Throughout his life, Pierre Firmin-Didot never ceased to devote himself to the insignia of the basilica, driven by his global vision of the world of Chartres: campaigning for a new organ as early as 1964, followed by the “Grand Prix de Chartres” International Competition and the Organ Festival; the International Stained Glass Center in 1980, the Chartres, sanctuary of the world association in 1992…
We pay tribute to him today through the words of Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot, his wife.
« This summer 2021, we have lived through the last musical moments of the great organ at Chartres Cathedral. At the end of August, scaffolding will be built to take down the entire instrument – the pipes, the console and all the mechanical elements to leave space for a new instrument which will be built in 3-4 years. This is a great and wonderful piece of news which will certainly enchant the whole organ world, both national and international. This new instrument will naturally prolong the life and great renown of the international organ competition and its summer festival.
We are celebrating this year the centenary of the birth of Pierre Firmin-Didot, and this tribute we address to him is doubly moving since the organ concerts of this summer 2021, which make up the summer festival which he founded in 1975, are the very last ones to be heard on this instrument.
The actual organ was built 50 years ago by Danion-Gonsalez, thanks to the unprecedented initiative of Pierre Firmin-Didot. The initiative took root in his heart, his spirit and through his determination. Affected at a very young age by the beauty of the cathedral and the harmony of the liturgy, he told the story of the General de Gaulle who was to attend a big ceremony at the cathedral. But the organ was not playable, and an orchestra had to be called upon. For Pierre Firmin-Didot, something had to be done, and in 1964, he started a campaign to save the great organ, raising a bit more than half of the funds necessary for its reconstruction, the other half being provided by the State. Always surrounding himself with great masters of the organ world of the time, he then founded the international organ competition, “Grand Prix de Chartres” in 1970, then the summer Festival in 1975.
Since then, throughout the world, “Chartres” has become a synonym of excellence in the organ world. The great organ of the cathedral having regained its voice, it was important in Pierre Firmin-Didot’s mind that outside of the liturgy, the organ should be able to be heard during cultural manifestations destined to promote the international outreach of the cathedral. Chartres was from then onwards on a worldwide scale, attracting the greatest international talents and performers.
It was an enormous amount of work, and Pierre Firmin-Didot dedicated all his time to this cause. All this organization was aimed at those unique moments of the competition or a concert in the cathedral. Every Sunday during each summer from 1975 to 2000, Pierre Firmin-Didot welcomed the public to the summer concerts and presented the concerts. One can still see his tall silhouette at the crossing of the transepts or in the central aisle where he sold programs and took the collection, as the admission was always free.
One remembers the Sundays of the Finals of the competition: the excitation in the audience when the finalists played, the jury busy taking notes, the presence of a great part of the diplomatic corps in function in France, (often the embassies of the countries from which the candidates came), the long rug the whole length of the central alley, the tingling excitement of the listeners when the Grand Prix was announced, the place reserved in the choir stalls for the Press as they transmitted the fresh news of the competition directly from the cathedral. The scheduling of this day was always done with the utmost precision, so everything took place like clockwork.
Pierre Firmin-Didot afforded us many precious moments of shared listening. Moments where beauty touched us profoundly, because it was present on all levels: the purity of the architectural lines in the cathedral which lift and soothe us – then the combination of the alliance of Light and Music in this monument which generates such a particular atmosphere.
Thus, his whole life, he never stopped devoting himself to the distinguished basilica of Chartres. Driven by this global vision of the universe of Chartres, he then created the “Centre International du Vitrail” (International Center for Stained Glass) in 1980, and finally the Chartres foundation “Chartres, sanctuaire du Monde” in 1992. Both associations are large-scale, in complete service to Chartres and its cathedral.
Pierre Firmin-Didot was a pioneer: he brought a modern focus and a new vision to cultural patrimony. Whereas in his day the word patrimony was still considered to be a term reserved for use by notary publics and lawyers regarding one’s estate, he knew that it would become the crusade of our time, that it would embody the question of cultural identity and be transformed into a national cause today, which would embrace the safeguarding and conservation of historical buildings and works of art.
Pierre Firmin-Didot always put his entire trust in all the persons engaged in working on and serving this cause, bringing together with pleasure these loyal volunteers in the same momentum of the French tradition of distinction and good spirit, to strive to promote this cause so that the « Universe of Chartres » would put the souls of good will on the road to the true and pure Light.
We are celebrating this year the centenary of his birth – 1921-2021. He died in 2001, the 20th year of our marriage, and all along the road travelled together, he gave me the opportunity – for an American arriving in France from Michigan exactly 50 years ago in 1971 – to see so closely into the marvelous world of the French organ and to perceive that special and glorious Light which comes so particularly from Chartres.
It is thus that I have wanted to pay tribute to my husband, Pierre Firmin-Didot, a man of duty and honor, with a great heart, to whom the organ world owes a special debt of gratitude for the prestige and perseverance he showed and for the legacy he left to future generations.
One can still hear him saying:
« Chartres, c’est vous ! »
Lynne Davis Firmin-Didot