Licht im Dunkel— Lumière dans les ténèbres: Festschrift for Daniel Roth

August 1, 2018

Anton Warde (Cape Elizabeth, Maine) is an emeritus professor of German (Union College, Schenectady, New York) and a past associate of David E. Wallace Pipe Builders, Gotham, Maine. Since contributing his four-part series, “E. Power Biggs in Mozart Country” (June–September 2006), he has served The Diapason as an occasional reviewer of books in the German language.

Licht im Dunkel—Lumière dans les ténèbres [Light in darkness]: Festschrift Daniel Roth zum 75. Geburtstag, Birger Petersen, editor. Bonn: Dr. J. Butz Musikverlag, 2017, 432 pages, hardbound, in German with abstracts in English and French, numerous musical examples, stop lists, and a bonus CD. ISBN 978-3-928412-23-0. €34, available from http://butz-verlag.de.   

We may first think of Daniel Roth as one of today’s elite French organists. And that he most certainly is. But given his bi-cultural heritage as a son of Alsace, as well as his numerous professional links to German institutions, we should not be surprised that the festschrift published to honor him on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday comes from Germany.

For most of his adult life, Roth’s activity has been centered in Paris. After completing formal studies at the Paris Conservatory in the early 1960s, principally under Maurice Duruflé and Rolande Falcinelli, he served as Falcinelli’s substitute at the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur for ten years before succeeding her as titular organist in 1973. From 1974 to 1976, Roth took a hiatus from his duties there in order to assume the post of artist-in-residence at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and professor for organ at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Upon his return to France, he remained at Sacré-Cœur until his appointment as organiste titulaire at Saint-Sulpice in 1985. He has now presided over the grand Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice for more than three decades, burnishing its fame as one of the great “destination instruments” of the world.  

Along the way, Roth commuted to extended teaching positions in the French cities of Marseille and Strasbourg, as well as at conservatories in Saar-brücken (1988–1995) and Frankfurt am Main (1995–2007). Other German cities have provided the venue for the debut of each section of Roth’s triptych for large orchestra, Licht im Dunkel (2005–2009), the first of which was performed in Ludwigshafen by the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfaltz under the baton of his elder son, François-Xavier Roth, an accomplished conductor based in Germany. More recently, Daniel Roth composed his Missa Beuronensis to serve as the centerpiece for a multi-day master course sponsored by ORGANpromotion at the Benedictine Abbey of Beuron on the Danube in September 2016. (A fine recording of this performance, with Roth at the organ, accompanies the book.) The indefatigable Michael Grüber of ORGANpromotion, located in Horb am Neckar, provided the impulse for composition of the Beuron Mass, as well as for the Roth festschrift itself.

In his foreword, editor Birger Petersen (professor of musical theory at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz) notes that “it became clear early on that the book would end up forming concentric circles around the themes of St. Sulpice, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Albert Schweitzer, and the French organ tradition.” Within those fertile spheres we find not only ample attention to Daniel Roth, of course (in brief hommages written by George Baker, Daniel Maurer, Pascal Reber, Gregor Simon, and Jean-Paul Sorg, as well as Michael Grüber), but informative articles on the organ landscape of Alsace (Pierre Chevreau’s “Mulhouse, Albert Schweitzer und die elsässische Orgel von 1803 bis 1981”); on the two Cavaillé-Coll instruments of which Roth became the guardian and master (Yannick Merlin’s “Daniel Roth und die Orgeln von Sacré-Cœur und Saint-Sulpice” along with a short essay by Kurt Lueders on the problematic nature of the term flûte harmonique); on the composers César Frank (Christiane Strucken-Paland’s analysis and contextualization of Frank’s neglected early works for organ), Charles-Marie Widor (Fabian Kolb’s scholarly article on Widor’s push for the organ’s greater role in compositions for large orchestra), and Maurice Duruflé (Jörg Abbing on the influence of Vierne and Touremire on their student Duruflé, followed by Birger Petersen’s analysis of Duruflé’s influence, in turn, on polymodality in the compositions of his student Daniel Roth); and on the organist Marie Claire Alain, in Vincent Warnier’s study of the long friendship between Roth and Alain, his most influential post-conservatory mentor.

Albert Schweitzer, Roth’s revered Alsatian compatriot, six decades his senior, makes an appearance in nearly every essay, most notably in Gilles Cantagrel’s “In Saint-Sulpice mit Widor und Schweitzer,” concerning the unlikely teacher-student friendship between the two and in particular their reciprocal influence in appreciating the music of Bach; and in Wolfram Adolph’s thoughtful essay on Schweitzer’s concept of channeling spiritual unity with the cosmos in the meditative style of his Bach playing.

Like Schweitzer before him, Daniel Roth found his ears beguiled at an early age by the sonorities of the 1732 Andreas Silbermann organ at bucolic Ebersmünster in Alsace. In the words of Schweitzer: “I carry [the Silbermann sound] in my ear always; it leads me.” In the volume’s opening essay entitled “In the Style of a Panégyrique,” Peter Reifenberg cites Roth’s visit to Ebersmünster with his father at the age of twenty as decisive in motivating him—already a prize-winning Paris Conservatory student—to commit fully to the career of a professional organist. And Vincent Warnier suggests that it was at a joint appearance in Ebersmünster that Roth’s and Alain’s paths first crossed in the early 1960s. The young Roth, previously steeped in the music of Franck and other composers of his era, credits Alain, half a generation older than he, with introducing him properly to early music, teaching him the value of composers’ original scores, and equipping him with his fundamental approach to any piece of music: namely to analyze it closely from every angle in order to understand best what the composer would have wanted to hear in its performance.

Regardless of the organ he may be playing, Roth aims to deliver an interpretation that comes as close as possible to honoring its composer’s intent. In his own words as cited by Peter Reifenberg (in my translation), “[I want to place myself] completely in the service of the composer, constantly searching the composer’s universe to determine what . . . will sound correct and authentic [on the instrument at hand]” (p. 220).  

Indeed, it may be Roth’s wide-ranging insights on musical performance that many readers will find most fascinating. Examples appear throughout the volume, but chiefly in the three conversational sections that compose more than one third of the book: a 2017 interview conducted by Professor Jörg Abbing (pp. 213–225), Roth’s own lively 140-page discourse on agogic, rubato, accent, attack, registration, and much more, illustrated with many musical examples and references to specific organs (pp. 265–409), and finally in an engaging conversation with Pierre-François Dub-Attenti, one of Roth’s assistants at Saint-Sulpice (pp. 409–419). He is the young registrant we see seated at Roth’s left in most of the Saint Sulpice performances that are searchable on YouTube and viewable, as well, at http://www.stsulpice.com/. (It is Dub-Attenti we must thank for producing and posting those remarkable videos.)

In his own very readable German, Roth succinctly analyzes, for example, the differing routes of development taken by French organs and German organs, both classical and romantic; and he argues persuasively that the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice is not only the perfect organ for the music of Franck but also—as Schweitzer had maintained—for performance of Bach. The key for Bach, Roth explains, is to register a Plein Jeu and add a few discrete reed voices such as Basson or the small, bright Trompette from the Positif. As heard in Roth’s 2012 recording of Bach, re-released in 2017 and available for purchase at Amazon (or to stream in high quality as a complete album by searching within YouTube for “Daniel Roth Plays Bach”), the result is remarkably successful: we get the characteristic Cavaillé-Coll carpet of sound, rich in fundamentals, yet one that seems to match in voice-clarifying overtones the thrilling plenum of the large Gottfried Silbermann organ at Freiberg in Saxony. It helps, of course, that Cavaillé-Coll incorporated many classically French solo stops from the preceding 1780 Clicquot organ in his otherwise symphonic instrument for Saint Sulpice.

Too often, festschriften collect essays that barely relate to the accomplishments of the luminary being honored, or pieces that vary so widely in their focus that there would otherwise be little rationale for publishing (or re-publishing) them in the same volume. But this Festschrift comes as a most welcome treasury of interlocking themes. It will be of interest not only to students of the organ at any level of proficiency but to organ builders and enthusiasts who, incidentally, need not be advanced readers of German. Most of the language is straightforward and clear. The book should reasonably find a home in any library that serves an organ program, as it surely will in the personal libraries of many of the countless friends and admirers of Daniel Roth, who deserves to enjoy many more years of superb music making.

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