Jacques Ibert's Choral for Organ

August 14, 2015

The influence of César Franck’s Trois Chorals on the works of early twentieth-century French composers was not significant. One of the few exceptions was the composer Jacques Ibert (1890–1962), the 125th anniversary of whose birth is being quietly celebrated in 2015. Born in Paris on August 15, 1890, Ibert studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the early 1910s with Émile Pessard, André Gédalge, and Paul Vidal and later served as director of the French Academy in Rome from 1937 to 1960.

Ibert’s experience at the Paris Conservatoire found him in classes where the teaching and attitudes of professors was inconsistent from one to another. Gédalge (1856–1926), who taught counterpoint and fugue, disliked the music of Franck and the counterpoint exercises adopted by the conservatory, choosing instead to teach Bach chorales rather than fugues as the basis for study. By contrast, Vidal (1863–1931) taught using the principles of Franck and Riemann, with a strong emphasis upon chromaticism and was undoubtedly pleased when a new society devoted to Franck was established in Paris in 1913. Caught between opposing points of view during conservatory study, Ibert’s compositional ideas became exploratory, and while he utilized a strong melodic line and pleasing harmonies, his style was eclectic, a trend which would extend throughout his life.

To earn a living while studying at the Conservatoire, Ibert gave piano lessons and improvised at the piano for silent films at the American Theater in Paris. He played on weekends and occasional weeknights, sometimes for up to twelve hours at a time, earning fourteen francs on the longest days. Many years later he would describe the experience as an art of deception, functioning as “pianist-composer-improviser-commentator” before the silent screen where “my fingers would try to terrorize or to charm according to the gist.”1 He was also occupied during the conservatory years helping his father’s import/export business, which had suffered from a disaster at sea and was in difficult economic straits.

Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Ibert attempted to enlist in the armed forces, as did nearly all young French men. He was rejected for health reasons but was finally accepted into the Red Cross as a stretcher-bearer and hospital attendant. In the next two years he would serve in northern France near the front lines, assisting with the wounded and preparing soldiers for emergency surgery, including the administration of anesthesia. During this time he composed for piano and harp. Characteristic of these would be Le Vent dans le Ruins (1915), which one biographer called “an odd combination of Debussy’s Impressionism, Ravel’s clarity, Roussel’s ruggedness, and Liszt’s romanticism.”2 In early 1916 he contracted paratyphoid fever and was sent to southern France following a brief stay in Paris to recuperate during the spring. Upon recovery he returned to Paris and by September had composed the Pièce Romantique for piano, a work strongly influenced by late 19th-century chromaticism in a style reminiscent of Franck.

With his health now much stronger, Ibert was allowed to enlist in the navy in May 1917 and was appointed an officer based upon his skill in mathematics, in which he had excelled for his baccalaureate. He was first sent to Sète along the Mediterranean Sea and then to Dunkerque along the Atlantic, serving for eighteen months and participating in the destruction of numerous enemy positions. During his free time, Ibert visited churches in villages along the coastline and liked to play their organs. These experiences inspired him to write four short works for organ between 1917 and 1919. The first was a Musette in 1917, followed by a Fugue and Choral in 1918, and finally the Pièce Solennelle in 1919, the latter as a gift for his bride on their wedding day.


Genesis of the Choral

The Choral seems to have been written upon the suggestion of Abbé Joseph Joubert (1878–1963), organist at the Cathedral of Luçon from 1904 until 1935, and later from 1940–1946. Ibert probably met Joubert in Paris while the latter was a student at the Schola Cantorum from 1902–1904. Joubert did not complete his studies at the Schola Cantorum, having been called to the Cathedral of Luçon upon the premature death of the previous organist. A tireless worker, Joubert compiled an eight-volume collection of short organ pieces by over one hundred French and Belgian composers entitled Les Maîtres Contemporains de l’Orgue (Contemporary Masters of the Organ; 1912–1914)4. Toward the end of World War I, he embarked upon another large-scale project and began compiling a five-volume collection of organ music  (1921–24) dedicated “to the heroes of the Great War,” titling it Les Voix de la Douleur Chrétienne (The Voices of Christian Suffering). It was for this latter project that Ibert submitted his Choral for publication. 

The Choral is the longest of the four pieces for organ and was written in July 1918. Ibert was undoubtedly touched by Joubert’s dedicatory plan to honor soldiers for their sacrifices. He marked the cover page “In Piam gratamque memoriam” (In pious and grateful memory) and dedicated it to Abbé Joubert, adding a preface quote from the Apocrypha, “Justorum animæ in manu Dei sunt,” Sap. III.1 (The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, The Wisdom of Solomon III:1). This verse had inspired a Gregorian chant centuries earlier that was used as the offertory in certain Roman Catholic Masses honoring martyrs. Interestingly, Ibert’s manuscript contained the Roman numeral “I” before the title, suggesting that at least one, if not more, additional pieces were in the making. However, no other piece is known to have been composed for a collection.

In a letter a little more than a year later on October 15, 1919, Joubert informed Ibert that the proofs for the Choral were available, and commented that it is “needless to add that I always stay very grateful—and may be even proud—of your kind and artistic collaboration to Les Voix de la Douleur Chrétienne.” The Choral appeared in the first volume of the collection in 1921 along with Voces Belli by Fernand de la Tombelle, the Marche funèbre and Épitaphe by Henry Defosse, and In Memoriam, Quatre improvisations by Joseph Jongen. 



Years later Ibert acknowledged that his organ works as a whole were influenced by Franck. He commented, “Franck, whom Gédalge detested, charmed me with a certain appeal through the mystical sensuality of his works.” The Choral was written for a three-manual organ and is nearly eight minutes in duration. Its grandeur approaches that of Franck’s  Trois Chorals but it is shorter and more compact. The melody appears to be original and not derived from an existing plainchant. Ibert’s Choral commences with a chordal passage marked “Andante religioso” in C-sharp minor (Example 1) and proceeds through a series of short homophonic passages, each interrupted by contrasting materials derived from the principal theme. Midway through two recitative-like phrases there is a series of interlocking five-note patterns, which soon climax at fortissimo through a winding set of melodic figures in both hands. A brief reprieve consisting of a four-note phrase repeated three times yields to a fugato on the principal theme in four voices (Example 2). The fugato increases in intensity without delay following the exposition and reaches its peak in a final fortissimo statement of the theme in the parallel major key of C-sharp (Example 3). 

The Choral slipped out of sight not long after publication by A. Ledent-Malay and was soon forgotten. Such seems to have been the fate of most works in Joubert’s massive collection. No information regarding the Choral’s first performance has survived. A performance of it was heard on May 29, 1952, at La Madeleine in Paris by organist Edouard Mignan and then no evidence of performance until the early 1990s, when this writer discovered the score at the Bibliothèque Nationale and began distributing copies to the Ibert family and various organists. With the encouragement of Jean-Claude Ibert, the composer’s son, Leduc republished it in 1999. It has since been recorded by John Scott Whiteley, Philippe Delacour, and John Kitchen. 

An effective piece with deep emotional feeling and grandeur, Ibert’s Choral recalls late nineteenth-century compositional techniques through short sectional passages. Its majestic coda brings the work to a triumphant close at fff in tribute to those whose lives had been lost defending their country.



1. «Mes doigts tentaient de terroriser ou de charmer selon l’action». In a letter from Jacques Ibert to José Bruyr, dated October 29, 1951. A copy of this letter is in the Ibert family archives.

2. Gérard Michel, liner notes, Jacques
Ibert: L’Œuvre pour Piano
, Françoise Gobet, piano (long-playing record, Metropole 2599 016, 1979).

3. The Musette, Fugue, and Pièce Solennelle were published as Trois Pièces by Heugel in 1920. See Kit Stout’s article “Jacques Ibert,” The American Organist vol. 14, no. 5 (May 1980), 38–39, for more details about these works.

4. The collection is available online at IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library, imslp.org.

5. «Inutile d’ajouter que je demeure toujours très reconnaissant—et plus fier encore si possible—de votre si aimable et artistique collaboration aux Voix de la Douleur Chrétienne.» The letter also contained a congratulation upon Ibert’s receipt of the Prix de Rome, bestowed upon him only four days earlier. The author is grateful to Jean-Claude Ibert for supplying this information from family archives in a letter to the writer on December 28, 1998.

6. Gérard Michel, Jacques Ibert (Paris: Éditions Segher, 1967), 28–29.

7. Mignan (1884–1969) was organist at La Madeleine from 1935 until 1962. In addition to Ibert’s Choral, Fauré’s Requiem plus a number of short works were performed. The concert was devoted to sacred music and included performances by the Lutheran Chorale and the Orchestre de la Cité.

8. Jacques Ibert, Choral pour Orgue (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1999).

9. Whiteley’s recording is on the Priory label (PRCD 619); Delacour’s on the Fugatto label (FUG 009); and Kitchen’s on the Priory label (PRCD 858).

Related Content

December 28, 2019
It was the only paying job I’d ever had. So said Ralph Vaughan Williams, speaking on the biographical DVD, O Thou Transcendent, as he talked about…
November 01, 2019
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…
July 03, 2019
When approaching Baroque music in general and spiritual music in particular, it is of greatest importance to take into consideration the fundamental…