Marcel Dupré was the foremost French organ virtuoso of his time, an heir to the great tradition of Romantic French organ playing and composing. Dupré was famed for his ability to improvise; he also composed substantial works and was a widely traveled recitalist and an influential teacher.
The extraordinary talent of Marcel Dupré arose out of an extraordinary childhood. Born in Rouen in 1886, Dupré was the only child in a home that has been described as ‘a temple of music’; his father Albert was a distinguished organist and choral conductor, his mother Alice a cellist and pianist, and the grandfather and aunt who shared the house were also professional musicians. At the back of the house was a large music room where Albert Dupré conducted the rehearsals of the local choral society. Dupré was only a few days old when his father’s teacher Alexandre Guilmant inspected the cradle and pronounced ‘He will be an organist’, and the child’s precocious musicality soon became apparent; within a few years another family friend, the organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, was calling him le petit prodige. In 1896 the music room was enlarged to house an organ; this became an object of obsessive fascination to the young Marcel and determined the course of his future career. Under the early instruction first of his father, and later of A. Guilmant, he showed an unusual aptitude for concentrated study, and at the age of 11 he was appointed Organist of the church of Saint-Vivien in Rouen. When the music room was enlarged again in 1901, it was inaugurated on Dupré’s 15th birthday with a performance of a cantata which he had composed for the occasion. The next year he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where he was to win a succession of outstanding premiers prix in piano, organ and fugue; he was barely 20 when Widor appointed him as his assistant at Saint-Sulpice in 1906. In 1912 he made his official Parisian debut at the Salle Gaveau, and in 1914 he won the national composition prize, the Prix de Rome, with his cantata Psyché.
After World War I, Marcel Dupré rapidly established his reputation as a concert artist, following his performance from memory of the complete organ works of Bach in a series of recitals in Paris. International success came first in England, and then in America, where the improvised organ symphony at his first recital was hailed in the press as ‘a musical miracle’; between 1922 and 1925 he spent almost six months of each year performing in the USA. In 1926 he was appointed Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire, where he remained for 30 years, training all the great French organists of two generations. In 1934 Widor retired from Saint-Sulpice at the age of 89, and after 28 years as Assistant, Dupré became Titulaire in his own right - a post which he was to hold until the very day of his death on Whit Sunday 1971.
As performer, teacher and composer, Marcel Dupré devoted his whole life to the organ. His performing career embraced a total of 2178 recitals all over the world, but was centred round Saint-Sulpice, where his liturgical improvisations attracted a crowd of admirers to the organ-loft every Sunday. His teaching activities extended far beyond his regular work at the Conservatoire, including a dozen theoretical textbooks and teaching editions of the organ works of the great masters in 21 minutely annotated volumes. During his earlier years he composed for many different media, but from the mid-1920's he concentrated exclusively on the organ, his extensive output for the instrument reflecting his own experience as recitalist, church musician and professor, and including large-scale concert works, plainsong-based liturgical music, and technical studies ranging from the elementary to the transcendental.
During his lifetime the more sensational aspects of Marcel Dupré’s art - his spellbinding virtuosity and the supreme musical intellect which enabled him to improvise strict five-part fugues with miraculous ease - tended to obscure the poetic and spiritual side of his creative personality. Only a handful of his works took a place in the standard repertoire, and in the thirty years since his death little has changed. We hope that these recordings will help to redress the balance; the logic of Dupré’s musical thought and the subtle refinement of his harmonic language can often be fully appreciated only after repeated listening, and familiarity with the lesser-known pieces can only enhance our appreciation of the more popular works. This complete recording will present the complete picture of the musical legacy of a great musician, a musician who was not just a master craftsman but also a poet, a poet who could declare from the heart: ‘I love colourful harmonies, I adore them....For me, music should be a caress for the ear.’