Charles-Marie Widor: Symphonie III, Op. 13, No. 3: Marcia
France enjoyed a rich flowering of its organ tradition during the second half of the 19th century. Particularly during the 1860s and 1870s, a bumper crop of organist-composers flourished at Parisian churches. These included Camille Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, Alexandre Guilmant at La Trinité, Eugène Gigout at St. Augustine, and Charles-Marie Widor at St.-Sulpice. Widor was selected for the prestigious position at St. Sulpice in January 1870. The post opened at the death of Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély on December 31, 1869. Although Widor was not yet 26, he had established himself as a brilliant performer and he enjoyed the support of the influential organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. As the architect of St. Sulpice’s magnificent instrument, Cavaillé-Coll wielded considerable power in the selection process. The organ builder’s instincts served him well. As it turned out, Widor was to have a long and distinguished career as both organist and composer. Eventually he succeeded César Franck on the composition faculty of the Paris Conservatoire, where his organ students included Tournemire, Vierne, and Dupré, and his composition studio included Dupont, Honegger, and Milhaud.
Although Widor is best remembered today for his organ works, he was also a prolific composer for stage, orchestra, and chamber music. In addition, he was a respected music critic with an impressive command of the visual and other performing arts. Widor’s supplement to Hector Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration is an important French contribution to that discipline. From the standpoint of music history, however, Widor is credited with having invented the organ symphony. In fairness, he shares that distinction with Guilmant, but Widor’s output of ten organ symphonies remains a significant portion of the existing literature. The organ symphony could be more accurately described as a suite. It generally consists of five movements in varying tempi and related keys, some derived from dance movements, others from character pieces. Organ symphonies are secular works, but they often have spiritual moments.
Widor’s first four organ symphonies, published as Opus 13, were complete by the end of 1871, less than two years after he assumed his duties at St. Sulpice. Responding to the symphonic character of Cavaillé-Coll’s splendid instrument at the church, Widor wrote music of breadth and expanse. The Marcia that is the Third Symphony’s third movement is a bold, bright, assertive piece in F-sharp major. Widor incorporates a healthy dose of counterpoint that reflects his lifelong devotion to the music of Bach.
César Franck: Pièce héroïque [from Trois Pièces pour orgue]
César Franck was one of the most influential musicians of the late 19th century. He gathered many disciples around him, including important composers such as Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, and Louis Vierne. Like Mendelssohn before him, Franck was one of the key figures to acknowledge and make known the rich musical legacy of the past, from Gregorian chant and the Renaissance master Palestrina through Bach and Beethoven. He was also a champion of Richard Wagner in France.
A more unlikely candidate for such weighty accomplishments can hardly be imagined. Franck was born in Belgium, but came to Paris in his 'teens to take advantage of the French capital's superior educational opportunities in music. His father had initially determined that he should become a concert pianist, but Franck's performing career veered more sedately toward organ. He spent most of his professional career serving as organist in various lesser Parisian churches—hardly positions that would make it likely for him to attract a circle of France's most promising young composers! One of those churches, however, completed installation of a fine pipe organ by the Flemish organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1858, just before Franck was appointed its organist. The two men became friends and Franck often had Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments in mind when he composed. He remained at Saint-Clotilde for some three decades, attracting a loyal following for his post-service improvisations.
Surprisingly, his output of organ works is relatively modest: a dozen major works that comprise the Six Pièces of 1860-62 (these include the well known Prélude, Fugue et Variation, and Grand Pièce Symphonique); Trois Pièces (1878), and Trois Chorals (1890). Pièce héroïque is the most successful of the Trois Pièces, which were written at the time of the Universal Exposition in Paris, when a new Cavaillé-Coll organ was being inaugurated at the Palais du Trocadéro. It juxtaposes two principal themes. The first profiles a strong rhythmic idea against repeated chords in the accompaniment; the second, which is more melodic, transforms into a chorale at the climax. This is a display piece that was clearly intended for concert performance. The heroic section toward the end provides a majestic and triumphant conclusion.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (Trio) Sonata I in E-flat, BWV 525
Bach's six Trio Sonatas hold a special place among his organ works. They are believed to date from the late 1720s, just a few years after Bach had assumed his duties at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. J. Nikolaus Forkel, one of Bach's early biographers, wrote that these six sonatas were composed as instructional pieces for Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784). At the time he studied them, Friedemann would have been in his mid-teens.
The controversy that surrounds the Sonatas concerns the instrument for which they were composed. It is not entirely clear that Bach intended them for the organ. Some scholars have argued that the instrument of choice would have been a pedal clavier with two manuals. Bach specified "for 2 claviers and pedal," which could mean either a double-manual harpsichord with pedal, or an organ. There is little justification for insisting on one or the other, for Bach borrowed from himself on numerous occasions, arranging violin concerti for harpsichord, for example. We know he would have considered the clavichord as appropriate as the harpsichord for study of the Inventions or the Well-Tempered Clavier.
In any case, organists have adopted these six Trio Sonatas as their own. In their prefatory remarks to an early 20th-century edition, Charles-Marie Widor and Albert Schweitzer call them the "Gradus ad parnassum for every organist." Based on the idea of two melodies plus bass, a texture indigenous to Baroque chamber music, these six pieces encourage independence of hands and feet. Big chords are virtually absent from these trios. Each hand emulates a solo instrument; the feet (pedals) are the third instrument, hence the title "Trio Sonata." Certainly when the two melody parts cross—a standard component of Baroque trio sonata texture—an organist has no problem differentiating the musical lines.
The formal organization of the Trio Sonatas emulates that of the Italian concerto grosso. The E-flat Sonata has three movements arranged fast–slow–fast. Both outer movements are governed by a recurring musical statement [ritornello] that functions, rondo-like, to help unify them. In the first movement, the lower part takes the lead with the upper part emulating, the two superimposed upon a bass line that is subtly related to the melody. Bach’s middle movement, in C minor, is an extended aria, nearly the length of the outer movements combined. This time the upper part has the soprano solo role, with the lower part imitating in dialogue after the initial statement. Bach’s contrapuntal skill is most evident in the finale, which even gives segments of the fugal figure to the pedal. In its second half, he inverts the figure. Throughout the sonata, the extraordinary clarity of Bach’s textures throws the colors of the organ registration into sharp relief, linking this sonata to chamber music.
Joseph-Marie-Alphonse-Nicolas Jongen: Sonata heroïca, Op. 94 (1930)
The Belgian organist and teacher Joseph Jongen was a stylistic disciple of his countryman César Franck. Because he was born half a century after Franck, however, Jongen was exposed to a different musical world during his youth. In the 1890s he became keenly interested in works by the German composers Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss. Because he lived for more than half the 20th century, Jongen became acquainted with later compositions by Dukas, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, among others. Perhaps inevitably, the techniques of his contemporaries found their way into his music, particularly the whole tone scales and coloristic experiments of impressionism. Jongen was mercilessly self critical, to the point where he destroyed more than half his compositions. Of 241 works he is known to have written, he only allowed 137 to survive.
Sonata heroïca, Jongen’s best known work, consists of a single movement approximately 15 minutes long. The bold heroism implied by the title is immediately apparent in the opening unison flourish. It leads to a muscular fanfare with large chords in both manuals that foreshadow some of Olivier Messiaen’s later organ music. Any programmatic connection is limited to the subtitle, however. This is abstract music whose ‘subject’ is the magnificence of the romantic French organ and the virtuosity of the performer. Jongen’s sectional structure is more akin to a fantasy than to a traditional sonata. After the blazing introductory section, he switches gears to explore some of the organ’s more intimate colors. In a quiet passage, he introduces a theme in the voix céleste from which most of the balance of the sonata derives. Ms. Preston observes, “The luscious strings that [organ builders C.B.] Fisk created, along with the beautiful flûte harmonique on the Résonance, allow the player to take advantage of the tonal color that is available in this piece, and in other Flemish and French repertoire.” Using variations principles and some counterpoint in the central portion of the sonata, Jongen develops this surprisingly simple melody, culminating with a closing fugue and stretto.
Sonata Eroïca is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944), who was organist at the Parisian church of St-Eustache from 1906 until his death.
Jean Guillou: Toccata
Jean Guillou (b. 1930), organist of the Church of St-Eustache in Paris since 1963, is a personal friend of Mary Preston and a composer/performer for whom she has great respect. Guillou began piano study at age 5, taking up organ at age 11. By age 15 he had earned his first appointment as a church organist and had begun concertizing. He continued his formal education at the Paris Conservatoire, where he worked with three of the greatest composer/performers in 20th-century French music: Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, and Olivier Messiaen. Guillou taught from 1953 to 1957 at Lisbon’s Instituto de Alta Cultura, balancing teaching with a busy performance schedule, then elected to divide his time between performance and composition. He is a celebrated improviser, and continues to include free improvisation as a standard component of his organ recitals. He is also the author of a respected book on organ theory and design: L’orgue, souvenir et avenir (Paris, 1978; 2nd edition 1989).
Guillou’s Toccata, which includes a considerable amount of staccato on full organ, is as difficult as any contemporary work for the instrument. Ms. Preston cites its short, bombastic rhythms as part of the Toccata’s appeal. “It is indeed challenging to play, with many notes,” she says, adding: “But it is very exciting and certainly worth the effort!” The reverberance of the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall at Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center offers her an ideal acoustical environment for this brilliant display piece.
Louis-Victor-Jules Vierne: from Pièces de Fantaisie, Book II:
Clair de lune, Op. 53 No.5
Feux follets, Op. 53, No. 4
France’s organ tradition was exceptionally rich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part because all roads led to Paris, and Parisian organists interacted so closely with one another. Louis Vierne came to Paris from the west central province of Poitou at the age of 10. He heard César Franck play often at the great church of Ste Clotilde, experiences that had a profound impact on him. Both Franck and Widor became his teachers and mentors and not surprisingly, Vierne’s music is firmly connected to the organ traditions established by them. He was a consolidator rather than an innovator, employing harmonic language that was conservative for someone who lived so far into the 20th century. That stated, Vierne was inventive (if not revolutionary) in his harmonic routes, using piquant and unexpected modulations to arrive at his musical destinations.
At age 24 Vierne took a first prize in organ at the Paris Conservatoire. Soon after, he succeeded Widor as organist at St Sulpice, and in 1900 he became organist at Notre Dame, the cathedral with which he remains most closely associated. During the First World War, poor health required Vierne to relocate to Switzerland. He never moved back into the mainstream of musical currents, although he did eventually return to Paris and Notre Dame. More important was his embarkment on a career as a concert organist that took him to the United States and Canada, as well as European destinations.
In 1926 and 1927, beginning shortly before his tour to America, Vierne composed four suites that he called Pièces de fantaisie. Each set comprised six miniatures, most of which do not exceed five or six minutes. They are all in a different major or minor key, making the entire set an organist’s analogue to Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier and Chopin’s 24 Preludes. A composer’s note in the score specifies that the Pièces de fantaisie were written for a three-manual organ and a pedal board. Many of them have fanciful, descriptive names. Book II was composed between August and December 1926, while Vierne was on tour in the United States. He had met many prominent American organists and played on several instruments built by Ernest F. Skinner, founder and president of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company.
Vierne’s Clair de lune is one of two Pièces de fantaisiededicated to Skinner. Organ scholar Rollin Smith has written that many of Skinner’s organs were the ideal medium for Vierne’s music. At the time, certain effects were possible on the American instruments that could not yet be achieved on the French and other Europan instruments with which Vierne was more familiar. His title, which means ‘moonlight,’ is familiar to most music lovers through Debussy’s Suite bergamasque for solo piano. Vierne’s choice of title was surely intentional, for his musical language is clearly linked to impressionism. Yet how ironic that he evoked the diaphanous magic of moonlight with such success, for Vierne was blind.
Feux follets translates roughly as “frolicsome flames” or “playful fire.” Its fits and starts are as capricious and unpredictable as the flickering that Vierne captures so well in sound. The piece is dedicated to Charles Courboin (1884-1973), a Belgian-born organist who briefly headed the organ department at Peabody Conservatory and spent the last 27 years of his career as organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Vierne heard Courboin during the American sojourn, sharing concerts with Marcel Dupré at John Wanamaker, a venerable Philadelphia department store that had a classic Aeolian-Skinner organ. Vierne’s dedications celebrate rich friendships that gave him a greater sense of his instrument’s capabilities.
Louis Vierne: Symphonie VI: Final
Vierne’s six organ symphonies span the period from 1899 to 1930. (He had begun a seventh that remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1937.) He composed the Sixth Symphony from July 15 to September 15, 1930, while on holiday at Cap-Martin, on the French Riviera. Two months later, he learned of the death of his Canadian friend Lynnwood Farnam (1885-1930), then widely regarded as the foremost organist in North America. Vierne had heard two of Farnam’s recitals in New York during his tour four years prior. He admired his playing and liked him personally. Farnam was a great champion of French organ music and the first to record Vierne’s works. Vierne chose to dedicate the Sixth Symphony to Farnam’s memory. The première took place on February 7, 1932 at New York’s Church of the Holy Communion; Carl Weinrich was the organist. The first French performance, on 3 June 1934, was also a distinguished event. It took place on a joint recital at Notre Dame. Maurice Duruflé was the organist for the Sixth Symphony. Vierne returned the compliment by playing one of Duruflé’s pieces.
Duruflé wrote to organist and scholar Rollin Smith in 1970, providing a description of the Sixth Symphony. It includes the following remarks about the last movement:
In the Final, above a fierce rhythm of timpani played in the pedals, is displayed a scintillating theme in the brilliant tonality of B major. After the agonizing pages that precede [in the first four movements of the symphony], one senses the composer’s enthusiasm has returned. In the peroration that concludes the Final, the cyclical theme is heard a last time.
The movement is in a free sonata-rondo form with a coda. Theoretically, this structure resembles many finales to Mozart piano concerti. Vierne opens with exclamation points—rapid broken octaves left hanging with dramatic rests in between—to demand our attention. (In a less aggressive form, the broken octaves return later in the movement, as accompaniment to a pedal theme.) Immediately his texture thickens. He introduces a first theme in chords, then a second contrasting theme that is initially restricted to the manuals. The language is heavily chromatic, but still decidedly tonal. The strong rhythmic profile of the two principal themes lends coherence to the musical narrative. Even heard outside the context of the entire symphony, this splendid finale clearly represents the culmination of Vierne’s achievement at the king of instruments.
—Laurie Shulman © 2001, 2002 used by permission