Livre d'orgue de Montréal | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Livre d'orgue de Montréal

The Livre d’orgue de Montréal is the most voluminous extant manuscript of French organ music of the period of Louis XIV. Consisting of 398 pieces composed between 1675 and 1724, it was brought to Montréal in 1724 by Jean Girard, a Sulpician cleric and later organist at the parish of Notre-Dame. The document now belongs to the Fondation Lionel-Groulx in Montréal, where it was rediscovered in 1978 by Élisabeth Gallat-Morin. Containing works of great quality (the most notable of which were composed by king’s organist Nicolas Lebègue), as well as more simple but not necessarily inferior pieces, the Montréal manuscript represents an important addition to the French organ repertoire of the end of the 17th century.
The Casavant Fr\u00e8res organ in Montréal's Notre Dame Basilica.

Physical Description

The organ book, measuring 21 cm by 26.5 cm, is bound in parchment and is in a good state, despite obvious signs of wear. On the spine is a label which reads Pièces d’orgue. (Its present title was chosen by Gallat-Morin and Kenneth Gilbert, in accordance with the tradition by which a manuscript is given the name of the city in which it is located.) The signatures of two of its former owners appear on the book: on the outside, the inscription J.-J. Girouard 1847; and on the inside of the front cover, Girard 1724. The volume consists of 540 pages of ruled paper, with six or eight staves per page. It is a collection of about 40 separate quires or gatherings of leaves, which were bound together after the music was written.

Background and Scholarship

In the 19th century, the manuscript belonged to Jean Girouard (1795–1855), a notary, music-lover and one of the intellectual leaders of the 1837 Rebellion. He was on friendly terms with the Sulpicians whose affairs he managed in their seigneurie of Deux-Montagnes, where he lived. In 1950, Girouard’s papers were given by his great-granddaughter, Mrs. Girouard Décarie, to canon Lionel Groulx, the well-known historian. In 1981, the Fondation Lionel-Groulx published a facsimile edition of the manuscript, while Gilbert and Gallat-Morin prepared a critical edition under the auspices of the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture. The manuscript was the subject of Gallat-Morin’s doctoral dissertation, later published in Paris and Montréal.


Five main scribes, as well as four or five others, worked on the book, in which there is no table of contents or composer’s name indicated. Sixteen pieces (out of 398) have been identified as those of king’s organist Nicolas Lebègue (1630–1702). Fifteen of them appear, sometimes with variants, in his three organ books: all of the Tierces ou cromhornes en taille (save one) from the first book (1676), five verses out of eight of the Magnificat du 2me ton from the second book (1678), as well as an Offertoire and an Élévation from the third book (1685). A sixteenth piece, Offertoire en F ut fa, which was never published during the composer’s lifetime, is almost identical, in its first half, to the Offertoire Dialogue de Monsieur Le Beigue du 8e ton, found in a contemporary manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.

The music of the Livre d’orgue de Montréal was intended for religious worship (see also Religious Music). The organ verses, which are relatively short, alternate with the sung verses. The manuscript contains six Masses, eleven Magnificats sung at vespers, nine other suites of pieces which could be used as Magnificats, three Te Deums and a Pange lingua. There are also three series of the same type of piece: 16 Tierces en taille, six Dialogues de récits with a section in Trio, and 13 Fugues. Almost all late-17th- and early-18th-century French organ music forms are represented: Pleins jeux; Dialogues sur les grands jeux; two-, three-, and four-voice pieces; Duos; Trios; Fugues; pieces with the Récit or melodic voice in the Basse, Dessus (soprano), or En Taille (tenor). The only types missing are Quatuors and Noëls.

One finds several scattered verses of plainchant throughout the manuscript, but among the organ pieces, only the Pange lingua and certain verses of the Messe double are actually based on plainchant. The other organ pieces, although they remain within the confines of the eight church modes, find their inspiration in dance movements and vocal forms, as is the case with all French organ music of that period. Furthermore, the registrations are often given in the very title of the piece (Basse de trompette, Récit de cornet); the composers, having a particular sound colour in mind, completed these titles with instructions for registration, or Meslanges des jeux, in their published organ books.

Characteristic Style

The obvious stylistic analogy between a great number of the anonymous pieces of the Livre d’orgue de Montréal and the music of Nicolas Lebègue is underlined by the fact that the only identifiable works in the manuscript are by that sole composer, sometimes in a version perhaps earlier than the published one. However, other pieces are characteristic of the repertoire of the generation following Lebègue. As it is not known with whom Jean Girard studied with a view to playing the organ in Montréal, which would have given a clue as to the origins of the manuscript, it can only be surmised that the organ book came from Lebègue’s circle; indeed, his pieces were copied into almost all extant French organ manuscripts — generally, however, with the works of other composers. One or more of the students of this much-sought-after teacher must have contributed to the Livre d’orgue de Montréal, which very likely includes hitherto unknown pieces by the master.

One may wonder whether Jean Girard could play this music on the one-manual seven-stop organ at his disposal at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal. In France, small parish or convent organs were equipped with divided stops (all or in part), making it possible to obtain one sound colour on half of the keyboard and play the accompaniment on the other half. The Montréal organ would have possessed all the basic stops, making it possible to play, with certain adaptations, most of the music of the manuscript, with the exception of the Tierces en taille, whose melodic line continually crosses over the point of division of the keyboard. Ceremonials and customaries describe processions and solemn Te Deums, of which singing and organ music were no doubt an important part.


Pieces from the Livre d’orgue de Montréal are often in the repertoire of Québec organists. Many French and other European organists, such as Michel Chapuis, have also been known to play excerpts at their concerts.

In May 1981, Kenneth Gilbert gave the first public performance in the 20th century of the music of the Livre d’orgue de Montreal, at the inauguration of the French classical type organ built by Hellmuth Wolff in Redpath Hall at McGill University. A series of six broadcasts that Gilbert recorded in 1983 for the CBC (produced by André Clerk, with commentary by Gallat-Morin) was awarded the Canadian Music Council prize for the best broadcast with a soloist.

In 1990, France-Musique produced a series of four public concerts, each including works from the manuscript played by John Grew and three Parisian organists. A 13-hour performance of the Livre in its entirety — divided into nine programmes and featuring 50 organists coordinated by Hans-Ola Ericsson, chair of organ and church music at the Schulich School of Music ­— is scheduled to take place at McGill’s Redpath Hall on 4 March 2017 as part of Montréal’s 375th anniversary.


There are two recordings, by Kenneth Gilbert and Réjean Poirier, which contain approximately two-thirds of the music of the manuscript; a third recording by Antoine Bouchard, with further excerpts, was released on the REM label in 1991. Parish organists on both sides of the Atlantic also make use of the Livre d’orgue de Montréal during religious services.

Further Reading