For a number of reasons, the Grand Siècle (Great Century) – or more precisely, the reigns of Louis XIII (1610-1643) and Louis XIV (1643-1715) – was characterised by stability, excellence and prestige. Notre-Dame was not immune to this significant movement and was often one of the catalysts. From 1625, and with the appointment of Henri Frémart, masters of music were recruited based on a strict assessment wherein there were called upon to demonstrate not only their qualities as composers, but also their steadfast morals. It was under this system that such talented luminaries as Jean Veillot, Pierre Robert, André Campra, Jean-François Lalouette and Jean-François Lesueur were recruited. This group made their living elsewhere at the Chapelle royale, the Académie royale de musique (Paris Opera), or at the Concert spirituel. Each, in his own way, was able to bring a special brilliance to cathedral ceremonies.
The organ itself shone no less brilliantly. Thanks to the personality of Charles Racquet, the incumbent from 1618 to 1659 and the first tenured organist whose work survives to this day, the condition of the loft instrument was finally examined. Several waves of renovation work were completed under his tutelage and afterwards with varying degrees of diligence and enthusiasm. In general, the climate was one of a redrawing of the balance of power between organists and the masters of music who had been, up to then, all-powerful. In 1662, Martin Sonnet drafted a rule governing Parisian liturgy, issued by order of the Archbishop of Paris, Msgr. de Gondy and with effect across the entire diocese. Among other details, one reads how the organist was obliged to follow, for the Kyrie, certain sections of the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus and Domine salvum, the original plainchant melodies. For the rest of the ordinary however, he could let his imagination run free with brief recitals, duets, trios and other appropriate pieces. By all accounts Racquet and his successors – his son Jean Racquet (tenured organist from 1659 to 1689), then Médéric Corneille (tenured organist from 1689 to 1730) and especially Guillaume-Antoine Calvière – took full advantage of such freedoms.
Calvière (tenured organist from 1730 to 1755) was the first to build a busy career outside of the cathedral. His activities caused him to be absent so often that when he died, a new system of tenure by quarters was established, as in Versailles: four organists jointly shared the liturgical year by quarters, which allowed them to meet other responsibilities, such as the more prestigious and lucrative post of King’s organist.
At the organ, as in the choir, the trend of the day was to indulge in more virtuoso music, where secular and popular themes could take precedence over the strictly sacred. As early as 1739, Jean-François Dandrieu, organist at Saint-Merry in Paris, wrote of his concern over this sudden blurring between the styles in the Foreword to his First Book on organ pieces: “The difficulty in composing Organ Pieces, more precisely, the desire for them to be worthy of the majesty of the Place where we play this Instrument […] has for some time been an impediment to undertaking this work…” Notre-Dame tenured organists were scrupulous to say the least. There is no doubt that, following the changes brought in by François Thierry (1733) and then François-Henri Clicquot (1783), the musicians had an exceptional instrument at their disposal, a showcase platform for their every indulgence. In this way, they abandoned the solemnity so characteristic of church music for pages more at home in concerts and freely adapted opera and dance material for the organ. Louis-Claude Daquin, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre and Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet-Charpentier played their own concerts at the Concert spirituel, and the improvisations with which they lavished the faithful of Notre-Dame and other parishes where they played sparked such passions that the archdiocese was forced to ban them on several occasions as they were a threat to public order.
With increasing difficulty, the canons permitted these musical excesses as well as the careers of the Notre-Dame musicians outside of the cathedral. Lalouette was at the forefront of these tensions, before falling back into line. For Lesueur however, things were not so easy. His orchestral masses earned him such a reputation that the Chapter took offence. As the only master of music until that time not to have been ordained a priest, Lesueur was accused by the canons of attracting a socialite audience to the cathedral who did not belong there and he was forced to “resign” in 1787 in a sorry fashion. A long crisis ensued thereafter and the Revolution soon after dealt the final blow.