Jeanne Demessieux

Born 1921. Died 1968.

Biography

Jeanne Demessieux was one of the great virtuoso organists of the 20th century. Born in Montpellier on 13 February 1921, she was first taught the piano by her older sister before enrolling at the Montpelier Conservatoire aged just 7, where she won first prizes in piano and solfge. The Demessieux family relocated to Paris to further her musical training, and she was accepted by the Conservatoire, studying piano with Simon Riera and Magda Tagliaferro, harmony with Jean Gallon, counterpoint and fugue with No‘l Gallon and composition with Henri BŸsser. At the same time (now aged 12) she was appointed Principal Organist of the church of Saint-Esprit in Paris and took private organ lessons with Marcel Dupre, eventually joining his organ class at the Conservatoire in 1939 and earning first prizes in both organ performance and improvisation in 1941. After five more years of lessons with DuprŽ she made her professional recital debut.

That debut comprised a series of 12 recitals at the Salle Pleyel in Paris where she not only played everything from memory but improvised a four-movement symphony. She went on to give over 700 recitals across Europe and America, performing from memory and astounding her audiences by playing the pedals in silver Louis XV high-heeled shoes. Reviews of her performances invariably commented not just on her footwear (which does seem to have held a particular fascination for American critics) but also on her prodigious feats of memory. It was said that she had memorised around 2,500 pieces of music including the complete works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck and, of course, Dupre. During this time she continued as Principal Organist at Saint-Esprit, only relinquishing the post in 1962 in order to succeed Edouard Mignan as Principal Organist of the Madeleine Church, a post she held until her untimely death from cancer at the age of 47 on 11 November 1968. At the time of her death she was in the process of recording the complete works of Messiaen, a project which was never to be completed, but ample evidence of her virtuosity remains in the large number of recordings she did make.

As a composer Jeanne Demessieux produced a catalogue of around 30 original compositions. Perhaps surprisingly, only eight of these are for solo organ, the rest (largely unpublished) comprise songs, piano pieces, orchestral and choral works including an extended oratorio.

Profile © Marc Rochester

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