March 17, 2019


The Tremulant in French Classical Organ Music

March 17, 2019


The Tremulant in French Classical Organ Music

The 1736 Christophe Moucherel organ at the Cathedral in Albi, France, an organ with multiple tremulant speeds.

The 1736 Christophe Moucherel organ at the Cathedral in Albi, France, an organ with multiple tremulant speeds.

I was browsing Facebook one morning a few years ago — wasting time, as many of us are wont to do on occasion — when I came across a link a friend had posted to an article online. "Baroque Violinist Gets Off Without Vibrator," the headline blared, and the following text poked fun at the idea of historical authenticity by presenting a reductio ad absurdum argument in which said violinist, eschewing modern conveniences in her playing such as a chin rest, applies the same historically-informed practice to the rest of her life, "giving up electricity...dress[ing] herself exclusively in petticoats and bodices, and restrict[ing] her diet to simple stews made of organic root vegetables, potatoes, and sauerkraut."

This article, while novel in its detail and presentation, was actually a rehash of a tired, old argument, one that I remember hearing from "tracker bashers" when I first stepped into the organ world more than twenty years ago. If one wants to pursue an "authentic" performance practice, the reasoning went, one must also eschew any form of technology not contemporary to the past — though, which part of the past was never specified. I remember vividly the first masterclass I ever attended, a curious spectator, where the presenter went off on a tangent regarding the use of chamber pots and wagons, because, "If you want to use the technology of the past that’s what you have to go back to." Of course, he said this while seated at the console of a late twentieth-century electronic organ that had been carefully designed to look like it had been built in the 1920s or earlier.

More recently, another Facebook intrusion — this one a comment thread on a photo depicting a console for a new organ designed in a historical style, with decidedly-unhistorical but tastefully integrated general and divisional pistons — brought up the question of authenticity for me again. One commenter steadfastly maintained that the addition of pistons to a design that predated that invention by more than two hundred years, even on a modern instrument, was "disingenuous." I argued otherwise. He came back with a zinger: "This will affect the way the instrument is played."

Of course, in that assertion he was absolutely right — the addition of pistons will affect the way the instrument is played, by design. Perhaps he was right overall; it all depends on how one looks at the issues here. What does it mean to be genuine? Is that the same as being authentic? And, is that the same as historical authenticity? Well — allow me to stoke the fire.

I’ll begin with one more reminiscence. During my freshman year of college, as a class project our organ studio prepared Clérambault’s Livre d’orgue and performed it at a local church. We used the excellently-annotated edition published by Wayne Leupold, with a preface by Sandra Soderlund. This preface was my first introduction to one of the great quirks of French Classical organ music; namely, prescriptions for tremulant usage. French organ building in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represents one of the most highly-developed national schools in the history of the instrument. Composers for the organ could expect that their works would be played on an instrument nearly identical to their own, and a highly-stylized registration system arose in consequence. Prefaces to organ books from the 1600s and 1700s very often include recommended registrations for all the pieces they contain. These normally present nothing unexpected to the modern performer with at least a cursory acquaintance with this repertoire, given their similarity to other registration practices influenced by the French and the fact that the titles often indicate which stops are to be employed — but then period authors begin writing about the use of the tremulant. Recommendations for its employment in surprising places often lead modern performers to advocate leaving it out altogether, usually on the grounds that "the wind supply of French classic organs was quite different from most modern instruments and worked with the tremulant in a special way that has rarely been duplicated today," as Sandra Soderlund wrote in her Clérambault preface. However, before we summarily dismiss these odd prescriptions, they must be examined, especially as they relate to our concept of historical authenticity and what that means in modern performance, if our goal is a greater understanding of the culture from which they derive.

The earliest mention of a tremblant in a French organ specification occurs in 1538, at the church of Nôtre Dame in Alençon, where it is listed among the stops of the "corps d’Orgues." Interestingly, unlike the positif du pourtraict which boasts both a jeu de trompettes and jeu de voix humaines, the former division contains no reed stops, which would later become the core of the grand jeu combination in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not one, but two tremblants would become a feature of the French Classical organ in the seventeenth century: the tremblant doux or tremblant á vent lent, and the tremblant fort or tremblant á vent perdu. Each worked in a fundamentally different way on the wind supply of the organ. The theorist Marin Mersenne, in his Traicté de l’orgue of 1635, describes both thus:

"It should be mentioned that the tremblant is not really a stop, but that it is nothing more than a moveable board which is attached in the wind conduit so that it is raised when the speech of the pipes should not fluctuate, and lowered when the wind should be made to tremble. This is easily understood by flapping the lips with the hand, while pronouncing some vowel, for example a or o. But many people reject this fluctuation as a disagreeable noise, and I shall say more about it later... The tremblant belongs to the wind conduit, in which it is enclosed; that is why it is called the Tremblant à vent clos, in use today, because it is more agreeable, and doesn’t cause such rude fluctuations of air, nor as fast as the one with exposed wind [à vent ouvert, ou perdu]; this was used formerly, and is still seen in old organs."

Mersenne’s description, which indicates that he believed only the tremblant á vent clos to be in use, still clearly illustrates both the difference in mechanism and perception of the effects of two distinct tremulants. Later sources actually contradict his assertion that the tremblant á vent perdu was only seen in old organs and had fallen out of favor by the 1630s; for example, Nivers's preface to his Premier livre d’orgue (1665) is quite clear in its stipulation that the tremblant á vent perdu be used with the grand jeux, as are several other composers of organ books in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, Mersenne himself goes on to say, regarding the tremblant á vent perdu,

"Now this tremblant beats more firmly than the other, and also beats as fast for several stops as for one, so it should be included in the organ if we wish to hear all the various effects that grow out of different tremblants (although this one is certainly not as agreeable as the other one), since pleasure in music consists especially in variety, which allows for dissonance as well as consonance."

Mersenne draws an explicit analogy between the tremblant of the organ’s wind supply and the vibrato of a singer: "It might finally be said that we would have a perfect Tremblant... if it beats in such a way that it imitates the vibrato of human voices in the stops of the organ..." [Emphasis added].

Audsley, in the second volume of his Art of Organ Building (1905), describes the two French tremulants, with some judgmental commentary:

"The Tremblant doux was an appliance placed inside an enlarged portion of the main wind-trunk, adjoining the bellows, and from its construction must have been very uncertain and weak in action. The Tremblant fort was a piece of mechanism somewhat resembling in principle the ordinary form of the modern tremolant. It was placed in one of the sides of a vertical wind-trunk, and consisted of a box or frame of wood having a square valve or pallet, covered with leather, hung at each end.... The puffs of air which this appliance permitted to escape at regular intervals communicated a pulsation to the wind of the Organ, and caused the speech of the pipe-work to tremble. This appliance was correctly distinguished by the name "Tremblant à vent perdu.""

The different effects of these two tremulant types must have been the reason they were commonly incorporated on French Classical organs for more than two centuries, with the tremblant clos having a subtler influence on the wind because its design created less pressure differential than the tremblant fort. Where we run into trouble is the point at which period French composers begin recommending that the tremblant à vent perdu or tremblant fort be included in the registration for the grand jeu, all the reeds and cornets of the organ sounding together in what was, historically, the loudest sound many would ever hear in their lifetime, aside from cannon fire or thunder. Modern performers seem very unwilling to experiment with the use of the tremulant in any sort of grand jeu combination on American organs, usually fielding as an excuse the assertion, mentioned earlier, that "the wind supply of French classic organs was quite different from most modern instruments and worked with the tremulant in a special way that has rarely been duplicated today." However, the tremulant that is specifically mentioned by Nivers (1665), Lebégue (1676/78), Gigault (1685), Raison (1688), Chaumont (1695), Gaspard Corrette (1703), and Michel Corrette (1737) in connection with the grand jeu registration is not Mersenne’s tremblant à vent clos, which is almost never duplicated today, but the tremblant à vent perdu, an exhausted-wind mechanism situated outside the wind trunk that is remarkably similar in its function to modern tremulants.

Audsley notes, with some disdain, that "so lately as 1888, nothing more modern, so far as the tremolant is concerned, than the insufficient and old-fashioned appliances described by Dom Bedos" appeared in a German treatise on organ building. But, he goes on to describe various tremulant constructions that differ only in detail from the French tremblant fort. Audsley admits as much when he writes that the tremulant "is constructed on a somewhat similar principle to that which obtains in the early bellows and pallet tremolants."

25 years later, in The Contemporary American Organ, William Harrison Barnes categorizes "two common types of Tremulant in use in organs of the present day [1930]." The first he calls the "beater type," "which consists simply of a pivoted rod with a weight at one end and a round disc of wood at the opposite end, padded with felt and leather. This disc is so placed as to close the hole which permits the wind to escape out of the box when in the 'closed' position." The second "is very similar in principle to the beater type, except that the air is permitted to enter a small bellows which in turn is raised by the compressed air entering, thereby shutting off its escape by closing the valve at the top of the bellows momentarily." This type of bellows tremulant is very similar to the French tremblant fort, and is still commonly used today; it is this type of tremulant that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French composers specified for use with the grand jeu combination.

Thus, if we wish to reconstruct the performance of French Classical organ music as it was probably heard, aiming for some measure of historical authenticity, we would do well to experiment with the addition of a tremulant to the grand jeu, especially where the presence of an adjustable tremulant will allow us to vary the number of beats per second, and where the construction and effect of most modern tremulants we have available is very similar to that of the historical tremblant fort. Where a tremulant may actually be most inappropriate for the performance of French music on modern organs is, in fact, where it is generally used: recits de voix humaine, where the subtler tremblant à vent clos would have been employed originally!

This is not to say that the tremulant should be used indiscriminately in grand jeu registrations. The use of the tremblant à vent perdu in the grand jeu combination certainly continued through the first half of the eighteenth century, but appears to have fallen out of favor as French organists and organ builders gravitated toward a galant style in the later 1700s that saw the development of monstrous organs with multiple divisions and plethora of reed batteries. Dom Bedos de Celles, in his famous treatise of 1770, laments the fact that "many organists almost never touch the Grand Jeu without putting on the Tremblant-fort" — however, he goes on to say that "this is never done by the ablest and most tasteful players, who feel very correctly that the resulting modification of the wind soils and damages a beautiful effect." Dom Bedos is the only French source I know of to say anything derogatory about the use of the tremulant in the grand jeu, but he is one of our most important and comprehensive sources regarding late-Classical French organs, organ music, and organ building. His remarks indicate two things: first, that the organists whom he considered knowledgeable did not use the tremulant in the grand jeu combination, and second, that this practice was still widespread enough for him to feel the need to argue against it by appealing to the authority of the "most tasteful" players.

All this leads us back to the question: Where should we actually use the tremulant when playing French Classical music? And the answer is a bit silly, because the answer is simply, wherever you want. The Authenticity Police won’t come knocking at your door because you used an exhausted-wind tremulant in a récit de cromorne, and it is extremely unlikely that a parishioner will approach you after a service asking about the particulars of French tremulants and your choice to use one or not during the postlude on a 1972 Wicks. For myself, I have taken to playing grands jeux with tremulants on every division; in fact, at one organ building firm where I worked the controller on new organs was modified to synchronize the tremulants across divisions for this reason, and I quite like the effect.

But the larger question also remains: What does it mean to be historically authentic in this context? Does incorporating the tremulant with whatever compromise registration approximates a grand jeu really matter? Most of us use instruments that are quite unlike the organs for which this repertoire was written. Playing these pieces on modern organs with electric actions, tuned in equal temperament, in dry American rooms — this would seem to be a losing battle if it’s one we choose to fight.

Or is it? Within the last half-century, we have witnessed a resurgence of older building techniques, design, and materials, a growing movement to return to things like mechanical key and stop actions, historical casting, pipe construction, and voicing methods, an increased willingness to experiment with unequal temperaments, even occasionally quarter-comma meantone on large instruments, and lower wind pressures with gentler open-toe voicing. Even firms that have not completely embraced historical building principles have recognized a need for more eclecticism in their specifications, perhaps as a response to the growing trend of historical rediscovery. I do not believe this has happened because of some fixation on the past or dedication to its preservation, but because of a recognition, by builders and organists alike, that these things make organs and organ music beautiful in their own way. And it is for the same reason that I will go on playing grands jeux with tremulants on modern organs far removed from their historical French counterparts: the result is beautiful in its own way. I encourage you to try the same.


Originally from Moses Lake, Washington, Jonathan Young holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a Master of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Jonathan was the Alternate Winner of the 2011 Mu Phi Epsilon International Competition, held in conjunction with the fraternity’s triennial convention in Rochester.

In 2003, he was selected as the Westfield Center for Keyboard Studies Concert Scholar, through which he presented recitals at Oberlin Conservatory, Stanford University, and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle; Jonathan was also the winner of the Christ Church Regional Young Organists’ Competition the same year. During the 2016–2017 academic year, Jonathan was a Visiting Instructor in the Theory Department of the University of Illinois School of Music, and in 2009–2010 a Senior Lecturer and Visiting University Organist at Pacific Lutheran University.

In addition to his work in Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic congregations and parishes, including three years as director of music at Immaculate Conception Church in Mattoon, Illinois, Jonathan maintains an active interest in organ building and voicing, and has worked for Paul Fritts & Company (Tacoma, WA), Buzard Pipe Organ Builders (Champaign, IL), and Richards, Fowkes & Company (Chattanooga, TN).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.