Louis Marchand

Louis Marchand
Fond d'orgue
Performed in 2010, duration is 1:40

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Louis Marchand (2 February 1669 – 17 February 1732) was a French Baroque organist, harpsichordist, and composer. Born into an organist's family, Marchand was a child prodigy and quickly established himself as one of the best known French virtuosi of his time. He worked as organist of numerous churches and, for a few years, at the French court. Marchand had a violent temperament and an arrogant personality, and his life was filled with scandals, publicized and widely discussed both during his lifetime and after his death. Despite his fame, few of his works survive to this day, and those that do almost all date from his early years. Nevertheless, a few pieces of his, such as the organ pieces Grand dialogue in C and Fond d'orgue in E minor, have been lauded as classic works of the French organ school.


Marchand's father Jean was an organist in Lyon. As a child, the future composer showed exceptional talent: one contemporary account, by Évrard Titon du Tillet, states that already at the age of 14 he was offered the prestigious position of organist at the Nevers Cathedral. By age 20 he settled in Paris and married, eventually becoming organist of several Parisian churches, including Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, the church of the Cordeliers Convent, the Jesuit church in rue St Jacques, and Saint-Honoré. At around 17078 he became one of court organists. Between 1713 and 1717 Marchand went on a long concert tour of Germany, at one point performed before the emperor. After his return to France Marchand once again settled in Paris and worked as organist for the Cordeliers Convent, augmenting his income with teaching.

Virtually all contemporary accounts contain lavish praise of Marchand's keyboard talents, yet most writers also mention that the composer had an extremely colorful and unpredictable personality. This combination of prodigious skill and bizarre temperament resulted in numerous anecdotes, scandals, and rumors recounted in various sources, only some of which are fully reliable. Marchand's married life, for example, was unhappy: he beat his wife, separated from her after 12 years of marriage, and then refused to provide financial settlement. One scholar suggests that the extended German tour was an attempt to escape his ex-wife's demands.[1] A contemporary account by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (in Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik, 175455) gives a different reason: it wasn't his ex-wife Marchand was escaping from, but the French king, whom Marchand insulted. After an unfavorable remark made by Louis XIV about Marchand's hands, the composer responded with an improper retort about the king's ears.[2] Still another account claims that after Marchand's wife had left him, Louis XIV ordered half the composer's salary to be withheld and paid to her. Marchand, in response, broke off in the middle of a mass where he was playing and, when the king questioned him, responded, "Sire, if my wife gets half my salary, she may play half the service."[3]

Another famous anecdote was first related in Dictionnaire des artistes (1776) by Louis-Abel de Bonafous: it concerns Marchand's first months in Paris, during which he was apparently living in the streets, penniless. He was apparently saved by the Jesuits, who took him in and, recognizing his talent, offered him the position of organist in the church in rue St Jacques. By contrast, Titon du Tillet's biography states that, on Marchand's arrival to Paris he was offered virtually all of the vacant positions of the city's churches, because the composer's reputation was so high.[4] But perhaps the most famous anecdote about Marchand is the account of the competition he was supposed to have with Johann Sebastian Bach in Dresden in September 1717. According to Marpurg, Jakob Adlung, and other German sources (the story is not found in any French documents), the two composers were to have a contest in harpsichord performance, and Marchand fled before Bach's arrival, apparently out of fear of being defeated. This story, retold with various embellishments by Bach's later biographers such as Johann Nikolaus Forkel, was only subjected to close scrutiny by late 20th century scholars; no conclusive proof exists that Marchand ran away, or even that he knew the competition was to take place.[5] Bach's respect for Marchand's abilities, however, was recorded by the same Jakob Adlung, who witnessed Bach playing Marchand's harpsichord suites "ingeniously" and from memory.[6]


Comparatively few works by Marchand survive, most of them dating from the early stages of his career. The most numerous and arguably most important are his organ works, of which 12 were published posthumously, and 42 more were found in manuscript sources by later scholars. These pieces include a number of important pieces: the massive Grand Dialogue in C (1696), a harmonically adventurous Fond d'orgue, the Quatuor, a four-part contrapuntal form rarely seen in France, and a Plein jeu which presents the earliest known instance of double pedal in French organ literature.[7] Modern scholar Geoffrey Sharp divided Marchand's organ oeuvre into three distinct groups: pieces influenced by vocal genres, pieces influenced by instrumental genres, and vocal-instrumental hybrid works. He singles out Marchand's manualiter trios and non-contrapuntal works as the composer's most successful pieces.[8]

The extant pieces for harpsichord are two suites, published in 1702, a smattering of dances of uncertain attribution from a manuscript discovered in France in 2003.,[9] and La vénitienne, a short work published in a 1707 anthology. All show Marchand as a skilled composer and performer, but give no indication of which style he would choose for his later works.


Jean-Philippe Rameau was among Marchand's admirers, and his pupils included Pierre Dumage and Louis-Claude Daquin.[1] Dumage praised his teacher in the preface to his Premier livre d'orgue (1708), one of the most important works from the late years of the French organ school. Marchand's contemporary Pierre-Louis D'Aquin De Château-Lyon even compared the composer to François Couperin, claiming that, while Couperin had more art and application, Marchand had a more natural, spontaneous musicianship.[10] In addition to his music, Marchand also wrote a treatise on composition, Règles de la composition, which theorist Sébastien de Brossard considered an excellent, albeit short, work.[1]

Although today most of Marchand's extant pieces are regarded as unimportant by most scholars, a few have expressed the opposite view. French musicologist and writer Philippe Beaussant described the composer's work thus: "Though his compositions are skilfully written, their mastery is not obviously admirable as such. They need to be studied closely before they are found to be very great music."[9]


Basse de Trompette for Organ (excerpt)

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  1. 1 2 3 Higginbottom, Grove.
  2. Marpurg 175455, referenced in Moroney 2006.
  3. Fuller-Maitland, Vol. 3, p. 51.
  4. Titon du Tillet 1732, referenced in Higginbottom, Grove.
  5. For more information on contemporary accounts of the incident, and the historical context, see Williams 2007, 117–124.
  6. Adlung 1758, translated and referenced in Moroney 2006.
  7. Apel 1972, 743.
  8. Sharp 1969.
  9. 1 2 "Marchand Martinoli OM008 (JV): Classical CD Reviews – June 2007". MusicWeb-International. Retrieved 16 August 2009.
  10. Aquin de Château-Lyon 1978, 106–17.


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