The French Organ Music Seminar: Switzerland, Italy, and France July 9–26, 2017

September 30, 2017

Christina Harmon is assistant organist at Christ Episcopal Church, Tyler, Texas, and instructor of organ at Stephen F. Austin State University. She is the founder of the French Organ Music Seminar and the producer of six DVDs that feature Parisian organs and organists (available through the Organ Historical Society). She is active in the organ world as a performer and composer.

The 20th French Organ Music Seminar (FOMS) took place in Switzerland, Italy, and Paris this past July. Tobias Willi (organist at the Johanneskirche in Zurich, professor of organ and improvisation at the Zurich University of the Arts, and co-director of the Romainmôtier Summer Organ Academy), Gabriel Marghieri (titular organist of Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris and professor of organ improvisation and music analysis at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Lyon), and Yannick Merlin (titular organist of Notre Dame des Champs and director of collections for Delatour Music Publishing) served as hosts.

Thirty organists began the seminar on July 9 at the Fraumünster Church in Zurich, where organist Jörg-Ulrich Busch played an inspiring service and afterwards stayed with us for a playing session. Built in 1953 by Orgelbau Genf, this organ was partially designed by Marcel Dupré, and he came here often to play the organ and give concerts. Later the same day, with Tobias Willi, we spent time at the Neumünster Church, which houses the organ formerly in the Zurich Tonhalle.

July 10 was spent in Zurich at the organs of St. Anton (Kuhn, 1914) and the Grossmünster Church (Metzler, 1960). On July 11 we drove into the Swiss countryside to visit the abbey organs at St. Urban and Bellelay. The organ in St. Urban was built by the Swiss organ builders Joseph and Viktor Ferdinand Bossard between 1716 and 1721. The Bellelay organ is a reconstruction of the organ that Joseph Bossard built for this church; the organ had disappeared by 1797. Both represent typical “Swiss styles,” with similarities to southern German Baroque organs. The keyboards of both organs have a short first octave with only C-D-E-F-G-A-A#-B (without C#, D#, F#, and G#). For the remaining octaves, the keyboards have two different keys for D# and E-flat. The music of Muffat and Kerll is particularly adapted to these organs.

On July 12 in Bern the group was fortunate to have a masterclass led by Tobias Willi at the organ (Goll, 1991) of the Eglise Française. We were also treated to many beautiful improvisations by Willi, whose teaching and playing was a true inspiration to all.

On Thursday, July 13, we traveled to the small village of Romainmôtier, home of the academy founded in the 1960s by Guy Bovet. Here we played the Alain residence organ. Built by Albert Alain, father of Jehan and Marie-Claire, the organ was brought several years ago to this place from France by Bovet, Marie-Claire Alain, and others. The academy still functions admirably today in the capable hands of Tobias Willi.

Further travel was to Bergamo, Italy, where we were joined by seven more organists and our hosts, Gabriel and Elisabeth Marghieri, for the next nine days. Marghieri is particularly noted for his research in early Italian music and as such is uniquely qualified as a teacher and performer. In Bergamo we visited two organs: the Bossi organ at San Leonardo and the Serassi organ of 1781 at the Basilica Alessandro, then travelled to Padua, where we toured the Ruffatti organ factory with our gracious hosts, Michela and Piero Ruffatti. Founded in 1940 by Antonio Ruffatti and his brothers, the firm of Famiglia Artigiana Fratelli Ruffatti (Ruffatti Brothers, Family of Artisans) has produced more than 500 organs of all sizes in Europe, America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The second generation of Ruffatti brothers, Francesco and Piero, sons of Antonio, have continued their father’s tradition of excellence since his retirement in 1992.

Less well known in the United States is Ruffatti’s careful restoration of Italian organs. We were fortunate to visit two of these restorations: the Venetian-style Ruffatti mechanical-action organ at the Church of San Felice and Fortunato in Noale (demonstrated by the brilliant young Italian organist, Silvio Celeghin), and the restoration of one of the most important organs in Venice, the organ of Santa Maria della Salute. This organ was built by Dacci, a Venetian builder at the end of the 18th century, beautifully played for us by Paola Talamini. We were able to play both organs and were ably aided by both organists. 

On Sunday, July 16, we visited and played the Venetian organs of the churches of San Trovaso (Gaetano Callido 1775), San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (1743), and the Nacchini organ at San Cassiano (restored by Callido). The church has three beautiful paintings by Tintoretto, who was a former parishioner of the church. Traveling on to Bologna, Gabriel Marghieri arranged for us to see and hear the oldest Italian organ in operation, the Lorenzo da Prato organ, completed in 1471.

A welcome treat awaited us on our way to Florence at the Casa Sola Winery, where we wined and dined and were able to relax and wander around the winery during a beautiful, sunny afternoon, free from the rigors of travel. Afterwards, it was on to Florence for sightseeing, playing, and instruction on Italian music by Gabriel Marghieri at the 1864 Serassi organ of the Basilica di San Lorenzo.

Upon arriving in Rome, participants were especially fortunate to be able to spend a considerable amount of time studying both early Italian and French Romantic music because of Gabriel Marghieri’s arrangements at Rome’s most prominent organs. First was a lengthy playing session at the Mascioni organ of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The organ is a modern electro-pneumatic-action organ from 1955, featuring three manuals and two façades. 

The highlight of the Italy trip was the opportunity on July 20 for all the organists to play at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on the grand organ, built by Tamburini between 1954 and 1962. Juan Paradell-Solé, one of five Vatican organists, graciously assisted us as we performed for a large crowd of listeners. (See “The Liturgical Organist: A Conversation with Juan Paradell-Solé,” October 2015.) Charles Ore started the occasion by performing his piece, “Kyrie,” which was commissioned by the FOMS. (See “A Conversation with Charles Ore,” November 2016.) It expressed the prayerful thankfulness of the entire group for being able to perform in such a special place.

Our last day in Rome was a full playing day on two beautiful instruments, the Johannes Conradus Werle organ of 1736 (which took 50 years to complete) at Santa Maria Maddalena and the Joseph Merklin organ of 1881 at San Luigi dei Francesi (the national church in Rome of France). Instruction by organists Marghieri and the organist of the French Church, Daniel Matrone, enhanced by a stunning improvisation by Matrone, made the day an unforgettable experience. That night the group split, with some headed back to the United States, while others stayed on to board an evening flight for the rest of the FOMS experience in Paris.

From July 21 to 26 the FOMS took place in Paris where a group of 33 professional organists and students played, listened, and studied at the city’s many famous organs including those of Saint-Sulpice, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacré-Coeur, La Trinité, Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, Saint-Gervais, La Madeleine, Saint-Eustache, Notre Dame des Champs, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Louis de Vincennes, and the Duruflé apartment. Excursions were made to Versailles, Royaumont, and Rouen. The group also presented a recital at Saint-Séverin. 

Highlights included classes and organ presentations by Daniel Roth, Vincent Dubois, Thierry Escaich, Louis Robilliard, Gabriel Marghieri, Thomas La Côte, Frédéric Blanc, Thomas Ospital, François Espinasse, Benjamin Alard, Elise Friot, and Béatrice Piertot. Directed by Yannick Merlin, musicologist and brilliant titular of Notre Dame des Champs, this portion of the FOMS offered many opportunities for masterclasses, private instruction, and playing time. 

The FOMS looks forward to more collaborations with the organists who were so generous with instruments and instruction time. Since 1986 these seminars have enabled organists to study with famous organists at equally well-known organs. Attendees at the 2017 FOMS were professional organists and organ students from four countries: the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Germany. Directors of FOMS are Christina Harmon, Masako Gaskin, and Cliff Varnon. Special recognition is due to group leaders Doug Fossek and Jill Hunt, who worked to help ensure that everyone had playing time. Many attendees deserve further recognition, but we are grateful especially for Don Auberger and Camilla Pugh who assisted with translations as needed. More information is available at

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