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Jean Langlais

Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

Jean Langlais,  the eldest of four children, was born into abject poverty in a small rural village in Brittany and became blind by the age of three. From this unpromising beginning Langlais became one of the most significant organ composers and performers of his century. His prodigious opus of organ compositions, more than 300, exceeds even that of J.S. Bach. As an internationally acclaimed organist, he performed extensively throughout Europe and North America and made numerous recordings.

His disability evolved into opportunity; at the age of ten, Langlais was sent to the School for the Young Blind in Paris where he began formal academic and musical training in piano, violin, organ, theory, and composition. Further study culminated at the Paris Conservatory where he obtained prizes in organ, improvisation, and composition.

Langlaisís style of playing and composition are marked by the traditions of his predecessors at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde, where he served as organist from 1945-1988. Both César Franck and Charles Tournemire were noted for the lyricism and freedom of interpretation both in performance and in original compositions influenced by the particularly fine acoustics and Cavaillé-Coll organ at this church. There existed a direct line of musical and spiritual apprenticeship from Franck to Langlais through Franckís pupils: Tournemire, Albert Mahaut, and Adolph Marty, with whom Langlais also studied. Langlaisís other two organ teachers, André Marchal and Marcel Dupré, influenced him as well: Marchal for the poetic sense of line in his playing and Dupré for technical mastery of the instrument.

What other influences molded Langlaisís compositions? Most importantly, his faith,which found its direct expression through his music. While he was a devout Roman Catholic and many of his pieces reflect his special veneration for Mary, his compositions none-the-less appeal to the religious sensibilities of all faiths. Many traditional elements inform his work: Medieval music, chant, folk melodies, and modality, to name but a few. One senses the old styles and forms imbued with a very new flavor. His composition professor, Paul Dukas, continually urged students to search for new ideas so that each work would sound different from previous ones. Langlais heeded his advice. His frequent use of polymodality, synthetic scales, added rhythms, extra-musical symbolism, and new uses of the colors and timbres of the organ also show Langlaisís search for innovation. But in all of his music the listener directly perceives the emotion he expresses, the originality of the piece, and the unique spark of his personality.

To learn more about Jean Langlais, please visit the links below to order Dr. Labounsky's book, Jean Langlais: The Man and His Music, and the DVD produced by the Los Angeles Chapter, American Guild of Organists.