Jean Ferrard, Organist Extraordinary (And He Saved Ms. Yearsley’s Tooth)

After a glorious birth in the 18th-century, the concept of the amateur became tarnished by connotations of dilettantism: if the market didn’t recognize and reward one’s artistic inclinations then they literally weren’t worth anything.

The entry on “amateur” in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encylopédie evokes the golden youth of the term. Here it is defined as someone with a “decided taste” for art (usually painting), and concludes with the observation that “we [the French] have our amateurs, the Italians their virtuosos.” In this final phrase we in turn get a sense how the word virtuoso—now implying astonishing technical skill at a musical instrument, and one that usually brings with it substantial remuneration—projects the sense of moral probity with which aesthetic feeling should be imbued, unattached to rewards.  Appreciation is not only an essential talent to be cultivated, but also an ethical posture to be nurtured.

The parallel Encyclopédie article on “connoisseur” raises the stakes, arguing that only those who themselves practice the art can offer truly accurate judgments about it. To claim connoisseurly credentials, the excitement of the amateur must be refined by study. But the flood of 18th-century music publications directed at both Amateurs and Connoisseurs (Kenner und Liebhaber in German) document that the two categories could share a love for the same body of art.

The title of J. C. Bach and C. F. Abel’s Professional Concerts begun in 1769 in London confirm the move away from the mixed events involving paid musicians and amateurs that had dominated the city’s musical salons. With this rather pompous title the German émigré organizers — themselves both products of the guild-like family system that trained so many great 18th-before being largely supplanted by professional-staffed and professionally minded conservatories in the 19th — meant to guarantee their customers that the admission price ensured high standards of execution. But Professionalism is a chilling word, one which puts a price on the moral impulse of the amateur. Salary and tips become the carrots and sticks for aesthetic motivation; professional advancements and industry merely distract from true artistic advance.

One of the most energetic, expert, and wide-ranging musicians of our time, Jean Ferrard is both amateur and connoisseur. A lover of the arts and of life — as Horace reminded us, the first is long, the second short — Ferrard retires next month at the age of 65 from his post as Professor of Organ at the Royal Conservatory of Music.  Meeting him you would have a hard time learning that he has occupied this position, one of the most prestigious in the organ world, since 1992, or that he counts figures like Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, founder of the school of modern organ playing in francophone Europe, among his predecessors. Though ascended to the top of his profession, Ferrard is too much of an amateur in the best sense word — too interested in music and others — to be bothered much with self-promotion.

An indefatigable teacher and performer, who, before he shed the encumbrances of his car last year for the pleasures of train-travel, would cover vast expanses of Europe behind the wheel, GPS mounted on his dash,  to play ingeniously conceived and compellingly executed concerts from Trieste to Copenhagen, from the low lands of Flanders to the Swiss Alps, on monuments to the instrument’s history both great and small, from the late Gothic to the just-completed.

His own encyclopedic knowledge of the organ’s long history and its current, sometimes flagging, health in withstanding the centrifugal forces of modern culture derives not just from endless hours of youthful practice and countless concerts at dozens of instruments built over the last half-millennium, but from his training in and subsequent dedication to musical scholarship. Holder of a degree in musicology from the Free University of Brussels, he has editing important editions of organ music, several of them devoted to composers active in what is now modern-day Belgium, a transitional zone, often a battleground,  between Protestant and Catholic Europe. The Low Countries forged musical gold in the crucible of the Reformation, and used it to produce gleaming alloys that combine erudite counterpoint worthy of the Sistine chapel and austere Calvinist psalm settings animated by the virtuosic style imported by recusant English organists.

Ferrard’s edition of the music of Peeter Cornet, the early 17th-century organist at the sumptuous Hapsburg archducal court in Brussels, is a testament to the rigors of modern scholarship animated by the desire to have the best music of the past available for the best purposes of the present. To hear Ferrard play Cornet, his long-distant predecessor in Brussels, on one of the more recent of his many recordings—Four Centuries of Belgian Organ Music —on the splendid modern organ in the city’s Gothic Cathedral is to encounter a rare performer who has the ability to make the learned style as astonishing as the flamboyant passagework. Ferrard turns what many players are deceived into thinking is reserved polyphony into a provocation, a challenge to a game of wits.

Ferrard’s edition of Cornet’s music levels the playing field: the editor of the first modern print of Cornet’s great fantasies, masterpieces of the 17th-century and indeed of the entire corpus of keyboard music, failed to see that in one of these magisterial works the original manuscript had switched two of the scribe’s pages in the binding process, so that the contrapuntal argument of the piece was hopelessly jumbled at critical junctures. As he puzzled over the piece, rehearsing it in his head, Ferrard suddenly heard and saw Cornet’s discourse unfold before him.

There’s little or no money in such musical forensic work, and not much, for that matter, in organ concerts: amateur’s zeal and expert eyes and ears make it all happen.

As if all this performing, teaching, and scholarship isn’t enough, Ferrard is one of our times great music journalists, and it is here that the real force of his amateur spirit can be felt. From 1965 until 1985 he worked for the French-speaking wing of Belgian National Radio (RTBF), rising to become the head of music and continuing through his tenure to offer daily commentary on current musical events. Beginning in 1975 he produced the program “Magazine de l’Orgue” with a new installment every week even after he had left his job at RTBF to dedicate himself more fully to teaching and playing. In 1996 he ended his radio days, and turned to print journalism, publishing the Magazine de l’Orgue ( three times a year for the past decade.

Now closing in on its 90th number, this journal is always 64 pages and always full of free-wheeling, often humorous. and always trenchant commentary on the organ and related topics in music and culture. As with the best music criticism, one learns as much about the editor—his tastes and passions, his variable moods and the shadings of his observational wit, and his perennial dislikes and favorite targets — as about the vibrant musical cultural he chronicles. Ferrard’s unbuttoned, always engaging, style retains the spontaneity of radio. Given his many duties and interests, Ferrard doesn’t have time to ponder.  He tells you what he thinks, but always with a real flair never weighed down by his profound knowledge of music.

As a practicing musician who also has talent and dynamism (and never enough time!) to serve as an indefatigable commentator on contemporary musical life, at the organ and elsewhere, Ferrard follows in the tradition of François-Joseph Fétis, himself an organist, journalist, and historian and the 19th-century founding director of the conservatory from which Ferrard is set to retire. From that other predecessor at the conservatory, Lemmens, and no doubt from other more immediate sources as well, Ferrard inherited his love and fascination for the organ music of J. S. Bach.  Trained by a student of a student of Bach, Lemmens brought Bach’s organ music to francophone Europe, where it is nurtured by his successor, Ferrard, both as a teacher and performer. Even Bach’s supposed penchant for number symbolism informs Ferrard’s journalism:  because the letters of Bach’s name add up to fourteen, the famous Magazine de l’Orgue interview is always composed of fourteen questions. But the amateur in Ferrard cannot stop there: his elegant 19th-century terraced house in the center of Brussels boasts a fascinating and hilarious collection of busts of the composer, which ranging in style from austere Teutonicism to goofy experimentalism and span the spectrum of emotional registers from religious veneration to crass exploitation.

Ferrard’s recent CDs, like the one mentioned above, are published under the auspices of Ferrard’s non-profit organization, [Sic], whose ingenious name reflects the man’s irreverent and irrepressible humor. [Sic] also appears on other Ferrard projects like his gorgeous little book of observations on and grainy black-and-white photos of the organ, entitled Le plus impressionannt dans l’orgue est son silence …  This collector’s item comes with an even smaller English version without the photos, which translates the title as Most Impressive in the Organ is its Silence … The observations are in prose and poetry; presented in various formats, these pieces range in tone from the arch to the elegiac, and consider topics as diverse as the organist’s shoes and instrument’s soul. The opening number is a poem:

From the forest it took the strongest trees,
Earth gave tin and lead,
Sheep offered their fleece,
And man, the wind …

Perhaps my most lasting impression of Jean is from  Bruges in the summer of 2005, when we served together on the jury for the organ competition in the famous early musical festival that takes place each year in that perfectly preserved late Gothic city. After dinner my family and I were hopped up on moules and pommes frites and otherwise giddy after watching a Euro-trash street performer escape from a straitjacket in front of throngs of tourists in the town square.  As we headed back to our hotel, one of my daughters tripped on the cobblestones and broke-off a recently grown adult front tooth right in the shadow of magnificent 13th-century Belfry.  Never was a more postcard-perfect backdrop found for a vacation mishap that terrifies the parents and shocks the kids.

It was a Friday night in August when the vast majority of European dentists are at the beach. I picked up the fragment of the tooth, and we made it back to the hotel.  A taxi trip to the hospital on the other side of the canal that encircles the city—amazingly, the Gothic hospital on the island of Bruges with its Memling paintings had been in use until the middle of the 1970s—provided no help, though the kind staff admitted us and had a doctor take a look. But no dentist was available or on call—but neither were we charged a cent for the visit.

Back at the hotel and desperate, I knocked on Ferrard’s room around 10pm.  I told him what had happened. “Bummer!” came his idiomatic response.  Fluent in four languages, his linguistic gifts were sparked by the bilingual educational reforms that taught French-speaking school children Flemish in the more optimistic post-wars years of the bi-ethnic (tri-ethnic if you count the small German-speaking minority) years of the Belgian state.  (Since abandoning these reforms in francophone Belgian it is very difficult to find a Belgian who knows even rudimentary Flemish.)

Ferrard had headphones around his neck and a glass of cognac in his hand. He beckoned me into the room.  His computer was open on the desk next to a wooden box containing a few dozen CDs. After a numbing eight-hour day of listening to organists in the competition, he was busy reviewing the latest influx of recordings for Magazine d l’Orgue. This amateurism is not to be confused the workaholism: the joy in the task was written all over Ferrard’s face.

Ferrard got the Director of the Festival on the phone and by Saturday morning the tooth was back together, the one remaining dentist in town agreeing to see my daughter in his office and charging his normal rate of forty Euros for a procedure that would have been two or three hundred dollars in the USA.

And also by the following morning Ferrard was back at the jury table, the next issue of the Magazine de l’Orgue sent off and ready to be printed.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at