Jehan Titelouze - Three Church Hymns - The Magnificat Sexti Toni


Jehan Titelouze
Pieces from the Books :
Three Church Hymns (1623) 
The Magnificat or Hymn to the Virgin [Sexti Toni (1626)]
Alternate sung verses :
Polyphonies de Jean de Bournonville (1625) 

Jean-Charles Ablitzer 
Thomas Dallam Historical Organ
Saint-Miliau Parish Enclosure, Guimiliau, Finistère

Gérard LesneJosep BenetJosep CabréMalcolm Bothwell

"10" de Répertoire n°43
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2195
"Recommandé" par Classica n°18

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

Little is known concerning the composer's private life except that he was cantankerous, probably somewhat unapproachable, and confident enough in his own genius to isolate himself in mercantile 17th century Rouen. His style, expressed both in the works themselves and in his prefaces to them, reflects a patrician sensibility that no doubt sat ill with the society of grasping shopkeepers he lived among. 

In his preface to the "Hymns" dedicated to Nicolas de Verdun, first President of the Normandy Parliament, Jehan Titelouze's bitterness is evident from the start :
"I could not bring myself to publish this little volume until my friends persuaded me that it will serve a useful purpose to students of the organ. It is for this reason I am letting it out of my hands, and not through any expectation of praise, since I am well aware that among mankind there exist carping spirits quicker to find fault than to seek understanding, who cannot see a work without criticizing it, as they are sure to do in the present case, considering that I employ certain harmonies, and also dissonances, in a way perhaps new and unfamiliar to them." 

The same refrain appears in Titelouze's correspondence with Mersenne. "I regret," the composer writes on 26 March 1628, "that I cannot live and make my poor music near to you, since there is no one I can talk to here, and I fear you have no one to talk to in Paris either!"

Although we do not know what Jehan Titelouze looked like, reading this letter between the lines raises an image not unlike the one in Poussin's self-portrait : painfully self-absorbed, body weighty with the heavy local diet, puffing up the steps to the organ loft, startled by the occasional importunities of an admirer happening past the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rouen.

A number of legends have grown up around Titelouze's birth in 1563, among them the belief that he was the noble descendant of some Anglo-Saxon exile from the revolutions, who chose to settle in Saint-Omer. In fact, however, his grandfather seems to have been a barber, and his father a strolling minstrel. The happy fact of his father being a musician meant that he was early initiated into the rudiments of his art, along with the solid bourgeois values he received from both sides of a family that included a painter and a landsurveyor. His early formal education was intended to groom him for the priesthood, a pinnacle in the upward movement of the family's fortunes. Perhaps there were early hints of his gruff pride, and his confidence that his talent set him apart form others. He applied for the post of organist at Saint-Omer and when he was rejected, probably due to his musical audacity, he decided to head towards Rouen. He served as organist from 1585 at the church of Saint-Jean before finally being named on 12 April 1588 to succeed François Josseline as organist at Rouen Cathedral. This time his genius stood him in good stead. His brilliant improvisations at the keyboard won over Josseline's temporary replacement, Toussaint Lefebvre, himself a gifted musician. 

Although, as we have seen, Titelouze was embittered by the reception his musical experiments received in Rouen, he was nevertheless forced to recognize that despite the small-mindedness of its denizens, the city was, with Paris, a major centre of 17th-century developments in French organ music - due in part to his own presence there, of course. The many churches and convents dotting the city all had, or were soon to have, their own organ. Wood from the nearby forests, metal shipped down the Seine, and the highly-developed skills of local craftsmen were available to turn his dream of a great organ into reality. An organ that would be powerful and brilliant, with two manuals (great/choir) for displaying the new contrapuntal musical rhetoric from Italy in vaulting antiphonies between the great organ in the loft and the motet flowing from the choir stall.

Through his many personal contacts, professional experience with instruments, travels, and extensive correspondence, Jehan Titelouze forged the musical temperament on which all of his inspiration was lavished. Evidence shows that in 1588 and again in 1597 his advice was sought by various churches in the city. In 1603 he supervised the renovations to the Cathedral organ - his organ - carried out by famed organ-builder Crespin Carlier, who was subsequently called to Paris because of the brilliant job he had done.
Titelouze rose in terms both of salary and of rank, In 1610 he was named to the position of Canon, and in 1613 his expert services were called upon to evaluate the organ in the cathedral at Poitiers. In 1613 he was also awarded the "Palinod de Rouen" prize for his "Chant Royal", but when we read a few lines of the poem, we are forced to conclude that he was a better musician than poet :

"What angelic motet is this I hear, Oh God,
Ensnaring my soul in its many charms?
What? this mighty organ with its choirlike tone
Echoes in reply, a hymn rising
To reward the one who sings the best."

The lines may be insipid, but they do provide an accurate description of the music heard in the cathedral. The cathedral choir sang motets by du Caurroy, Claude Le Jeune, Jean de Bournonville, Roland de Lassus, and others; the organ responded in an antiphonal dialogue. Titelouze's improvisations and written compositions formed an integral part of this particular musical language. When he published his "Church Hymns for Organists, with fugues and plainsong variations" (Ballard, I623), he joined the ranks of his contemporaries who during the same period were actually creating the European organ tradition. This group included Frescobaldi in Rome, with his "Toccatas e Partite" (1614-1615) and "Ricercari e Canzoni Francese" (1615); and later, Scheidt with his "Tablatura Nova" (1624); and Sweelinck and Scheidemann in the North.

All of these composers, Titelouze along with the rest, were keenly interested in the theory behind musical phenomena. And all read Zarlino's "Institutioni Armoniche", published in Venice in 1558. This treatise raised complicated questions concerning the use of dissonance and 7ths, and the new tonal relationships. Titelouze exchanged a lengthy correspondence with Mersenne on the subject, and with Descartes on the basic problems of music. Organist-composer Titelouze wrote extensively on how the organ line must express the text by exploiting the prosody underlying the melodic line, developing the organ part through timbre coloration, different registers, pedal emphasis on the Cantus firmus, and instrumental counterpoint around a solo voice in the manner of Frescobaldi. Fascinated as he was with the organ, he also branched out and experimented with single-stringed instruments and even used a bell he had been asked to look at for studying the transition from unison to the minor third.

In due course, the gruff and embittered Canon's intellectual curiosity mellowed him into a genuine innovator fascinated by the century he lived in, although the diversity of his early baroque style probably continued to shock his stolid fellow-citizens.

Titelouze was often ill and perhaps even a touch hypochondriac. In 1624, when a bellringer died of the plague, he requested that the organ pipes be "drenched with drugs and perfumes". He was not too wrapped up in the pure science of acoustics to be mindful of health and hygiene.

When we think of early baroque music (1620-1630) we naturally think of Rome. But "Rome" came to Rouen in 1631 when Jehan Titelouze literally staged the Saint-Cecilia Day celebrations in his cathedral. He not only composed music for the event, he also set up four theatres in the nave and transepts for his antiphonal choirs. This was actually going Rome one better, and bringing the sumptuous musical Venice of the two Gabrielis to the banks of the Seine.

This production, which followed the 1626 publication by Ballard of his "Magnificat or Hymn to the Virgin an organ piece based on the eight church modes", was destined to be his last major effort. In January 1633 Titelouze requested an increase in his salary in order to pay for instructing a young man in the art of playing the organ "in his absence", and these absences increased. Jehan Titelouze's strength was failing. We can only hope he had time to train his young pupil before his death on 25 October 1633.

Titelouze was a meticulous man, as careful in describing exactly how his works should be played as Couperin was to be a century later. In his 1623 preface be explained both how the music should be performed, and the roots of his own musical language : "There is also something else which alters the form of the modes, and this is that in order to shape the intonation of the choir, the organist ordinarily has the plainsong follow the figured bass; but, if the plainsong is in the first mode, when the phrasing brings it against the other line, it moves into the second mode : this combines the Authentic Mode and the Plagal Mode in the same piece, but the practice is so widespread and has been common for such a long time that I have accepted it and left it undisturbed, because the breadth of the instrument's keyboard allows for ease and freedom, accommodating both dual modulation and separation of the two lines for greater clarity."
"Meter and ornamentation are advisable for both voices and instruments, since meter regulates the progression of the line, and ornamentation makes it more interesting. Rhythmically, the half-circle without bar which I have marked indicates that the tempo and meter should be slowed to half-time, which is also a means for performing the more difficult passages more easily. Since marking the ornamentation on all the notes requiring it would be difficult, I leave their choice to the discretion of the performer, who is free to add, as I do, the usual cadenzas."

Titelouze was a man of his time - intellectually curious, experimental - who gave us a French version of contemporary developments in musical expression. He was well aware that his lofty concept of progressively developed and embellished counterpoint opened the way towards the variation form, although he could not foresee the apogee it was to attain in the works of J.S. Bach. He strove to express vocal effects, phrasing, and embellishments instrumentally, on the keyboard. In this he was the father of French musical developments through Rameau, all of which have their roots in the same musical logic.

Titelouze was a dedicated, uncompromising artist. He ranks with Frescobaldi as one of the great precursors of European organ music, a lonely experimenter whose disdain for others reflected artistic pride rather than provincial vanity. Today he is recognized as the inspired wellspring from which French keyboard music developed. His great and austere Hymns and Magnificats foreshadowed in the early 17th century the vast stream in which the baroque and classical currents were later to mingle in France. To hear these works is to be the fortunate participant in a uniquely satisfying musical dialogue.

Text after Claude Noisette de Crauzat original

Jean-Charles Ablitzer


Born in 1946 and attracted early in life by the organ, Jean-Charles Ablitzer was self-taught before enrolling in the Strasbourg Conservatory, where he studied under Pierre Vidal. In 1971 he won the post of organist at Saint-Christophe Cathedral of Belfort, home of the great Valtrin-Callinet organ restored by Kurt Schwenkedel of Strasbourg. The same year he was also named professor of organ at the Belfort Conservatory. 

J.C. Ablitzer's extensive knowledge of baroque music and instruments conditions the rigorous discipline of his style, which reflects the principles described in learned treatises; his personal discoveries regarding registration, articulation and phrasing; and his research into antique organs (construction materials, keyboard and pedalboard configuration). Jean-Charles Ablitzer is an ardent chamber-music performer, and has participated in numerous baroque ensemble concerts and recordings.

The high quality of Ablitzer's recordings (Bach, Couperin) has received ample praise from the critics : "…Playing a superb Catalan instrument with the characteristic Iberian nasality, Ablitzer constructs a glittering monument resounding with vast incandescent figures. Phrasing, registration, and digital dexterity are stunning. No one since Chapuis has played Couperin this brilliantly…" (from a review by Jean-Luc Macia).

Ablitzer's two recordings of François Couperin Masses were ranked by the monthly review "Le Monde de la Musique" as among the ten best classical recordings of 1987.
"…Jean-Charles Ablitzer's abilities as a colourist enable him to etch the smallest details of a tormented work that eschews comfortable harmonies and banal equilibrium, and to confront its most lyrical effusions with aplomb. This "Complete Works" (Buxtehude) in progress is devilishly promising…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…But never fear; the Belfort organist doesn't drag Brahms over the borderline into austere pedantry. He remembers the lesson this composer learned during his long stay in Vienna, the importance of smooth flow and sunny declamation : here is a recording flooded with just that Viennese spirit…" (from a review by Xavier Lacavalerie).

"…his fervour is enough to draw tears from a stone, but it is his exuberance and joy that fulfil the crucial role of restoring to Titelouze's music its original sharp brilliance and dazzling verve. The centuries fall away, the musical themes engage with each other like flashing swords of light…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…dedicated to Georg Boehm, known for having influenced the great Bach, his works, it is now proven, deserve their own success. To the glowing chorales, Monique Zanetti lends her pureness and ecstatic innocence, while Jean-Charles Ablitzer offers glory and enlightenment." (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…he is well aware of the recent musicological evolutions, his application of which is extremely seductive… He is not the prisoner of any fashion in his choice of tempi, phrasing, or registration. On the contrary, he is constantly inspired, proposing innovative solutions with every page." (from a review by Francis Albou /J.S. Bach, Organ works in Goslar).

The Parish Enclosure Thomas Dallam historical Organ in Guimiliau, Brittany

The instrument stands in a huge, superbly detailed organ loft, as famed as the extraordinary Saint-Miliau church, with its enclosure, unique Calvary and 17th century ecclesiastical furnishings. The large, 8-foot, show-pipe organ has 32 stops (including 28 real stops) on three manuals with 48 keys and 17-slat French pedal board. The two organ chests, one 8-foot and one 4-foot, are very characteristic of Thomas Dallam's style, with outstanding central bowsprittype turret.

This organ is an especially striking example of Dallam's work. The profuse ornamentation of the chest is obviously designed for close viewing : cherubs, triumphant eagles, musical motifs with score, foliage, delicate notching, heraldic emblems, garlands of roses, king David, superb latticework, raised armorial bearings (scratched out during the Revolution, but carefully, so that they are still legible two centuries later) attributed to the De Kergolay and De Kernéau families.

It is interesting to note in this exuberant decoration the blending of traditions and styles. When examined closely, the chests reveal both late 17th century and Classic influences in their overall makeup.

The restoration

In 1986 the organ was in danger of collapsing in the nave of the church, and the organ chest sloped sharply backwards in the sagging loft. The organ was held in place by the woodwork on the arch. The remains of the original pipes and machinery were in ruins due to neglect and ill-treatment. We therefore took the entire organ apart piece by piece, examined each component individually, and studied other surviving Thomas Dallam organs with usable parts for purposes of comparison. After 20.000 hours of patient work, the organ was restored to life and is now making music once more.

We attempted to come as close as possible to what the organ must have been like between 1675-1680. Apart from specific technical problems, we did not encounter any particular difficulty with the machinery or the organ chest. The sound was a different matter, however. Here was a great instrument in a tiny church with dry acoustics - a great instrument that no living ear had ever heard! Four basic factors guided our work : the pipes with their antique testers, the bellows, the reaction of the registers, and the acoustics of the church.

There is no harshness in the sound of the restored organ; it is modulated. The range is very "French" and "Louis XIV", but it differs by only a stop or two from the range Jehan Titelouze had at his disposal in Rouen when he composed his "Church Hymns for Organ" in 1623. In addition, a number of the principles used for calibrating the pipes are based on those introduced by Marin Mersenne in his "Harmonie Universelle" (Organ Book) in 1636. This explains why the unusual combinations of sound advocated by Mersenne take on an added lustre when played on the Guimiliau organ.

Text after Gérald Guillemin original

The Organ history, from 1675 to 1989

1675-1680 Organ built by Thomas Dallam, "Sieur de La Tour", son of English organ-builder Robert Dallam.
1820-1830 Major repairs carried out by François Yves Le Roux of Quimper.
1850 Restoration by Loiselot.
1906 Organ loft listed historical monument, 21 May.
1909 The organ is no longer played, but still contains almost all of its original fittings.
1937-1939 Major rebuilding of instrument. Most of original fittings lost; restoration extremely mediocre.
1959 Attempt to reactivate the organ made by the Frères Mack of Saint-Brieuc.
1970 Organ-chest listed historical monument; organ con no longer be played.
1980 17th-century portion of instrument listed historical monument.
1886-1989 Period restoration of organ-chests and musical portions of instrument by Gérald Guillemin and associates, organ-builders at Malaucène (Vaucluse).


Hymnes de l'église (1623) 
pour toucher sur l'orgue

Ave maris stella (versets chantés polyphoniques)
Veni Creator (versets chantés polyphoniques)
Magnificat Sexti Toni (1626) 
ou Cantique de la Vierge 
pour toucher sur l'orgue suivant les huit tons de l’église
(versets chantés polyphoniques)


"10" de Répertoire n°43
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2195
"Recommandé" par Classica n°18
Selected by "Les Découvertes" du Guide Gourmand des Musiques à l'Ancienne :

This disc consists of organ verses and hymns composed on plainsong melodies by one of the most extraordinary musicians of renaissance France, Jehan Titelouze.
The booklet, which is, as ever with Harmonic Classics, excellently presented, has a very neatly translated essay on this colourful figure by Claude Noissette de Crauzat. There is also an essay on the Dallam family of organ builders who, incidentally, haled from England and whose instruments can be found in Cambridge and Oxford as well as in France. The organ is described and its restoration, completed in time for this recording, is carefully explained. The stops and registration are set out - both the original work and the new and the instrument’s history is listed. To cap it off there is a good colour photo of the organ at back of the booklet. So as you can see, everything is well presented. The texts are given on different coloured paper but not translated from the Latin.
A typical Titelouze composition is exemplified by the first work on the CD, the hymn 
"Ave Maris Stella" : Opening plainsong intonation, one line of text followed by verse on the organ with plainchant in the bass in long notes. This takes the place of the text for the rest of verse 1. Second verse : voices a capella in four parts - melody in tenor. Verse 3 : solo voice singing plainsong in broken phrases with a contrapuntal organ part. I refrain from saying 'accompaniment' as the organ music dominates. Next verse, a capella in four parts answered by the organ verse. Verse 4 a capella in four parts answered by the organ - in this interpretation played forte on trumpet stops ending with a polyphonic A-men. The average length of such a work would be approximately 9 minutes.
The setting by Monteverdi of "Ave Maris Stella" found in the Vespers of 1610 must be exactly contemporary with Titelouze so you will recognize the format. But whereas Monteverdi is most definitely early baroque in sound, Titelouze remains anchored in the renaissance, indeed for me, the early renaissance when figures like John Redford and William Blithemann were active (c.1530) and writing organ masses. Another even more archaic approach can be heard in the 
"Pange lingua" where there is no four-part vocal writing but only plainsong interspersed with the organ verses.
The venue for these recordings seems to me to be ideal. The organ is a versatile and at times a gloriously brazen instrument. I particularly liked the "trompette" stop and the more subtle "flute de 4 pieds". The performers who are all regulars on this record label and exemplary in their knowledge and experience in all aspects of medieval music are set back from the organ acoustically which seems sensible. The superb recording which is now over 10 years old is nothing less than ideal, capturing the instrument and as it were the building, although a little more resonance would have pleased me even more. Jean-Charles Ablitzer who carries the main work on the CD has the difficulty of having to keep the listeners' attention in the long organ verses. : Mercifully he keeps the tempo moving but allows the counterpoint to speak. He also varies the registration - often starting and ending with the reed stops. This is harder music to play well than one might originally imagine. Each leading voice part in the texture needs clarity and focus. It is a credit to his imagination and musicianship that he achieves all of this and more.
One gem from the life of Titelouze to end with; he was an interesting character who wrote terrible poetry (at least that is the verdict of the booklet writer), I quote : "What? The mighty organ with its choirlike tone / Echoes in reply, a hymn rising / to reward the one who sings the best". Surely an accurate description of the music heard in Rouen Cathedral when Titelouze flourished there in the late 16th Century.
 - Gary Higginson
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