“A Moveable Feast” – An American Organist – to Paris and Back

Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot
Robert L. Town Distinguished Professor of Organ and Associate Professor
Wichita State University
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres

My family roots on my mother’s side are French Huguenots, who left France near Bordeaux after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the late 17th Century. King Louis XIV had just revoked the right of Protestants to live and work in France, one of the worst decisions he ever made. It deprived France of a very skilled set of people who then scattered to the Netherlands, South Africa, England, and the United States.

The Bonneau family came to South Carolina and owned a ferry company. There is still a little tiny village in France called Chez Bonneau. The name came down as far as my maternal grandmother, who was a Miss Bonneau. Unfortunately, there was no male line to continue the name, but it was then used as a first name. My mother had a brother and a nephew both named Bonneau.

We tend to perpetuate characteristics of our ancestors, and in my case, I was always interested in anything French even in grade school. I took 6 years of Spanish in junior high and high school, only because they didn’t offer French. But I got my real start in this wonderful language at the University of Michigan with two years that started a lifetime love affair with French – its sounds, its lilt, its ups and downs, its deep attraction that one can’t really define. The famous “je-ne-sais-quoi” that is so well-described by all the early French organ masters.

My intention was to go to France to study one year with the great Marie-Claire Alain in Paris after my 4 years at the University of Michigan. This was suggested to me by both Marilyn Mason, head of the organ department, and my teacher, Robert Clark. My parents drove me to New York City where I took the great ship the “France” at the end of September 1971, and I ended up in Paris, not knowing where I was going to stay (there was no internet then, only real mail), only knowing I was to study with a great lady – for one year.

35 years later, in 2006, , I returned to the United States to Wichita, Kansas where I accepted the job of associate professor of organ at Wichita State University. Kansas – it couldn’t be farther from Paris, both in culture and in distance. But I had to “close the circle” so to speak and bring back to share all the experiences and knowledge I had accumulated in the country that had become my home.

The period of the 70’s was a time when American organ students still went over to Europe for long periods to study with the “masters”, be it in France, Germany or Austria. Curiously, there were no Fulbright grants then to France, only to Germany. Thus I contemplated for a time studying with Michael Schneider or Anton Heiller and not even going to France.

The world was far bigger then, without the extensive communication advances we have now. Those blue French aerogrammes that one purchased at the post office folded over and sent off to America were a common way of communication. No fax or email. The telephone was possible of course but very expensive. We encountered from time to time a phone booth in Paris where we could get through to the States for free. What a line there was in the Tuileries Gardens one day!

Finding a place to live was challenging, and although I had placed an ad for a room in the International Herald Tribune before leaving Michigan, nothing had been decided before I took the ship to France. Luckily I met some other young people aboard, and some of us ended up in a little hotel in Montmartre, Hotel Durantin near the métro Abesses. It doesn’t exist anymore, a sure sign that time marches on and that one grows older as the places of ones youth disappear to make way for others.

A general, citywide metro strike added to the beginning confusion of getting used to Paris. The only option was to walk and/or take a bus from Montmartre in the north to the Alliance Française in the south on the Boulevard Raspail where I took French classes. From there, I ended up with a diploma in written and spoken French having had some very good teachers who refused to speak to us in English. Our group of young girls from Denmark, Greece, Germany and the USA all decided to speak amongst ourselves in French despite the fact we all spoke English. That was a determining factor in becoming fluent in French. After all, one had to survive and be understood!

The individual arrondissements in Paris were far more different from each other than they are now. They each had their own particular character and particular feel, which made you think you were almost going to a different region each time you crossed the boundaries. And everybody stayed within their own district. For instance, the people in Montmartre told me that they hadn’t been down to the south of Paris for years.

After finding a room to live as a semi “au pair” on the corner of the Rue St. Guillaume and the Boulevard St. Germain in the 7th arrondissement watching over a young girl of 12 only in the evening, the only constants in my everyday life were French classes at the Alliance, practicing in the late afternoons at the Danish Church on the Rue Lord Byron near the Champs-Elysées, and my lessons with Marie-Claire Alain.

These took place in L’Etang-La-Ville to the west of Paris accessed by the Gare St.Lazare. Once arrived at the St. Nom-la-Bretêche station, I took a charming little path through the woods to arrive at the end of a paved street where, several houses down, Marie-Claire Alain lived. My lessons were in her garage in a little study that contained her Haerpfer-Ermann organ with a window looking out onto her garden. She loved gardening but couldn’t do too much because of the wear and tear on her hands.

My fellow American students also experienced these journeys to her house for their lessons. We were a young, rowdy, laughing and talented (!) group, and to this day we keep in touch closely with fond memories of these formative days.

In addition to studying with Madame Alain, I had signed up at the Paris Schola Cantorum on the Rue St. Jacques to study with Jean Langlais. My U of M professor, Robert Clark, had suggested that since I was going for only one year, I should get the most out of being in Paris and study with more than one person. This wasn’t a particularly good thing, studying with two teachers at once, but it turned out to be much more important than we thought.

In that fall of 1971 I had perhaps two or three lessons with Madame Alain, beginning with the Clérambault, Suite sur le 2e Ton, excellent to begin the study of early French ornamentation. But she became seriously ill and had to curtail all activity including lessons and recital tours. This included her recital series at the Eglise Notre Dame des Blancs Manteaux in Paris of the complete works of J.S. Bach. She was able to resume this and all other activities in the spring of 1972.

I was already enrolled at the Schola Cantorum and had class lessons every Saturday afternoon with Langlais. These were much along the lines of the Paris conservatory in which everyone played for the master and listened to each other. Langlais in spite of being a stern master teacher – there was no discussing interpretation as I had been able to do with Robert Clark – was a kind and generous soul. He was responsible for three major things that forever affected my life.

First, in taking some early French music to him, he said that I should listen to the new recording of the complete works of Nicolas de Grigny by Marie-Claire Alain. This, today, would not be surprising. But then, the Dupré tradition of legato and neo-classical registrations for early French organ music were still very much in place. So with Langlais being still part of this tradition, it was surprising to suggest listening to the newest Baroque playing.

Second, playing for him the Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain by Maurice Duruflé, he said, “oh, but you should take this to Madame Duruflé”. I did, and there began a long series of memorable lessons with her and a few with Maurice himself. She was like an angel with a permanent glow about her, and it was definitely entering into the inner sanctuary of a Dupré-inspired French organ world.

Thirdly and not the least, Langlais told me about a new organ competition, the Grand Prix de Chartres. “You should contact them soon.” I did and met the man who would become my husband, the president and founder of the Chartres international organ competition, Pierre Firmin-Didot. Chartres became a pole for me as it was already for him.

Many things happened in those first years culminating in 1975 with my winning the First Prize at the St. Albans International Organ Competition in England. I was to meet countless people in all sorts of social and musical situations, including heads of state, emperors, presidents of the republic, ambassadors, haute couture designers, aristocrats, both titled and aristocrats of the organ world. Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Edouard Souberbielle, one of Vierne’s last pupils, in improvisation lessons at the Ecole César Franck, Gaston Litaize, Andre Fleury, Michel Boulnois, Marie-Louise Girod, André Isoir, Michel Chapuis and more.

I am very grateful that these experiences have given me a framework that I have been able to share with students at the university and elsewhere as well as with audiences at the recitals in which I perform. The French spoken language is music itself. But when speaking it through the music we play, it is irresistible.

France is my home in my heart and soul. I return there regularly, especially since my daughter and family with my two little granddaughters live in Paris. As in the book title by Ernest Hemingway, Paris is “A Moveable Feast”, it gives me inspiration and validates always who I am and who I have become.

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