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She Was an Organist for the Ages

Demessieux seemed destined to take a top liturgical position, at Dupré’s St.-Sulpice or even at Notre-Dame. But shortly after her debut, Dupré, who appears to have been fed unfounded rumors that Demessieux had been disloyal, cut off contact with his pupil and resolved to sabotage her career.

Instead, Demessieux stayed with her family’s parish church, where she had been organist since she was 12, until she succeeded Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré as titulaire, or chief organist, at the church of the Madeleine in 1962. She prospered at a Cavaillé-Coll instrument with which she had a rare bond, having recorded a transcendent Franck cycle on it in 1959, the high point of an invaluable eight-disc set from Eloquence that came out earlier this year, amply documented with notes by the organist D’Arcy Trinkwon.

Although Demessieux was a star in the 1940s and ’50s, when she kept up a punishing concert schedule alongside her liturgical work and her teaching in Liège, Belgium, her status faltered after her death from cancer in 1968, at just 47. The Eloquence set gives her Decca tapes their first release on a major label in the CD era.

Part of the reason for Demessieux’s ebbing fortunes can be traced to the rise of neoclassical and period performance practices, which made her impulsive, lyrical, heartfelt style — one that brought a singular lightness of touch to a grand symphonic tradition — seem outdated, especially in the Bach and Handel with which she often opened her concerts.

Part of the reason, too, was the difficulty of her compositions, some of which were unpublished until recently and were promoted mostly by students like Pierre Labric. Although her whirling “Te Deum” from 1958, inspired by the Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, has had sustained success, works like her études, her “Triptyque” and her late Prelude and Fugue pushed the frontiers of the possible, and they remain “ferociously hard” even now, Tharp said — “things she really wrote for herself.”

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