Classic French organ music, ca. 1660–1750, occupies a minor place in the modern organ repertory. It developed in the context of the rigid liturgical norms of French Catholicism and the special tonal characteristics of French organs of the period; in the absence of both of these contexts the music can (but need not!) seem meagre. The playing of the organ was highly ritualized in French Catholicism, confined to adorn and amplify the chants of the Mass and Office. The principle genre of the classic French organ is therefore the verset, a short composition designed to take the place of one phrase of plainsong and to be played in alternation with the choir. After the Revolution and the dissolution of the monarchy, French liturgy underwent reforms (that is, after Catholicism became legal again) which made much of the classic repertoire obsolete — not least because of its monarchal associations. The organ-and-choir alternatim practice was abolished by Motu proprio in 1903, which sealed the deal: this music has no liturgical place nowadays, not even (or, especially not) in a Catholic service.
Perhaps because large-scale formal development was inhibited by liturgical constraints, classic French organ music found recourse in the particular tonal qualities of the organs themselves. Like all organ-building traditions, classic French organs had a basic principal chorus based on 8-foot pitch going up through mixtures, but placed special emphasis on solo colors provided by tierces (‘third-sounding’ mutation stops, supporting the fifth harmonic) and reeds. The reeds themselves were not designed to support the principal chorus, but constituted the foundation of a distinct (in both senses) chorus of reeds. The pedals were not used for playing the bass at 16-foot pitch, but were used rather to play cantus firmi in the tenor or bass register (as you hear in the first and last versets of the Kyrie, respectively) or for supplying a soft flute bass at 8-foot pitch (as you will hear in the Qui tollis verset). Many organs were smashed during the Revolution, redolent as they were of the ancien régime, and many that survived were replaced or substantially rebuilt according to nineteenth-century designs.
So the classic organ repertoire fell into disuse once its liturgical function became obsolete and as instruments no longer had the tonal capacities to realize it. It is true that this was principally an improvised, short-form repertoire performed by workaday church musicians — and for this reason even the published organ music by great composers of the period may have something of an austere quality when compared to the same composers’ theatre or domestic works. Couperin’s Messe pour les Paroisses, written by the time he was 22, is, in my opinion, head and shoulders above any other French organ music of the period. Even de Grigny’s organ music, a master composer whose music Bach copied and revered, does not equal the ease of expression to be found in Couperin’s mass, in which the exquisite finesse of French ornament is leavened by the brio of Italian melody, particularly in the versets of the Gloria. Willi Apel had this to say about it:
This music shows a sense of natural order, a vitality, and an immediacy of feeling that breaks into French organ music like a fresh wind. Couperin surely learned from Lully, but the simplicity and grace of his melodies go far beyond Lully.
Couperin learned this manner from Charpentier, who studied in Italy with Carissimi — a rarety at the time and certainly a factor underlying the emnity between Charpentier and Lully, who disavowed his own Italian origin and actively discouraged musicians from traveling to Italy. Charpentier’s Messe pour tous les instruments, a kind of ersatz organ mass for orchestra for use in churches where the organ was out of service, was probably performed at Couperin’s parish of St-Gervais in 1685, just as Couperin was finishing his apprenticeship there under his uncle. The Kyrie of Couperin’s mass makes clear allusion to Charpentier’s mass. Also clear is Corelli’s influence, particularly in the trio textures; the middle section of the Offertoire, with its distinctive chromatic harmonies, is more or less a recomposition of a passage from one of Corelli’s sonate da chiesa from opus 3 (1689).
Even after we feel ready to appreciate the music — and if not the severe obscurity of Nivers then surely the cantabile sunniness Couperin — the relative rarety of Classic French organs might pose another barrier to hearing it. But we shouldn’t forget that French organ music was received avidly in Protestant lands already in the eighteenth century. The legendary meeting of Marchand and Bach in Dresden is perhaps the best known example of this exchange. To take another well-known example, Georg Böhm’s Vater unser setting is itself a kind of récit du cornet, and its floridly elaborated melody is a veritable glossary of French ornaments. After all, do we imagine that Bach didn’t play his copy of de Grigny on his organ?