The selections for this CD demonstrate typical musical features of the French Romantic repertoire and the music of the later generation of French organ composers. The performance brings to life well-known symphonic organ music with its characteristic soundscape and with the clarity of a chamber-music setting, much like the musical soirée performances at the Parisian salons in the 19th century.
Two sets of a sonata-form movement and a lyrical cantabile movement by Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) and Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) respectively, surround a musical poem in symphonic style, the Prière, by César Franck (1822-1890). The somewhat experimental Intermezzo by Jehan Alain (1911-1940) leads to the three movements of the neoclassic-impressionist Suite by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986).
In France, Guilmant was the first one to introduce the genre of Sonate pour Orgue. Although composed for the symphonic organ of Cavaillé-Coll, Guilmant’s Sonatas always demonstrates a certain chamber-music structure, thus contrasting with the Organ Symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor. The romantic character piece associated with Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann as well as the cyclical sonata form as expressed in Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas (1845), indisputably form the prototype for his sonatas. Guilmant was also familiar with the sonatas by Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901).
Guilmant’s First Sonata in D minor, op. 42 of 1874 is still very much influenced by the Beethoven’s works, both in the first movement (Introduction et Allegro) in its sonata from structure and in the cromorne-hautbois dialogue of the second movement as a Pastorale (Andante quasi Allegretto).
During his lifetime he was regarded worldwide as the leading French organist, titulaire of Sainte-Trinité since 1869, and he had a triumphant success as organ virtuoso in the Old and the New World (toured the USA three times 1893/1897-98/1904). An innovator, he reached a new audience with a wide-ranging repertoire, cleverly-themed concert programs (particularly the recital series, Grand Concerts d’Orgue, in the Trocadéro), and his untiring endeavors for a Bach revival in France. “Toujours clair” was Guilmant’s motto. Alexandre Guilmant and Charles-Marie Widor were both students of Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (1823-1881), and together they laid the foundation for a national French organ school. Their ambition was the pre-eminence and excellence of the French organists.
January 1 1870, Charles-Marie Widor became organist titulaire in the parish church of Saint-Sulpice (1646) on the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ (1857-62), which Adolph Hesse described as “the most perfect, most harmonious, the largest and really the masterpiece of modern organ building.” The general shape of the beautiful and magnificent Grecian case of the old Cliquot organ (1781), designed by Chalgrin and retained by Cavaillé-Coll, inspired the design of the façade of the new organ for Göteborg.
Widor composed an entire cycle of eight symphonies for organ, based on a rising scale of tonalities from C to B, extending through the first four symphonies (op. 13) and the more mature later four symphonies (op. 42). This large-scale cyclical effort reflected the importance he attached to the organ as an instrument and may also be seen as an homage to Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Symphony No. 6 in G minor is a work of great weight and seriousness. The Allegro is based on creative oppositions and interaction between a monumental choral-type section and an expansive and turbulent recitative, perhaps inspired by Bach’s Fantasia in g minor, generating a ceaseless flow of triplet eighth-notes. A striking and complex section in F# minor combines these two elements in exciting rhythmic polarization. The recapitulation of the first theme is preceded by a characteristic crescendo section; in a typical bridge section of this kind the organist should pass from piano to forte by a gradual almost imperceptible and constant progression, gradually engaging all anches ventils. The Adagio in B major has an aura of sentimental piety with its registration for gambas and voix célestes and its chromatically-inflected theme. A central contrasting, quasi-contrapuntal section in Ab minor appears after an enharmonic modulation.
César Franck was appointed organist titulaire at the new Cavaillé-Coll organ in Sainte-Clotilde in 1859. He composed twelve large, single-movement compositions in three collections: Six Pieces (1862-63), Three Pieces (1878), and the Three Chorales (1890). Prière belongs to the first collection and is quite different from the other five pieces. Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), student of Franck and Widor, considered Prière “the most remarkable of the Six Pieces… a profound thought excellently expressed.” Indeed, Franck’s composition develops one single theme in a consistently serious character, with increasing intensity, through long melodic lines surrounded by complex contrapuntal and rhythmical accompaniment. A contrasting recitative in the center of the piece recurs several times at the end. After a short quotation in major, it is finally enhanced within a recitative in F#-minor. The musical “prayer” as well as the “chorale” were common 19th-century romantic genres. The theme of the Prière shows similarity to that of the opening of the first Chorale in E major. Franck commented on the relation between the form and the title of the chorales, reflecting his approach of treating and developing a theme in a romantic and symphonic manner, a comment which may also apply to the Prière: “You will see, the Chorale is not what you think; the real chorale emerges during the course of the piece.”
Despite his short life, the legacy of Jehan Alain, is one of the most innovative and original of the early 20th century, not only in France. According to his sister, Marie-Claire Alain, his diverse compositional language reflects his personality: “Lively like quicksilver, sensitive but comical at times, unexpected, as full of emotion as of humorous sallies…” The Intermezzo is a transcription for organ of an Intermezzo for two pianos and bassoon.
Maurice Duruflé worked for many years with Vierne as student, assistant, and amanuensis. Vierne considered Duruflé “to be the most brilliant and the most original of the young generation of organists. Here we are in the presence of an absolutely complete individual–a first-class performer, and an improviser with abundant and varied imagination. Utterly sensitive and poetic, he has a rare, perceptive gift for composition… His sometimes daring modernism, is fully justified by the nature of the emotions he means to translate.” Duruflé’s Suite, op. 5, was published in 1934. The opening of the Prélude is very similar to that of the fourth movement of Vierne’s Sixth Symphony. In the same year, he played the first performance in France of this Symphony. Duruflé commented on Vierne’s Adagio: “a profound meditation, an eloquent lyricism, a romantic exhuberance.” Duruflé seems to have taken this movement as a point of departure for the Prélude of his Suite. A fragmentary theme in the pedal under a pedal point in the manual (B-flat) foreshadows the chant-like theme to appear. This theme recurs constantly throughout this movement, each time with new accompaniment figures, sometimes giving the impression of a passacaglia-form. After a majestic dynamic climax followed by an expressive recitative, the Prélude ends with a quotation from the opening. Duruflé described this movement as a Diptych.
The characteristic thematic material that contribute to the unification of the Suite includes the tritone (melodically as well as harmonically) and the augmented triad, both presented in the first measures. In Rondo-from, the Sicilienne provides a gentle contrast in 6/8 dance rhythm and with plentiful color. The tritone theme recurs in the middle section accompanied with mysterious chromatic lines. This theme also appears as the second theme in the Toccata. A rhythmically profiled, energetic and vigorous theme, played in the pedal, is the main theme of this brilliant and virtuosic toccata in 12/8 dance-like meter. Duruflé’s deliberate and refined compositional technique can also be traced on the macro-level of the Suite; the tonic keys of the three movements form an augmented triad (e-flat–g–b). The form of a classic Suite of character dances with refined impressionist compositional elements and harmony evokes the music of Maurice Ravel and for example his piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917). Duruflé’s organ version of this concept reflects Guilmant’s version of the Beethoven and Schumann classical keyboard sonata for organ.
The registrations indicated in the scores could be rendered at the Verschueren-organ with almost no exception, engaging the ventils when requested and with manual assistance for registration changes.