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Jean Guillou (Organ)

Born: May 18, 1930 - Angers, France

The prominent French organist, pianist, teacher, and composer, Jean Guillou, began to study the piano at 5 and then the organ at 10. When he was 12, he became organist of the Church of Saint Serge in Angers. In 1945 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying keyboard and composition with teachers including Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé and Olivier Messiaen. He finished his studies there in 1953, taking premier prix in organ, harmony, counterpoint, and fugue.

After serving as professor of organ at the Intituto de Alta Cultura in Lisbon from 1953 to 1956, Jean Guillou went to Berlin to pursue his career. There he established himself as a recitalist and also published his first original compositions for solo organ and chamber ensemble. In 1963 he was named organist of Saint Eustache in Paris, a position he has had ever since. He also pursued and international career as a recitalist, principally as an organist. He has toured Eastern Europe, Japan, and the USA.

Jean Guillou is one of the most prominent and respected organists in Europe. His vast repertoire ranges from the Baroque to the contemporary periods. His recitals became renowned for their inventiveness and wit, Guillou freely intermingling his interpretations of works by J.S. Bach and César Franck, and arrangements of non-keyboard works by composers such as Franz Josef Haydn, as well as his own original compositions. As a virtuoso organist, he has acquired a reputation for daring registration and rhythms, and for mastery of improvisation. His performances are noted for their dramatic flair and showmanship, which has made him something of a flamboyant star on his instrument.

Jean Guillou is well-known within the music community as a leading scholar. Through his teaching at the Zürich international master-classes since 1970, he has trained organists from the world over. He also published a book on organ theory and design, L'Orgue Souvenir at Avenir (Paris, 1978; 2nd edition, augmented, 1989; currently in its 3rd printing).

As a pianist, Jean Guillou revived the Piano Sonata by Julius Reubke, a student of Franz Liszt’s who died at the age of 24, leaving two masterpieces - that sonata and one for organ - , which Jean Guillou is the only artist to have recorded and played together in concert. He also inaugurated the ‘Doppio Borgato’ double piano, at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza and the Royal Opera at Versailles, in 2002.

Jean Guillou has made numerous acclaimed recordings that have earned him recognition around the world. For Philips, he recorded such works as Alice au pays de l'orgue, a musical journey inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and the Fantasie Concertante. He has also done extensive recording for the audiophile Dorian label - the latter include his performances of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) and own organ transcriptions of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka and Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition - the latter disc found an especially large audience during the CD boom of the late 1980's, both as a result of the work's inherent popularity and as a serious follow-up to rock organist Keith Emerson's Moog synthesizer-based approach to the work from two decades earlier. This activity overlapped with Guillou's performances of the complete solo organ works of J.S. Bach in conjunction with the composer's tercentenary. Philips, which re-released all his recordings made in the 1960's and 1970's on 9 CD's, is also proposing some of his works for organ and other instruments and transcriptions, on 7 CD's. In addition, Jean Guillou has recorded the complete organ works of Bach, a CD with the Borgato double piano and a CD devoted entirely to Mozart.


Jean Guillou is a composer who has had considerable success in rolling back the technical limits of instrumental playing, elaborating and developing, from his youth on and more or less secretly, a singular musical world of great individuality, which has been somewhat eclipsed by his fame as a performer. On the contrary, it seems to us that this universe of the composer Jean Guillou ought to shine as brilliantly as his art of interpretation.

It is in this sense that Jean Guillou aims to craft a new, richer and more poetic organ, exploiting its complex, varied nature. He is thus the creator of innovative instruments, building organs in L'Alpe d'Huez, the ‘Chant d'oiseaux’ church in Brussels, the Naples Conservatory and the Zürich Tonhalle. Moreover, this conception of the organ is the key of his book L'Orgue, Souvenir et Avenir (‘The Organ: Memory and Future’). It evokes the whole history of the organ, from the 3rd century BC up to the description of his own instruments and his ‘Variable Structure Organ’. With his new project for the concert hall in Tenerife, an organ divided into eight cases and 12 sound bodies, Jean Guillou has invented the dramatic organ, playable on a four-manual console as well as by 12 organists.

Jean Guillou has written numerous pieces that explore the sonorities of the organ in combination with other instruments, such as the cello in his Fantasie Concertante and with soprano in his Andromeda, based on the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has also written concerti for the piano, an instrument on which he is thoroughly proficient though less celebrated, and authored an oratorio, The Last Judgment (1965); one symphonic work, his Judith-Symphonie (1971) for mezzo soprano and orchestra; and Hypérion (1987) for organ and orchestra.

In 2002, Jean Guillou gave the firsts performance of his Colloque No. 7 for piano and organ, on the occasion of the inauguration of Dortmund’s Philharmonic Hall, and his Colloque No. 8, for marimba and organ in 2003. Taking a particular interest in the combination of the organ with other instruments, Jean Guillou has written five organ concertos, works for cello and organ, violin and organ, trumpet, clarinet, etc. His 6th Organ Concerto was premiered in 2004.

A doctoral thesis, entitled Rhétorique et Dramaturgie dans l'œuvre musicale de Jean Guillou, was attended at the Sorbonne by Jean-Philippe Hodant, devoted in particular to the study of three major compositions: La Chapelle des Abîmes, Judith-Symphonie for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra and Hypérion. His postulate was to bring out that Jean Guillou’s art consisted of creating an autonomous musical rhetoric comparable to a literary discourse - a musical narrative that also encloses and contains dramatic gestures, becoming dramaturgical stylisation delivering a perfectly structured language and merging in a single poetic gesture.

In addition to numerous texts and poems, Jean Guillou has written the text for Alice au Pays de l'Orgue (‘Alice in Organ Land’), as well as the poems for his cantatas Aube, for 12 voices and organ, Poème de la Main for soprano and piano, and Echo for chorus and instrumental ensemble.

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Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Jean Gullou Website; All Music Guide Website (Author: Bruce Eder)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2007)

Jean Guillou: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Bienvenue sur le site de Jean Guillou [French]
Jean Guillou, Titulair Organist of the Van den Heuvel organ
NYC AGO Honorary Members: Jean Guillou
Jean Guillou (Perso-Orange)

Jean Guillou - Biography (AMG)
Jean Guillou (Wikipedia)
ClassicalPlus Composer - Jean Guillou (GMN)
Jean Guillou (Schorr Music)

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