Prière à Notre Dame (“Prayer at Notre Dame”) L. Boëllmann (1862-1897)

“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”


Léon Boëllmann was born in Alsace, the son of a pharmacist. In 1871, shortly after the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War, 9-year-old Boëllmann left the contested region of Alsace for Paris and entered the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse (School of Classical and Religious Music) in Paris, where he studied with Eugène Gigout (1844-1925), an eminent organist and musician of the day. Boëllmann there won first prizes in piano, organ, counterpoint, fugue, plainsong, and composition. After his graduation in 1881, Boëllmann was hired as choir organist at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul (a major church in Paris with two pipe organs — a smaller one used with the choir, and a much larger main organ), and six years later he became cantor and principal organist. (By the way, a previous choir organist there was Louis Braille (1809–1852), best known for the Braille tactile writing system for the blind.)

In 1885, Boëllmann married Louise, niece of Gigout, into whose house the couple moved. Having no children of his own, Gigout adopted Boëllmann. Boëllmann then taught playing and improvisation in Gigout’s school.

As a star student — and now son — of Gigout, Boëllmann moved in the best circles of French musical society, and with his pleasant personality he made friends of many artists and was able to give concerts both in Paris and the provinces. Boëllmann became known as “a dedicated teacher, trenchant critic, gifted composer and successful performer…who coaxed pleasing sounds out of recalcitrant instruments.” Boëllmann also wrote musical criticism.

Boëllmann died in 1897, only 35 years old — probably from tuberculosis. A year later his wife also passed away, and great uncle/grandpa Gigout reared their three orphans, one of whom, Marie-Louise Boëllmann-Gigout (1891–1977), became a noted organ teacher in her own right.

During the sixteen years of his professional life, Boëllmann composed about 160 pieces in all genres.