Vierne and the Symphony
Shortly after the premiere of his First Symphony, Brahms was confronted by one of his many critics who noted the similarity between the theme in his final movement and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Brahms response was blunt: “Yes indeed, and what’s really remarkable is that every jackass notices it at once!” His frustration was understandable. Only a few years before the completion of his first foray into this genre, he remarked in despair to a conductor, “Never compose a symphony! You have no idea how it feels to our kind [i.e. composers] when one always hears such a giant [Beethoven] marching along behind.”
Indeed, this was a common sentiment among composers who attempted to write symphonies. All saw themselves both inspired and dominated by Beethoven’s genius, for it was he who nearly single-handedly re-defined the genre. For the French Organ School, this backdrop, coupled with the ecclesial setting of the pipe organ made the advent of the organ symphony all the more remarkable. Even César Franck, who is usually credited with bringing about the symphony, didn’t actually call his large-scale work “Symphony” but rather Grand Pièce Symphonique. The church organist and conservatory professor, while a renowned composer in nearly all media, probably realized that public perception would not readily accept the marriage of a primarily secular form to an essentially religious instrument.
Franck’s successor at the conservatory, Charles-Marie Widor, would break down any barriers between the worlds of church and concert hall once and for all in the composition of his 10 symphonies for organ. Here the titles remained consistent until the ninth and tenth which were called Sympnoie Gothique and Symponie Romane. Guilmant and even the mystique Tournemire would follow suit.
Franck’s and Widor’s pupil, Louis Vierne, was destined to bring this genre to its zenith in his six symphonies for organ, even though he, in truth, added little new to the symphony. Formally, he is dependent on both teachers: Widor’s clear command of counterpoint and classical forms is evidenced throughout, while Franck’s attention to melodic development is equally present (witnessed particularly by the use of cyclic themes in symphonies 2, 4, 5, and 6.) Harmonically, Vierne pays homage to Fauré and Debussy, and throughout, the grand sweep of Wagner’s music can be heard, even though Vierne was essentially anti-Wagnerian in temperament.
As is the case with every other French Romantic composer for the organ, the instruments of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll seem to be almost the single most important inspiration for Vierne’s work. The fiery reeds, broad foundations, soaring flutes demanded both bold, rhythmic vitality and creation of the “grand line.” Vierne did make a few innovations to organ timbre, however; namely, his occasional favoring of “gapped” registrations in scherzi, or the specificity of reed sounds in the lyric movements. Toward the end of his career, one can see the English and American influence when he calls for “French Horn” and “Ophecleide”. In fact, had he had the funds, Vierne claims he would have planned some tonal and mechanical renovations to the Notre-Dame organ to bring the instrument up-to-date.
Nonetheless, Vierne’s contributions soar above even those of his mentors. This is due, in part, to his profound allegiance to pure (non-programmatic) music. He wrote, “its purpose is to give voice to the movements of the soul. . . . and my preference is for the elucidating of the interior life. . . The pure musician sings of his joy, grief, hate, anger, hope, assurance. His creative field is without bounds, because he expresses all the feelings that pervade his personality.” Vierne’s symphonies, in true romantic fashion, are an auto-biographical record of a not infrequently troubled life. They become for us a window to one who describes himself as having “an almost unhealthy sensitivity.” Symphony No. 1 (D minor), Op. 14
Vierne’s first symphony was published in 1899 and consists of six movements, many of which were publishes separately, and could originally have been works from his student days. During these years, Vierne was Widor’s suppleant at St. Sulpice, home to the largest Cavaillé-Coll organ, and the work shows heavy influence from Vierne’s mentor. The first movement (Prélude) is based on a dark and brooding chromatic theme and is formed over a D pedal-point. The massive crescendo demonstrates the ease with which dynamics were changed on these symphonic organs, and after the agitated middle section which is fueled by broken “tremulandi” chords, the work quickly returns to its original somber theme. The second movement is the only fugue which Vierne composed, about which he later confessed, “The fugue is well written, but God, it’s heavy-handed! If I had it to do over, I certainly would no longer write like that.” He also admitted to a certain “superficiality” in the slow movements labeled Pastorale(the only movement in all six symphonies in which he calls for the Voix humaine) and Andante. The Allegro Vivace is in a typical three-part Scherzo form, the outer A-minor sections interrupted by a slower, lyric theme in F#-minor. Vierne noted that only this and the first movement still please him. The famous Final again shows influence of the final of Widor’s Second Symphony published over a decade prior. Vierne noted, “it is my Marseillaise – by that I mean I find it horribly pompier. It’s a lack of taste, but a lack of taste that pleases the public. . . so I always play it!”Symphony No. 2 (E Minor), Op. 20
In May of 1900, Vierne was appointed organiste-titulaire of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. His arrival ended a long period of mediocre music-making on the instrument that Cavaillé-Coll would later claim as his favorite. By the next year, Vierne was at work on his second symphony which was published in 1903 and dedicated to Charles Mutin, Cavaillé-Coll’s successor, who was then making modifications to the Cathedral organ. Debussy was in the audience at the premiere of portions of this work and later wrote, “Monsieur Vierne’s Symphony is truly remarkable; it combines abundant musicianship with the cleverest use of the instrument’s special sonority. Old J.S. Bach, the father of us all, would have been pleased with Monsieur Vierne.” One can hear in this work the confidence of the young composer, fresh on the Parisian musical scene.
The second symphony is Vierne’s first attempt at cyclic composition, and, as is typical of the other examples of this process, he uses two themes which are stated side by side in the first movement (Allegro) . Theme A is angular and marcato, and Theme B is lyric and hymn-like. These are each developed separately and then combined in the closing recapitulation. The second movement is called Choral, possibly in honor of his teacher César Franck whose Three Chorales were among his last and greatest works. In Vierne’s Choral, the hymn-like melody (Theme B) is set in contrast with a fugal section in the parallel minor. Again, Vierne combines the two primary themes of this movement in grand fashion in the last section. The two melodies of the humorous Scherzo are only loosely based on the symphonies primary themes. The Cantabile features two special colors of the Cavaillé-Coll – the strings and the clarinet, each assigned to this movement’s two themes, the second of which is based on Theme A. This movement travels through over 8 key centers before it returns with its primary theme on the Flûte Harmonique. After a brief maestoso introduction, the Final begins with a theme reminiscent of the second theme of the scherzo, now a martial melody accompanied by rhythmic, staccato chords. The second theme of this movement is again derived from Theme A, now melancholic and, at times, anguished. After a brief development and expansive crescendo, Vierne returns these themes in the recapitulations, first in E minor and then in a glorious Coda in the parallel major. Symphony No. 3, (F-sharp Minor) Op. 28
Vierne waited eight years before composing his third symphony in 1911, and it was a period filled with personal loss and anguish. During this time, he and his wife of ten years, Arlette Tasklin, were divorced. His mother died in March of that year, followed by the death of his dear friend and mentor, Alexander Guilmant only four days later. And finally, Vierne was passed over for the position of Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory by Eugène Gigout, a disappointment from which he would never fully recover. He relied closely on the support of his former student, Marcel Dupré, at whose summer home Vierne completed work on his third symphony. While the work is the most compact of the six, Vierne pours into it his torment and remorse, and it becomes, by many peoples’ account, his most successful symphony.
Vierne uses Sonata Allegro form three times in this work – in the first, third and fifth movements – an unusual move for one of the French Symphonists. In the Allegro Maestoso, he begins with a tragic theme in octaves, marked by diminished harmonies. (While this symphony is not cyclic per se, each movement’s main material relies heavily on these two musical components) A lyric and much more supple melody follows which he supports by his most daring chromatic harmonies yet. Followed by the typically brief development and surging crescendo, the movement culminates with a nearly verbatim repeat of the expository material, but this time in reverse order, with a coda featuring again strong octaves and diminished intervals. The Cantilene is in the form of a second movement of a sonata and features a melody using the odd :Locrian mode (marked by the tri-tone). This piece in ternary form ends with a variation on the first theme. The Intermezzo is thus far Vierne’s closest attempt at a scherzo in the spirit of Berlioz. The impish staccato chords are based primarily on the whole tone scale, and this gives way to a more lyric theme set above a menuet-like rhythm in the bass. Again, Vierne suppressed tonic in the manner of the impressionists. The Adagio is Vierne’s “Song without Words” and is inspired by the long winding melodies of Wagner and Franck. The piece is based completely on material heard in the first few measures. The melodies are melancholic and full of desire for resolution, which is realized beautifully when they reappear in major played by the Flûte harmonique and later string celestes. The Final is a French Toccata based on a melody that is slightly reminiscent of Theme A in movement one. The second, more lyric theme of this exposition is in the distant key of B-flat Major. The first melody returns in bold augmentation in the pedal and is followed by the lyric theme which is accompanied by the more agitated figuration of the Toccata. The pieces ends optimistically in F-sharp Major. Symphony No. 4 (G Minor), Op. 32
During a particularly productive summer of 1914, Vierne completed work on his fourth symphony. It was dedicated to William C. Carl, founder of the Guilmant Organ School in New York City, and manager of Guilmant’s organ tours in the United States. This is the only symphony published initially in America (G. Schirmer). War was brewing in Europe during this summer, and final publication and premiere of the piece was not until 1917. It was apparently not heard in France until 1923. Unlike his other more homogeneous symphonies, this work comprises two distinct styles. The middle three movements hearken back to the manner of Vierne’s mentor, Widor. The outer movements project much darker and more brooding moods, certainly reflecting Vierne’s depression, but perhaps also echoing the political conditions of the times. Additionally, Vierne returns to a strictly cyclic process in this piece.
Unlike the other symphonies, this begins with an anguished Prelude (a model he would reuse in the Fifth). As usual, two themes dominate the work, but this time they are quite similar in nature and content. Theme A is heard at the outset of the Prelude and Theme B appears in the lower voice of a brief interlude in the middle. The entire arch form of this movement, with its adventurous and challenging chromatic harmonies, is based on the tones of a G-Major triad (G-B-D) which is the main harmony of the entire work. The Allegro begins in G minor and is in Sonata-Alllegro form, but reverses the position of these two themes. Theme B becomes a martial first theme, and Theme A, the more subtle and lyric. A traditional development is supplanted by an uncharacteristic fugato. The dramatic return occurs, followed by a coda which teeters on the edge of B-flat Major only to move to G Major as a final stroke. The typical scherzo is replaced by a more conservative Menuet. Ternary in form, the first theme retains the outline of Theme A, but the melody of the gentle middle section is only vaguely similar to Theme B. The subsequent Romance is perhaps Vierne’s most lovely symphonic movement. The sweeping long melodic line, the undulating accompaniment, and the gentle chromatic harmonies are reminiscent of Widor. The middle section consists of two pairs of shorter phrases based on Theme B each modulating up one step, a technique he will use again in later works. The Final re-uses the two original themes, but now combined and with surging energy. Like the Prelude, it is built harmonically on the G Major chord, the third tone of which is introduced only in the recapitulation. After a brief and swirling coda, the piece ends in a blazing G Major. Symphony No. 5 (A minor), Op. 47
Vierne’s work on his Fifth and longest symphony began in 1923, once again after another series of personal tragedies. Due to increased difficulties with his eyes, Vierne was forced to move to Switzerland for treatment from 1916-20. During this period, he lost his son and brother in the War, and the organ at the Cathedral (under the supervision of Vierne’s former student, Dupré) fell into disrepair due to neglect. Vierne returned to Paris in 1920, poor from not having worked, only to see his beautiful instrument in shambles. He set about raising money to re-build the organ through gifts and through the proceeds from numerous concert tours throughout Europe. Vierne’s life seemed to turn for the better when Joseph Bonnet, friend and former pupil and the one to whom he would dedicate his Fifth Symphony, helped him to arrange his first concert tour of England in early 1924. Here he was introduced to the person and work of the famous organ builder, Henry Willis.
Like the Fourth symphony, the Fifth begins with a somber Grave in which the two main themes, on which the entire piece is based, are heard. Both are built on the interval of a major seventh, Theme A is woven around a descending Major Seventh chord, and the briefer Theme B creates an ascending gesture. This dissonant harmony is grist for most complex of all Vierne’s harmonic language. At times, the tonal center is completely suppressed due to his heavy use of chromaticism. The vast second movement (Allegro) is in Sonata-Allegro form, the first theme of which is the inversion of Theme A, the second theme being an extended version of Theme B. The return boldly brings back Theme A in the full pedal.
The Scherzo is a sardonic essay on these two melodies in reverse order. Theme A is introduced in a second softer section and is accompanied by a version of Theme B. The first French reviewer, Jean Huré, wrote, “The Scherzo is almost entirely chromatic and is a fiercely ironical, pitiless, satanic, and fantastic, caricature of earlier scherzos by the same composer. Both this and the Larghetto were written before the other three movements in 1923, this fourth movement having been composed on the banks of Lago Maggiore in Stresa, Italy. It is one of Vierne’s most lavish works and is in the key of F-sharp Major, often used by the French as a key of “love.” After a simple introduction featuring theme B in inversion and major mode, the movement segues to a tortured chromatic middle section, as though to demonstrate the brevity of happiness in Vierne’s life. This mood, however, gives way to a return of the main theme in the pedal, accompanied by a vibrant undulating string ostinato in the manuals. The work ends with the ascending version of Theme A on the naïve sound of the Flute. The Final is a Toccata reminiscent of his earlier Carillon de Westminster (dedicated to Henry Willis.) In true Wagnerian fashion, the deepest struggle between a confident Theme A and anguished Theme B lies herein. They are not easily resolved as this is the longest of the five movements, however, Vierne’s optimism is unmistakable in the return which is marked by Theme A in full pedal interspersed with marcato chords and rocket-like scales. Huré in friendly fashion chides Vierne in his review, “I promise Vierne to curse him bitterly if, with such talent, he should again write so perfect a work, to express such pain and anguish in the course of forty-seven pages of very beautiful music.” Also in his words, this work is “victory of joy over pain.”Symphony No. 6 (B Major), Op. 59
In the interim seven years between the composition of Symphonies Five and Six, Vierne made a second tour of England and a grueling four-month tour of the United States during which he became friends with organist Lynwood Farnam. Additionally, he wrote the second through fourth of his Suites of fantasy pieces. His fame had now spread throughout the Western world, and the Notre Dame organ was restored.
Throughout Vierne’s dark later year, he had one mainstay of support and encouragement in the person of the singer, Madeleine Richepin. They struck up a close personal friendship in 1921, after his return to Paris; she accompanied him on a number of his tours and premiered several vocal compositions by Vierne. It was at her family’s home on the French Riviera that Vierne wrote his Sixth symphony in the summer of 1930. He wrote to Berbard Gavoty, “the intense sunlight abolishes regrets and even past unhappiness, leaving behind just the sheer animal joy of existing!” The work was dedicated to the memory of his friend, Lynwood Farnam, known as “The Premiere Organist of the North American Continent” who died in November, 1920, just before the work was published.
This work shows Vierne at his most mature. He writes with confidence and clarity of expression. Forms are well-balanced and taut, melodies are sweeping and the harmonic language again shows the experimental chromaticism of the fifth symphony, this time with greater mastery. The first movement (Allegro) is in B minor and begins with a slow introduction in which one can hear the crashing of the sea’s waves in the south of France. A preliminary version of Theme A is here followed by that of Theme B, registered on the the Great fonds d’orgue. After the exposition, Vierne writes his most extensive development, traveling through the remote tonalities of F-sharp, G, B-flat, D-flat and A. A coda follows the return in the parallel major key.
The Aria is a beautiful yet anguished Lied, based mostly on the clever version of Theme B which here seems to have been stretched out over the length of the keyboard. Only in the gentle coda does Theme A re-appear, this time in D Major and registered on the Ophecleide, a sound found only on American and British organs. Duruflé wrote, “In this long melody . . . . the composer confides a secret to us – a rending appeal, a pathetic cry springing from his heart. Perhaps Louis Vierne saw in this page the evocation of the fatal destiny that pursued him throughout his life.”
The devilish Scherzo is comic relief between two serious pieces. Theme B is here collapsed into tone clusters, and Theme A appears as playful staccoto notes for the Basson-Hautbois. The pieces is in the same spirit of his earlier “Gargoyles and Chimeras”. The Adagio, in B-flat minor, is the darkest of the five movements and again invokes the expansive spirit of Wagner in the second half. Vierne returns the original melody but registers it this time for the Voix humaine, one of the few times in the symphonies which he calls for this sound. The sun begins to shines through cloudy skies in the final coda, written in E-flat major.
This closing key provides the enharmonic launching point (D-sharp) of the brief introduction to the Final. This piece is a burlesque. In no other work does Vierne’s cheerfulness shine through more clearly. The form is the most transparent Rondo. The middle section introduces a new melody which is initially somber in style, but when it returns triumphantly in the final section, it is accompanied by a storm of B-major pedal scales. Coda
Vierne wrote only a few more pieces in the last seven years of his life. There were plans for a seventh symphony, which was to have been dedicated to his pupil Maurice Duruflé, but no sketches survive. Perhaps it is fitting, therefore, that some of the last notes he composed were of this Final to Symphony No. 6, for it is in this work that one can best hear the unbridled, inner, child-like spirit of a man whose tortured life was seldom marked by joy. In the midst of his inner turmoil, one can trust that a sense of optimism and hope dwelt in his soul.