From the moment of her fairy tale-like performance in the Salle Pleyel, after her rapid rise, Jeanne Demessieux has always remained among the most extraordinary virtuosos of her time.
Born in Montpellier on 13 February 1921, she continually lived in favourable surroundings for music. Her parents, concert lovers, sacrificed everything for her education and moved to Paris when the possibilities of education in their province in southern France were no longer adequate for the development of their daughter's exceptional musical talent.
From the age of three, Jeanne Demessieux manifested a predilection for the violin, of which she was taught the basics; until her sister, who was 13 years older and an excellent pianist and organist herself, dissuaded her from playing Paganini's instrument and suggested she should start playing a polyphonic instrument. From then on, she just continued her education at the school of music in her place of birth. Here, she won the first prize for solfège, and at the age of 11 the first prize for piano, after which she played in public and with orchestra the piece that was compulsory for the concours, the Concerto for piano and orchestra by Widor.
At the age of 12, she was appointed organist of the Église du Saint-Esprit in Paris and she occupied this post faithfully until 1962. The Conservatoire National opened its doors for the young virtuoso, where she would successively obtain a first prize for harmony in 1937, a first prize for piano in 1938, a first prize for counterpoint and fuge in 1939, a first honourable mention for composition in 1949, and finally a first prize for organ in 1941.
Her teachers, ranging from Léonce Granier, who was her first piano teacher at the Montpellier school of music, and M. Le Boucher, its principal, to Jean and Noël Gallon, Henri Büsser and Magda Tagliafero at the Paris Conservatory, had a true affection for her. Famous persons from the music world, like Claude Delvincourt, R. Loucheur and Gallois-Montbrun, and excellent composers like Poulenc, and also Messiaen, belonged to Jeanne Demessieux's most fervent admirers.
It was shortly after she had left the Conservatory - with the most beautiful laurels - when Dupré made this spontaneous and revealing remark in the middle of a conversation on 17 September 1942 in Meudon: "Music lessons! You do not receive more than I do, and I no more than you do; I am taught as much by you as you by me..." At that time, Jeanne Demessieux was 21 years old! By then, she had already stopped her education, now delighting in her academic education.
Shortly after her prize for organ, the crown of her imposing list of prizes, she left the Conservatory for good; her teacher Dupré had her work 'backstage' for four years, while she brought her unique technique to perfection, learnt the great forms of improvisation and did not miss the opportunity to compare different French and foreign organs with him, which meant a very enriching exchange of ideas.
During the gloomy years of the occupation, Jeanne Demessieux worked incessantly, sometimes even up to 18 hours a day (!). She made the effort to bring the subtle expressions of virtuosity to perfection, using her brilliant intelligence, to finally reveal herself suddenly to the music world with a sensational recital in the Salle Pleyel. Here, the first performance of her six Etudes confronted the audience straightaway with an aspect of her genius, which, unfortunately, later caused the hostility from the Parisian organ world.
The recital was the starting-point for more than 700 concerts throughout the world; after having astonished Paris, France and Great Britain, Jeanne Demessieux went successively to Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia. In 1953 she embarked on a trip to America, where she made a complete tour through the United States, including the Pacific Coast. This first tour was followed by two others, one in 1955 and the other in 1958. The acclamatory echoes of her triumphs across the Atlantic have been recorded, but to a very small degree. There are only few people who, after one of her recitals in the New York cathedral, have been able to read this strikingly laudatory review, saying: "Jeanne Demessieux is undisputably a highlight in the glorious French organ tradition." I have known most of the organists of this century, from Widor, J. Bonnet and Louis Vierne to Dupré, and I can only consider these masters to be equals of this extraordinary and virtuoso musician.
Because of her extensive travelling worldwide Jeanne Demessieux aroused the enthusiasm of many, crowding everywhere to applaud her. In the international press the most diverse critics - even the most demanding ones! - have expressed their unanimous admiration for her interpretation of so many classical works. She recreated these works, exhibiting an intense diversity in expression, thereby giving it a character of grandeur. She brought the works of the Romantic school to life by means of a passionate inspiration and lyrical zest in which the sensitivity, emotion and the most distinguished feelings have been united.
It was in this ideal artistic atmosphere, academic, with ample opportunities and where she could breathe - Jeanne Demessieux played with her heart, boundlessly, following her ingenuity - where she revealed Franck, Widor and Franz Liszt to us. She excelled in this, having a scrupulous respect for the text, and transfigured the works entirely by her fiery personality.
She really possessed the miraculous gift to transfigure every piece she played; the most diverse works were brought to life under her fingers. Who will ever be able to express the moving splendour of her admirable interpretations of the Romantic repertoire, which she brought to life by her passionate inspiration, in which a transcendental force was beautifully blended with the most gratifying delicacy culminating in a perfect equilibrium.
One Sunday, when René Dumesnil went to listen to Jeanne Demessieux in the Église du Saint-Esprit, he was astonished by her talent for improvising: "I had proposed a subject for a fugue", he writes, "the first measures of Claude Delvincourt's choir ending his "Lucifer". I witnessed one of those spectacles which one will never forget. During a quarter of an hour, a complete symphony in three parts was improvised in front of my eyes, crowned by an impressive fugue. And this miracle - what else should one call this exceptional gift, developed by study - was accomplished in such a simple way, apparently with such an ease, that I thought I was dreaming! But no, Jeanne Demessieux ignored the short phrase which I had in mind; these 12 notes alone were sufficient for her to construct and compose a complete work. I had attended organ performances quite frequently, and had heard a great many organists improvise, and, yet, this was something I had never experienced before; a freshness, a kind of controlled naturalness, such a pure craftmanship, without a touch of artificiality, so sincere and so profound, that I was highly impressed."
In 1962 she was appointed main organist of the beautiful Cavaillé-Coll in the Madeleine Church in Paris, succeeding Edouard Mignan. She had a lively interest in the preservation of her instrument and watched carefully over its aesthetic value. Her subtle eclecticism, formed by the numerous experiences she acquired all over the world, reached a maturity by means of comparing organs with different characters. She closely followed the development of organ building and resisted without any concessions - determined - prudently and above all wisely, each approach that was but little attractive, such as she expresses in a letter of 25 September 1961, as follows:
"...I have written to the Revue l'Orgue that 'I hoped and expected that the organ of the 20th century*' would be one of intelligent synthesis, original through its audacity of instruments from the past. If this is not the case, the promoters of neo-classicism will have to bear the heavy responsibility that is implicit in the entire organ repertoire, from J.S. Bach up to our present age, while the works of Messiaen, Langlais and others refer to a total and profound influence, without any compulsion or obligation." *(underlined by Jeanne Demessieux)
Jeanne Demessieux always had a critical look to the future, without forgetting, however, what she had learnt in the past. Her perfectionist and innovating spirit incessantly sought the equilibrium of the truth in everything. Her art was enriched by a high level of spirituality; for her enthusiastic and attentive listeners perceived her wonderful message with a consoling serenity, while others, who were more advantaged or more receptive, could clearly distinguish it.
Numerous foreigners, passing through Paris, who had heard her before in their own countries, came to the Madeleine, where her splendid improvisations, which have remained legendary with good reason, embellished the traditional liturgical service, which was always carefully performed in the most cosmopolitan of all Parisian churches. Jeanne Demessieux remained at the console, while at the altar the holy sacrifice of the Mass was accomplished, which points to the sacrifice on Calvary on Good Friday, a tradition kept alive through the ages.
For the fiftieth anniversary of the great Cavaillé-Coll organ in the St.Ouen in Rouen and for the organ's inaugurat-ion after its restoration on 26 October 1941, Dupré wrote a piece called "Evocation". It is said that Dupré made an attempt to symbolize in this work the three traits of his father Albert Dupré, who was inquiet, tender and proud.
While writing this piece, he confided his resolute plan to Jeanne Demessieux and gave her his manuscript. After reading it once, she could already master the technical difficulties, after re-reading it, she could perceive the spirit of the work, and the third time she played it without the sheet music: these were the prodigious capacities of Jeanne Demessieux. A few weeks after 3 September 1943 she gave a private concert on the splendid instrument of the St-Ouen for a handful of privileged people - including the undersigned - during which she interpreted the "Evocation" with an unequalled fire, liveliness and ease. While the far-reaching echoes were still vibrating through the age-old vaults of the vast nave, Dupré, moved to tears, sitting at her side, said to her: "My dear Jeanne, I do not recognize my own work." And it was true!
We already wrote about Jeanne Demessieux as a virtuoso with a fascinating ease, a poetess, a prophetess with a great inner force.
Whether she played in the Wanamaker Auditorium, in the New York cathedral, in the Royal Albert Hall, in the Parisian Saint-Sulpice in the presence of an enchanted Dupré, in the Edinburgh cathedral, or in the Genevan Victoria Hall, in her most glorious triumphs Jeanne Demessieux never departed from her natural simplicity which gave her so much charm. The glory gave her an aura without affecting her. The international press, much more than in France, admired her without any reserve and discovered in her an exceptional person, who was already a legend during her lifetime.
As a composer, Jeanne Demessieux has left us a considerable oevre; besides several pieces of chamber music, vocal music and symphonic music, she wrote several organ works: Six Etudes (published in 1946), Sept Méditations sur le Saint Esprit (1947), Tryptique (1948), Douze Chorals-Préludes (1950), Poème pour Orgue and Orchestre (1952), Te Deum (1959), Prélude et Fugue (1965), and Répons pour les Temps liturgiques. Her organ works have added expressive dimensions to the organ literature, unknown till then, and she enlarged the technical possibilities to express her ideas, rich in aesthetical sophistication. By her masterly education she radiated the prestige and splendour of the French organ school to far-away countries.
Her life, which was too short, has had a mondial radiance, her extraordinary activity, combined with an endless modesty, enabled her to take up the most hazardous tasks, always with equal happiness and a charming smile.
Her heart was tuned with her ingenuity. True to those she loved, she knew how to express with great delicacy her faithful affection toward her friends, who mourn her, by means of an attentive affection, and sometimes words. She did not restrict her affection to an exclusive circle. The incomparable friendship that she continually honoured us with is a consoling proof of it.
Throughout her life, she embodied the Beatitudes from the Gospel by her nobility and virtues: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God".