Rhinegold Photo credit: Pierre Pincemaille © DR

Pierre Dubois

Pierre Pincemaille (1956 – 2018)

9:19, 17th January 2018

Pierre Pincemaille, who died of lung cancer on 11 January at the age of 61, was born on 8 December 1956. He was the organist of the basilica of Saint-Denis (a cathedral since 1966), the necropolis of the Kings of France, just outside Paris. He was married to Anne-France Gaudillat and they had three children.

Pierre Pincemaille owed his early interest in the organ to his uncle, the Revd Paul Pincemaille, an amateur organist. Pierre first studied the piano and then the organ at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSM) in the classes of Henri Challan, Jean-Claude Raynaud, Marcel Bitsch and Rolande Falcinelli, winning five prizes in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ and improvisation. Between 1978 and 1990, he won five prizes in international improvisation competitions (in Lyon, Beauvais, Strasbourg, Montbrison and Chartres): indeed, Pincemaille was known especially as an outstanding improviser. On 29 November 1987, he was appointed sole incumbent organist of the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint-Denis, the first instrument built by the young organ builder in 1840 (Pincemaille was hostile to the idea of officially sharing the position of titulaire as is generally done in Parisian churches). He was to retain this position until his death. He taught counterpoint at the CNSM, organ improvisation at the Conservatoire of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, and harmony and counterpoint in the regional Conservatoire of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He made numerous recordings, notably of the complete organ works of Maurice Duruflé [Motette 12541] and César Frank [Solstice, SOCD 231/2], Charles-Marie Widor’s 10 organ symphonies [Solstice SOCD 181/85] and Messiaen’s early pieces [IFO Classics ORG 7229], and played the Saint-Denis instrument on the five-disc documentary The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll [Fugue State Films FSFDVD 007]; he also composed a few pieces for the organ. He was awarded three honorary distinctions – Palmes Académiques, Arts et Lettres and St-Grégoire-le-Grand – for his achievements respectively as teacher, organist and church musician.

Pierre Pincemaille was a flamboyant, passionate and controversial figure. He probably wished he had been appointed organist of Notre-Dame to follow in the footsteps of the formidable organist Pierre Cochereau, for whom he had an immense admiration – indeed, although he had never studied under Cochereau, Pincemaille considered himself to be his ‘spiritual son’, as he himself put it. While his position at Saint-Denis was a prestigious one, the historical Cavailllé-Coll organ there did not fully match his musical ideals; and had not this crucial testimony of Cavaillé-Coll’s early style been protected as a Monument historique, it is well possible that Pincemaille would have had it modernised. He was extremely critical of the uncomfortable layout of the console, so much so that he himself paid for a new bench to be made to replace the original one. In 1901, Mutin had installed a German pedalboard in place of the original French one, which may explain why the organist’s position at the manuals had become awkward. Pincemaille was not really interested in any ‘historical’ approach and spoke very disparagingly of historically informed organ advisers and organists (‘nos doctes petits marquis’ – ‘our pedantic lordlings’, he would call them), who, he felt, impeded the progress of music. Due to his major interest in improvisation (he never played written pieces during the services), he favoured modern, comfortable consoles. He rose to the challenge of playing the early Cavaillé-Coll with great talent, however, and Masses at Saint-Denis drew a large congregation, eager to attend the traditional Catholic services which Pincemaille had helped to reinstate, during which the two organs (Great and Choir) were used in dialogue. His complete mastery of improvisation was remarkable, and he liked nothing better than to be compared to his model, Pierre Cochereau. It was a little strange, nonetheless, to see him condescend to parody his own art by demonstrating electronic organs at the Paris Musicora exhibition a few years ago, a slightly provocative stance that squared ill with his official position as titulaire of a celebrated and outstanding historical landmark in the history of the pipe organ. Despite all this, and what his widow – in a moving tribute written after his death – called his ‘excesses’ and ‘imperfections’, Pierre Pincemaille was an impressive and respected figure in the French organ world and a warm and enthusiastic teacher and musician.


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