The Twelve Choral Preludes on Gregorian Chant Themes display Demessieux's unique musical language, as well as a variety of styles for treating plainchant themes. In the same way that Bach’s Orgelbüchlein serves a didactic function, Demessieux’s Twelve Chorale Preludes can also be considered as models for composing and improvising on a given theme. Her settings not only derive their musical material from the chant, but also match the tone and mood of the text.
Tu Es Petrus, in the style of a march, is a bold musical proclamation. In this setting Demessieux superimposes two different chant themes, both from the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The five-note pedal theme, presented in a descending sequence throughout the piece, is taken from the fifth antiphon at first vespers. Above this, the uppermost voice quotes the versicle of the Alleluia from the mass. For those familiar with these chants, Demessieux is musically referencing a double statement of the text Tu Es Petrus, simultaneously in the highest and lowest registers of the organ.
Rorate Caeli, in the style of an ornamented chorale, is a tranquil setting of the benediction responsory sung during Advent. Most of the melody comes directly from the respond, but portions of the versicles are also utilized. The text, “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just One,” is painted in the original chant with a descending line spanning an octave. Demessieux’s setting does not disrupt this line with ornaments and figurations, but rather highlights its original shape with anticipations, suspensions, and varying note durations.
O Filii et Filiae, an Easter benediction, is presented as a theme with five variations, ranging from the playful through the mysterious to the regal. The text of the chant is notable for its focus on the role of women in the resurrection story, and for addressing both sons and daughters. Demessieux’s chromatic and polytonal harmonies preserve the modal flavor of the original tune. While the theme remains clearly discernible in each variation, the displacement of strong and weak beats serves to disguise it at times.
Jeanne Demessieux (1921–68)
- Tu es Petrus: Marcia
- Rorate caeli (desuper): Choral orné
- O filii et filiae: Variations
From Twelve Choral Preludes on Gregorian Chant Themes,
Opus 8, 1947
Recorded on the Lively-Fulcher at St. Patrick's Catholic Church,
26 April 2016