Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

(This article has been updated/corrected as of el 22 de noviembre de 2016). Hola a todos. La Cathédrale Notre-Dame. What a beautiful (and very large) cathedral, and their beautiful Grand Orgue sounds glorious. This is a High Church cathedral. I finally found one and what a treat! For some odd reason, it’s hard to find High Church cathedrals in the US, so one has to go to Europe (in this case) for that, such as to Paris.

In the first video below you can hear the very High Church organ improvisation played during one of the processionals at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (Roman Catholic) en Francia/in France. Philippe Lefebvre is one of the three tenured Titulaire organists there. I read on their site that each staff organist plays 4 months of the year. Then they have their Quire/Sanctuary organists. There’s a smaller organ console (2-manual/full pedalboard) Orgue de Choeur in the Quire/Sanctuary area. That organ is a completely separate instrument from the Grand Orgue/main organ up in the back Gallery, although to me they sound like the same organ. They are extremely well matched. The organist seated in the Quire/Sanctuary area accompanies the performing Choir either on the Sanctuary organ or on the Orgue Positif/box organ. He sometimes conducts the Choir, and he also plays the service music. Depending upon where the camera is, one can usually see when he’s playing. He’s rather busy! They have multiple choirs at Notre-Dame. From what I can tell, one of the Titular organists up in the back Gallery at the main console plays all other music, such as the processional improvisation and the Organ Voluntary at the end of the Liturgy. And I really liked his toccata — I think it’s an improvisation — at the end of that Liturgy in the third video. That may have been Philippe Lefebvre playing the toccata. He is well-known for his elaborate improvisations.

Their Cavaillé-Coll organ which is located high up in the back gallery has a beautiful sound to it. It reminds me of the fiery sound of the former organ at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Anglican Communion) in Manhattan. I say “former organ” because they are in the process of replacing that organ while keeping some of it at St Thomas. Their new pipe organ is supposed to be in place by 2018.

A little bit of history: The French composer and organist, Louis Vierne, was organist at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame from 1900 to 1937. He made two sets of modifications to their organ. Pierre Cochereau was organist there from 1955 to 1984. Pierre also added to it and made the organ more modern between 1963 and 1975. The organ was completely restored in 1992 regaining the symphonic sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ. They also retained some aspects from the 17th and 18th centuries.

I was reading some online reviews of La Cathédrale Notre-Dame and someone wrote:

“It shames any monument in DC or Virginia!!!” (in the US).

Yes it does, doesn’t it! It certainly shames Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in many ways. Watch the videos below and you’ll understand what I mean by that if you’ve paid close attention to what they do at WNC.

And that’s why I feel it’s time for a change of venue. I’ve written nearly 20 articles about the Liturgies and music at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia. I and mi amigo/my friend have become rather put-off and come away feeling frustrated by WNC in recent months for various reasons that I’ve written about (see that list of articles on this page), and some of the things they’re doing these days which you won’t see or hear at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Fortunately, you won’t hear any gospel, jazz or “global song” music at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame. No, thank goodness. You also won’t hear the Widor Toccata interrupted with Big Band music stuck in the middle of it as was the case recently at WNC, supposedly in their attempt to try to be “like cool like” and “like hip like” and dumbed-down and obnoxious US’ans. At Notre-Dame, it’s all about the music with sung Liturgies, unlike WNC. At Notre-Dame, the priests are very respectful of their liturgies and they are not at all afraid of incense. One could say that “everything is in place” at Notre-Dame. Something I don’t say about WNC. Nothing looks left to chance or looks unrehearsed as sometimes is the case at WNC. I see none of that at Notre-Dame. From the Roman Catholics I’ve seen over the years, they are much more respectful of incense than most of the Anglicans I’ve observed. Incense seems to be such a bother to most Anglican priests, especially at WNC. I suspect, in part, that’s because they have many very Low Church priests at WNC. At Cathédrale Notre-Dame, I also noticed how many people in the congregation sing — unlike WNC’s (what I call) “stand and mumble” congregation — and the congregation at Notre-Dame seem to know the service music and they closely follow the service leaflet. They seem very involved in the Liturgy (for example: bowing, genuflecting or kneeling during the Consecration) unlike the bottom-basement Low Church congregation at WNC. At WNC, the congregation appear to mostly be there to observe as if they think they’re in a museum. They mostly just go through the motions. The congregation at Notre Dame takes an active role in the Liturgy.

I played the videos below for mi amigo/my friend. He’s an atheist like myself, and he said: “I like that much better than WNC. (So do I.) It feels somewhat Buddhist. It feels spiritual in an ancient way, unlike WNC which has come to feel weird and commercial, especially with all the flat screens around the Nave. They do try so hard to be so USA there.” I said: Oh you mean, for example, like that nationalistic Liturgy they had for Veterans’ Day 2016 where they celebrated the barbaric US Military Industrial ComplexTM, singing the “hymn” assigned to each branch of the US military as well as the “bombs bursting in air” US national anthem, all of which seemed to be in direct opposition to the separation of Church and State that we are supposed to have in the US?

I’ve also noticed how they at WNC go out of their way to be connected with the corporate parasites of the US Oligarchy/The Establishment/the federal government there in the District. They have invited some of the most heinous and despicable people/politicians — including war criminals — to the cathedral to speak either in their Forum programmes before the Liturgy or to give the Homily during the Liturgy. I sense they adore the Obama regime and are quite the Obamabots/Dembots, most likely being one-issue people as many shallow Democrats are. Apparently, they know little about what their Obama has done to expand upon most of the despicable policies of the illegitimate Bush regime, and their Mr Nobel Peace Prize Obama and his 7 wars, or is it 9 now? It’s hard to keep track. (Obama has ordered bombings, cruise missile and drone strikes on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria). Or, perhaps they are like so many hypocritical Establishment Democrats who are of the mindset: “it’s perfectly okay when a Democrat does it. It’s only bad when un Republicano does it.”

They have a very good Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys/Girls at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame. They also have a Women’s Chorus, and a Chamber Choir (well that’s what I call them; I don’t know their official name) for singing more Renaissance-style music and they have excellent diction. With the Chamber Choir, I was listening for the “K” of the word “Kyrie” and I heard it every time the word “Kyrie” appeared in the text. Sometimes choral ensembles get lax/sloppy about that and “Kyrie” becomes “yrie” which is obviously incorrect and makes me wonder why the Chorus Director or Choirmaster didn’t catch that. Choral excellence requires impeccable attention to detail, such as the K of “Kyrie” for example. The choirs at Notre-Dame are well-trained and the repertoire they use I’ve enjoyed so far. Their choirs wear very pretty blue robes and not cassocks and surplices as used in Anglican cathedrals/parishes. And their service music (the Mass setting they use) is a very nice setting and creates a certain/nice atmosphere about the Liturgy. It’s not sing-songy like the settings used by some Anglican parishes and cathedral churches. I like it much better than what they use at WNC.

I also noticed that most Roman Catholics don’t bow to the processional cross as Anglicans are encouraged to do, although most people in the Low Church congregation at WNC don’t do that. Roman Catholics bless themselves instead — as you can see in the processional of the second and third videos below — when the processional cross passes and also when the Bishop passes and blesses the congregation. I noticed a few people in the congregation who also bowed as well. Reminds me of some Anglo-Catholics who bow and bless themselves when the processional cross passes. During the Consecration, they use the Sanctus Bells/Altar Bells along with incense. Being a High Church person, I was very pleased to see such a High Liturgy — especially in the third video below — the kind of Liturgy I haven’t seen or heard since I was organist in an Anglo-Catholic parish. Also, the Roman Catholics have mostly abandoned their vergers. The concept of vergers began in the Church of England (CofE) and to my knowledge most Anglican churches still have vergers. WNC does. But it seems that the Roman Catholics have abandoned their vergers. They have lovely High Church liturgies at Notre-Dame and I noticed that the Nave is full for the High Church Liturgies. (WNC might want to take notice). A lot of care and respect go into their Liturgies at Notre Dame. It would be nice if the television network recording their Liturgies would not cut off the organ works/improvisations at the beginning and end of the Liturgies. It’s good to see a cathedral church that’s High Church, which is how I think a grand cathedral should be. You can watch their Messe/Mass at Notre-Dame from el 6 de noviembre de 2016 below. Chau.—el barrio rosa

This is a very High Church Liturgy (the highest I’ve seen). The Communion Anthem for this Liturgy was “The Souls of the Righteous” by the British composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958). The piece sets a nice atmosphere and I enjoyed their performance. I noticed that for this piece, both organists accompanied the Choir (not at the same time), but it was mostly the Titular organist in the gallery who did most of the accompanying. The two organists had coordinated with each other where one would stop and the other pick up and they did so seamlessly. It still sounded like one organ was being played (even though they are two separate organs) with a registration change, but I got the sense that the organ in the Sanctuary area was used 2-3 times in the piece for a particular (quieter) effect:


The Music and Liturgies at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

8 comments on “Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

  1. Rob

    Norte Dame music in Paris is the ultimate. However, you need to know that there are two distinct organs used during main liturgies. The Grand Orgue which you write of is located in the rear gallery and was just re-instated after a period of cleaning, updating and new console. The three titular organists (Lefebvre, Latry and Dubois) play this instrument. There is also a two manual organ in the sanctuary (Orgue de Choeur) which is used to accompany the choirs and cantors as well as daily mass and liturgy of the hours. There are two organists appointed to play this organ, Yves Castagnet and Johann Vexxo. These organs are not connected in any manner which is why you will always see an organist at the console in the sanctuary and when the grand Orgue is being used, one of the Titulars in the gallery. I believe there is a third portable organ (a positiv) located in one of the chapels as well.
    You may be rather disappointed in last Sunday’s music….an unfortunate Folk Music Fest! I just shake my head at these things especially in such a grand setting.

    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola/Bonjour/Hello Rob,

      Gracias for that. Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much. Very informative. As for last Sunday’s Liturgy (sigh), I feel as you do. I was surprised to see that at Notre Dame, although I guess at this point I shouldn’t be based on my experience with churches and the direction they’re headed. As one person wrote in the comments, the processional music sounded like elevator music used in shopping malls here in the US. Yes it did. Chau.—el barrio rosa/pink barrio

  2. Greg

    I’ve read your other articles about National Cathedral. Since Notre Dame is full for their high liturgies I think National Cathedral is going about it all wrong. They should try being more like Notre Dame instead of the direction they’re going. I prefer Notre Dame.

  3. strangetimes

    iv’e read most of your articles about washington national cathedral….i think they try to be all things to all people. it doesn’t work. just like it doesn’t work when politicians try to do that. it comes across as not knowing who you are.


  4. Diego

    This is amazing. I was raised RC but it was not like this, but then I was never in a cathedral. This is on another level. This is an art form. I’ve watched the last video twice and I keep playing certain parts over and over, like the processional, then the part before the Gospel reading with the short procession with the incense, synchronized candles and that magnificent organ playing, the communion anthem really set the mood and the recessional with the organ. Thrilling. Give Notre Dame the award for best cathedral service.

  5. Wes in Arlington

    Agree with D8….this is really beautiful. The organists are spectacular. This outdoes the services from WNC….. No comparison. So much more music yet they don’t sing 4-part style hymns. The organists are constantly playing. Thanks for posting this.

  6. D8

    They obviously set the standard. I’ve seen many Roman Catholic services in my life, but none ever as nice as this. Just beautiful.

Fin. The End.