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Wendy Johnston playing organ of St. Sulpice

Experiential Learning with Historic Pipe Organs

August 15, 2023

Wendy Johnston recently traveled to Paris, France, where she participated in once-in-a-lifetime lessons, concerts, and experiential learning. She shared a recap of her trip and how these experiences impacted her.

Bonjour! The Peabody Institute Organ Department, led by Dr. Daniel Aune, organized a study trip to Paris, France in June. Dr. Aune is the Peabody Organ Department chair and organist at Christ Lutheran Church, Baltimore Inner Harbor. Seven of us had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience not just a few Parisian organs—but ten unique and wonderful historic organs–and to be taught by some of the world’s best organists.

Wendy Johnston with Peabody organ department at Versailles
Wendy Johnston stands with other members of the Peabody organ department at the Royal Chapel, Versailles

We visited and played organs at St. François Xavier, St. Gervais (the Couperin dynasty), Ste. Clothilde with Olivier Penin (César Franck), St. Vincent de Paul (where we met with and were taught by Mme. Langlais), St. Étienne-du-Mont (Maurice Duruflé), La Trinité (Olivier Messiaen), St. Sulpice (Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré), St. Eustache (the largest organ in Paris) and The Royal Chapel Organ at the Palace of Versailles with Jean-Baptiste Robin. An additional unique visit was to see, hear and play the organ of the Duruflé Apartment, where Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé lived, which has a beautiful rooftop view of much of Paris.

St. Sulpice is undoubtedly the most impressive instrument of the Romantic French symphonic era in Paris. The organ has been largely untouched since it was built by the brilliant Aristide Cavaille-Coll in 1862 and is considered a masterpiece and his magnum opus. Organists come from all over the world to hear– and if they are lucky–to play this magnificent instrument. We met with organist titulaire Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer and each of us had the opportunity to play the instrument. I played a piece by composer Jeanne Demessieux featuring the cornet stop installed by Cliquot in 1781, and listened to the sound floating through the cavernous space. We returned to St. Sulpice on another evening for a historic concert, the inaugural recital and installation of Karol Mossakowski, to replace Daniel Roth who is assuming emeritus status after serving St. Sulpice for 38 years.

Wendy Johnston playing organ of St. Sulpice
Wendy Johnston plays the organ of St. Sulpice next to Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer

The study trip was one extraordinary experience after another. However, the visit to Versailles and the experience of playing the organ at the Royal Chapel was particularly instructive. Though this instrument is a restoration rather than an original–it was painstakingly rebuilt in 1998 to the specification of the 1710 organ by Cliquot–it is an excellent example of a French Baroque organ, including a rather unique pedal board (to our modern eyes). It doesn’t take much imagination to see the court of Louis the XIV in the chapel space, with all its Baroque gilt ornamentation. I had the honor and blessing of having a private lesson on this instrument with Jean-Baptiste Robin, one of the four organists of the Royal Chapel of Versailles. He taught me the equivalent of an entire semester during those two hours, and I will need many hours of study to even begin to appreciate all the instruction, the treatises, and music which he shared with me during that time.

Seeing and hearing these instruments is an education in itself. We do not have some of these sounds on our instruments in the United States, and so to hear the music of César Franck played on a French Romantic organ a space for which it was designed was instructive. There is much for me yet to absorb from this trip, but I am changed as a musician by the experience.

In between, we managed to visit a few of the sights in Paris too—the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame (which is still closed due to the fire), St. Chappelle, the Louvre, and a visit to Giverny to see Monet’s gardens. And not to worry, we didn’t forget to enjoy the delicious food in Paris. A visit to the patisserie every morning was a must!

Wendy plays ornate organ gilded in gold
Wendy plays the Royal Chapel organ in Versailles with Jean-Baptiste Robin observing
Large, cavernous cathedral with massive stone archways
The view from the organ loft at St. Sulpice
Wendy at Arc de Triomphe
Wendy visited the Arc de Triomphe with Midori Ataka