Demessieux, Jeanne (1921–1968)

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Demessieux, Jeanne (1921–1968)

French composer, organist and pianist, who was the first woman to play the organ in Westminster Abbey. Born in Montpellier, France, on February 14, 1921; died in Paris on November 11, 1968; studied with Magda Tagliaferro, Jean and Noël Gallon, and Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating with distinction in 1941.

Served as organist at Saint-Ésprit Church in Paris (1933–62); appointed professor at Liège Conservatoire in Liege, Belgium (1948); enjoyed an artistically triumphant tour of the U.S. (1953); was the first woman to play the organ in Westminster Abbey, London.

French organists have dominated both performance and composition for the venerable instrument since the 19th century. Until the appearance of Jeanne Demessieux in the 1940s, however, the playing of the organ was largely a male preserve. Demessieux's talents as performer on, and composer for, the instrument could not be argued away, and by the 1950s she had become one of the undisputed masters of the field. A child prodigy, she began to perform at the services in the Saint-Ésprit Church in Paris before her 12th birthday, a position she was to hold for almost three decades. Her teachers at the Paris Conservatory included the legendary organist Marcel Dupré and the great pianist Magda Tagliaferro . While there, Demessieux won first prize in harmony in 1937, in piano in 1938, and in fugue and counterpoint in 1940. Her first public recital was at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1946.

Demessieux began to concertize extensively in 1947 before becoming a professor of organ at Liège Conservatory. Most of her compositions were for the organ, and they included a set of 12 Chorales and Preludes, Twelve Choral Preludes on Gregorian Themes and an impressive Te Deum that has been recorded. Demessieux also composed choral music, chamber music and a Poem for Organ and Orchestra, which was published in Paris by Durand in 1952. Only 47 when she died, Jeanne Demessieux had not yet reached her zenith; nonetheless, few in the world had ever possessed her prodigious technique.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia