Thierry Escaich: Organist-Composer in the French Tradition

Thierry Escaich

Thierry Escaich

On March 4, The Cecilia Chorus of New York will present a quadruple bill of works by French composers: Requiem (1983) by Charles Gounod, Cantique de Jean Racine (1866) by Gabriel Fauré, the organ solo Dieu Parmi Nous (1935) by Olivier Messiaen, and the U.S. premiere of Messe Romane (2014) by Thierry Escaich. Though less well known in the United States than his predecessors, Escaich, at 52, is currently one of the most important contemporary composers in France, inspired by the French tradition of organist-composers such as Ravel, Messiaen, Dutilleux, Fauré, and Franck. He has composed over 120 works, recorded over 50 CDs and DVDs, and is celebrated and sought after as a creator and performer around the world.

Last month, arriving in Paris for a week’s vacation, I decided to contact Thierry Escaich in the hopes of scheduling an interview with him while I was in town. Knowing what a demanding work and travel schedule he follows, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back from him. But in the wee hours of the morning I was to leave on a high-speed train to Amsterdam, my phone pinged: Excusez-moi, I have been working like a madman on a viola concerto for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and I just now finished it, completely exhausted. Could we meet later this morning?

Plans were re-adjusted, bags were hastily packed and an hour before my train was to depart, Escaich rose to greet me at a back table in the Café Terminus Nord, across the street from the train station. Looking pale and creased but smiling genially, Escaich started by correcting my pronunciation of his name.

Escaich: It looks like ES-CA-ITCH, but it’s actually pronounced ES-KETCH. This is an old name in the Occitane dialect from the province of Bėarn-l’Ariège, in the Pyrenees mountains near the Spanish border, where my father’s family lived. And where Gabriel Fauré, one of my role models as an organist-composer, came from, by the way! The name Escaich means a small piece of fabric, like a swatch. Most people in France have never heard of it.
My father came from a family of peasants, but he escaped the farming life by joining the military. My mother was a schoolteacher. I myself was born in Rosny-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. My parents were not musical themselves, but when I was about three or four they noticed that I invented my own way of notating music that I heard on the radio and television and even composed little songs of my own, and they encouraged my talent. When I entered primary school they gave me an accordion, and from the age of 13 to 15, I was the world champion accordionist in my age group! I still love the accordion, but the organ soon took precedence.
One Sunday when I was seven, my mother took me to mass at the local church where there was a harmonium. After the service, I asked if I could play on it. I’d never touched a piano or any other instrument besides an accordion before, but the priest let me improvise on the harmonium and then led me over to the church’s small organ. To me it was huge and awe-inspiring, but I started improvising on it and the priest said, “Our organist is ill. Would you like to fill in for him?”
Before I knew it, I was hired as the official church organist. I didn’t know how to read music, but I knew the hymns by heart from having attended church regularly, and I could improvise on entrances and exits, so it didn’t matter. I didn’t start piano lessons until two years later, when I was nine.

That was at the Conservatory of Rosny-sous-Bois. Escaich later enrolled in the National Conservatory in Paris, where he won eight first prizes and has taught improvisation and composition since 1992. He has since been Composer-in-Residence with orchestras in Lyon, Lille, and Paris, and has received four “Victoires de la Musique” awards. He is artistic director of the Mariinsky International Organ Festival and in Paris he is an official organist of the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church near the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter, a position once held by the composer Maurice Duruflé. From February 6-11, Radio France will focus on Escaich’s work  in its Présences Festival, devoted to contemporary music and composition. (For a full biography, a complete list of works, and to hear fragments of his music, see Escaich’s website or that of his management agency Intermusica.)

Eschaich’s work consists of composing, performing, and collaborating with other creative artists, and includes orchestral music, solo music, vocal and choral music, opera, and music for dance and films.

“I love being onstage myself, at the piano or the organ, expressing my own emotions to the public,” says Escaich. “But that isn’t always possible. I would love to play the organ at your performance of my Messe Romane in New York, but I will be on tour in China then.” (Editors: Organist Bálint Karosi will perform all four works of the March 4th concert - see article.)

Why did you give the Messe Romane—Roman Mass—that title?

I was commissioned to write this work in 2014 for a special concert at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where several choruses were to sing together. Each choir would rehearse the piece individually but not together in one place! So I wrote it for two choruses, which respond to each other. In the traditional Gregorian—early Roman—mass, the priest sings part of the mass and the chorus or congregation sings the response. Messe Romane is reminiscent of Gregorian chants, with its use of call and response. I know that your chorus will be divided in two for this purpose.

You have written masses, oratorios, and—increasingly—operas. Do you see a relationship between the human voice and the organ?

To me they are both musical instruments, just like the various instruments in an orchestra. People who hear me play the organ say that they think they are hearing an entire orchestra. In my compositions I am always trying to express something, and I use the voice to express the same message with the same intensity as the other instruments. The great master at doing this was Bach, with his cantatas. I understand that The Cecilia Chorus of New York performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with great success in December, so I’m confident you’ll do a great job with my Messe Romane!

(Jeanne Wikler)

Bio Thierry Escaich:

Composer, organist, and improviser Thierry Escaich is a unique figure in contemporary music and one of the most important French composers of his generation. Escaich draws from the French line of composition of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, and whose works are imbued with references from contemporary, folk, and spiritual music.

His most recent new works include a Viola Concerto for Antoine Tamestit commissioned by Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and Organ Concerto No. 3 which received its European premiere by Escaich and Orchestre National de Lyon in November 2017. His works are performed by leading orchestras in Europe and North America and by musicians such as Lisa Batiashvili and François Leleux, Valery Gergiev, Lothar Zagrosek, Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Emmanuelle Bertrand, Paul Meyer, John Mark Ainsley, and the Quatuor Voce.  

Esciach is featured composer of the 2018 Radio France Présences Festival, and other highlights of the season include the world premiere of his Viola Concerto for Antoine Tamestit at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Stéphane Denève, and the European Premiere of Organ Concerto No. 3 with Escaich as soloist alongside the Orchestre National de Lyon and Leonard Slatkin in Lyon and at the Paris Philharmonie.

Thierry Escaich is represented by Intermusica.