UNDERSTANDING THE FRENCH ORGAN
THE GRAND JEU
In the previous article we examined the Plein Jeu – the sparkling sound of the principal sounding pipes of all pitches bound together by their mixtures and cymbals. In this article we are looking at the Grand Jeu which, as its name translates, is the biggest sound that the organ is capable of making.
This is a peculiarly French concept born out of the reed stops which have generally wide tongues and wide scaled bodies particularly in the treble. This means that they sound much louder in the tenor and bass registers than in the treble. In order to overcome the relative weakness in the treble, the Grand Cornet of five ranks is added. This stop commences at middle c and rises to the top of the keyboard adding strength to the 8’ (unison) harmonic and therefore complementing the 8’ Trompette on the Grand Orgue. The standard palette of the French Classical organ always included a Trompette 8’ and Clairon 4’ on the Grand Orgue and a Cromorne 8’ on the Positif.
It should be pointed out at this stage that, with the exception of very large instruments which contained a Bombarde or Raisonnance manual, the only full compass manuals in the French Classical organ are the Grand Orgue and the Positif. The Récit manual is a solo manual and has a range starting at middle c and finishing on d in alt. It usually contains a Trompette and a Cornet but these are loud solo and not chorus stops. The fourth manual is usually an Echo organ and has a compass from Tenor C to d in alt. As its name implies, its use is restricted to providing an echo effect and we will examine it further in a future article.
The principle is that the Grand Jeu should make as much sound as possible using the minimum of resources. This means the use of the loud reeds strengthened by the Cornet, so for most average-sized organs this is the recipe:
Grand Cornet V
(Prestant – only if the Cromorne is weak)
Notice the lack of any reeds at 16’ pitch. Although Bombardes of 16’ did exist, they were usually to be found not on the pedals but on the Bombarde manual which was situated immediately above the Grand Orgue.
The Positif was always coupled to the Grand Orgue for the Grand Jeu. This was done by pushing the keyboard forward by about a centimetre thus engaging “dogs” so that the upper manual keys (Grand Orgue) pushed the lower ones (Positif) down when depressed. If there was a Bombarde manual, that too could be pulled out about a centimetre to engage with the Grand Orgue. Thus it was possible to play three manuals at the same time and also to include the 16’ Bombarde in the Grand Jeu.
Another characteristic of the French Clairon 4’ is that it breaks back an octave on d in the treble. This means that in the highest octave of the 51 note keyboard there are two Trompettes of 8’ sounding. This is because of the difficulty in keeping it in tune and the fact that it is the feeblest part of its range. British organ builders either make the trebles double length and overblow the first harmonic or replace the reeds with flue pipes but they keep the Clarion at an octave to the Trumpet throughout its range..
Why is the Cromorne used as well as the Trompettes? The answer is that the Cromorne is often the loudest sounding stop in the organ, partly because of its broad tongues but also because contained in the Positif Case it is closer to the listener than the main body of the organ. Nor is it an exclusively solo stop, and has very little to do with the Cremona stop we often find in Britain.
Having recently had the misfortune to have to play a wonderful French Classical Organ in a large abbey church when the temperature was minus six degrees Celsius outside I can fully understand the dilemma faced by organists of the 17th and 18th centuries when the reeds needed “coaxing” back into tune. Often this was done by using the “Tremblant à vent perdu” - the strong Wurlitzer-type tremulant, or by adding the Bourdon, Prestant, Nazard and Tierce to persuade the Cromorne to return to its proper pitch! While the tremulant undoubtedly works, it is very much a last resort.
Let me recommend the following link to a performance by Michel Chapuis who demonstrates everything I have mentioned including the Tremblant à vent perdu! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkl_5qKsCx8
So the French Grand Jeu is really the closest the organ comes to sounding like a Mediterranean brass band; brash, uncompromising and very exciting, enhanced by the unequal tuning temperament of the instrument.
How do we approach the Grand Jeu on a British romantic organ? I would advocate a minimalist approach going back to the principle of the most sound out of the fewest resources. Mixures have no place at all in the Grand Jeu and should be excluded. The Grand Jeu must not sound like a “full Swell”. But if you have a tierce in your mixture, give it a go. Always try to keep a different colour for the secondary manual so that the Positif can be identified clearly.