A Conversation with Daniel Roth

January 2, 2015

James Kibbie is Chair of the Organ Department and University Organist at the University of Michigan.

Daniel Roth is widely acclaimed as a leading French organ recitalist, recording artist, improviser, teacher, and composer. He is titular organist of the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, where his predecessors included Widor and Dupré, and he has held teaching positions at major institutions in France, Germany, and the United States. He has won prestigious competitions, including the Grand Prix de Chartres, and is a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. I spoke with him in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during his appointment as visiting artist in organ at the University of Michigan.


James Kibbie: Daniel, it’s been an honor to have you work with our students at the University of Michigan as visiting artist. What are your impressions of organ study in the United States?

Daniel Roth: I think there has always been a very high level in the States. Many teachers at different universities have a wonderful background by having had lessons in Europe with several great masters, then coming back to the States. Also, in the States you have organists who have studied musicology besides their training on the instrument. In Europe, we sometimes have teachers who are only wonderful players; there is not always a basis of research.


Wasn’t it Widor’s idea that musicians must also study history and other subjects? Organ students in American colleges and universities have other course requirements such as music theory, history, and general studies. Is it the same in France?

Today, and for a number of years, things are changing. We had in France the conservatoire system, and really in this system there are many interpreters who did not have much experience with musicological research. The conservatoire system is a system of music interpretation. It’s difficult to generalize because musicians are very different, but you found in the conservatoire system many organists who did not have this base of musicology.


Are the organ students in France today different than when you were a student?

Oh, yes. The two great conservatoires, Paris and Lyon, now have the university system. In my days you could do only an instrument in the conservatoire, no harmony, no music history. Music students arranged their studies as they wanted. When I was in the Paris Conservatoire in the 1960s, I did the classes of harmony with Maurice Duruflé, counterpoint and fugue with Marcel Bitsch, accompaniment with Henriette Puig-Roget, and organ and improvisation with Rolande Falcinelli. In 1960 there was a strict director of the conservatoire, and every student had to take a class in music history with Norbert Dufourcq. This was very new!


Does it hurt the students’ organ performance to require other studies?

It depends—some students are able to study many things together, others not. Achieving a high level in music performance needs a lot of time. It’s a matter of organization . . . 


Your improvisation at your recital this week was truly moving. This is so interesting to us in the United States. How do you teach your students to improvise?

I don’t anymore—I’m retired! [laughs]


Well then, how did you?

Of course, teaching improvisation is not an easy task. You must begin with much hope, and the student must be encouraged. Training in improvisation involves so many things together. You need much training in writing music. In the Paris Conservatoire harmony class, every week we had to realize a given bass and a given chant, counterpoint exercises, and a fugue. The best thing when you want to become a good improviser is to study the different major styles of music history, starting with Monteverdi and going up to our time, study the evolution of harmony, and improvise in the different styles. Counterpoint is very important in our field of organ, of course. 


Did you use Marcel Dupré’s Traité d’improvisation?

Yes, I used that even before coming to Paris. In Mulhouse, I started the little preparatory exercises for improvisation by Marcel Dupré with my organ teacher. Dupré’s exercises are very good to train beginning improvisation. He starts with harmonizing melodies and then quickly moves to improvising commentary to a melody. He eventually gets to a sonata movement. The theme (four measures) ends on the dominant, you improvise several commentaries modulating to the neighboring keys, a bridge on an element of the theme, the whole theme comes back, this builds the exposition, then comes the development on another element and the recapitulation.


When we had dinner at Jim and Mary Ann Wilkes’ home, you told a wonderful story of how you became an organist because of a film about Albert Schweitzer.

When I was a little boy, we went to church in a little village near Mulhouse in Alsace. There was a big organ, so I heard the organ, but until the age of 10, I was only interested in painting and drawing. It was my great passion. Then my father bought a piano. He wanted me to play the piano, but I had no great interest, I must say. I didn’t have a very kind teacher, you know, so piano was a little burden. But Albert Schweitzer was becoming well known, and I was born in Alsace, and Albert Schweitzer was also from Alsace. I was absolutely fascinated by his personality. Besides being a theologian and a medical doctor in Africa, he was also an organist, a specialist in Bach, and in organbuilding—it’s amazing. The movie “Il est minuit, docteur Schweitzer” (“It’s Midnight, Dr. Schweitzer”) came out when I was 11. The actor was a wonderful actor from Alsace, Pierre Fresney. In the middle of the movie you see Albert Schweitzer playing his piano in Lambaréné, which was a piano with a pedalboard attached, and in his mind he was in a great cathedral with a nice organ. As a little child, I was very much impressed by this. When I left this movie with my mother, I told her, “Maman, I absolutely want to become an organist.” I then got another piano teacher, a wonderful lady, and was practicing the organ for six hours a day.


How did you come to study with Rolande Falcinelli?

In my hometown of Mulhouse I had a teacher who was a great admirer of Dupré, and during these years I only heard great compliments for the Dupré school. When I came to Paris, I had lessons with Rolande Falcinelli, a student of Dupré, and she was wonderful with me. She organized all my studies and presented me to the teachers of counterpoint and harmony. She prepared me for the entrance exam for the conservatoire.


What was the entrance examination?

In those days in the organ class (it’s different now), we had to improvise a sonata andante on one theme as explained in the first volume of Dupré’s Traité d’improvisation. We had also to improvise the exposition, first divertissement, and relative key of a fugue, but with a countersubject, which you had to retain. This needs great training, which I didn’t have in Mulhouse. Also, all the organ pieces had to be played by memory, which had not been asked in the organ class in Mulhouse. 


So you were accepted into Rolande Falcinelli’s class at the conservatory?

Yes, I entered the organ class in 1961. In 1960, I had entered the class of Duruflé for harmony, and then in 1962 I started the counterpoint and fugue class. I stayed two years in the organ class with Rolande Falcinelli and got my First Prize in 1963. I was very happy to get her ideas, and still today I am very grateful to her because her teaching and improvisation were most perfect. She was an excellent teacher, and of course I learned everything about the Dupré tradition, Widor and so on. I am very grateful to Rolande Falcinelli for all I learned from her.


You also studied with Marie-Claire Alain?

In 1963, when I graduated from the organ class of the conservatoire, it was the time in Haarlem when the great movement for the real interpretation of old music started. You remember these three famous teachers, Anton Heiller, Luigi Tagliavini (who is still alive), and Marie-Claire Alain. At that time I felt the desire to go deeper into the interpretation of old music. With Rolande Falcinelli it was the Dupré tradition, you played the whole repertoire with the same touch, absolute legato or staccato (half-value). I felt the desire to learn more about the real interpretation of old music, so I went to have lessons with Marie-Claire Alain. She was a wonderful teacher. First of all, she was always very happy, very kind. Rolande Falcinelli was quite formal: “Mon petit, comment allez-vous?” You know Marie-Claire—with her, it was, “Ha-ha-ha, comment ça va, comment ça va?” 

I was extremely happy to study the completely new kind of interpretation with Marie-Claire. You have to research the composer, his instrument, his touch, not playing all the repertoire with the same touch. And then of course there’s the difference between the composers who want you to play the music straight and the composers who use rubato, like César Franck. Marie-Claire opened to me this world of research into the personality of each composer. Serve the composer, in the same way as Nikolaus Harnoncourt writes in his book, “The composer should be the highest authority.” I was fascinated by this and continued with it my whole life.


Your first church position was as the assistant to Mme. Falcinelli at Sacré-Cœur?

At Easter 1963, Rolande Falcinelli asked me to be her assistant at Sacré-Cœur Basilica because she was having great problems with the head priest there, a very difficult person. He did not like her way of playing, he didn’t like modern music at all. I often went to hear her, and she improvised in a wonderful way, but he didn’t like this in the liturgy. They agreed together she should have an assistant, and this is what I became on the Sunday after Easter, 1963. 

And then you became the titulaire of Sacré-Cœur?

At first, the head priest and Rolande Falcinelli agreed she would play one Sunday a month, and I would play the rest of the time. Finally in 1973, she told me, “Now I have had enough.” This probably was because Marcel Dupré had died in 1971, and he had the wish that Rolande Falcinelli would be his successor at Saint-Sulpice. The head priest of Saint-Sulpice formed a commission of organists to select the titulaire, he read them the letter of Dupré saying he wanted Rolande Falcinelli as his successor, and the commission voted. But at the end of this vote, the head priest took the ballots and said, “I am going to give these to the cardinal.” Then of course all the organists were unhappy—“What is the result of our vote?” After that, Jean-Jacques Grunenwald was named. Of course, Rolande Falcinelli was very bitter about this, and she told me, “I will quit now at Sacré-Cœur, and you will be my successor.” 


By this time, you had already won the Grand Prix de Chartres. In 1971, you won the grand prix for both interpretation and improvisation.

There were two of us. My good friend Yves Devernay and I both received the grand prix. The program was completely crazy, impossible, all by memory, and then we had to improvise a symphony. We shared the grand prix, and after he became one of the four organists at Notre-Dame. He was a wonderful person and a very good friend. He died in 1990.


How did it happen that you then went to Saint-Sulpice?

In 1974, I was invited to Washington, D.C., for two years to be the organist of the National Shrine and to teach at Catholic University. Then I came back to Sacré-Cœur, and we restored the organ because it was in very bad shape. In 1982, Jean-Jacques Grunenwald died, so the position at Saint-Sulpice was open. I was at Sacré-Cœur, I love this organ very much, and I did not think about changing, but I had several friends who pushed me, “You have to be a candidate at Saint-Sulpice. We are very worried about who will be there, and the organ,” and so on. Finally, I agreed to be a candidate. There were many candidates, and the exam for the post took a long time. This was in 1982. By 1984, when Pierre Cochereau died, there were still no rules about how to name an organist and still no organist in Saint-Sulpice. Finally, after the death of Cochereau, the cardinal redid the text on the nomination of organists in Paris. The cardinal wrote that the curé is the head of the parish, and he makes the final decision, but he has to get as consultants a commission of composers, organists, and liturgists. The text says that the curé may do this in two ways, either by organizing an official competition in interpretation and improvisation, or by an examination based on the curriculum vitae. The curé at Saint-Sulpice wanted to do it the second way, by curriculum vitae. I remember in February 1985, I was playing vespers at Sacré-Cœur, and my wife came and whispered in my ear, “You just have been named at Saint-Sulpice.” Oh, I lost the key!


Are the organs in the churches of Paris maintained by a city commission?

In France in 1905 there was separation of state and church. From this time on, all churches and their furniture belong to the towns. All cathedrals belong to the state. So when there is an organ restoration to be made, the town pays, or for a cathedral, the state, not the church. When the organ in a town is also an historic monument, then the state and the town divide the cost of restoration. For organ maintenance, it depends. In some places, it’s the town that pays for tuning. In other places, Saint-Sulpice for example, it’s the church.

I read an article in The Guardian newspaper that said the city commission does not have enough money to maintain the organs of Paris. Is it true?

Of course, as you know, there’s a financial crisis right now, a difficult time for the economy. There is a lack of money for restoration and for new organs, this is sure, but the maintenance in general is done.


What are your favorite organs?

Oh, I like in general all kinds of organs which are in a true aesthetic. I like very much historic organs all over the world. I am very fascinated by a North German organ, or an organ from Middle Germany or South Germany, or a typical Italian or Spanish organ. I like also new organs when they have a good aesthetic. I am sad when I see an historic organ that has been changed.


Yes, I think particularly of the many changes to César Franck’s organ at Sainte-Clotilde.

Yes, a catastrophe, and also Notre-Dame.


I wish the organ of Sainte-Clotilde could be restored to its original state.

I wish this also. The state commission for historic organs is interested in this, but in Paris it’s always politics, you know; the organs of Sainte-Clotilde and Notre-Dame have not been restored back to the original because of the organists. In Leipzig, for instance, you have the great organ of the Thomaskirche, by Sauer originally. It had been very much changed by the Orgelbewegung, taking out beautiful principals with nice scaling and putting in their place little mixtures and mutations. Years ago they organized the complete return to the original disposition of the organ. Or look at the Dom in Berlin, also a Sauer. After communism, they decided to restore that organ as it was originally, with pneumatic action and so on, beautifully poetic. 


Before we finish, we should talk a little about your children.

Yes! We have four children. The oldest is a girl, Anne-Marie, and she has completed fine arts school and is a specialist in mosaic. She lives now in Geneva and has done mosaics in schools and other places. Then we have three boys. The oldest boy is François-Xavier, and he has a wonderful career as a conductor. Then we have Vincent; he plays viola and is professor of viola at the Conservatoire of Metz in Lorraine. The last one, born in Washington, D.C. in 1976 (a bicentennial baby!) is not at all an artist. He is a professor of mathematics in Laval. And we have nine grandchildren from 4 to 17 years old, among them students in horn, trombone, flute, harpsichord, clarinet, percussion, and tuba. We are very proud!


Daniel, thank you so much. It’s been a delight visiting with you. 

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