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Langlais plays Langlais
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Professor Marie-Louis Langlais spent several days this week practicing at churches in Duluth. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
You've never heard the Piece Symphonique. But then, Jean Langlais never heard it either, and he composed it. Jean Langlais was a master organist, and a major composer of sacred organ music, but he couldn't afford to hire an orchestra. No one's ever performed the entire Piece Symphonique. Now its finally getting its world premier. The composer's widow is a concert organist, and she'll perform Piece Symphonique in Duluth and Minneapolis.

Duluth, Minn. — Jean Langlais died 12 years ago when he was 84. He was a luminary in the world of sacred organ music. He wrote nearly as many pieces for the organ as J.S. Bach. He performed across Europe and the United States, and he was a teacher. He married one of his pupils.

Marie-Louise Langlais performs and teaches, too. She has friends in Minnesota, and this week she flew in from Paris. She's been practicing at several churches in Duluth.

Her schedule over the next few days is tight. Between Duluth and Minneapolis she's booked for two recitals, two lectures and masterclasses, two church services, and two big concerts. The concerts include an orchestra, a brass ensemble, a choir, and a second organ for one of the pieces.

That's a lot of music to rehearse in a short time.

"It's absolutely foolish, but I'm going to try it," she says with a laugh, sitting at the organ in Duluth's Pilgrim Congregational Church. "I hope I will be still alive at the end of next week.

"It is my husband's music, and I think he is a great composer. It is a pleasure to try to have this challenge, at least once in my life."

Cellists and flutists carry their instruments with them, but Marie-Louise Langlais will play five different organs while she's in Minnesota.

"They are extremely different," she says. "That is one of the challenges of the organist -- to adapt."

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Image Marie-Louise Langlais

She says the organ here in Pilgrim Congregational is difficult to play, partly because it's entirely manual. There are no electronics.

"But it's a beautiful sound," she says. "So that is very exciting for a musician to have a beautiful instrument."

Langlais has friends in Minnesota. Her husband had students all over the United States. One of them is John Vanella, the music director for the Duluth Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. Marie-Louise Langlais says it was Vanella's idea to perform the Piece Symphonique in Minnesota.

And she says those performances will be the highlight of her trip.

Jean Langlais completed the Piece Symphonique in 1937, but it's never been performed in its entirety. It calls for organ, string orchestra, and a brass ensemble. Marie-Louise Langlais says her husband was too poor to field an orchestra in the 1930's. Now, 66 years later, the work is making its world premier.

"It's particularly moving for me to participate in this beautiful experience," Langlais says.

She will perform the Piece Symphonique during two concerts: Sunday, October 26 at 4:00 pm at First United Methodist Church in Duluth; and Wednesday, October 29 at 8:00 pm at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

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