The French Suite

During the Baroque music period, French organists developed a style of playing and pieces that has become known as the French Classical School. Notable composers during this period include:

Before improvising in a style, it is always a good idea to play as many of the written pieces as possible. Scores from these and other composers from the era are available from IMSLP. While there will be differences in the pieces between composers, by playing through a large part of the repertoire, it becomes easier to identify the common characteristics of the style.

Movement types

Whether written for use with a hymn, movements of a mass, or for the Magnificat, French Classical composers created suites of pieces, often titled by the expected registration or texture of the movement. The most common movements include:

  • Plein jeu
  • Fugue
  • Duo
  • Trio
  • Récit
  • Grand jeu

While the order and number of interior movements varies, the suites almost always start with a Plein jeu and end with a Grand jeu. In the category of Récit, I am including movements that feature a solo stop and accompaniment such as Tierce en taille and Basse de trompette. Don’t worry if these titles don’t mean anything to you for now. I plan to spend the next few weeks explaining each one individually, offering comments on the style, registration, and steps we can take towards improvising these different pieces.

In the meantime, go find (or download) some scores to play through and enjoy this audio clip of one of the current French masters, Michel Chapuis, improvising in French Classical style for your inspiration:

MichelChapuis YouTube

Hoping you will find inspiration from the French Classics,


Recent additions to




Newsletter Issue 42 – 2015 07 20
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Practice with focus

First I’d like to offer an update on information from the last newsletter. Last week I offered a review of an almost free edition of First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ by Hamilton Crawford Macdougall. Thanks to a couple of readers, I discovered the complete edition of the book is available for free here. No need to suffer through the incomplete version I had found on Forgotten Books. If any one knows of any other free improvisation method books that are available on-line, please let me know and I’ll pass them along as well.

Maurice Clerc

I spent most of this week attending the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory where Maurice Clerc taught improvisation. My primary take away for the week was that I need to spend more time in focused practice. As we get better as improvisers, it is still important to spend time practicing with focus, and perhaps even challenging ourselves to master a particular element in a particular setting.

One note at a time

One of the focus areas for the week was harmony. After a brief review of traditional cadences, Maurice Clerc focused on creating harmonic progressions by changing one note at a time. The example he eventually wrote out for us was as follows:

Rather than following traditional harmonic progressions, these chords change by moving notes to neighboring tones. I’ve heard a very similar lesson from several French organists, so I believe this is one of the hallmarks of the French style of improvisation.


We first worked with this progression playing the chords on the celestes with the left hand and a melody on the harmonic flute with the right. (Think of ‘Clair de lune’ from Louis Vierne’s Pièces de fantasie.) Another suggested option was for a solo on the clarinet in the tenor range or even a 4′ in the pedal! The new registration I heard from Maurice Clerc this week was to use all the 8′ foundations. Can you play an active texture with lots of movement in different voices (not just tremolos) and still follow a progression of harmonies where basically one note changes at a time?


If you practice the progression above in several different keys and with several different registration arrangements, it becomes very easy to create a lengthy 7-9 minute piece simply by modulating once or twice and changing the disposition of the material. Choose a tonic key for the opening and concluding sections with one registration. Add a contrasting middle section in one or two other keys and with a different registration, and suddenly you are on your way to improvising the slow movement of a symphony!


As we made the progression from simple harmonies to a symphonic form, each step required us to focus on some quality of the improvisation. For the students who mastered the harmony quickly, Maurice Clerc focused on the quality of the melody, critiquing the range, rhythm, and shape. If the melody was ok, could there be more movement in the accompaniment? Any problems that arose required a step backwards in the process and simplification. When it was time to work on the form, the different sections were mapped out in advance, making it easy to work on each section individually. Though some people might think we are taking the spontaneity out of the improvisation by working each section over and over, I prefer to consider it as exploring for better options. If you find something that works, were you focused enough to be able to do it again? Is there an even better option that you might discover (especially if you didn’t like the one you chose last time)?

Encouraging you to be focused in your explorations,

Newsletter Issue 40 – 2015 06 22
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Maurice Clerc

Appointed in 1972, Maurice Clerc is Titular Organist of the Cathedral Saint Bénigne in Dijon, France. He studied organ with Suzanne Chaisemartin, Gaston Litaize, and earned his Premier Prix from the Paris Conservatory in the class of Rolande Falcinelli. For several years, he also attended the Académie internationale de Nice where he studied improvisation with Pierre Cochereau. He won first prize in the international improvisation competition in Lyon in 1977.

He will teach at the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory during June 14-19, 2015.

Maurice Clerc – Concert Improvisation on an old Noel – Suhr, Switzerland
Maurice Clerc – Free Improvisation – Klais organ

Franck Vaudray

FranckVaudrayFranck Vaudray studied organ at the Conservatoire National de Région in Lyon and the Conservatoires Nationaux Supérieurs de Musique in Paris and Lyon where his teachers included Louis Robilliard and Loïc Mallié. His other teachers include Denis Magnon, Roger Boutry, Jean-Claude Henry, Marcel Bitsch, Daniel Gaudet, Claude Ballif, and Gilbert Amy. He presently serves as professor of musical writing at the Conservatoire National de Région in Grenoble and associate professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon.

Franck Vaudray – Improvisation – Saint François de Sales

Jeanne Demessieux

JeanneDemessieuxJeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) began studying piano with her older sister, Yolande, before entering the Montpellier Conservatoire in 1928. In 1933, she entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying piano with Simon Riera and Magda Tagliaferro, harmony with Jean Gallon, counterpoint and fugue with Noël Gallon, and composition with Henri Büsser. She studied organ privately with Marcel Dupré before entering his organ and improvisation classes at the conservatory in 1939. After earning her first prizes, she continued private lessons until her concert debut at the Salle Pleyel in 1946. She served as organist at Saint-Esprit in the 12th arondissement from 1933 until her appointment as titular organist at La Madeleine in 1962. She taught organ at the Nancy Conservatoire (1950-1952) and the Conservatoire Royal in Liège (1952–68). She wrote over 30 compositions and made several recordings, including the complete works of César Franck.


The Legendary Jeanne Demessieux: The Hamburg Organs
Festivo 6961862
Includes repertoire by Bach, Franck, Demessiuex, Messiaen and an improvisation on the choral “O grosser Gott der Treu”

Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin

Deventer  - Jubileum Vox Humana. foto sjaak verboom / 15-4-2005Website:

Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin began organ studies at the age of 14 with Gérard Letellier. She went on to earn Premier Prix from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris in organ and improvisation with Rolande Falcinelli, harmony with Jean Lemaire, fugue with Michel Merlet, and counterpoint with Jean-Claude Henry. She continued studies with Loïc Mallié, eventually winning the second improvisation prize in the Concours International d’Orgue de Chartres in 1990 when Pierre Pincemaille won first place. In 1985, she became titulaire adjointe with Daniel Roth at Saint-Sulpice in Paris. In 2008, she became professor of organ and improvisation at the Royal College of Music in London.

You can hear her on Spotify.


Sophie-Véronique Choplin au grand-orgue de Saint-Sulpice
Includes an improvised theme and variations

Saint-Sulpice Paris
Includes repertoire by J.S. Bach, Daniel Roth, Maurice Duruflé, F. Mendelssohn and an improvisation

Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin – Improvisation – Saint-Sulpice
Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin – Improvisation über ‘Erschalle laut Triumphgesang! Triumph der Heiland ist erstanden!’ – St. Joseph, Bonn-Beuel
Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin – Offertoire improvisé – St Jean Baptiste de la Salle, Paris

Léonce de Saint-Martin

Leonce de St-MartinLéonce de Saint-Martin (1886-1954) became titulaire of Notre Dame de Paris from 1937 until his death. He succeeded Louis Vierne after a decision by the cathedral authorities. But it was a controversial appointment, a petition from 55 organists and other church musicians of Paris has asked for an open contest as were Vierne’s wishes, but it was not to be. St Martin’s appointment was to remain controversial for the rest of his time at Notre Dame, his abilities were not held in high regard by many in the Parisian church music scene.

Léonce de Saint-Martin – Elevation – Notre Dame
Léonce de Saint-Martin – Noel – Notre Dame

Jacques Taddei

JacquesTaddeiJacques Taddei (1946-2012) was organist titulaire at the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde from 1993 to 2012. He began as co-titulaire in 1987 and was the successor to Jean Langlais. His successor is Olivier Pénin. He also served as Director of the CNR de Paris (1987-2004), Director of Music for Radio France (2005-2006), and Director of the Musée Marmottan in Paris (2007-2012).

He studied organ with Pierre Cochereau and Marie-Claire Alain. In 1980, he won the Grand Prix d’improvisation in the Concours international d’orgue de Chartres.

Hommage a Pierre Cochereau
Includes Liszt “Ad Nos” and an improvised symphony.

Francis Chapelet

FrancisChapeletFrancis Chapelet began organ studies at the École César Franck, studying with Édouard Souberbielle. He continued his studies at the CNSMD in Paris where he earned First Prizes in Harmony (class of Maurice Duruflé), organ and improvisation (class of Rolande Falcinelli).

In 1964 he was named cotitulaire of the organ at the Église Saint-Séverin in Paris, a position which he held for twenty year and where he remains titulaire honoraire.
He created the organ class at the Conservatoire de Bordeaux where he taught until 1996.

Chapelet, Francis, Livre d’improvisation et d’accompagnement, éditions Les presses de la Double, 2002, 68 pages.
Chapelet, Francis, L’Œuvre pour orgue (volume 1 : Pièces et improvisations dans l’esthétique classique, volume 2 : Pièces et improvisations dans le style modal et contemporain), éditions Delatour, 2013.


Orgues De Grignan
While the top of the listing indicates this is an audio CD, the description indicates it is a vinyl record!
It includes both a composition and improvisation by Francis Chapelet.

Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Covarrubias réf: HMO n°7 Improvisations et Correa de Arauxo, Cabanilles…
Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Salamanque réf: n°10 Improvisations
Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Frederiksborg – Sweelink et improvisations Réf: HM n°16
Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Tolède – Improvisations réf: HM 4519.1.24
Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Trujillo – Improvisations réf: HM 4511 n° 18
Collection “Orgues Historiques” : Lisbonne – Improvisations réf: HM 4517 n° 1.22
Abbatiale Sainte Croix de Bordeaux – Orgue Dom Bedos – F.Couperin, Grigny, Guilain, Dandrieu et improvisation

Francis Chapelet – Improvisation sur ‘Ay triste que vengo’ – Frechilla
Francis Chapelet – Improvisation – Albi
Francis Chapelet – Présentation de l’orgue Castillan Majorquin
Francis Chapelet – Trois improvisations sur l’Evangile – Menesterol
Francis Chapelet – Improvisación final concierto – Torre de Juan Abad
Francis Chapelet – Obertura Improvisada – Torre de Juan Abad
Francis Chapelet – Improvisations – Cathédrale de Salamanca
Francis Chapelet – Improvisations – São Vicente de Fora, Lisbonne

Martin Bacot

martin-bacotYouTube Channel:

Born in 1980, Martin Bacot studied piano with Christine Pagès and harmony with Jeanine Boutin at the Conservatoire National de Région de Versailles. Il has studied organ with Georges Robert, Eric Lebrun, Vincent Warnier, and Pierre Pincemaille.
Having earned his Premier Prix d’Interprétation from the CNR d’Angers, a premier Prix d’Improvisation à l’unanimité from the CNR de Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, Martin Bacot has also won several improvisation competitions:
• Second prize in the Concours “Orgues sans frontières”, Sarrebrück in 2001
• First Prize in the Concours de Schwäbisch Gmünd in 2009
• Grand Prix André Marchal and Prix Englert in the Concours André Marchal in Biarritz in 2009
In 2010, he was a finalist in the Haarlem International Improvisation Competition.

From 1998 to 2010, he regularly replaced Pierre Pincemaille at the Cathédrale de Saint-Denis. In 2011 he became organist titulaire at the Église St Louis de la Guillotière in Lyon.

In addition to his musical studies, Martin Bacot studied architecture at the Ecole Supérieure d’Architecture in Versailles, earning his diploma in 2006. In addition to his concert activities, he works in Lyon as an architect specializing in the restoration of patrimony.

Martin Bacot – Improvisation sur un texte biblique – Finale Concours André Marchal 2009
Martin Bacot – Improvisation sur un choral imposé – Concours André Marchal 2009
Martin Bacot – Improvisations in German Baroque Style – Haarlem Wallon church
Martin Bacot – Improvisation on Coventry Carol – Coventry Cathedral
Martin Bacot – Improvisation sur l’introÏt de l’Ascension ‘Viri Galilei’ – Cathédrale de Troyes