The largest part of Widor’s works for organ comprises of ten “symphonies”. Both the genre and the use of the orchestral term for it originated with him. The first eight were published in two sets, in 1872 and 1879-87: four in C-minor, D-major, E-minor, and F-minor, and four in F-minor, G-minor, A-minor, and B-major. Nowhere is there evidence of an attempt to transfer the Beethovenian symphonic concept to the organ, and yet to have called these groups of five to seven large pieces lasting from a half-hour to an hour “suites” (which is what they really are) would have suggested slighter works, perhaps having an antique cast, and would have misrepresented their often profoundly serious expressive character as well as the breadth and magnificence of sheer sound they generate when played on the organs for which they were conceived. They are, however, in no sense liturgical music (Widor was worldly by nature and not an observant churchman), and they have nothing to do with the “versets” that made up much of the earlier French organ repertory. Though movements were probably played as voluntaries at mass, they are really concert music. And although all sorts of influences from the past can be discovered in them - perhaps surprisingly, Schumann’s piano music seems to be an important one - the soil from which these symphonies grew was not compositional ideas but the immense, symphonic sound of Cavaillé-Coll:
“It was when I felt the six thousand pipes of the Saint-Sulpice organ vibrating under my hands and feet that I took to writing my first four organ symphonies...I didn’t seek any particular style or form. I wrote feeling them deeply, asking myself if they were inspired by Bach or Mendelssohn. No, I was listening to the sonorousness of Saint-Sulpice, and naturally I sought to extract from it a musical fabric - trying to make pieces that, while being free, feature some contrapuntal procedures.”
In 1895 and 1900 Widor published two more symphonies. Although the sequence of keys continued - C-minor and D-Major - the numbering did not, out of respect for Beethoven’s ninth, it was said. Instead, they were given titles after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated and in which Cavaillé-Coll had installed the two greatest instruments of his last years: the gothic abbey church of Saint-Ouen, Rouen, whose organ Widor inaugurated in 1890, and the romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, whose organ had been dedicated the year before by Alexandre Guilmant. (It is ironic that both organs have peculiarities that prevent these two symphonies from being played on them exactly as written.) Much distinguishes them from the earlier symphonies. In the first place, they are more skillfully composed, more cohesive, arresting, and original than the first eight. The number of movements is reduced to the conventional four, though the first movements have nothing of “first-movement” or “sonata” form. (All four of the outer movements of these two symphonies end quietly after having built to full organ - another new feature of Widor’s method.) After his eighth symphony, Widor had come to feel that organ music ought to take its themes from the music of the church, and in these two last symphonies plainchant supplies much of the material. It makes its first appearance in the Gothic symphony in an oddly tentative manner. After two and a half movements have elapsed with not a trace of Gregorian chant and the listener is enjoying a vigorous jig-fugue, the music softens unexpectedly and in the bass one hears, mysteriously, the first phrase of the Christmas introit, Puer natus est nobis (“Unto us a Child is born”). It appears four more times, the last time loudly and in augmentation (twice as slow), but it is never incorporated into the main material of the movement, with which it has nothing whatever in common. In the finale, which follows directly, the same tune serves as the theme for a set of variations.
The Romanesque symphony is altogether different; here, the Easter gradual, Haec dies quam fecit Dominus (“This is the day the Lord hath made” is no longer simply a theme, but a constant presence permeating the whole fabric of the first, second, and fourth movements, welding all the parts of the work into a cohesive artistic object, whose unity is all the more remarkable for owing nothing to borrowed structural formulas. The third movement quotes the Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Praises to the paschal Victim”). This symphony is Widor’s masterpiece, though he himself more often programmed the less austere Gothic.The Symphonie gothique
The first three movements were performed by Louis Vierne in March, 1895, at Écully, near Lyons; on April 28 Widor himself gave the first complete performance at Rouen, in the church to which it was dedicated. No composer working in the last three quarters of the nineteenth century could begin a ninth symphony without an acute awareness of the shadow of Beethoven hanging over him, and perhaps it was Beethoven’s example that moved Widor to plan a work whose finale, constructed as a set of free variations on a vocal theme, was so long as to make the preceding three movements seem almost like a prelude to it. This is all, however, that connects Widor’s “Gothic” to Beethoven’s ninth. Widor’s first movement has no trace of symphonic form (and the finale, of course, no singers), but it is one of the most ingeniously composed and “tightest” thematically of all his pieces. It is shaped, as are the two outer movements ofthe “Romanesque”, primarily by the surge and ebb of the power of the instrument itself. The first two thirds of the movement build slowly, in an unbroken flow of moderately paced eighth notes, the volume growing and subsiding in smaller waves, to a thundering climax in which the steady march never falters; then everything subsides into sublime calm. The harmonic language is chromatic and dissonant to a degree remarkable for 1894, when the piece was composed -- Widor was well acquainted with Liszt and was one of the few Frenchmen present at Wagner’s first complete Ring at Bayreuth in 1876-- and the two themes, presented at the beginning simultaneously in the treble and bass, are never abandoned for more than a few beats throughout the movement.
The lyrical second movement is one of Widor’s most frequently played pieces, famous for the fact that in the first section the melody and accompaniment are both played on the harmonic flute, an invention of Cavaillé-Coll whose treble sings out over its velvety middle register. The voicers who finished this stop on the Slee Hall organ used this piece to test it.The introduction of plainchant into the third movement has already been described; Widor may have thought of this energetic 6/8 fugue as the scherzo of his symphony.
The last movement begins with a harmonization of the first two phrases of Puer natus est. Immediately afterwards is heard the obbligato melody that accompanies the chant in variation 1.This tune, which will turn out to be the second major theme of the movement (hereafter, “B”), begins with the same three intervals - albeit transposed and rhythmically transformed - that began the fugue subject of the preceding movement. Variations 1 and 2, the latter with the chant in canon between treble and bass, end with “B” sounded by one hand, freeing the other to change stops according to directions in the score. Variation 3 is a fast canon between the top two voices on a transformation of “B”. Variation 4, on the massed foundation stops 4’, 8’, 16’, 32’, develops the third phrase of the chant (heard here for the first time) first in the treble, then in canon between bass and alto, and follows this with one of the most extraordinary passages in all the symphonies, a series of close imitations of the interval of the tritone (e.g., C to F# - “the devil in music”) so chromatic as to be almost atonal, and strikingly evocative of the prelude to the third act of Parsifal - which would not be performed in Paris until 1911.Variation 5 is another canon, this time in three parts paraphrasing the chant melody, and again ending with a passage designed to allow the registration for the following movement to be set up. The finale, in the style of a toccata, presents “B”, then the chant combined with “B”, then, in a climax of blinding C-major, Puer natus sounded out by the full battery of pedal reeds. The music subsides through “B”, to end in transcendent calm with a simple harmonization based perhaps on the last notes of the second phrase of the chant. A recording exists of the first, second, and finale of the last movement of this symphony, made by the composer in 1932. It has served as a model for the present performance.The Symphonie romane
Widor played his Romanesque symphony for the first time in January, 1900 at the Kaiser Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin. Schweitzer reported that when he heard him play it “for the first time in St. Sulpice” the following May he was “still striving with technical problems” - evidently registration; in this of all his pieces the famous Walze, a mechanical crescendo device of the Germans, would have lightened his task. Both outer movements are organized dynamically, like the first of the Gothic:the first has one full-organ climax half-way through with a single statement of Haec dies in the pedals;and the finale, after subsiding from its full-organ opening, has three crescendos back to full organ before its quiet ending. The constant crescendos and diminuendos required Widor’s feet to fly over the nineteen combination pedals of Saint-Sulpice with a virtuosity comporable to what was demanded by the written pedal notes.
The composer’s preface describes best how the music grows out of the plainchant in this work. He contrasts the Haec dies with the Puer natus est: Like most chants for “semi-chorus”, that is, a group of four or five voices, the Puer natus est, with its very pure lines and solid construction, could not be more suitable for polyphonic development...Utterly different is the Haec dies, an elegant arabesque embellishing a few words of text - about ten notes per syllable - an elusive vocalise like the song of a bird, a sort of cadenza conceived for a virtuoso free of all constraint.To keep the listener’s attention on such a fluid theme there is but one means: repeat it ceaselessly.Thus is conceived this first movement of the Symphonie romane, which, sacrificing everything to the subject, risks here and there some timid attempt at development, only to abandon it rapidly and return to the original idea.
The listener familiar with Gregorian chant must be warned that the versions of these melodies used by Widor are those he grew up with and remained loyal to even after the scholarship of Solesmes had reestablished the medieval readings now accepted; moreover, he used only the first two or three phrases of much longer chants, and he modified and freely atomized even these. No other comment on the first movement is needed, except to point out that a motive first heard as an extension of the chant melody near the beginning becomes an ostinato figure underlying much of the rest of the movement.
The second movement is entitled Choral, perhaps because it opens with a harmonization of the chant in four parts, faintly suggesting a Bach chorale. Its form is episodic and appears to introduce a series of new themes and motives - until one looks more closely at them and discovers that almost everything that happens is generated from the Haec dies melody by techniques of fragmentation and derivation characteristic of Beethoven (though without a trace of his style) and by Liszt’s method of thematic “transformation” (with much more than a trace of his style!). The movement is full of color, contrast, and soaring melody (Widor’s motto, printed on many of his title pages in English, was “Soar above”).Like the first, it makes much use of an ostinato bass, and the figure, four notes descending stepwise, comes from the countermelody heard directly after the opening “chorale”, itself derived ultimately from the chant.
The Cantilène abandons Haec dies for the first three phrases of the sequence Victimae paschali laudes (this, too, differing slightly from the modern “authorized” reading), treating it in the simplest and most balanced form of any of the movements recorded here: two sections of uniformly textured accompanied melody, identical except for their endings, separated by a brief passage of louder four-part harmony, and rounded off by a short coda. The chant tune seems to enter only in bar 11, as the continuation of an intensely expressive cantilena filled with wide, upward-striving intervals. But if we regard this opening cantilena as simply an elaborate prolongation of the first note of the sequence, then the entire movement can be seen as two statements of the three phrases of the sequence, with the third immediately repeated several times at the end of each section.
The finale returns to Haec dies, now transformed into single line of rapid eighths, high on the keyboard, with full organ: a stunning and original beginning. The rest of the movement proceeds in a series of dynamic surges, as suggested above, the last being on the broadest scale and demanding every ounce of wind the blowers of the Slee Hall organ can supply. Here the chant returns in its original form for the first time since the first movement, played high, pianissimo, over a throbbing bass; then another crescendo to full organ for the greatest sustained climax of these two symphonies, during which the chant is heard four more times.