One of the greatest treasures that life can offer us is surely to meet and get to know someone really exceptional who will leave an indelible mark on our lives.
I think every one of us can remember with infinite gratitude certain persons who have helped us in important, even crucial, moments of our lives; persons who in one way or another have changed our way of thinking and of working. Someone whom we met “in the right place at the right time”, who gave us the means to resist, to advance, to widen and deepen our understanding of the Art to which we are dedicated.
Such were for me – in chronological order – Hans Gàl, André Marchal, Marie-Claire Alain and Petr Eben.
(born in 1890 in Vienna, died in Edinburgh in 1987); composer, pianist and professor, would no doubt be the first to be surprised that a pupil from so long ago remembered him. And yet….
Professor of harmony, counterpoint and history of music at Edinburgh University, it was he who encouraged my first steps in these subjects, who had for us students a human and compassionate visage, who always had time to listen to our questions and give us an answer, who showed us that he appreciated our efforts and – perhaps most important of all – that he believed in our power to succeed.
In a programme of study where overwork, lack of encouragement, exchange, or even simple contact between professors and students were the order of the day, Hans Gal’s humanity was like a light at the end of a tunnel. Moreover, his outstanding qualities as a musician, professor and composer placed him far above his colleagues. Not only did I have the incredibly good fortune to benefit from his teaching, but I can truly say that without him, I would probably not have survived, at least musically speaking, my three years in the Faculty of Music. And since this was the beginning of everything else...
André Marchal (1894-1980)
An incomparable artist, a maître loved and respected by all, a faithful and exquisite friend, André Marchal radiated humanity and sincerity, gaiety and deep wisdom.
My first lesson with him revealed what makes a truly great master; his simplicity and extraordinary kindness were only equalled by his exceptional perception and the generous surge of his musical instinct. We, his students, all had the feeling of working with a professor unlike any other; he seemed close to us, youthful and enthusiastic. His Art seemed to be always in constant progression, his interpretation, subtle and alive, was never stereotyped. He taught us to listen, to analyse a sound or a combination of stops; he awoke in us sensitivity to accent and rhythm… in a word, everything that makes the organ come alive.
But just giving us a good example, not enclosing us in a mould, was not enough, and André Marchal knew it. Day after day he taught us how to take our own decisions, assume our own responsibilities. He refused to accept simple copying, work without initiative or reflection. And when the time came he knew how to step back and watch us fly on our own wings. But when we fell flat on our faces he was always there to help us pick ourselves up, learn by our mistakes and take off again.
He leaves with us the memory of the beauty of Art, of the joy in music-making, and few men as much as he will have illuminated the life of others.
André Marchal ever strove to give us, his students, the knowledge and the strength to continue his path, so that we, in turn, might continue to transmit his flame.
Marie-Claire Alain (1926)
I always think of Marie-Claire Alain as my “good fairy”. Our first meeting, in André Marchal’s home in Paris, was the beginning of some forty years of help and friendship :
to the young recitalist: you haven’t been to the United States yet? It’s high time you did, you must write to………. to the music director of the anglican church, always hunting for choir members: I’ve students who are desperate for an organ to practice on, could they come and sing in your church?..... to the inexperienced teacher who had not so far set foot inside a conservatoire: I’ve been appointed professor of organ at the Rueil-Malmaison conservatoire and I need an assistant who can speak English…
Yes, for all that, and for so many other things over the years, Marie-Claire never failed to hold out a helping hand, to encourage me to push further ahead, to succeed where I had never dreamed of going, to strengthen my conviction that family and career could indeed co-exist. Thanks to her, I learnt to accompany the liturgy at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, to become familiar with the Cavaillé-Coll organ (ventil pedals, Barker machine), to teach students of all levels, to take part in various organ commissions; in a word, to immerse myself in the multiples occupations of the French organist.
Dear Marie-Claire, I can never forget how much joy and musical fulfillment I owe you!
Petr Eben (1929-2007)
It is true that during my lessons with André Marchal, I had become used to taking my efforts in interpretation of organ works to their composers: Jean Langlais, Olivier Messiaen, Jean-Claude Henry, Pierre-Petit… But the discovery – which was almost accidental – of the music of Petr Eben, then the privilege of getting to know and work with this composer, of discovering his exceptional personality, will remain forever engraved in my memory.
A first visit to Prague in 1977 left me with the conviction that his music absolutely had to become known the world over, well beyond the boundaries of what was then Czechoslovakia and the countries behind the iron curtain.
That visit was the beginning of a crusade, helped, it is true by various factors: a mutual friend in the British embassy in Prague who organized our first meeting; a year (1978-79) during which Eben taught in Manchester, England, which greatly facilitated our work together; then his presence at a first concert of his works in Paris. For this, Jean Langlais, in a gesture of wonderful generosity, opened for us the organ loft of St. Clotilde. At the end of the concert Langlais seized the microphone and put into words what the audience had certainly been feeling the whole evening: your music touches our hearts, because it is written with your heart.
To talk about Petr Eben is, of course, to evoke a musician of rare quality, of exceptional character, a man loved and respected by all who knew him. But it is also to find oneself face to face with – I believe the word is not too strong – certain miracles. The miracle of surviving the concentration camp of Buchenwald at the age of only fifteen; that of finding in his Christian faith the strength to resist the persecutions of the Communist regime, conserving an unshakeable optimism and a no less unshakeable gratitude towards the world and its Creator. The miracle of having given to his countrymen, through his music, a message of hope and comfort - did he not say: my credo is to convey a message ? - ; and that of having transfigured the life of so many people by showing them the good of which we are all capable.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to work with Petr Eben for almost 25 years, something which opened the doors of a partnership between composer and performer and enriched my musical life in a way I never could have imagined. I treasure the memory of a peerless musician, of his humility and spontaneity, his enthusiasm and sincerity; the memory of an absolute artist.