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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Jean Guillou: In praise of 2 cathedrals, part 1

Updated: May 13, 2019

Who beyond France and the nutshell clan of organ music enthusiasts knows who Jean Guillou was? I recently came across a short video of Guillou’s recent funeral in, of all places, Notre Dame. One of my favorite musicians; one of my favorite spaces, both now gone or direly fire-wounded. I loved Guillou and almost every Sunday afternoon went to hear him play in St Eustache, amused by his poofy three-story Ezra Pound hair, entranced by his amiable verve and that musical avant-gardisme that went from simmering whispers to cathedral-wobbling thunder. I sat close enough to watch his fingers and feet––fingers hopping and squabbling over the keyboard like startled birds’ wings. When he rose to acknowledge the applause he would swing his skinny old legs up over the bench, stand, and smile like a cross between Pan and Mona Lisa.


Then between each piece, he took off on that long Gallic oration. Who says modern art can’t be explained. On the topic of Liszt, my god, he just went on and on.


Is there any majesty in the world equal to that of a great player on a great organ in a great cathedral. In the case of Guillou, he made this hundreds-of-years old instrument in this ancient gargoyle-haven of mouldy stone yodel and speak in the tongues of a bewitching modernity. It was like opening an Egyptian tomb and finding a mummy sitting on an Eames chair.


As for Notre Dame, the moment our daughter emailed and told us Notre Dame was burning, we shot straight to the Times. My eyes would just not believe. Elysium burning. But even then the vast inferno made me think of Guillou, his music tearing in black torrents of fire up through the roof to the clouds above. Guillou could go one better than Liszt.


I hope I may enter Notre Dame again. I will never hear that slender wizard once more.

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