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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Jean Guillou: In praise of 2 cathedrals, part 2

Updated: May 15, 2019



Back for just a moment to Paris cathedrals and Jean Guillou.


Years ago Lynne and I were in Antwerp, staying with a friend. What would we like to do? Well, maybe hear an organ recital. That’s good. Perhaps you’re in luck. My friend plays the organ at the main cathedral (a whopper) in Antwerp. If he was playing tomorrow (Sunday) morning, we could climb the corkscrew stairway up to the organ loft, and sit right there at his elbow, looking out over an outlandish nave.


Telephone call. He would be playing, we did make that twining ascent, it was glorious, like being on a cloud next to God the Father in a Baroque painting. Then at one point the music changed from Bach to a sort of goofy improvisation on a organ-grinder tune. Looking down at the priest, as tiny as a bird, I wondered if that was a hand lifted to God or a finger raised at the organist?


But to the point: I asked the organist at the end of the service for any recommendations he might have for organists in Paris. He quickly rattled off a short list, then paused. Winced. At all costs avoid Jean Guillou. OK, who's he? Why should I avoid him? I was intensely curious. Because Guillou is the devil, that’s why. He takes Bach, he takes Liszt and he destroys them with his flashy improvisations. If Bach wrote one note, Guillou played three. Give the man a fonking Wurlizter.


Hmmm, what about that organ-grinder tune in the middle of Bach, I dared to ask. Oh, nothing, nothing, that was just to annoy the priest.


Of course, the first organist we went to hear when we got back to Paris was Jean Guillou–and I saw at once why any purist or classicist might dislike him. Guillou did in fact throw lighter fluid on the Baroque master. But I also knew that Bach would have surely approved.


Again, lollipop-haired, courageous Guillou, thanks for all those hours of rapture.

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