THE GEORGE MONTALBA STORY

Someone wrote requesting information about theatre organist George Montalba.

George Montalba was actually the recording name of Georges Montalba, the brilliant French organ virtuoso who was for many years the organist at Paris' Eglise Saint-Surplice. Montalba was an important student of Frank and Lemons, and colleague of the well-known organist/composer Charlie "King" Widor. Montalba went on to teach such notable luminaries of the mid-20th-century French harmonium as Gaspard Litaze, Andre Marshall, and Gene L'Anglaise.

Montalba's rise to fame in the dizzying world of Paris in the 'teens and '20s was a most important chapter in the history of the organ. A series of tragic accidental deaths opened the doors for him to become titulaire at that important Parisian church. Most spectacular was the death of Vern Louis, his blind predecessor at Saint-Surplice, who died in the middle of a recital while being assisted at the console by the young Montalba. There were no witnesses other than Montalba, but it seems low FFF# of the 32' Contra-Nitsua (a large pipe indeed) accidentally toppled from the prospect of the case, striking the unfortunate Louis three times just as he was finishing the fiendishly-difficult Toccata by Titelouse.

Montalba quickly became the darling of the Parisian clergy, and he could often be found entertaining various of its members in the organ loft. His reputation quickly spread throughout the city and beyond, and soon young organists, eager to learn from him, were making their way to his famous organ from all over Europe. At the same time, his abilities as a composer were developing. After his '9 Movements' were introduced to commodious approval in 1930, he was everafter flushed with fame and wealth.

Montalba was also widely regarded for his skills as an improvisor. He could be found at the church at all hours, creating contemplative improvisations on the great organ, while the characteristic pungent aroma of his own special incense wafted down from the organ loft. Many visitors to Saint-Surplice have commented on the great sense of tranquility they experienced when surrounded by Montalba's music and incense, leaving the comfortable confines of the church with reluctance only when hunger spurred them on in search of a snack.

It was natural that a man of Montalba's talents should be attracted to the cinema organ, which he first heard thanks to a chance encounter with a visiting English organist, Sir Reginald Ford. Ford had embarked on a tour of France with his famous "Touring Hammond," much to the delight of this theatre organ-starved country, which had heretofore watched all of its movies in silence. As mentioned above, Georges Montalba would go on to record a number of theatre organ disks for HMV in the 1950s, under the pseudonym "George Montalba." After much speculation on the part of his many fans, the true identity of the performer of these celebrated recordings was revealed at last in 1970.

The organ heard in the recordings is the famous Wurlitzer installed in the Woolworth's Store in Nice, France. It is in fact the largest Wurlitzer ever sent to Europe. Montalba became a master of this 6 manual, 2 rank plus traps and percussion monster, eventually abandoning the combination action altogether in favor of manual manipulation of its 482 stopkeys and 18 swell pedals. While this organ enjoyed a marvelous reputation (due in no small part to the famous Montalba recordings), it was most unfortunately broken up for parts in the early 1980s. The good news is that the parts were salvaged, and became six new organs now installed in Britain.

Georges Montalba died in 1982 at the ripe age of 124, feeble but still capable of a spirited performance of the Bach Trio Sonatas on his home Lowrey Teenie Genie. (Although, since the accident, he had to play all of the bass line with his left foot--hardly a concern, given the Lowrey's 13-note pedalboard). But the Georges Montalba Fan Club continues to meet monthly in the loft of Saint-Surplice to this day, playing his records, burning his incense, and line dancing to his spirited rendition of "Aura Lee."

David C. Kelzenberg
July 28, 2001