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French Organ 3

Started by degrigny, February 23, 2011, 10:41:41 PM

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   When I was young in the early 1960s I was given a prized possession – a copy of Hopkins and Rimbault's "The Organ, its history and construction". I was fascinated by the list of organ specifications and not least by the constant remarks that, in order to "improve" the organs in Britain in the 19th century, Cornet stops were being replaced by 8 foot Clarabellas. So, until I went to Germany several years later, I had no idea what a Cornet stop sounded like. I have no doubt that a number of examples still exist(ed) in Britain but in those days registration and repertoire favoured the romantic rather than the classical and the chances of hearing a Cornet even in the context of a Bach Chorale Prelude were pretty slim.

   What is a Cornet? Simply put it is a compound stop consisting of a unison rank and its simple harmonics including a tierce. In France this would mean five ranks consisting of a Bourdon 8', Prestant 4', Nasard 2 2/3', Doublette 2', and Tierce 1 3/5'. Often in larger organs the builder would provide a fluty sounding 2' Quarte to replace the sharper sounding Doublette, in order to avoid a plethora of higher harmonics which would make the cornet sound more like a North European Sesquialtera. The Nasard was wide scaled and fluty as was the Tierce, and it is interesting to note that the occurrence of a 4' Flute was very rare in France, hence the presence of the 4' Prestant. Because of this the combination usually employed on the Positif organ called the "Jeu de Tierce" deliberately left out the 2' Doublette since enough 2' harmonic was already generated by the Prestant (its octave, or first harmonic).

The characteristics of the Cornet are that the stop increases in strength and intensity as it rises. The individual harmonics tend to become noticeable the lower down the keyboard it is played although traditionally the French 5-rank Cornet does not descend below middle c although in Germany and elsewhere it may continue as low as Tenor C. It sounds like a loud reed stop in the treble and it is traditionally used to reinforce the Trompette stop as it rises and becomes weaker. In a good French organ you can hardly notice the difference.

   The Cornet may exist as one stop such as a Cornet de Récit (on the Récit manual) or as five separate stops. The Cornet on the Récit is not enclosed, but set on its own soundboard mounted just behind the face pipes and above the pipes of the Grand Orgue. Similarly the Cornet of the Grand Orgue is placed on its own soundboard but fed by conveyancing from the main soundboard. An example of this is shown in the photograph below where in the centre is the soundboard of the Récit complete with Cornet and Hautbois, while on the left is the Cornet of the Raissonance Organ and on the right is the Cornet of the Grand Orgue. The Raissonance is not typical since it is a feature of the organ in the basilica of St Maximin la Sainte Baume where I took the photograph, but it might be substituted for the Bombarde Organ found in other large instruments elsewhere.

   Above the main soundboard of the organ of St Maximin la Sainte Baume there are three separate cornets: one each for the Raisonnance, Récit and Grand Orgue. They are all different and there is another cornet lower down in the Positif organ surmounting the gallery. These four cornets are all based on 8 foot pitch. In addition it is possible to compose Cornet combinations from individual stops on the Positif at 8 foot pitch and the Grand Orgue at 16 foot and 8 foot pitch. This shows us that the Cornet was a vital component in the tone palette of the French Classical Organ.

   I have already described the composition of the 8 foot Cornet. The 16 foot Cornet is just the same only an octave lower and its main ingredient is the Grosse Tierce of 3 1/5' pitch. Even on moderate size 8 foot organs (see my first article for organ pitches) there was a 16' manual Bourdon and in combination with the Montre 8', Grosse Tierce 3 1/5', Prestant 4'and the normal Nazard 2 2/3' it provided a solid bass for duos and trios. Furthermore in most organs it was the only way of providing a pungent 16' bass line in the pedals since the Grand Orgue was often the only manual that could be coupled to the pedals. Remember that the pedal organ had only 8 foot and 4 foot pitched stops designed to play the tenor line or a "third hand" bass part at 8 foot pitch.

   The following link takes you to an example of a trio played with the soprano and alto lines played on the Jeu de Tierce of the Positif (Bourdon 8', Prestant 4', Nasard 2 2/3' and Tierce 1 3/5') and the bass line played on the Bourdon 16', Montre 8',  Prestant 4', Grosse Tierce 3 1/5', Grand Nasard 5 1/3' of the Grand Orgue coupled to the Positif.


   The early French composers for the organ at the time of Titelouze left us few indications of the stops to use in their works. Often it is either the texture of the writing or its place in the context of the liturgy that gives us only a hint of what to use. By the seventeenth century things became much clearer and composers published their recipes of registrations at the beginning of their published works. An excellent compendium of these recipes is available by downloading the following work which, although it is in French, is a clear guide.


The Nasard stop sounds at the interval of the twelfth above the fundamental. This gives the predominant harmonic of a cylindrical reed such as a crumhorn or cromorne or clarinet. On the French classical organ it is a wide-scale fluty stop, stopped in the bass and open in the treble. It is NOT the equivalent to the stop called "Twelfth" or even the stop called "Quint" since both of these are principal-sounding and are bright with harmonics. The Nasard is usually used with a Bourdon 8' and a Prestant 4' (or Flute 4' if there is one). Occasionally the 4' stop can be omitted depending on the voicing of the Nasard but it is strictly not authentic. Do look carefully at the directions in the titles of each of the movements in Couperin's Messe des Paroisses and Messe pour les Couvents because they give an insight into the way he looked for contrasting sounds and textures. Here is an example (without 4'!)


   The Tierce is never used on its own or without the Nasard in French Classical Music. Its role is in the context of the "Jeu de Tierce" i.e. the Cornet minus the 2 foot, or indeed the Cornet itself. As already mentioned it can reinforce 16' pitch in which case it is at 3 1/5' pitch or 8' pitch in which case it measures 1 3/5'.


   The Larigot 1 1/3' is an octave higher than the Nasard. Its role is to reinforce the Prestant 4' although it was often used with the 8' Bourdon alone as an accompaniment to a Basse de Trompette. Listen to the track at 2m 40s on the following link:

The other main use of the Larigot is in the Tierce en Taille. Here there are no hard and fast rules, although the majority of recipes for the Tierce en Taille include it. Much depends on the accompaniment and the strength of the stops of the "fond d'orgue", usually at 8 foot pitch but often including stops of 16 feet or 4 feet. Note that the voicing of the French Montre of the Classical era is much more fluty than the Cavaillé-Coll equivalent so it is much easier to accompany the Tierce en Taille in the tenor or left hand. Michel Chapuis does this to perfection in the following link.


   I include this stop for reasons of completeness. The 1 foot stop disappeared from the French Organ in the 17th century and so does not really feature in French Classical music. It is fine for Titelouze but has no place in the Masses of Couperin!


   There is no doubt that it is a real challenge in Britian finding an instrument that has the right ingredients in the right place to do justice to the sublime music of France in its golden age of organ music. How many of our organ builders (and diocesan advisers) still blindly put the ingredients of the Cornet on the puny little Choir Organ and at the same try to kid themselves that the wheezing Choir Clarinet will double as a Cromorne. Even more frustrating that they are on the same manual and cannot be played against each other in duos and trios. I hope I have given a little insight into the ways things were (are) in France. Over to you to experiment...and to tell your organ builders and diocesan advisers what you think!



Very interesting - probably as much as I meed to know on this subject at present.

The Cornet is an essential component of Early English organ music (pre c.1850) - and many "Cornet Voluntaries" were written by John Stanley and others.

Every Blessing


P.S.  I've taken the liberty of adding a "just Right" category to the poll.  Hope it might encourage those who can to explore more of the French repertoire.  Tony



There's a good list of sources in French at

Peter - thanks for making it simple in these posts and we look forward to hearing more!

Best wishes