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Dr. Alexis VanZalen.jpeg

Alexis VanZalen

Workshop Presenter

Rethinking Music in France during the Baroque Era


In 2020 Dr. Alexis VanZalen earned her PhD in musicology from the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester (NY). There she studied Baroque keyboard music as both a performer and scholar, earning her MM in Early Music-Harpsichord and writing a dissertation on seventeenth-century French organ music titled, “Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and the Rhetoric of French Catholic Reform.” Previously Alexis earned a BM in organ performance and a BA in history from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. Her significant teachers include Edoardo Bellotti, Kathrine Handford, Anne Laver, Paul O’Dette, and Christel Thielmann. Alexis currently works as a Program Coordinator at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.


For decades organists have emphasized the close relationship between musical style and registration in the various genres of French Baroque organ music. Yet, in contrast with the cultural and political interpretations now common in musicological scholarship, little consideration has been given as to what might have influenced French organists in the mid-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries to value such a tight relationship between registration and style.

Instead, in this paper I place mid-seventeenth-century French Baroque organ music, and specifically that of Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, within the context of post-Tridentine French Catholic liturgical reform. Nivers is best known today for initiating a precise approach to registration in French organ compositions and publications, but he also dedicated much of his career to reforming Gregorian chant. As Brulin (1999) argues, seventeenth-century French theologians valued rhetorical declamation for its ability to help spoken and chanted prayers move the hearts of listeners to greater devotion. Similarly, Davy-Rigaux (2004) and Karp (2005) have demonstrated how Nivers reformed and rewrote chant in accordance with declamatory principles. 


I argue that Nivers’s organ compositions exhibit a similar rhetorical approach, and that in them timbre serves several rhetorical purposes. French rhetoricians like Bernard Lamy believed that orators could move listeners’ passions by incorporating vivid imagery into their speeches. Similarly, Nivers’s use of timbre helps to depict the affective nuances of the liturgical texts that the versets of his organ mass replaced. Lamy also prioritized the effective delivery of orations and emphasized using a variety of tropes and figures to capture and maintain an audience’s attention. Likewise, Nivers provided detailed instructions on how to register, ornament, and deliver his compositions. Within and between the versets of his organ suites he incorporated a wide variety of motives, ornaments, rhythms, textures, and timbres. Thus contemporary French approaches to rhetoric, as valued by those involved in Catholic liturgical reform, offer a new explanation for the importance of registration and timbral specificity in the French baroque organ repertoire that Nivers helped to develop.

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