Berthier, Jacques

Inevitably at church music workshops, someone asks, Just who is this composer Taizé? The workshop leader smirks knowingly and explains kindly that Taizé is a place, not a composer, Demonstrating even more cosmopolitan knowledge, the speaker states that Taizé is a tiny town in France's Burgundy region, not too far from Cluny, the place of medieval monastic reform. The music sung at Taizé, for the most part, was written by the Parisian composer Jacques Berthier. If the workshop group is still unimpressed, the speaker goes on to speculate that the musical mantras that Berthier composed for the Taizé community could very well be the most widely used church music in the world. That claim is based on the thousands of pilgrims who come through Taizé in the course of a year and carry back with them to all corners of the world the music that is sung at Taizé. Berthier is the master of such song.

Berthier was born at Auxerre, Burgundy, in 1923, to musician parents. His father, Paul, was a composer and student of Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum, and in 1907 founded the famous Little Singers of the Wooden Cross. He was master of the chapel and organist at the Cathedral of Auxerre for fifty years.

At first, Jacques was a student of his parents. He studied piano, organ, harmony, and composition with them. Soon, he began to compose melodies and original instrumental pieces.

After the war, he entered the César Franck School in Paris. There he became a serious student of composition under Guy de Lioncourt (the nephew of Vincent d'Indy) whose musician daughter he married. He also studied organ, the fugue, and counterpoint with Edward Souberbielle. He became acquainted with other musicians there, including Pere Joseph Gelineau. Gelineau asked him to compose a series of antiphons for his celebrated psalms. In 1955, Berthier was to compose his first works for the Taizé Community, which at that time consisted of only twenty brothers who sang beautifully in four equal voices.

In 1961 he was appointed organist at St-Ignace, the Jesuit church in Paris--a position he held until his death. He continued to compose and publish, receiving requests from various parishes. The brothers of Taizé once again approached him in 1975, asking him to compose simple repetitive chants for use by the increasing numbers of young people who came from all parts of the world each year to gather at Taizé.

Little by little, over a period of nearly twenty years, a vast repertoire of original and altogether new music was created and became known thought the world as "Music from Taizé." The concept for this unique form of congregational song was developed by the late Brother Robert, one of the early members of the community. He gathered and prepared the texts, sent them to Berthier with rather specific form guidelines, and the extraordinary Berthier compositional craft and creativity produced what may be the most widely sung contemporary Christian music in the world.

For a week in October of 1983, GIA editor Bob Batastini participated in the process with Jacques Berthier and Brother Robert to edit, and in some instances compose, the music for the second volume of the Music from Taizé. Berthier's genius was so evident in the way he, with a careful spontaneity, clothed text after text in eminently tuneful melody. Most impressive was his ability to sense the natural word accent of languages, such as English, which he did not speak. Jacques Berthier composed the "music from Taizé" for texts in more than twenty languages, reaching all parts of the globe.

At the same time as he was writing this vast body of work, Jacques Berthier continued to compose for traditional Catholic parishes as well as for large gatherings of people where the assembly plays an important role. He composed complete masses for monastic communities, collections of liturgical instrumental pieces for flute, oboe, and organ, as well as larger sacred works for concert performance. His style (other than the Taizé music) was quite personalized and almost always used the Gregorian modes.

On June 27, 1994, Berthier died at his home in Paris. For his funeral, which was celebrated at St-Sulpice in Paris, he had requested that none of his own music be sung. One observer suggested that perhaps he knew something that most of us fail to grasp.