Pierre Firmin-Didot (1921–2021): A tribute marking the one hundredth anniversary of his birth

August 30, 2022
Pierre Firmin-Didot and Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot
Pierre Firmin-Didot and Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot

This past summer 2022, we witnessed the last musical moments of the great organ at Chartres Cathedral. At the end of August, scaffolding was built to take down the entire instrument—the pipes, the console, all the mechanical elements, and the Renaissance organ case—to leave space for a new instrument that will be built in three to four years. It will be an exceptional time for the organ case, which has never been taken down or restored in its long life. This is all great and wonderful news that will certainly enchant the organ world, both nationally and internationally. This new instrument, to be built by Bertrand Cattiaux and Olivier Chevron of Atelier Cattiaux as well as Manufacture d’orgues Mulheisen, will naturally prolong the life and great renown of the Chartres International Organ Competition, Grand Prix de Chartres, and its International Summer Organ Festival.

Centenary of his birth

We celebrated last year the centenary of the birth of Pierre Firmin-Didot. This tribute we address to his memory is doubly moving since the organ concerts of the summer of 2022 that make up the summer festival, founded by him in 1975, were the last to be heard on this instrument.

Pierre Firmin-Didot was born August 23, 1921, in Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée, Eure, France. On August 24, 1981, he married American organist Lynne Davis. Caroline Firmin-Didot was born April 25, 1983, to Pierre and Lynne. Pierre died January 5, 2001, and is buried in Escorpain, Eure, France.

Didot family dynasty

Pierre Firmin-Didot was a descendant of the famed Didot dynasty of printers and publishers founded by François Didot (1689–1757). The firm gained renown for illustrated editions of the classics as well as inexpensive editions of scholarly texts.

One of the family’s lasting legacies is the Didot family of fonts, designed by Firmin Didot (1764–1836), grandson of the printing house founder. He was the inventor of stereotypography, which refers to the metal printing plate created for the printing of pages, an invention that influences typography to this day. He was appointed by Napoleon as the director of the Imprimerie Impériale type foundry. The family were printers to the kings of France, printers of the Institut de France, and engraved the assignats, paper money used during the French Revolution. Firmin’s statue is found on the upper frieze of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

The most famous Didot typefaces were developed between 1784 and 1811. Firmin Didot cut the letters and cast them as type in Paris. His brother Pierre Didot (1760–1853) used the types in printing. The Didot types are characterized by extreme contrast in thick strokes and thin strokes, using hairline serifs, and by the vertical stress of the letters. Firmin was inspired by Baskerville’s typeface, and thirty years later Giambattista Bodoni started creating his own modern typeface. Viewing Baskerville, Didot, and then Bodoni alongside each other shows an important transition into modern typography.

Didot is described as neoclassical and evocative of the Age of Enlightenment. The Didot family was among the first to set up a printing press in newly independent Greece, and typefaces in the style of Didot have remained popular there ever since.

Visit of General de Gaulle

The present organ in Chartres Cathedral was built fifty years ago by Danion-Gonzalez, thanks to the initiative of Pierre Firmin-Didot. The ambition took root in his heart, his spirit, and through his determination. Affected at a very young age by the beauty of the cathedral and the harmony of the liturgy, he told the story of General Charles de Gaulle, then President of the Republic, who was to attend a big ceremony at the cathedral. But the organ was not playable, and an orchestra had to be called upon. The famous minister of culture at the time, André Malraux, told Pierre, “Dear friend, do something! It is a shame that the great organ is silent when there is the President of France who is visiting the cathedral.”

Initial effort to save the organ

For Pierre Firmin-Didot, something indeed had to be done; so in 1964 he started a campaign to save the great organ, raising a bit more than half of the funds necessary for its reconstruction, the other half being provided by the State. This was accomplished through the organization founded by Firmin-Didot, Association pour la Rénovation des Grandes Orgues de Chartres. June 5 and 6, 1971, witnessed the inauguration of the reconstructed great organ of the cathedral, in the presence of and presided over by the President of the Republic, Georges Pompidou, and Mrs. Pompidou. The same year saw the creation of the international organ competition, Grand Prix de Chartres. The association for the rebuilding of the organ was eventually renamed Association des Grandes Orgues de Chartres (AGOC).

Pierre Firmin-Didot surrounded himself always with the great masters of the organ world at that time including Pierre Cochereau, Gaston Litaize, and Norbert Dufourcq. Thus, with the encouragement of these luminaries, the Grand Prix de Chartres would lead to founding the summer festival with organ recitals every Sunday afternoon in 1975.

Chartres—symbol of excellence

Since then, throughout the world, Chartres has become a symbol of excellence in the organ profession. Having regained its voice, it was important for Pierre Firmin-Didot that outside of the liturgy, the great organ of the cathedral should be heard during cultural events destined to promote the international outreach of the cathedral. Chartres from then onwards attracted worldwide attention, alluring the greatest international talents and performers.

Endeavors and dedication

These projects entailed an enormous amount of work, and Pierre Firmin-Didot dedicated all his time to this cause. All this precise organization was aimed at making those unique moments of the competition or a concert in the cathedral truly memorable and of the highest quality. Every Sunday during each summer between 1975 and 2000, Pierre Firmin-Didot welcomed the public to the concerts and presented the artists. One can still see his tall silhouette at the crossing of the transepts or in the central aisle where he sold programs and took the collection, as the admission was always free.

One remembers the Sundays of the final rounds of the competitions: the excitement of the audience when the finalists played, the distinguished international jury members busily taking notes, the presence of a great part of the diplomatic corps in function in France (often the embassies of the countries from which the candidates came, sometimes even sponsoring them), the long rug running the whole length of the central aisle, the tingling excitement of the listeners when the Grand Prix was announced, the place reserved in the choir stalls for the press as they transmitted the fresh news of the competition results directly from the cathedral. The scheduling of this day was always done with the utmost precision, so that everything took place like clockwork.

Dedication and devotion

Pierre Firmin-Didot afforded us many precious moments of shared listening. There were countless times where beauty touched us profoundly, because it was present on all levels: the purity of the architectural lines in the cathedral that uplift and soothe us, the very stones resounding and reflecting the harmonics of the sounds of the pipes, and then the combination of the alliance of light and music in this monument that generates such a holy atmosphere.

Thus during his whole life, he never stopped devoting himself to the distinguished cathedral basilica of Chartres. Driven by this global vision of the universe of Chartres, he also created the Centre International du Vitrail (International Center for Stained Glass) in 1980. This center was inaugurated during a concert in the cathedral of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, with Colin Davis, director, the orchestra and choir of Radio France, the choir of the Paris Opera, and the brass of the Garde Républicaine, in the presence of and presided over by the President of the Republic, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and his wife. Firmin-Didot also created the association Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde in 1992. Both associations are large-scale and ongoing, in complete service to Chartres and its cathedral.

Pierre Firmin-Didot and Lynne Davis’s charitable work was not limited to Chartres. In 1990, the two worked to form an exhibition administered by the Ville de Paris at the Mairie du 6e, in addition to recordings produced by the Erato label of twenty of Paris’s organs (Prix du Président de la République). Erato would release Les Orgues de Paris de Couperin à Messiaen, a three-CD set, in 1992. Performers included Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot, Marie-Claire Alain, Pierre Cochereau, Olivier Messiaen, Daniel Roth, André Isoir, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, and others.

A pioneer

Pierre Firmin-Didot was a pioneer; he brought a modern focus and a new vision to cultural patrimony. Whereas in his day the word patrimony was still considered to be a term reserved for use by notary publics and lawyers regarding one’s estate, he knew that it would become the crusade of our time, that it would embody the question of cultural identity and be transformed into a national cause today, which would embrace the safeguarding and conservation of historical buildings and works of art.

Trust in those around him

Pierre Firmin-Didot always put his trust in the persons engaged in working on and serving this cause. He had a particular talent and pleasure in bringing together such loyal volunteers and esteemed experts in a manifestation of the great French tradition of distinction and friendly spirit. He was constantly striving to promote this cause, touching many lives along the way, so that the universe of Chartres would illuminate those of goodwill on the road to a true and pure light.

Final tribute

Pierre Firmin-Didot died in 2001, the twentieth year of our marriage, and all along the road traveled together, he gave me the opportunity—for an American arriving in France from Michigan just over fifty years ago in September 1971—to see so closely into the marvelous world of the French organ and society and to perceive that special and glorious light that comes so particularly from Chartres.

It is thus that I have wanted to pay tribute to my husband, Pierre Firmin-Didot, a man of duty and honor, with a great heart, to whom the organ world owes a special debt of gratitude for the prestige and perseverance he showed and for the legacy he left to future generations. Noblesse et générosité.

One can still hear him saying, “Chartres, c’est vous!”

The Great Organ at Chartres Cathedral

As early as 1353, the Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartres housed an organ, and Jehan de Châteaudun served as one of the cathedral’s organists. The instrument was installed on a wooden balcony in the second bay along the south wall that is still there today. In 1475, Gombault Rogerie, a novice in the order of Dominicans, was engaged to build an instrument that played up to fifty pipes per note in the treble register in an enlarged case that featured two tall flat side towers separate from the central façade.

Robert Le Filleul rebuilt the organ on its existing chassis in 1542. He caused the case to be richly decorated with numerous scrolls, masks, foliage, and corbels on the large towers, and crowned this filigree with lamps, the work of local craftspeople.

Though the pipework experienced significant reworking over centuries, the size of the organ case remained the same, with the exception of the addition of the Positif division, which was moved further forward in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early part of that century, there was discussion about moving the organ to the rear of the nave. A fire in the cathedral in 1836 rendered the instrument unplayable. In 1846 it was rebuilt and modified from a four-manual to a three-manual organ, and the casework was repainted a dark color. Further projects occurred in 1846, 1850, 1868, and 1881.

The organ was yet again altered in 1911, and by the 1960s it was in very poor condition. In 1964, Pierre Firmin-Didot commenced his work that culminated with the inauguration of a new instrument in 1971, built in the neoclassical style by the firm Danion-Gonzalez. The instrument was modified from three manuals, thirty-six stops to four manuals, sixty-seven stops, and an electro-pneumatic action was fitted.

GRAND-ORGUE (Manual I)

16′ Montre

16′ Bourdon

8′ Montre

8′ Flûte

8′ Bourdon

4′ Prestant

4′ Flûte

2′ Doublette

Grosse Fourniture II

Fourniture III

Cymbale IV

Cornet V (fr tenor G)

16′ Bombarde

8′ Trompette

4′ Clairon

POSITIF (Manual II)

8′ Montre

8′ Flûte

8′ Bourdon

4′ Prestant

4′ Flûte

2-2⁄3′ Nasard

2′ Doublette

1-3⁄5′ Tierce

1-1⁄3′ Larigot

Plein-jeu IV

Cymbale III

Cornet V (fr middle C)

8′ Trompette

8′ Cromorne

4′ Clairon

RÉCIT (Manual III)

8′ Principal

8′ Cor de nuit

8′ Gambe

8′ Voix céleste

4′ Flûte

4′ Viole

2′ Doublette

Sesquialtera II

Plein-jeu IV

Cymbale III

16′ Bombarde

8′ Trompette

8′ Basson-Hautbois

8′ Voix humaine

4′ Clairon

Tremblant

ECHO (Manual IV)

8′ Principal

8′ Bourdon

4′ Flûte

2-2⁄3′ Nasard

2′ Doublette

1-3⁄5′ Tierce

1′ Piccolo

Cymbal III

8′ Trompette

4′ Clairon

PÉDALE

32′ Principal

16′ Montre (Grand-Orgue)

16′ Soubasse

8′ Montre

8′ Bourdon

4′ Principal

4′ Flûte

2′ Flûte

Plein-jeu V

16′ Bombarde

8′ Trompette

8′ Basson

4′ Clairon

Personal remembrances of Pierre Firmin-Didot by Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot

I arrived in France in September 1971 to study with famed organist Marie-Claire Alain. As she had fallen ill, I took lessons with Jean Langlais at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. He was a master visionary and suggested three things that changed the course of my life, one of which was to encourage me during the spring of 1972 to make inquiries about the new international organ competition Grand Prix de Chartres, which had just been founded by Pierre Firmin-Didot. When I called, Pierre himself answered, and I met him before I competed. I didn’t get the prize, but I won the heart of the president!

He was passionate about the pomp and grandeur of the ceremonies at the cathedral and above all by the profound sounds of the organ. He had served as an altar boy under the archbishop, Monseigneur
Harscouët, and always felt a very special connection to the cathedral.

He played the organ in a rather natural kind of improvisatory style. One day, Pierre Cochereau, organist at Notre-Dame, told him, “You even know how to modulate!” Then having met me and throughout my own concerts, he familiarized himself with the subtleties of the organ repertoire. He only liked to listen to the organ, no other instrument.

Although he was very proud of the three centuries of his family’s printing and publishing dynasty, the printing business was not that of his soul; he needed a vision that was between heaven and earth. That is precisely where the organist is placed in the cathedral, and that is what certainly reinforced our own relationship. The cathedral was his great passion, which transcended everything his ancestors did. He became the light of Chartres.

His principal qualities embraced a profound courtesy and a welcoming attitude to all, regardless of their origins. He was kind and the epitome of a gentleman. He had a great sense of organization and managed all events from A to Z. It was he and our daughter Caroline who created the prototype of the great book of donors for the association Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde, which is kept in the treasury of the cathedral.

Noblesse et générosité (noblesse and generosity) is how his nephew, Charles Firmin-Didot, described him during the ceremony where he was decorated with the Officer of Merit award in June 2000. It was a fitting epitaph.

Remembrances of Pierre Firmin-Didot by friends

Daniel Roth

April 8, 2021

Dear Lynne,

We owe a great debt of gratitude to Pierre Firmin-Didot for all he did for the magnificent Chartres Cathedral and for the creation of the international organ competition at Chartres. All his great work will be passed on to future generations.

He was a man of great kindness with a natural kind of authority, which always greatly impressed me. I preserve a great memory of him.

—Daniel Roth

Grand Prix de Chartres, 1971

Organist at l’Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris, France

George Baker

December 2, 2021

In this centennial year of the birth of Pierre Firmin-Didot, I have the pleasure and honor of writing a few recollections and words of gratitude.

Our first encounter occurred a few weeks after I arrived in Paris in August 1973, at Saint-Severin Church in Paris at an all-Messiaen concert played by organist Charles Benbow, 1972 Grand Prix de Chartres winner. Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod were there, and I was invited to the reception where I met Pierre Firmin-Didot, introduced by my friend, Lynne Davis. He was elegant, kind, charming, and very encouraging when I told him I intended to compete in the competition in 1974.

I’ll always be grateful to Pierre Firmin-Didot. For me, the Grand Prix de Chartres was a defining moment in my life and career. I made my first recording on the Chartres Cathedral organ for which we were awarded not one but two Grand Prix du Disque in 1975. A young, skinny, long-haired dude from Texas sure got lucky in France! All the endless hard work had finally paid off!

At the 2000 post-competition dinner, we were sad to learn of Pierre’s illness. He was not able to attend the competitions, and we were all very sad. I recall that many people at the dinner shared their souvenirs and love of Pierre.

Many years have passed since 1973 and my first meeting with Pierre Firmin-Didot, and twenty years have already passed since he left us in 2001. The time has not diminished my gratitude to and admiration for this unique and great man. Mon cher ami Pierre, we miss you and love you.

—George Baker, DMA, MD, MBA

Grand Prix de Chartres, 1974

Organist and composer

Adjunct associate professor of organ Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

Retired dermatologist

James Kibbie

April 29, 2021

When I won the Grand Prix d’Interprétation at the 1980 Chartres competition, a member of the jury told me, “This will open doors for you; it’s up to you to walk through them.” It was great advice, and I now regard the Chartres competition as the single most important event in my professional development. I had the pleasure of visiting with M. Pierre Firmin-Didot in his magnificent home several times, including when I later served on the competition jury. I also had the honor of playing the sortie for his wedding to my fellow University of Michigan alumna Lynne Davis. Together they extended the Chartres competition with further initiatives to advance French organ music. M. Firmin-Didot’s legacy still shapes the future of the organ in France and beyond. I’m enormously grateful to him for the doors he opened for me and so many others.

—James Kibbie

Grand Prix de Chartres, 1980

Professor and chair, organ department University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Christophe Mantoux

April 26, 2021

Twenty years ago, already, the premature death of Pierre Firmin-Didot was of great sadness in the organ world. There are many of us all over the world who owe much to him, even though he never promoted himself as such. Simplicity, modesty, selflessness, but also generosity, dynamism, imagination, perseverance: so many qualities brought together in one man to carry out a magnificent enterprise in service to art, the organ, and organists!

Presiding over the competition, Pierre Firmin-Didot was affable, courteous, caring, having conserved his capacity of wonderment, showing a tender and dreamer nature.

Dear Pierre, in this year of the centenary of your birth, we express to you our most profound recognition. You had the rare joy of seeing come to fruition the worldwide reputation of the competition (Grand Prix de Chartres) you created; your work, alive and well today, continues its magnificent vocation of emulation, in the service to excellence in art!

—Christophe Mantoux

Grand prix de Chartres, interprétation, 1984

Professeur d’orgue au Conservatoire régional et au Pôle supérieur de Paris

Organiste titulaire de l’Église Saint-Séverin à Paris

Membre de la Commission nationale des monuments historiques (section des orgues)

Martin Jean

September 1, 2021

Few of us can probably say we met someone who truly changed the world. I feel privileged to claim that I did so by making the acquaintance of Monsieur Pierre Firmin-Didot.

M. Firmin-Didot was a visionary, a leader, and a pioneer. He saw possibilities where others saw defeat, and he built bridges where once there were walls. Firmin-Didot in France is a name of renown that is known today such that a statue of the family patriarch stands in the façade of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. Only a person of such a reputation and legacy could lead a campaign to build a magnificent organ in one of the great cathedrals of the world, to set out an annual festival around it, and to launch one of the most prestigious organ competitions we have.

In a few days, when it came time for us to meet him, we expected formality, distance, reserve. While we were clearly in the presence of someone truly special, dressed in a gorgeous suit of clothes, with perfect manners and comportment, we were all disarmed by how personable he was. Shaking each of us by the hand, sharing a personal greeting, looking us in the eye with warmth and welcome, I was immediately put at ease. I am convinced this helped me play better.

I stayed in touch casually with M. Firmin-Didot over the years and shared meals with Lynne Davis, his wife, and him on return visits. I can still hear his lyric tenor voice shout, “Cher Martin!,” when he saw me coming up the path. There was no reason that I could think of for him to be so kind and welcoming to me. No reason, except that this was his nature.

Leaders, true visionaries, give to the world, and they give equally to individuals. They set out a view of something really glorious—in the case of Chartres and Pierre, music in a setting of utter holiness. But the ones who really “get it,” whose legacy long outlasts their lives, ensure that their grand picture of the world impacts the individual, the human being. This was certainly true for me.

This is my memory of the great Pierre Firmin-Didot. A man of honor, of courage, and of dreams who did what he did not to set up a legacy for himself, but to ensure that all our lives are changed forever.

Merci pour tout, Pierre Firmin-Didot!

—Martin Jean

Grand Prix de Chartres, 1986

Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Eric Lebrun

April 7, 2021

Dear Lynne,

As a young organist, still studying at the Conservatory, I crossed his path during the Grand Prix de Chartres in 1990. I was touched immediately by the very grand elegance, the profound kindness of this sensitive and generous man. It is to him we owe the setting in motion of all the work of restoration, of the enhancement of this magnificent patrimony, which explodes today in front of our eyes.

Men who initiate, who are bold, who book a “ticket with no return” for a beautiful adventure, permit our world to breathe and to hope. With enormous gratitude . . . .

—Eric Lebrun

Organiste de l’Église Saint-Antoine-des-Quinze-Vingts, Paris

Professeur d’orgue au Conservatoire de Saint-Maur-des-Fossés

Professeur honoraire au Conservatoire Royal de Aarhus, Denmark

Susan Landale

April 2021

Pierre was a very special person. I remember his kindness, his sense of humor, and his devotion to Chartres. I also remember the beautiful dresses you wore, Lynne, for your recitals! We still miss him as the captain of the ship!

—Susan Landale

Organist of Cathédrale Saint-Louis-des-Invalides, Paris

E. Power Biggs Professor of Organ, Royal Academy of Music, London

Colette Morillon

April 2021

Pierre Firmin-Didot, an exceptional president!

Thanks to Pierre Firmin-Didot, the grand-orgue of the cathedral regained its voice in 1970, and it was important subsequently for him that it be honored by creating an organ competition of international magnitude to reflect the stature of the cathedral itself. It was important also that outside of the liturgy, the grand-orgue should be heard during cultural manifestations destined to further the universal outreach of the cathedral.

His goals were achieved:

—Reveal and promote young organ talents in France and elsewhere in the world. We always promoted the artist’s career, and to win the Grand Prix de Chartres became a dream of every organist. Past winners acknowledge that it helped them to begin an international career. Likewise, most of the recitalists of the summer festival attest to the privilege of being able to “make the stones of the cathedral sing.”

—Organize events of prestige in Chartres Cathedral, contributing thus to its universal cultural outreach. What was thrilling was the organization of quality events, the global dimension of the activities, the contacts with all the greatest organists, the discovery of young talents, and the partnerships with associations and festivals worldwide.

With Pierre Firmin-Didot, thanks to his numerous connections, which he mobilized for the benefit of Chartres, everything was always at the highest level. The Association des Grandes Orgues de Chartres also was present in Paris through other prestigious events they held to raise funds: two Soirées de bienfaisance (charity balls) at the residence of the U.S. ambassadeur to France in the presence of important personalities and with the support of the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who had also made a personal gift.

Pierre Firmin-Didot was really a president of exception!

—Colette Morillon

General secretary of the Association des Grandes Orgues de Chartres

Jean-François Lagier

April 2021

Firmin-Didot is the name of a French family who lived during three centuries in service to books and publishing. Pierre Firmin-Didot (1921–2001) belongs to the ninth generation of “Didot, printer and publisher.” Altar boy at Chartres Cathedral, he was impressed by the pomp of the great Roman liturgy. Through his faith and his fondness for splendid religious ceremonies was born his veneration for the universe of Chartres.

From a very young age, I experienced a sort of rapture when, as a young altar boy, guided by the luminous figure of Monseigneur Harscouët (archbishop), I served the Grand-Messe at Notre Dame of Chartres. The love of God certainly carried me, but it was magnified for the little one I was. Everything around me radiated beauty: the harmony of the liturgy, the chants, the ornaments, the perfume of the flowers and the incense, the magic light from the stained glass windows, which brought forth so many apparitions of familiar personages from Biblical history, and finally as if embracing and inflaming all of this, the powerful majesty of the organ, capable of bringing us the trembling of a Dies Irae summoning the blessed vision of the Lamb of God.

Pierre Firmin-Didot was a pioneer: he wore the modern “vision” of cultural heritage. When during his time “patrimony” was only a notary public term, he knew that it would become the crusade of our times, that it would incarnate the question of cultural identity, and that it would be transformed into a national cause, today, which embraces the preservation and conservation of art and historical structures, like the safeguarding of the natural environment and buildings.

He anticipated this movement in Chartres through all his actions, born of a mindset that wasn’t simply nostalgic of things past, a “folklorization” of cultural heritage, with a content that one would have stripped of all meaning: it is the living cathedral, which he saw as a beacon of Western Christianity, that which incarnates a worth of continuous value, the cathedral that Proust upheld, which affirmed that the religious vocation of the monument was the guarantee of its artistic beauty.

—Jean-François Lagier

President de Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde

Directeur du Centre international du Vitrail

Trésorier de l’Association des Grandes Orgues de Chartres

Chartres cathedral website: chartrescathedral.net

Chartres competition website: orgues-chartres.org

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