This past weekend, 11 musical colleagues and I performed a wonderful concert in Hartford. Using the Couperin organ mass, Messe des Paroisses, as the foundation work and inserting the appropriate chants of the mass throughout, we recreated the entire musical liturgy of a Mass as if it were the 17th century in France. Over the summer, I had inquired about and received facsimiles of plainchant editions by Nivers as well as a source for a 3-part Chant du Credo en Faux-bourdon from libraries in France. I transcribed these sources into modern notation for our concert, and rounded out the order of the mass with a Communion piece by de Grigny and a Domine Salvum motet by Charpentier. Overall, it was a scholarly and worshipful experience for the performers and the audience! Below are the live recordings from the concert, as well as my program notes. Enjoy!

Concert Program


 Introitus: Dicit Dominus






Graduale: Liberasti nos


Alleluia/de profundis


Credo: Chant du Credo en Faux-bourdon (anon. 1771, Paris)


Offertorium: Offertoire sur les Grands Jeux




Agnus Dei


Communio: Dialogue a 2 Tailles de Cromhorne et 2 dessus de Cornet pour la Communion (Nicolas de Grigny, 1699)


Ite Missa est/Deo gratias


Petit Motet: Domine salvum fac Regem, H. 305 (Marc-Antoine Charpentier)



The period from 1630 to 1790 in France was the longest stretch in music history where organ-building and the liturgical function of the organ was standardized across an entire country. Organs in France during this time were built with similar schematics, key actions, and tone colors and were used in a school of composition and performance known as the French Classic period. The main role of the organist during this period was to improvise short pieces of music during the mass and offices, often alternating with the choir singing versets of plainchant. This alternatim practice has roots in the Renaissance period throughout Europe, but was most strongly indoctrinated into liturgy in France, continuing even into the early 20thcentury. Organists played improvised versets for all Sunday Masses, feasts, and sometimes for the office; they were therefore required to prepare thousands of versets in a liturgical year. For the organist to write so many short pieces of music, and call upon them at the right time would have been impossible, which is why improvisation was a crucial component of the organist’s job. The small amount of published organ music from this period does not represent the large output of music demanded of great organist-composers; published pieces were notated versions of improvisations, or model works for organists in the provinces.

Throughout history, alternatim practice has been a contentious issue between church musicians and clergy. Since the organist improvised music in place of nearly half the text of the Mass, this text was never spoken or sung. Attendees were instead supposed to meditate on the missing text as the organ played. There were some rules from the clergy, including certain movements requiring reference to a chant melody in the pedal trumpet. It was forbidden to play any organ music during the Nicene Creed; as the basic tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, it was expected for all the words to be sung. Despite these rules, as time progressed the organists began to imitate the popular music of the time, namely opera and court dances with little homage to the sacred chants they were replacing. It wasn’t until 1904 that an edict from the Vatican banned alternatim practice altogether, yet there is still evidence that it continued in provincial France for years beyond that.

Today, the small amount of published French Classic organ music is often performed outside of its liturgical function. In other parts of Europe, the primary organ compositional output was extra-liturgical pieces such as preludes, fugues, toccatas, and fantasias. The temptation of the modern organist is to treat the organ Masses of French Classic composers in the same fashion as their foreign contemporaries: as recital literature, with the versets performed back to back like a keyboard suite. In order to fully understand the context of the music, one would have to perform the pieces interspersed with the chants of the Mass.

The organ music for this concert is from Couperin’s Messe à l'Usage Ordinaire des Paroisses pour les Fêtes Solennelles, published in 1690. It includes all of the organ versets for the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est. Couperin also wrote an extensive organ composition for the Offertory in this collection.

Couperin conforms to most of the rules laid out by clergy, including providing clear references to the plainchant melodies on many of the required movements. The Mass used in the collection is known as “Mass IV” today, based on Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor Deus. This Mass was often used on Sundays and at solemn feasts. The tradition of notating and performing plainchant in the Catholic Church has been an ever-evolving process. While today, the Church has published the Liber Usualis as the standardized book of all chants for the liturgical year, one must look closely at the sources of chant which existed in Paris in the 17th century to get an accurate assessment of how chant was performed during Couperin’s time.

No French musician took more interest in Gregorian chant during the 17th century than Guillame-Gabriel Nivers. Around 1651, Nivers began his position at St. Sulpice in Paris, and in 1658 he published his first edition of plainchant:Gradual Romanum-Monasticum. He codified the rhythm of the chants into longs and breves. In this notation, two breves equaled one long, and dots added value to the preceding note, much like modern notation. He believed that flourishes and melismas should be minimized and the chant should be sung with a solid rhythm. He also believed had the Romans known the way the French pronounced Latin, they would have pronounced it that way as well. Ironically, Nivers' ideas about chant were not historically accurate for the ancient practices of Gregorian chant, but based on cultural bias of the time.

Couperin, thirty-six years Nivers' junior, began playing at the Church of St. Gervais in Paris, a position held in the Couperin family for many generations, in 1678. At that time he was ten-years-old, and he took over the position full-time at 18. In 1690, when Couperin's Mass settings were published, he was only 21 years old. In 1697, Nivers, still active in Paris, published a new edition of the Graduale Romanum, and one which he hoped would become the official book of chant for the city of Paris. This book is a very good source of how chant might have been performed in Paris during the same decade as Couperin's Mass publication, and is from where the majority of our chant verses will be performed today.

To complete the Mass, this concert includes an anonymous Credo for three voicesand chants from the Mass proper (introit, gradual, and Alleluia) for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost as notated by Nivers. A long-standing practice in France was the use of fauxbourdon for solemn occasions. Fauxbourdon was a 15th century practice of improvising vocal parts a fourth and a sixth below a given note to create parallel harmony. Fauxbourdon in the 17th century was of a different nature, and more similar to the Italian falsobordone, where chant melodies were harmonized with mostly root position triads. A fauxbourdon will be used for the psalm portion of the introit using the rules outlined in 17th century sources. The fauxbourdon for the Credocomes from an anonymous publication from 1771 entitled Faux-bourdons pour les fêtes solemnelles. Though published after Couperin’s lifetime, there are treatises from as early as 1623 describing the use of fauxbourdon for special occasions and the style of harmonization rules were consistent throughout the entire French Classic period. The Communion music is from one of Couperin’s contemporaries, Nicolas deGrigny, and is one of the only published organ pieces specifically for Communion during this era. Grigny, from Reims, France, had a short post at the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, a church six miles from Couperin at St. Gervais, from 1693 and 1695. There is no record of the two ever crossing paths, but today their respective Livres d'orgue represent the height of the French Classic tradition.

The final piece of music for today's recital is the Petit Motet Domine salvum fac Regem, “God Save the King.” This text was often sung or played at the very end of the Mass in homage to the king of France. Europe began to adopt the stile modernoof the Baroque period, which included instruments and basso continuo accompanying singers, a contrast to the stile antico, which was a cappella vocal polyphony. France was slow to accept this new style; the acceptance of instruments beyond the organ in sacred houses was not yet mainstream through most of the 17thcentury. The motets of Charpentier and others served as a bridge between the old and new styles.

Motets were non-liturgical sacred pieces, so there is some question as to how they were used, if at all, in the Mass. For sure, they would have been performed in the courts where instrumental music abounded. Since Domine salvum was a common text with which the Mass ended, and the fact that there are many settings by composers of this era in France—Charpentier alone had at least four—it is

possible, or even likely, that these settings were used during the Mass. The motets usually began with an instrumental prelude followed by the vocal entrances. The scores were often not specific as to which instruments were to play which line, but specified when tous (all) were playing or when seul (only) the choir and basso continuo were to sing/play. Charpentier spent part of his 20s in Italy and studied with Carissimi, and was integral in bringing the new style to France. Couperin would later write several motets for solo voices and continuo in this same style, including his haunting Lecons de tenebres.

Finally, there should be a note about the organs of this period. The basic foundation of the French Classic organ was the plein jeu, which was the full principal chorus from 16’ pipes through multiple-rank mixtures. The French plein jeu was a remnant of the giant, stopless blockwerk organs of the Medieval Age, but was less shrill and brilliant than the German plenum. The flute registers in French organs were wide-scale and featured several mutation stops that sounded at the fifth and the third, which could be combined to make a cornet or jeu du tierce, both characteristic solo stop combinations. The French reeds were brilliant stops including a trompette on the Grand Orgue (the primary chest) and a chromhorne on the positif (a smaller chest located behind the organist). Other reeds included a voix humaine which was coupled with a tremblant to create the effect of a human voice, and a commanding pedal trumpet that could play plainchant melodies against the plein jeu. A combination of all the reeds with foundation stops constituted the grand jeu, which was one of the most regal registrations in the literature. Composers were very specific as to which registration was necessary for each verset. In fact, the titles of the pieces were the names of the registrations. These titles ranged from simple Plein jeu, to very complex registrations such as Dialogue sur les trompettes, clairon et tierces du Grand Clavier et le bourdon avec le larigot du positif.

French keyboard music was known for its almost excessive use of ornamentation, and this is perhaps a reflection of the light keyboard action of the time. The broader registrations such as grand jeu and plein jeu which might have manuals coupled together and lots of wind resistance, incorporated very few ornaments, while quieter movements, particularly those using the positif, had many ornaments. Another stylistic element was notes inégales, or uneven notes. This common practice included playing some consecutive notes as long-short when written as even note values. The interpretation of notes inégales is one of the most debated subjects among performers, as there was no standard practice and much relies on personal taste. The prevailing aesthetic of the French Classic period was lightness and grace, not density. Modern instruments cannot capture the sound of the ancient instruments, but knowing the basic characteristics of organs and organ building can greatly inform modern performers.

-Notes by Dan Campolieta, 11/16/14