 after leaving two masterpieces: the Sonata for piano and another Sonata for organ. Jean Guillou is the only musician to have performed both works – each lasting half an hour, both on record and in concert.

He has taught at the “Meisterkursus” in Zürich since 1970, but Jean Guillou is also the creator of a novel form of instrument construction. He was the designer, among other organs, of those of the Alpe d’Huez, of the “Chant d’Oiseaux” in Brussels, the Conservatory of Naples and the Tonhalle in Zürich, imposing an individuality and a new style on the organ of the twentieth century. This conception of the organ is moreover the key to his work “L’Orgue, Souvenir et Avenir” (The Organ, Memory and Future), which has reached its third edition. This book evokes the whole history of the organ from the third century B.C. to a description of his own instruments and of his “variable Structure Organ”. The treatise ends with a chapter on interpretation, on improvisation and creation in general. Jean Guillou is also the author of “La Musique et le Geste” as well as “L’inspiration musicale dans le poème de la Jeune Parque” of Paul Valéry and the harmonic structure of André Gide’s novel “Les Faux Monnayeurs”. Apart from the text he wrote for “Alice au Pays de l’Orgue”, he has used some of his poems in his compositions: “Aube” for 12 voices and organ, and “Poème de la Main” for soprano and organ.

Jean Guillou is especially interested in the association of the organ with other instruments and has composed five concertos for organ and orchestra, works for piano and organ, for cello and organ, for clarinet and organ, etc.

Philips has released all of Jean Guillou’s recordings on 9 CDs, originally produced by the same company in the 1960s.

Jean Guillou’s recital for the Internationl Performer of the Year Award was presented on 1 June 1982 at The Riverside Church.

Click here to listen to performances by Jean Guillou and conversation with Michael Barone on Pipedreams.