Aloÿs Claussmann Organist and Composer (1850–1926): A re-estimation

November 1, 2019

Steven Young is a professor of music at Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in music theory and directs the University’s choral ensembles. He is also organist at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Providence, Rhode Island. Young has presented papers and performances for regional and national conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the Organ Historical Society, and the American Choral Directors Association. He research interests focus on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French organist/composers, and he has written several feature articles and reviews for The Diapason. He also wrote the liner notes for Christine Kamp’s series of recordings of the organ works of Louis Vierne on the Festivo label. Young has recorded several of the works of Boston organist/composer Henry M. Dunham on the AFKA label.

In October 1926, just a month before his death, Aloÿs Claussmann chatted with an old friend, Claude Nievre, a writer for La Montagne, a newspaper whose office was directly below the apartment where Claussmann lay dying. Nievre had written an article titled “Un grand talent méconnu, Claussmann, musicien et compositeur” (An underestimated talent, Claussmann, musician and composer).1 Among other things, Nievre made the point that Claussmann’s many years of service to his community of Clermont-Ferrand should be rewarded by naming him to the Legion d’honneur, the highest civilian award given by the country to celebrate accomplishments given in service to one’s country. Claussmann had spent fifty years selflessly serving the musical and religious community of Clermont-Ferrand with little or no thought to promoting his own career as performer, teacher, or composer. Sadly, the award was never granted to Claussmann, despite the efforts of all his friends and colleagues. However, his tireless efforts bore many wonderful fruits in terms of quality students, artistic performances, and respected compositions.

A native of the Alsace region of France, born in Uffholz on July 5, 1850, Claussmann began piano lessons at age 11 with his uncle, a local musician and teacher. Following those lessons, Claussmann studied at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-sous-Rougemont. Between 1868 and 1870, he studied with organ virtuoso Eugène Gigout at l’École Niedermeyer in Paris, during which time he was awarded the premier prix in both piano and organ.

Interrupting his studies, Claussmann returned to Uffholz to perform his military service in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871. When Alsace was lost to Germany at the end of the war, Claussmann opted to retain his French citizenship. He returned to Paris to complete his studies, where he distinguished himself as both performer and composer, earning the grand prix de composition in 1872 from l’École Niedermeyer.

In 1873, the position of maître de Chapelle at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand became available. Claussmann applied and was offered the position. He accepted it, and remained in Clermont-Ferrand for the entirety of his career, possibly to his professional detriment. Nonetheless, according to one writer, Claussmann wasted no time in establishing himself as a first-rate musician.2

In 1877, shortly after his appointment, the cathedral acquired a new organ with three manuals and forty-eight ranks of pipes, built by the Merklin firm, one of the most respected in France. The dedication program featured Edmond Lemaigre, then titular organist of the cathedral, and Alexander Guilmant, renowned organist. Claussmann participated as well, conducting two motets, including a Salve Regina of his own, newly composed for the event, and performing two organ works, one by François Benoist and another new work, also written by Claussmann, Offertoire.3

Claussmann’s musical work was not limited to his position at the cathedral. In 1881, Claussmann established the short-lived Société Philharmonique. Though enjoying only a brief existence, this may have been the first orchestra to provide written critical program notes for its concerts, attesting to Claussmann’s scholarly inclinations.4 Shortly thereafter, in 1886, he assumed position as organist titulaire, following Edmond Lemaigre’s relocation to Paris. It was at this tribune that Claussmann remained until his death in 1926.

During his tenure he composed the majority of his works for the organ (approximately 350 pieces), nearly a hundred for the piano, a fair number of songs, and a few other works for chamber ensembles and orchestra.5 Claussmann’s next big success was the premiere performance of his commissioned drame lyrique, Pierre, l’Eremite, composed to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the First Crusade (the text of the work was by the Abbé Raynaud). Written in 1892, the work awaited its premiere for three years. According to the reports, it was a resounding success, performed at least two times (May 15 and 17, 1895). The reviewer, while admitting that one could not analyze such a large work on one hearing, admired its beauty in both composition and performance.6 The performance featured an orchestra of sixty, a chorus of 200, and soloists, all led by Claussmann. It must have been quite the tour de force!

In 1909, Claussmann was appointed director of L’École municipal de Musique, and he remained its director until 1918 when he suffered from a serious health crisis that disabled him for nearly three months, at which point he was named honorary director, and Louis Gémont assumed directorship.7 The formation of this school was fraught with difficulties. Prior to its founding, there were two competing institutes, the Petit Conservatoire, headed by Jean Soulacroup, and the École de musique, directed by Louis Gémont, both of whom were considered for the position of director of the École nationale de musique. After several years of contentious battles about the school, and once it was decided to move ahead with the formation of a national music school that would align itself with the Conservatoire nationale in Paris, a closed door meeting took place, and Claussmann was named as director to the pleasure of many community members, and the displeasure of others, including the mayor of the city.8 Claussmann accepted, but wrote, with apparent jocularity, that if the conservatory were to open as planned, the undertaking would be substantial, and it would force him to cut his annual vacation very short. He did exactly that, and served with distinction for many years.

Little is known of Claussmann’s personal life; there are few letters and no personal papers. In 1877, he married Marguerite Barthélémy, and they had a daughter, Madeleine, in 1878. It is presumed that his wife predeceased him, based on the eulogies given at his funeral.9 According to Joseph Desaymard, writer and critic, who was his pupil and friend, Claussmann possessed a gentle spirit, keen intellect, good sense of humor, and youthful attitude.10 He rode his bike to work every day, and until the final few years of his life, he appears to have possessed good health.

Unfortunately, little is known about the critical reception of his work, at least in France. The local newspaper of Clermont-Ferrand rarely commented on musical events. However, the Société nationale included his Sonate pour violon et piano on a concert in May 1906, and the composition and performance received an extensive review reprinted in the Revue pratique de Liturgie et de Musique sacrée. The reviewer praised Claussmann’s melodic gift, his interesting harmonies, and his well-crafted forms.11 This seems to be the generally held view of Claussmann as a composer.

Claussmann’s vast output of organ works includes music for any number of occasions. The two large collections, Cent pieces pour orgue ou harmonium, opus 34, and Cent pieces pour grand orgue, opus 66, encompass smaller works designed for liturgical usage, such as Entrées, Communions, and Sorties.12 Undoubtedly he used these pieces himself over his fifty-year career at the cathedral.13 Even in these smaller works, Claussmann demonstrates substantial contrapuntal skill. The Entrée in D Minor, which opens opus 66, is only 63 measures long, yet it displays Claussmann’s fascination with counterpoint and with Franck, as the theme appears twice, in related keys, and then, upon returning to the tonic, is subjected to canonic treatment throughout (Example 1). The ninth piece in this set provides further evidence of Claussmann’s meticulous craftsmanship. While only 29 measures long, it has a tripartite form in which the return of the opening A section receives a new accompaniment with the melody moved to the left hand. In terms of larger organ works, Claussmann penned two sonatas, a Suite pour orgue, and several Livraisons containing varying numbers of pieces likely intended for concert use. These include fantaisias, pastorales, marches, toccatas, and many others. In these works one sees Claussmann’s wide-ranging inventiveness with their well-developed themes and solidly crafted counterpoint.

While steeped in the style of the Romantic era, the organ music often displays surprising originality. From the earliest opera, Claussmann combines both French and German styles, which may be the result of his earliest influences in Uffholtz, an area of France that reflected a great deal of Germanic influence due to its shared border with Germany. For example, opus 16 is entitled Orgelstücke rather than Pièces pour orgue. In the music, one often finds well-crafted melodies, a staple of the French tradition, fused with the intricate counterpoint that is intrinsic to German composition, making Claussmann’s organ music unique for its time.14 Claussmann’s fusion of the aforementioned styles is evidenced in Scherzo in G Major, opus 33, no. 4. While making use of a rather extended model of the scherzo and trio form—ABA′CA′, which resembles more of a Rondo—the typical French scherzo would not make use of the extensive counterpoint found in the fugal exposition that comprises the B section (in B minor). The fourth section, which itself is a small three-part form in the key of E-flat major, has a very lyrical melody for the outer parts and, again, the composer briefly employs some imitative polyphony in the middle portion.

Though Claussmann’s music is influenced by the style of César Franck, as evidenced in the Allegro symphonique, opus 33, no. 2, whose opening recalls Franck’s Pièce heroïque (Example 2), Claussmann often moves into unusual areas of tonality through his inspired use of chromaticism, following on and expanding the chromatic harmonic language of Franck. One even finds an example of progressive harmonic movement in some of Claussmann’s works, such as Pastorale, opus 26, no. 3, which begins in E major and ends in A minor, delivering an unexpected conclusion.15

In the United States, as early as 1892, one finds references to performances of Claussmann’s music. A concert review in the Indianapolis Journal accorded the Scherzo in A Minor a favorable assessment.16 (One assumes that the reviewer had heard other Claussmann pieces.) Several of the pieces from opus 26 were dedicated to American organists, including Clarence Eddy and William C. Carl, both former students of Alexandre Guilmant. (It is possible that Guilmant helped make the connection by recommending the works to Carl. Guilmant participated in the dedication of the organ at the Clermont-Ferrand cathedral in 1887 where he would have heard Claussmann’s music. It is also possible that Gigout recommended his music to Carl.17) The first volume of opus 16 was reviewed favorably by Everett Truette in The Organ, 1893, who wrote, “Three extremely interesting pieces . . . which are written somewhat in the style of reveries, and contain many passages of striking originality.”18 (It was of this Fantaisie in C Minor that Gigout wrote his praise of Claussmann.19) It is likely because of the work of Carl and Truette, who published some of this music in The Organ and other collections, that Claussmann’s music achieved some measure of popularity in America. Early twentieth-century newspaper accounts indicate that several of Claussmann’s works were performed quite regularly, especially Easter Dawn and Grand Choeur for organ and his Magnificat for choir.

Among other comments on Claussmann’s works, Pierre Balme linked him to a progressive aesthetic:

In his day, Claussmann had difficulty with being a ‘pioneer,’ even in spite of the example of his co-disciple Fauré, who remained all through to the end of his time, as innovative as younger composers. But why not have others reported rather how much he (Claussmann) was, in his prime, so profoundly ahead of the taste and knowledge of audiences and even music professionals? Twenty years ago, he was not afraid of modifying his composing technique according to the latest developments of the impressionist school.20

Connecting Claussmann to the Impressionist school seems to be a stretch, though examples of augmented triads and unexpected harmonic connections are evident, as is the use of non-functional harmony, as witnessed in the frequent use of the raised fourth and fifth scale degrees, creating the sensation of whole-tone harmony. If this is what Balme refers to, then it is possible to put Claussmann in that category. However, Claussmann’s music is thoroughly steeped in the chromatic harmony of the period, and he often makes unexpected harmonic connections, such as moving between C major and F-sharp major for the middle section of the Fantaisie in C Minor, opus 10. These unexpected relationships may also be seen in the transitional passages of Au Crépusucle from opus 33, where the dominant seventh chord of the tonic G-flat resolves to a D major sonority, which is then repeated whole step below, obscuring any sense of the tonic (Example 3). If this fluidity of key relationships is considered “impressionistic” by the writer, then the term applies.

Overall, Claussmann retains a consistent style throughout his other music; one finds equally challenging tonal relationships in most pieces. Additionally, his treatment of form does not necessarily conform to expectations of his era, but a clear structure is always evident and logical. One might apply musicologist Carlo Caballero’s argument about Fauré, who he claims maintained the consistency of style throughout his works, which Fauré believes was “a crucial property of any music that is truly original,”21 and apply that to Claussmann as well. Hervé Desarbre would agree, according to the liner notes to his recording of selected organ works, as he claims that Claussmann’s style did not change much over the years.22 Claussmann retained remarkable consistency in his technical style and tonal language beginning with the major organ works from opus 10 and continuing through the late opera.

Many of Claussmann’s works have been recently republished, some with needed editorial emendations, as the printed editions contain numerous errors (especially clef change indications).23 As there appear to be no extant manuscripts, it is difficult to know Claussmann’s intentions. Both B-note Musikverlag and FitzJohn Publishing have reproduced many of his works. IMSLP (www.imslp.org) has a reasonable collection available, and France’s Bibliothèque Nationale Gallica site had started to digitize many other works.

Whether Claussmann would have enjoyed the success his contemporaries did had he remained in Paris is a question that can never be answered. He made his choice, apparently without regrets, and enjoyed the respect of the community he served for nearly fifty years. The music of this underestimated talent attests to the mastery of his craft and the fertility of his imagination, and deserves to be re-examined and given a place in the concert repertoire.

Notes

1. Claude Nievre, La Montagne, October 12, 1926, p. 2.

2. Th. Mourgue, “Profil d’artistes: M. Claussmann,” Le Moniteur, June 29, 1892, p. 2.
“. . .il vient s’etabilir chez nous où on ne tarde pas à reconnaitra en lui un musician de premiere ordre.”

3. J. Merklin, Le cathédrale de Clermont-Ferrand et ses orgues, Lyon: Impr. de A.-L. Perrin et Marinet (1878), p. 28. As with others, Offertoire served as a common title for works; Claussmann wrote several.

4. Joseph Desaymard, Avenir du Plateau Central, November 8, 1926, writing Claussmann’s obituary (No page citation as this comes from the Bibliothèque de la Patrimoine of Clermont-Ferrand collection MS 1654). Present research has yet to find concert announcements or programs presented. In 1885, another community orchestra was formed which enjoyed much success, directed by Jean Soulacroup.

5. Cataloguing the works of Claussmann has presented a challenge. Pierre Desaymard made an attempt at this in the 1980s but seems to have missed some pieces. Four of the works from opus 33 do not appear in any listing of his, possibly because they were published by the English firm J. Laudy and Co. See Desaymard, Bibliographie des oeuvres d’Aloys Claussman, Bulletin historique et scientifique de l’Auvergne, vol. 1.90, pp. 305–321 (1981).

6. Le Moniteur, May 16, 1895, p. 2, and May 18, 1895, p. 2. According to Louis Gémont, the work was performed again in 1925 (Le Moniteur, November 11, 1926, p. 2).

7. In a letter to Paul Dukas, Claussmann thought that he was close to death at that time (Bibliothêque Nationale, Paris, W-48).

8. Jean-Louis Jam, “Aux origins d’une succursale provinciale du Conservatoire de Paris,” Bulletin historique et artistique de l’Auvergne, vol. XCIX (1998), pp. 127–156. An excellent and somewhat entertaining chronicle of the events.

9. Le Moniteur, November 11, 1926, p. 2.

10. Joseph Desaymard, “Le Mort de Claussmann,” L’Avenir, Nov. 9, 1926, p. 2.

11. Alexandre Georges on “Aloys Claussmann,” Revue pratique de liturgie at de la musique sacrée, nos. 103–104 (1926), p. 169.

12. These sets appear to be based upon Franck’s L’Organiste, but Claussmann’s pieces are more technically advanced.

13. In one edition of Le Courrier Musical, opus 64 was listed among the pieces that an organist should play.

14. While the fugue was certainly not an uncommon form in French organ music of this period, it was used relatively infrequently. Franck composed one fugue for the organ; he relied on canon and melodic juxtapositioning as his preferred contrapuntal devices. In examining the Widor organ symphonies, with their numerous and varied movements, one finds only two fugues, and those appear in the earliest of the symphonies.

15. This work is dedicated to R. Huntington Woodman, an American organist who studied with César Franck in 1888.

16. Indianapolis Journal, March 11, 1894, p. 8, featured a review of an organ recital by
W. H. Donley. I believe this refers to the Scherzo in B Minor from the Deuxième livre de la première collection, opus 10.

17. Gigout wrote glowingly of Claussmann’s work and was pleased to be the dedicatee of one of his pieces. See Mourgue, op. cit.

18. Everett E. Truette, The Organ, vol. 1, no. 4 (August 1892), p. 95, reviewing the Fantasia in C Minor, First Meditation in B Major, and Andante in D Major.

19. See Morgue, op. cit.

20. Pierre Balme, “Aloÿs Claussmann,” L’Auvergne littéraire, artistique, et historique, January 1926 (vol. 85), p. 15–17.

21. Peter Cirka, A profound identity: evidence of homogeneity in Gabriel Fauré’s thirteen piano Nocturnes. Unpublished DMA paper, Boston University, p. 9, and p. 26 (2015).

22. Hervé Desarbre, Aloys Claussmann Organ Works, Disque Mandala MAN 4927, 1997.

23. An example of the need for good editing appears in the Sérénade for Cello and Piano, opus 49. The cello part and the piano score have completely different notes and keys in places.

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