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Rebel & Visionary

The French organist Jean Guillou has died at the age of 88.

The French organist and composer Jean Guillou died in his home city of Angers on 26 January. Due in particular to his mastery of improvisation and his own compositions, Guillou was known as one of the most important organists of our time. He was a pioneer who spent his life campaigning to raise the profile and standing of the organ – never losing sight of the importance of tradition as he did so. He engaged just as intensively with the new possibilities of organ building as he did with the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Jean Guillou at the Elbphilharmonie

On 18 April the »grand maître« celebrated his 88th birthday at the Elbphilharmonie with one of his last major concerts – and, as always, he gave it his all. With his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s »Pictures at an Exhibition« and his own magnum opus »La révolte des Orgues op. 69 / for Nine Organs and Percussion«, he had imposed a hugely challenging programme on himself.

Organist Thomas Cornelius accompanied Jean Guillou in that concert, and stood next to him at the Elbphilharmonie organ. Here he shares his memories of that day and of one of the greatest organists of the 20th and 21st centuries:

To have personally spent time with this man, and accompanied and assisted him for three days leading up to what turned out to be his last major concert in a concert hall, fills me with an enormous sense of gratitude. For me, he was a living legend, someone who had studied under the greats of the French organ world, figures such as Messiaen, Dupré and Duruflé, more than a half a century older than me. When he spoke to you, he had a freshness to him, a quick-witted humour and he still exuded this visionary power. He was someone who was always thinking further, not only musically and compositionally but also in terms of organ building.

Thomas Cornelius

Jean Guillou and Thomas Cornelius
Jean Guillou and Thomas Cornelius © Daniel Dittus

On his birthday at the Elbphilharmonie the audience sang him a birthday song during the pre-concert talk, and the whole of the Grand Hall did so again later when the concert began.

He said that this had been the best birthday he’d ever had – and he’d had quite a few. It turned out to be his last. He was a dignified man of outstanding merit who was known as a rebel, a visionary and a keeper of tradition. The rebellious aspect had certainly softened somewhat, but he still had very clear ideas, for example for the sounds and registrations of the organ.

Thomas Cornelius

Jean Guillou
Jean Guillou © Daniel Dittus

He once said about a sound that it was beautiful, that it glowed, but that it was too soft – it had to be more rebellious and a little sharper. Sometimes he’d be dreamy, and for me there shimmered in his gaze, in the bright blue eyes, an otherworldly vision. He still had a strong will, but even he asked for help. Sometimes it was a personal remark or just a discreet look, and then with a warm-hearted gratitude he’d be so happy about any assistance I could give him.

Thomas Cornelius

Jean Guillou
Jean Guillou © Daniel Dittus

At the end of the strength-sapping concert, he played his own arrangement of the sinfonia from Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata »Wir danken dir Gott, wir danken dir« from memory and with amazing freshness. It was a unique and indescribable concert evening. Now, in my memory, that final Bachian D major chord seems a fitting finale to the life of such a great artist – a true master.

Thomas Cornelius

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