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Marcel Dupré (1886–1971)

Marcel Dupré (1886–1971)

Marcel Jean Jules Dupré, one of the world’s most renowned twentieth century organists was born May 3, 1886 in Rouen, France. He was the only child of Albert Dupré and Alice Chauvière, both of whom were accomplished musicians. Marcel was born into a family of musicians and organists that included his maternal and paternal grandparents, and relatives. 

Dupré’s paternal grandfather, Aimable Dupré was a gifted pianist, organist, and played several other brass instruments. His paternal grandmother, Marie Visinet Dupré, taught piano. Étienne Chauvière, maternal grandfather, had an operatic career. Chauvière was also Albert Dupré’s best friend. 

Like his mother, Dupré was a child prodigy. He made his first public appearance at age eight (1894) on the inauguration of a small chapel in Elbeuf’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, and was twelve when appointed organist of Saint-Vivien in Rouen.

Saint-Sulpice Church, Paris. Drawing by Kitty Fischer

Dupré initially studied with his father, an organist in Rouen. Organ lessons began with Guilimant in 1898.  His first cantata, Jacob’s Dream, was performed under the direction of his father; he was fifteen years old at the time. Thereafter, Dupré entered the Paris Conservatoire (1902) studying piano under Louis Diémer and Lazare Lévy; organ with Alexandre Guilmant and Louis Vierne; fugue and composition from Charles-Marie Widor. Exceptional ability earned him several premiers prix in piano, organ, and fugue. In 1906, Dupré was appointed Widor’s assistant at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Six years later, he composed Three Preludes and Fugues, his first notable organ work, and in 1914 won the Grand Prix de Rome, a national composition prize, for a cantata (Psyché). When Louis Vierne had to undergo eye treatment in Switzerland, Dupré deputized for Vierne from 1916 to 1920. His composition efforts continued with De Profundis, a choral piece dedicated to the memory of World War I victims, then Fifteen Pieces, which was performed in London’s Royal Robert Hall, the same year Dupré launched his legendary career as a recitalist. 

His obvious devotion to the organ was revealed in performing 2,178 recitals throughout world, the highlight of which included playing the entire works of J.S. Bach from memory. “The sponsorship of an American transcontinental tour by the John Wanamaker Department Store interests rocketed his name into international prominence” (Wikipedia). On November 17, 1921, Dupré made his “American debut” playing “on the organ in the John Wanamaker Store in New York City, closing the program with an improvised four-movement organ symphony: the press calls the feat ‘A musical miracle.’ He plays eighteen recitals in New York and Philadelphia to inaugurate the Wanamaker organs” (Recollections, 136). Ninety-four concerts were performed during a second United States tour in 1922 and 110 concerts on a third tour in 1923. During his third tour, Dupré composed Suite Bretonne and Variations sur un Noël for organ. While on a fourth tour of the United States in 1924, he finished his first organ symphony, Symphonie-Passion, published Gammes de pédale pour orgue (Pedal Scales for Organ), and married Jeanne Pascouau. 

Dupré’s impressive career as a composer also includes music editor, author, and teacher; professor of organ at L’École normale de Musique and American Conservatory at Fontainebleau; director of the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau (1947–1954); director of the Paris Conservatoire (1954–1956); and organist of Saint Sulpice. Some notables he trained while serving as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire were: Jehan Alain; Marie-Claire Alain; Jean-Marie Beaudet; Pierre Cochereau; Françoise Renet; Jeanne Demessieux; Rolande Falcinelli; Jean-Jacques Gruenwald; Jean Guillou; Jean Langlais; Carl Weinrich; and Olivier Messiaen. Among his numerous contributions during the time were essays on organ building, acoustics, and philosophy of music; books on harmonic analysis, organ methods; and two treatises on organ improvisation. 

After publishing Méthode d’Orgue (Method for the Organ), followed by completion of Symphony in G minor for organ and orchestra (1928), he carried out a fifth tour of the United States.

The 1930’s were also productive. Dupré was elected a member of the Academie de Rouen and composed a second organ symphony, Le Chemin de la Croix (The Stations of the Cross), inspired by Paul Claudel’s poem. Shortly before the death of his mother (August 7, 1933), he had returned from a sixth United States tour. After succeeding Charles-Marie Widor as organist of Saint-Sulpice, Dupré composed Concerto in E minor for organ and orchestra, also published six texts on harmony, counterpoint, fugue, plainchant accompaniment; beginning exercises in improvisation; and a study in acoustics. He received the rank of Officier de la Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honor); composed Poeme Heroique for organ, brass, and snare drum; played for the wedding of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson; and went on a seventh United States tour (1937) during which he was awarded a Doctor of Music degree by the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory.

Publications of his edition of J.S. Bach’s organ works began in 1938 and were followed by editions of organ music composed by Handel, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Franck. Before World War II, Dupré had the opportunity to play a recital on the Magic Key Hour, a broadcast from Meudon to the United States via short-wave radio. His world tour in 1939 included an eighth tour to the United States where he played sixty concerts, several at the New York World’s Fair in the Temple of Religion, and twenty-five in Australia.

Dupré remained in France during the war. In 1941 he composed Évocation, dedicated in memory of his father, Albert Dupré, who died July 5, 1940. Five years later, he was appointed director of the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, and went on his ninth tour of the United States that time including a series of master classes and recitals at the University of Chicago. The 1940’s ended with Dupré receiving the distinguished rank of Commandeur de la Légion de’honneur, along with his tenth and final United States tour. 

The 1950’s were eventful just as previous years. In 1953, Dupré was presented with a doctor’s degree from the Pontifical Gregorian Institute in Rome and given a private audience with Pope Pius XII. His composing continued with La France au Calvaire, a dedication to the memory of his parents. Dupré was also elected to the Institut de France, became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and was decorated with Commandeur de l’Orde des Arts et des Lettres (1957). Although he was no longer touring, Dupré visited the United States in 1958 and played recitals at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit and St. Thomas Church in New York, where a series his works were recorded. Upon returning to France and being inspired by a collection of paintings by Monet, he composed Nympheas for organ. 

Organ case of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Drawing by Kitty Fischer

A Dupré performance in 1962 was a recital at Saint-Suplice for the 100th anniversary of the organ. He also played a recital in Detroit; making it his last visit to the United States. On May 8, 1966, in honor of his eightieth birthday, Dupré’s former students gave a concert at Saint-Sulpice. He was also decorated Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory and awarded l’Ordre national de Mérite.

Prior to his death in 1971, Dupré completed a book on his personal recollections. In addition, he played recitals at Troyes and Tours culminating a career of 2,178 organ performances. His last concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London and to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday, many of his distinguished students performed Dupré’s De Profundis at Saint-Sulpice on May 7, 1971, followed by Rolande Falcinelli’s organ recital on May 13. Dupré closed the celebration with an improvisation. 

Reflecting on his retirement, Dupré said: 

“Meanwhile, my quiet life in our very dear home in Meudon, that home which has sheltered us and the wonderful organ of my dear maitre Alexandre Guilmant for forty-six years, is filled with the joy of finding myself on Sunday mornings, as I have since the age of twenty, before the five manuals of Saint-Sulpice’s royal instrument, surrounded by the many dear friends who continue to gather there. If life has brought me many trials and tribulations, it has also brought me many rich blessings” (Recollections, 131).

Dupré died on May 30, 1971 after playing two masses for the Feast of Pentecost at Saint-Sulpice. His funeral, held on June 3 at Saint-Sulpice, was eulogized by Jacques Carlus and Emmanuel Bondeville; attendees included a large contingent of family members, clergy, government representatives, former pupils, and friends. He was buried in Meudon. His legacy: innumerable works of art for the organ and generations of organists to commemorate them.

Selected Bibliography

A Dictionary of Composers for Organ, 3rd ed. Dupré, Marcel (1886–1971), Recollections. Translated and edited by Ralph Kneeream.            Melville, NY: Belwin-Mills Publishing, 1972.
Marcel Dupré (Composer).
Marcel Dupré.é.
Murray, Michael, Marcel Dupré, The Work of a Master Organist. Boston: Northwestern University Press, 1985.
J. Pagett, The Music of Marcel Dupré. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1975.

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